polis: a collective blog about cities worldwide

Tunis Through the Lens of Mark Mouck

by Alex Schafran


When news broke on a crisp January day that former Tunisian president Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali had fled the country after 23 years of dictatorial rule, people around the world watched in awe at what would become the first major victory in one of the most important waves of popular resistance in history. But in the streets of Tunisia, the day after Ben Ali's departure was one of hopeful uncertainty. The police, long the violent bulwark of the regime, were now gone. The army had stepped in to do what it could, but it had been purposefully weakened by the government, and no one knew what would happen when no single force could protect people or property.


We are taught to fear anarchy, but anarchy is precisely what happened: not in the colloquial sense of chaos and lawlessness, but rather the voluntary association of free people to protect and defend their communities, families and property. In Tunisia, anarchy was neighborhood-based. With no perceivable law enforcement, and rumors of disgruntled former police officers rampaging through neighborhoods to incite popular violence for Ben Ali's return, neighbors banded together to build roadblocks, exchange news and wait.


My friend Mark Mouck is a teacher in Tunis, and an excellent amateur photographer. He lives in the quiet suburb of La Marsa, a fairly bourgeois but diverse community. Many local families have lived there since it was farmland, and middle-class homes sit side-by-side with mansions and expatriate enclaves. La Marsa is also down the road from the Presidential Palace and from Ben Ali's personal mansion, a monstrosity that juts out from the hills of Sidi Bou Said, lording over Carthage and the rapidly growing city of Tunis.


With news limited and sporadic, the men of the neighborhood (and some women) spent Jan. 15 watching and waiting, peering from rooftops and hoping that what seemed like a blessing would in fact turn out to be one.


They also gathered and talked, an activity that was dangerous to do in large public groups under Ben Ali. One never knew who was watching or listening, and even hints of subversion could have long-lasting repercussions.


It was not all business, as the newly closed streets and installed barricades provided a perfect opportunity for soccer games.


People went to bed that night not knowing what would happen, and the feeling of uncertainty remains prevalent. One of the tragedies of the West's obsession with Islamism in post-revolutionary North Africa is that there is not enough attention paid to inequality, especially in cities. Few are asking what will happen if the doors to the Tunisian economy and land market are yanked open by the "Turkish model" to Euro-American and Gulf capital.


What we do know is that nothing happened that night in La Marsa, or in most of the neighborhoods and subdivisions of Tunisia. People came together peacefully in their streets, and anarchy ensued.

Credits: Photos of La Marsa by Mark Mouck.

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