TUNISIA: How I Dipped A Toe In The Revolution

by Judith Fein


The last time Americans were riveted to a foreign square, it was Tiananmen, and the year was 1989. Anti-government demonstrators –mostly students and intellectuals--wanting more democracy and less autocracy filled the square in Bejing.  Other protests erupted around the People’s Republic of China. In a show of force the T.V. audience will never forget, government tanks rolled into the square and gunned down thousands of demonstrators. Tiananmen Square went silent, and the subject of the massacre is still taboo in China.

This time, all eyes were on Egypt and Tahrir Square. Once again, young protestors defiantly showed their opposition to the government and demanded that Hosni Mubarak pack up his toys of dictatorship and leave Egypt. But Mubarak played by his own rules, and when his trifling concessions were rejected, when even his offer not to run again was scorned, he pulled a Tiananmen—sending in his heavy guns to shoot indiscriminately into the crowd.

photo by Peta-de-Aztlan via flickr common license

The protestors refused to buckle, and the Egyptian nation mourned its innocent dead who were assassinated for demanding freedom. The world watched and wept and then rejoiced with them.

The ignition key to revolution was turned on by tiny Tunisia, in North Africa. The protestors upended the 23-year reign of autocrat Ben Ali, drove him into exile and exacted the dissolution of his corrupt RCD party. In a rapid move toward democracy, Ben Ali’s minions were fired or resigned, and the young people exulted in what, for many, was the first freedom they had known in their lives.

The cost of this revolution was high: as many as two hundred young lives were snuffed out. And, in a country of 10 million, everyone was affected by this horrible loss of life. There is mass mourning for the deaths, and the victims are considered martyrs to the cause of freedom.

Tunisia is one of my favorite countries in the world. I have been there seven times, lived there for 6 months when I was making two films with my husband, and have a deep and abiding affection for the gentle, kind, extremely generous Tunisians.  In the desert, a Bedouin woman who owned almost nothing grabbed me by the hand, led me to her tent, and as I sat inside, sheltered from the sweltering heat and searing sun, she baked me bread in the sand.


In Tunis, a family who lived inside an old, ruined building and subsisted on a meager income, invited me and my husband for tea and sweets. When, not wanting to deplete their stock of comestibles, I refused, they were insulted and insisted that I partake of what they had in the kitchen.

 When I inquired about a breakfast grain, my guide showed up the next day with a plastic bag full of it for me to take home.  When I visited the home of a newly-married couple in Tunis, they filled my arms with some of the expensive silver gifts they had received.

When I could only admire a rare and expensive antique puppet in the souks of Tunis, it was given to me the next day by an excessively generous Tunisian friend.

Like everyone else, I was glued to the news feeds from the Tunisian revolution. It happened so fast, and I was extremely worried about my friends there.  Some of them, I knew, were employed by Ben Ali’s people, and I was concerned that they would lose their jobs—as they ultimately did. Others became armed guards in front of their apartment buildings as they were threatened by raiders, looters and opposition forces.

I have to admit that I’ve never outgrown the 60’s. I demonstrated, joined sit-ins and teach-ins, participated in the march on Washington. My life was consumed by anti-war sentiment, and I was, and am, a passionate proponent of freedom from tyranny, oppression and war-mongering. It is intolerable to me that we invade other countries in the guise of bringing freedom. I cannot bear the numbers of innocent dead as our leaders engage in double-speak and try to invent reasons for the carnage.

But there is no revolution in America that I can participate in. No mass protests in the street. We are numbed, frightened, unable to act. But we are able to root for Egypt and for little Tunisia. All I could do was send emails of support. How could I help from so far away.

This week I heard from Rabii Zammouri, the young, acclaimed composer we worked with when we made our films in Tunisia. He has remained a friend ever since. He composed a revolutionary hymn, and powerful words were added by poet Ali Louati.  Faiza Affes edited and added video footage that was shot by young people in the streets as they witnessed brutal carnage and violence.  Rabii said the hymn had been translated from Arabic into French and they were going to offer it in English as well.  I wrote back immediately and asked if they needed help with the translation.  Rabbi and Ali said yes.


I decided not to go for rhymes or for a literal translation when the result was awkward in English. I tried to penetrate the passion and precision of what Ali had written, and to translate it for an English-speaking audience. I sent my translation and asked Rabii if they wanted changes. Ali asked for two minor modifications. I quickly wrote back with alternate suggestions and the fate of the translation was sealed.

I went to bed that night feeling honored, deeply honored, that I can have a minuscule role in the Tunisian revolution that sparked a complete game change in the Arab world. I am not in Tunisia or Egypt. I cannot, and perhaps would not, offer up my body to the weapons of oppression. But, as a writer, I can give what I have to offer: words.  Just words.

Here is a link to a facebook fan page with the hymn, the music, the video and the translation in English. May history be on the side of the oppressed, and may tyrants everywhere tremble from what they have done and what lies in store for them. 


Photography by photojournalist Paul Ross.

Judith Fein is an award-winning travel journalist who has contributed to more than 90 publications.  She blogs for Psychology Today, the Huffington Post, is the author of LIFE IS A TRIP: The Transformative Magic of Travel, and the editor and co-founder of www.YourLifeIsATrip.com.  Her website is http://www.GlobalAdventure.us


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