Every fire begins with a spark, a small flame that ignites a conflagration. Where does that spark originate? No one could have known that when Mohamed Bouazizi set fire to his body on December 17, 2010 his act of self-immolation would trigger protests in Tunisia and throughout the Arab region. He was the spark that lit up the world.
In By Fire: Writings on the Arab Spring, Tahar Ben Jelloun writes about Bouazizi in two distinct ways. In the first part of the book are selections from Ben Jelloun’s nonfiction writings about the Arab Spring. In the second part of the book is Ben Jelloun’s short story “By Fire,” which enters the mind of Bouazizi and attempts to capture the nuances of his life. Both parts are necessary and complement each other. Translator Rita S. Nezami’s notes and introductions do an excellent job of contextualizing Bouazizi’s act of protest and providing much-needed information for Western readers to understand the political climate in Tunisia before the Arab Spring.
Bouazizi was pushed to his radical act of resistance due to political factors that made his life in Tunisia unbearable. At the time, Tunisia was ruled by the repressive Zine El Abidine Ben Ali. In the nonfiction portions of By Fire, Ben Jelloun writes about Ben Ali and describes his regime as “a colonial occupation” that was “illegitimate and cruel.”
Under Ben Ali, Tunisians endured high unemployment rates, restriction of basic rights, and corruption at the governmental and local level. While Tunisians suffered, Ben Ali and his family enriched themselves and enjoyed support from Western nations due to his crusade against Islamists, which, Ben Jelloun writes, became a “witch hunt.” He goes on to write that Ben Ali used the threat of terrorism to solidify his power:
Under the pretext of the Islamist threat, Ben Ali became more and more dictatorial, instilling fear in the country, forbidding the foreign press, hunting down opponents, even those who had nothing to do with Islamism.
Mohamed Bouazizi was a street vendor who sold fruit on the streets of his hometown, Sidi Bouzid, so that he could support his mother and siblings. However, the local police would not leave him alone and demanded bribes. Bouazizi refused. During a particularly humiliating incident, Bouazizi was assaulted by the police and had his weighing scales confiscated, essentially depriving him of his livelihood. Bouazizi was fed up with the system of corruption. Translator Rita S. Nezami describes what Bouazizi did next:
Bouazizi, standing at the governor’s high gate, in the midst of traffic, cried out, “How do you expect me to make a living?” Bouazizi then doused himself with fuel and self-immolated in public.
He died from his wounds on January 14, 2011.
We will never know what went through Bouazizi’s mind as he poured gasoline on his body and lit himself on fire. He was a man pushed to the edge by a corrupt police, a repressive government, and the inability to make a living. We can’t ask Bouazizi how he felt or what he was thinking, but a writer can inhabit the gap between what is known and what is imagined.
In the short story, “By Fire,” Tahar Ben Jelloun enters Bouazizi’s life and mind and creates a complex, humane, and compelling portrait of a man struggling to get by, a man who wanted to be free. Ben Jelloun purposely makes the Bouazizi of his story an everyman, who is not tied to any specific nation. The main character goes only by the name Mohamed, no last name is given. He is simply a human being trying to survive. He is anyone who endures brutality and oppression, who longs for freedom and autonomy and respect. Ben Jelloun uses Bouazizi’s life and self-immolation as a template to explore the social factors that push people to the edge. One of the strengths of fiction is that it isn’t beholden to facts. Instead, it makes a space for us to step inside the mind of another person, to imagine what life might be like for them.
One scene, in particular, sums up why Bouazizi may have chosen to self-immolate. The scene comes after Mohamed is beaten by the police:
It was hard for him to breathe. He said to himself, “If I had a gun, I would empty it into these bastards. I don’t have a gun, but I still have my body, my life, my wasted life. This is my weapon.”
His body was his weapon and he lit it on fire without knowing if anyone would see the light he created. But millions saw it and they went toward it and they created their own fire. They took to the streets. They made their voices heard. They toppled repressive governments. They sent Zine El Abidine Ben Ali and other dictators into exile. We don’t yet know the ending to all this. History is still evolving and there has been bloodshed, instability, and violence. Still, it’s powerful to watch people rise up against oppression and it’s a worthy cause to want to be free, to want to live in a nation that respects human rights and treats its citizens with dignity and respect. Bouazizi did not live to see the effect of his singular act of resistance, but the fire is still burning and the world is forever changed.
Caitlin is Nonfiction Editor for Burning House Press. She’s passionate about arthouse cinema, intersectional feminism, social justice, and literature. She blogs about grief and loss at her website, Ekphora. You can follow her on twitter at @ekphora.