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The Woman Who Blew Up the Arab World

“Does the flap of a butterfly's wings in Brazil set off a tornado in Texas?”
– Mathematician and chaos theorist Edward Lorenz

On June 28, 1914, Gavrilo Princip shot and killed Austria’s Archduke Ferdinand in the streets of Sarajevo—a fateful act that triggered a series of events culminating in the First World War.

Ninety-six years later, on December 17, 2010, an impoverished Tunisian fruit vendor named Mohamed Bouazizi set himself on fire in front of city hall in the small town of Sidi Bouzid—another fateful act that changed the history of an entire region forever.

Protests supporting Bouazizi first turned to riots and then revolution. The crooked authoritarian ruler Zine El Abidine Ben Ali was overthrown in Tunis less than a month later. A copy-cat uprising in Egypt led to a bloodless military coup against strongman Hosni Mubarak. Libya’s Moammar Qaddafi was next on the list, though this time it took civil war and aerial bombardment from NATO to be rid of him. Syria’s Bashar al-Assad may follow them sooner or later, but the war to oust him has already killed more than 10,000 people and is beginning to spread into Lebanon.

Princip died in prison four years after killing Austria’s archduke. He knew what his actions unleashed on the world. He couldn’t participate any further than he already had, but he knew.

Bouazizi only survived his self-immolation by a couple of weeks. He languished, comatose, in a hospital in Sfax the entire time. He had no idea he inspired even a protest, let alone a revolution, a coup, and a number of wars.

He killed himself because he could not make a living. And he did it before city hall because he blamed the government.

According to rumors and initial reports, a female police officer spent months picking on him for selling fruit from his cart without a license. Things came to a head when she confiscated his goods and allegedly slapped him. When city officials refused to give him his stuff back, he poured gasoline over his head, lit a match, and set the world ablaze.

A portrait of Mohamed Bouazizi hangs above supportive graffitti a block from where he set himself on fire

The woman who allegedly slapped him is named Faida Hamdi. I met her at a quiet park just off the main street in town where she said almost everything published in the media about her is wrong.

We sat in plastic chairs on the grass behind a swing set for children. She ordered—and insisted she pay for—glasses of sweet tea from a concessionaire. A man who looked like an ultraconservative Salafist brought the tea over. I wondered what he thought about a local woman hanging out with an obvious foreign infidel, but if he was perturbed he didn’t let on.

“First of all,” she said. “I’m not a cop.” She works for the municipality as a civilian. “My job was to chase away illegal fruit vendors. I don’t carry a gun. I don’t have a truncheon. I don’t carry a weapon at all.”

She says she hadn’t been picking on Bouazizi, that she had never even spoken to him before that day.

“I had been tolerating his illegal work for a long time,” she said, “but that week I had an order from the ministry to confiscate any merchandise sold from any illegal vendor from that particular place. So I was doing my job. When I confronted him he said, ‘why are you targeting me? If I paid you bribes, you wouldn’t target me.’”

She says she doesn’t take bribes, but the city is known to be crooked. Maybe she’s clean. I don’t know. But her bosses are not.

Though she says she confiscated the electronic scale Bouazizi used to weigh fruit, she emphatically denies that she ever slapped him.

“He pushed me,” she said, “and actually wounded me. So I screamed.”

Some local men told me he may have grabbed or hit her breasts. No one seems to be sure. I didn’t ask her about it. Why embarrass a modestly dressed Muslim woman with such a question? She suffered enough humiliation during the revolution. The entire country and much of the rest of the world thought her a tool of a repressive police state.

The flip side of everyone believing Bouazizi grabbed or hit her breasts is that such a story—even if it isn’t true—improves her image in the minds of others. She is no longer perceived, at least not by everyone and at least not exclusively, as the aggressor.

I didn’t ask her to talk about her breasts, but she did tell me that Bouazizi hit and pushed her.

“I called the police,” she said. “They weren’t armed either when they showed up, nor did they attack him. They just pushed him away so he couldn’t hit me. They confiscated his things and took him down to the station.”

An eye-witness told a reporter from the London-based Arabic newspaper Asharq al-Awsat that she didn’t slap Bouazizi, but that the police really did beat him. Maybe they did and maybe they didn’t. We’ll never know.

“In a small town like this,” she said, “a woman hitting a man is a headline. But the rest of the day was normal for me. I went home as if nothing had happened. Then I got a call that Bouazizi had burned himself.”

According to the international news media, Bouazizi was a university graduate struggling to eke out a meager existence, the Tunisian equivalent of an American with a master’s degree in literature or philosophy working the barista counter at Starbucks. It made for a great story, but it wasn’t true. His family says he did not even graduate high school. Lots of kids in towns like Sidi Bouzid don’t finish high school. Their families sometimes struggle so mightily that it makes at least short-term sense for the kids to drop out and work.

Don’t get the wrong idea, though. Tunisia isn’t Third World. Sidi Bouzid is about as bad as it gets, but look at the pictures.

It isn’t horrifying like the slums of Bangladesh or Cairo’s City of the Dead. Sidi Bouzid is just depressed and a little bit hopeless for most who don’t leave.

