Bouazizi - The tragic life of a street vendor
20 Jan 2011
Al Jazeera's Yasmine
Ryan travels to the birthplace of Tunisia's uprising [Sidi Bouzid]
and speaks to Mohamed Bouazizi's family. A town not previously
recognised outside of Tunisia is now known as the place where a
revolution began [Al Jazeera].
The body of the man who
started a revolution now lies in a simple grave, surrounded by olive
trees, cactuses and blossoming almond trees.
In a country where
officials have little concern for the rights of citizens, there was
nothing extraordinary about humiliating a young man trying to sell
fruit and vegetables to support his family.
Yet when Mohamed
Bouazizi poured inflammable liquid over his body and set himself
alight outside the local municipal office, his act of protest
cemented a revolt that would ultimately end President Zine El
Abidine Ben Ali's 23-year-rule.
Local police officers
had been picking on Bouazizi for years, ever since he was a child.
For his family, there is some comfort that their personal loss has
had such stunning political consequences.
"I don't want Mohamed's
death to be wasted," Menobia Bouazizi, his mother, said. "Mohamed
was the key to this revolt."
Simple, troubled life
He was ten years old
when he became the main provider for his family, selling fresh
produce in the local market. He stayed in high school long enough to
sit his baccalaureate exam, but did not graduate. (He never attended
university, contrary to what many news organisations have reported).
Bouazizi's father died
when he was three years old. His older brother lives away from the
family, in Sfax. Though his mother remarried, her second husband
suffers from poor health and is unable to find regular work.
"He didn't expect to
study, because we didn't have the money," his mother said.
At age of 19, Mohamed
halted his studies in order to work fulltime, to help offer his five
younger siblings the chance to stay in school.
"We sister was the one
in university and he would pay for her," Samya Bouazizi, one of his
sisters, said. "And I am still a student and he would spend money on
He applied to join the
army, but was refused, as were other successive job applications.
With his family dependant on him, there were few options other than
to continue going to market.
By all accounts,
Bouazizi, just 26 when he died earlier this month, was honest and
hardworking. Every day, he would take his wooden cart to the
supermarket and load it would fruit and vegetables. Then he would
walk it more than two kilometres to the local souk.
And nearly everyday, he
was bullied by local police officers.
"Since he was a child,
they were mistreating him. He was used to it," Hajlaoui Jaafer, a
close friend of Bouazizi, said. "I saw him humiliated."
The abuse took many
forms. Mostly, it was the type of petty bureaucratic tyranny that
many in the region know all too well. Police would confiscate his
scales and his produce, or fine him for running a stall without a
Six months before his
attempted suicide, police sent a fine for 400 dinars ($280) to his
house – the equivalent of two months of earnings.
The harassment finally
became too much for the young man on December 17.
That morning, it became
physical. A policewoman confronted him on the way to market. She
returned to take his scales from him, but Bouazizi refused to hand
them over. They swore at each other, the policewoman slapped him and,
with the help of her colleagues, forced him to the ground.
The officers took away
his fruit and vegetables and his scale.
Bouazizi tried to seek recourse. He went to the local municipality
building and demanded to a meeting with an official.
He was told it would not
be possible and that the official was in a meeting.
"It's the type of lie
we're used to hearing," said his friend.
Protest of last resort
With no official wiling
to hear his grievances, the young man brought paint fuel, returned
to the street outside the building, and set himself on fire.
For Mohamed's mother,
her son's suicide was motivated not by poverty but because he had
"It got to him deep
inside, it hurt his pride," she said, referring to the police’s
harassment of her son.
The uprising that
followed came quick and fast. From Sidi Bouzid it spread to
Kasserine, Thala, Menzel Bouzaiene. Tunisians of every age, class
and profession joined the revolution.
In the beginning,
however, the outrage was intensely personal.
"What really gave fire
to the revolution was that Mohamed was a very well-known and popular
man. He would give free fruit and vegetables to very poor families,"
It took Ben Ali nearly
two weeks to visit Mohamed Bouazizi's at the hospital in Ben Arous.
For many observers, the official photo of the president looking down
on the bandaged young man had a very different symbolism from what
Ben Ali had probably intended.
Menobia Bouazizi said
the former president was wrong not to meet with her son sooner, and
that when Ben Ali finally did reach out to her family, it was too
late – both to save her son, and to save his presidency.
He received members of
the Bouazizi family in his offices, but for Menobia Bouazizi, the
meeting rang hollow.
"The invite to the
presidential palace came very late," she said. "We are sure that the
president only made the invitation to try to derail the revolution."
"I went there as a
mother and a citizen to ask for justice for my son," she said.
"The president promised
he would do everything he could to save our son, even to have him
sent to France for treatment."
The president never
delivered on his promises to her family, Menobia Bouazizi said.
But by the time her son
died of his burns in a hospital on January 4, the uprising had
already spread across Tunisia.
Fedya Hamdi, the very
last police officer to antagonise the street vendor, has since fled
the town. She was reportedly dismissed, but her exact whereabouts
Meanwhile, the body of
the man who started a revolution now lies in a simple grave,
surrounded by olive trees, cactuses and blossoming almond trees.
He is sorely missed by
his family, whose modest house is now one of the busiest in Sidi
Bouzid, with a steady flow of journalists who have only just
discovered the town where it all began.
"He was very sincere,"
Basma Bouazizi, a shy 16 year old, said. "We are like soulless
bodies since he left."
"We consider him to be a
martyr," Mahmoud Ghozlani, a local member of the Progressive
Democratic Party (PDP), said in an interview metres away from the
spot where the street vendor set himself on fire.
Proof itself of the
progress made in four short weeks: such an interview with an
opposition leader on the streets of Sidi Bouzid would not have been
possible until the day Bouazizi inspired the revolt.