Once, there was a man from the town of
Sidi Bouzid in the governorate of Sidi Bouzid in the southern, middle part of . His full name, Anglicized from Arabic in one way, was Tariq el-Tayyib Mohammed Ben Bouazizi. The facts which are easy to come by about the good Mr. Bouazizi, the commonly known ones that have become trivia for reporters and politicos, are frankly fairly limited in number. He was born in 1984 by the common Western reckoning, or 1406 by the Islamic calendar’s, and was one of seven siblings. His father died when he was only three; his mother married his uncle, but he was too sickly to work. Mr. Bouazizi worked from the age of 10 at least part-time to help his family with their expenses; parts of his life are already unconfirmable, it seems – some sources claim he never attended college, other that he graduated after having supported his entire family while attending classes full-time. This, according to these same sources, would include sending two of his sisters to college as well, though only one graduated. I do not know which of these stories is true. Tunisia
Mr. Bouazizi’s job, at least in December of last year, was that of a fruit salesman – he owned a cart, I suspect but cannot be certain it wasn’t particularly large or fancy, from which he operated his business, and he seems to have made due. Then, on the 17th of December of 2010, allegedly, (and I have no reason to believe anything otherwise) corrupt officials impounded his fruits and vegetables which was by no means unusual, apparently. This time, however, they also demanded his scale and he refused to allow them to take it. The response of the officials (including, apparently, a woman – a particular insult, some sources allege) was to physically attack him in the street, beating him and depriving him of his means of survival. Mr. Bouazizi went to both the city hall and the governorate seeking redress and was rebuffed by both levels of state. He was left with no prospects as a 26 year old man and in significant debt for the wares on his cart. Mr. Bouazizi left the governor’s after insisting he would burn himself if he could not see him – the police who barred his entry were unmoved.
I do not know much else about Mr. Bouazizi’s life, his mental or emotional health, his hopes, his dreams, his fears. I never shook his hand or met him. But I know that no 26-year old man should feel so helpless, so inconsequential, so powerless that he has decided, as such a young age, that death is the only answer. Yet that is what Mr. Bouazizi felt, and that is sad.
Mr. Bouazizi did something different, however, than what most people who plan to kill themselves do. He did not seek speed, nor quiet, nor solitude, nor painlessness. Rather, like an artist who creates only a single work of note, he decided to transform his death into something profound and meaningful, whether the world would have it or not. And so, Mr. Bouazizi went into a public place, specifically across the street from the governor’s building on 7th of November Square of the town of the Sidi Bouzid, and poured what is described, variously, as either paint thinner or gasoline onto himself. Mr. Bouazizi demanded the right to see an official of the state once more. Once more he was denied. Mr. Bouazizi lit a cigarette lighter and caught flame. By the time he was extinguished he was covered with third degree burns.
Protests began in Sidi Bouzid almost immediately and soon would be emulated all across
Mr. Bouazizi did not die easily, no matter his intentions, which I cannot know. It took 19 days for him to die, nearly three weeks of the kind of suffering only massive burns can inflict. I pity him deeply for this, no matter anything else, because is not how anyone should have to die.
There is a long standing tradition in many nations, particularly, at least in recent decades, in many Islamic nations, that the politically driven death should be aimed at injuring the enemy – that to justify one’s own kamikaze-esque behavior one had to harm other human beings, to create fear. Yet Mr. Bouazizi did not attempt this, not in anyway. Rather, he committed the most final and absolute form of civil disobedience available to the human individual – he destroyed himself, everything he was and might have been, all the contributions that he might have made, and did so in a manner that created fear not of the oppressed, but of the oppressor. I understand many have ethical qualms with suicide of any kind – certainly I do – but in his act of suicide Mr. Bouazizi made a statement that is hard to miss – you, establishment, made a human being able to rationalize burning himself to death.
The square where Mr. Bouazizi died has already been renamed
Mohammed Bouazizi Martyr Street – the citizens of the town leave flowers in memorial still. Paris, France’s Mayor is already planning to commemorate Mr. Bouazizi by naming a street or plaza after him – I suspect Bouazizi will become a popular name for children and monuments for many years to come and the people of Sidi Bouzid and Paris are merely anticipating a great wave of memorialization for a man who was pushed too far.
Mr. Bouazizi’s final words before setting himself on fire were simply, “How do you expect me to make a living?”
Key resources I used in writing this piece:
Matthew Banister interviewing Samia Bouazizi “The first protestor” BBC http://www.bbc.co.uk/worldservice/programmes/2011/02/110224_outlook_tunisia_protests_mohammed_bouazizi.shtml
Ben Macintyre “The power of one” Ottawa Citizen (originally published in The Times) http://www.ottawacitizen.com/news/power/4310621/story.html
“Bertrand Delanoë: a Bouazizi square shortly in tribute to Tunisian Revolution” Agence
Afrique Presse http://www.tap.info.tn/en/index.php?option=com_content&task=view&id=14852&Itemid=99999999 Tunis