Before the Deluge
Reflections on the revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt
Mar 14, 2011, Vol. 16, No. 25 • By CHARLOTTE ALLEN
I was briefly a political prisoner of the regime of Tunisia’s now-deposed President Zine el-Abedine Ben Ali—which I hope will convince my readers that I’m not carrying water for him, or for his similarly deposed Egyptian fellow dictator, Hosni Mubarak, when I say that the nearly eight weeks I spent last summer in the North African ummah (Tunisia and Egypt, to be specific) filled me with the opposite of the euphoric optimism that now seems to be the hallmark of both liberal and conservative commentary on the “jasmine revolution” uprisings in both countries.
Granted, my “imprisonment” by Ben Ali heavies lasted only about five minutes, and it consisted of being frog-marched out of the immigration-control center at the Tunis-Carthage International Airport, where I had just arrived and then filled out a standard form, by two sleek-suited, shaven-headed undercover police officers who suddenly appeared out of nowhere to express disbelief that I was in the country legitimately.
In fact, my purpose in visiting Tunisia in late June could not have been more innocent. I had been chosen, finishing up a doctorate in medieval studies, to join 15 other lucky scholars in a five-and-a-half-week National Endowment for the Humanities-funded seminar in Tunis. We were to study and discuss the autobiographical writings of two Christian saints who had lived in the adjacent city of Carthage during the early first millennium when the area was a prosperous Roman province: Augustine, whose Confessions included a famously lust-plagued sojourn in the city during the late 4th century, and Perpetua, a young mother martyred along with her slave-companion Felicitas in the arena at Carthage in 203 a.d.
The cops wanted to know what I was doing in Tunisia. My brain mashed by the near-sleepless night that is a fixture of transatlantic flights, I stammered something about “U.S. government” and “seminar.” They demanded proof. Bleary-eyed and feeling filthy in the intense North African heat, I fished inside my bag for the only evidence I had: a rumpled printout of a batch email that the professor in charge of the seminar had sent to the rest of us instructing us what we were to do on arriving at the airport. My mind congealed with panic, not over the prospect of, say, being thrown into a fetid Tunisian jail or being tortured with electrodes, but over what I was going to tell the folks back home—my husband, my mother, my friends, to whom I had boasted shamelessly all spring about being selected for the seminar—when I was put right back onto a plane headed for America after less than a half-hour in the country. I was supposed to fly from Tunis to Cairo at the end of the seminar to meet my husband for a two-week Egyptian vacation—so now what?
Fortunately for me, I remembered that a young Tunisian university student hired to help out the seminar’s participants—I’ll call him “Houssein” in order to protect his privacy in these uncertain times for his country—was supposed to meet us in the airport waiting room and find taxis for us. Soon enough, two Tunisian cops attired in Armani knockoffs were escorting me from immigration control to the chaotic outer room, filled with veiled Tunisian women and their suitcases, baskets, and offspring, where—oh, bliss!—there he was with his “NEH” placard. Bless you, Houssein! He and the two cops had a brief conversation in Arabic, and then the policemen were suddenly gone, vanished into the crowd whence they had mysteriously emerged. Later I figured out what I had done to provoke their attention: In the blank for “occupation” on the immigration-control form, I had written down “writer.” Why not? It was how I had financed my stint in graduate school. That was the last time I was so honest. When asked my occupation on forms at hotels in Tunisia where our seminar group stayed, and also at the hotels that my husband and I booked in Egypt, I substituted the more innocuous word “editor.”
I like to think egotistically that I was under steady surveillance by Ben Ali’s gendarmes wondering whether I would write up some piece of riveting journalism that would break the back of the supreme leader’s rule. This was highly unlikely, although on one occasion, when I was taking the rickety train from downtown Tunis to La Marsa, the onetime summer base of the Turkish beys who ruled Tunisia for centuries but now a cigarette butt-strewn proletarian public beach on the Mediterranean (and a favorite destination of our NEH group in efforts to escape the murderous heat by plunging into water), I joked to one of my fellow academics about “El Presidente for Life,” my nickname for Ben Ali, who had, via rigged elections, been in charge of Tunisia from 1987 until his flight from the country on January 14. Within seconds of my jest—and I’m sure this was sheer coincidence—two more of those close-cropped undercover cops in their Italianate suits materialized inside our car.