herald

Friday 18 August 2017

I'll never forget being tear-gassed in Tunis, now the violence has returned

AMID fears Tunisia will be the latest Arab state to plunge into violence, Norma Costello recalls her time there two years ago

The brutal aftermath of the Arab Spring is now raging on the streets of Tunisia, where fears prophesied two years ago are sadly becoming reality.

The news brought me back two years, to when I encountered violence in the country.

In April 2011 I was tear gassed in Tunis. We had just arrived from the western Libyan town of Nalut and decided to stop for food in a cafe on the main Habib Bourguiba avenue.

Locals had warned of the protests mushrooming throughout the capital but this was the height of the Arab Spring. No area in the city was truly secure and the resilience of the local cafes spurred us on.

They gathered after mosque, as was tradition at the time. The aim was to goad the army and carry out a protest that had by now become a fixed ritual.

 

Clashes

Clashes erupted suddenly and we found ourselves hurled by the crowd into a cafe after a tear gas canister landed a foot away. Tear gas is unpleasant. Imagine inhaling chilli powder and then rubbing it into your eyeballs. After much spluttering and gasping for breath one young man in his 20s thrust a bottle of water into my hand. "Sister, sister take care!"

This had almost become a mantra during my time in the Maghreb and despite my protestations, the overwhelming concern of the local men had started to become a mild irritant. But it was nothing compared to the tear gas and I was glad of the water. After I found my friend on the cafe floor – he had been hit by a canister – I started to ask why the protest had taken such a turn.

No one could agree on what had caused the protests or the military's vicious response. Several men who had attended the mosque earlier explained that a professor in a local university had committed blasphemy. The protesters wanted his head.

Another group of young men and women said that real cause of the protest was corruption of the military. One bloodshot teenager shouted up: "We need to bring back the good religion." His call was met with a rapturous applause.

Despite then President Ben Ali's secular leadership he had used Tunisia as his personal piggy bank – something many blamed on his lack of religious values. But the intensity of this religious outrage was seen as a southern Tunisian attitude and one out of place in the fashionable capital Tunis.

 

Destruction

This was a city where women owned businesses and wore glamorous fashions, they mingled with tourists and frequently visited relatives in France.

Then a lone woman, Dounia, after overhearing the proclamation of faith, started arguing with a group of at least 20 men.

She was resolute in her opinion that these 'Islamists' were out to destroy Tunisia and break its people.

She spoke of the impending destruction of an ancient culture citing the great queen Dido of Carthage. When I asked her what she would do if Islamic law prevailed, she told me she had already booked her tickets to France where she had relatives waiting.

Dounia had a degree in IT and was not going to wear the veil and serve her husband.

Through the prism of Dounia, I saw for the first time the fears and anger of secular Tunisians throw onto the table in open discourse.

During my time in Tunisia I met people just trying to get on with their lives – as I'm sure most want to do this week.

Everyone was intent on rebuilding the country after the Spring but all feared what they might find in the rubble.

This growing fear of radical Islam was whispered to us across bowls of cous cous. This was always preluded with a declaration of faith, an assertion of culture and religion by moderates unhappy with extremist splinter groups.

In the North they told us to beware of the southern fundamentalists set on destroying their centuries old civilisation, in the south we were warned of northern robbers and aristocrats who bathed in baby's blood for beauty purposes.

The young woman I met in that crowded cafe is now, hopefully, living in France. But I am worried, her bravery in contemporary Tunisia faces few rewards.

As Tunisia pummels its way into the future, radical Islamic factions are fast becoming more and more bold in their attacks. Violence is increasing as the capital's first car bomb attack heralds a new type of aggression.

To this day I regret rushing to get my flight and leaving that cafe mid-conversation.

I regret not lauding that brave woman for being brave enough to speak honestly about her fears in an increasingly hostile environment.

To Dounia, I hope you got out.

hnews@herald.ie

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