Everyone I spoke to in town, and in the also-impoverished nearby city of Kasserine, said Tunisia’s poor are yearning for jobs. No one said they want handouts or subsidies from the state. They want to work. They’ll work their fingers bleeding for scandalously small amounts of money. Hamdi herself makes only fifty dollars a month. The cost of living in Sidi Bouzid is low, but still. Fifty dollars a month is practically nothing. My lunch that day cost less than two dollars, but it was four percent of her monthly salary. An average house rents for 200 dollars a month. A big one rents for 300 dollars a month.

Official spokespeople say Bouazizi sold fruit without a vendor’s license. His family says he didn’t need a license, that the real reason the law brought down the hammer was because he didn’t pay bribes. Whichever version of the story is true, the government tried to wring money from him that he didn’t have.   

I don’t know what his politics were, but the complaint that drove him over the edge was hardly based in radical Islam. His complaint was libertarian, frankly, though he likely hadn’t heard such an American word.

A statue of Mohamed Bouazizi's fruit vendor's cart was placed just down the street from city hall, two blocks from where he set himself on fire

The city government, in his view, was a corrupt and obnoxious regulatory state that made it hard—well nigh impossible, actually—for him to work and support his family. Thirty percent of the town’s population was and remains unemployed. Enterprising people like Bouazizi who took the initiative to work for themselves were held down by the state. And for what? For not having a license to sell a banana?

Hamdi understands. She was and remains a part of the state, but she understands.

“I believe in the law,” she said, “but it’s unfortunate that my job is the suppression of somebody else’s job. I believe the law should rule, though, so I have to do it. It’s like when a police officer pulls you over for running a red light. You might think, ‘ack, why is he doing this to me,’ but it has to be done because it’s the law. You obey the laws in your country, right? Why shouldn’t it be the same here?”

Much of the country saw her as a villain when the revolution broke out, but she insists she hasn’t a thing to apologize for.

“It’s my job to serve citizens,” she said. “When they go into a café and it’s dirty and unhealthy for customers, it’s my job to confiscate the filthy equipment and order the café to be closed.”

Her self-image was and is an honorable one. She wanted to be a part of order, law, and good government. And she was willing to accept an exploitively low salary in return. How long can a decent and idealistic person serve an arbitrarily repressive regime? She managed for ten years, but the roof still caved in.

“I spend three months and twenty days in jail,” she said, “from December 31st to April 19th. I was jailed on the orders of Ben Ali. I was accused of taking bribes, but I did not break the law. He used every tool he had to make me look like a scapegoat so that people would shut up and stop protesting.”

She strained mightily to keep herself from crying and paused to collect herself. I would have handed her a Kleenex if I had any.

“I was sentenced to five years in prison for extreme violence against citizens,” she said, choking up. “Before Ben Ali left the country, no lawyer would represent me. But after the revolution a lawyer helped free me. So the revolution is a good thing even though I was the first one oppressed by it.”

Post-traumatic stress disorder came next. She couldn’t work all last summer when she got out of jail, but she’s more or less okay now. “I have my old job back,” she said, “though I no longer do field work.”

She doesn’t hate Mohamed Bouazizi, nor does she blame him much for what happened.

“I didn’t know him,” she said. “I never spoke to him before that day. I knew who he was, though, because he always worked in that spot and I’d been tolerating him for a while. It’s unfortunate that he killed himself and that he was poor. He was also an orphan.”

She feels wronged by the powerful, not only by the former regime, but even by the president of the United States.

“I have a grudge against your president,” she said, though I didn’t ask her about him. “Barack Obama mentioned me in a speech. He said I was a cop. He said I slapped Mohamed Bouazizi. He’s a stupid fool for not checking. Americans are great people, but you need to do a better job of checking your information.”

“Well,” I said, “that’s why I’m here. That’s why I wanted to meet you.”

She smiled and nodded. The media got her wrong, but perhaps the history books will treat her more fairly.

The Butcher of Damascus is currently in the fight of his life as an indirect result of something routine she did a year and a half ago. Violent clashes between Sunnis and Alawites are breaking out in Lebanon now as a (very) indirect result of something routine she did a year and a half ago. The suppurating catastrophe in the Levant could suck in the United States just as the war in Libya did. Who knows? It could even widen to Israel and draw in Iran. History is exploding in dangerous and unpredictable ways. All these events can be traced back in a straight line to her encounter with Bouazizi on December 17th, a date she’s sure not to forget.

We all change the course of events by existing in this world, but most presidents can hardly leave marks that are this big. Her own act was a small one, but it lit the fuse.

How must it feel for an ordinary person in a random little town to ignite a revolution, to be made a scapegoat by a dictatorship, to be mentioned in a speech by the president of the United States, to be arrested and jailed for what was at worst a minor infraction, to see her cynical jailer toppled in a revolt, to watch the warden of Egypt toppled in another revolt, to see the Libyan terrorist state bombed by America, to see open war break out in Syria and spill into Lebanon, and to see Mali—an African country that is not even Arab—broken in half as an aftershock of the Libya war? All because she confiscated a fruit vendor’s scale. At least Gavrilo Princip expected something to happen when he shot Ferdinand in Bosnia on the eve of the war. 

“A revolution cannot be solely the cause of one person,” she said. “Even though I didn’t really participate in it, I’m proud of the revolution and proud of my country.”

She may not have participated in it, but she sure did precipitate it. Her name is Faida Hamdi and she is Tunisian. She is also Lorenz’s butterfly, a small soul who flapped her wings and set off storms of tornadoes for thousands of miles in every direction.

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