Vimpt is very pleased to be publishing TUNISIENNE. A Bare-Handed Revolution (2011) a two-part article from Antonio Denti’s ongoing series The Surviving Frame.
The Surviving Frame is a collection of still images drawn from nearly two decades of video footage shot by Denti while working as a cameraman for Reuters. As Denti expresses it: ‘These images were not born as photographs, […] but they have chosen to be photographs.’
Editor's note: All images are stills taken from video footage courtesy of Denti.
What strikes me the most watching these pictures 7 years after they were shot is that they tell the story of a bare-handed revolution. Bare hands, mostly bare faces. Very different from the explosions, the air strikes, the proxy wars, the black flags, the gutted cities, the lost children, the desperate mothers that were to take over the Arab Spring shortly after.
A man screams with wild happiness after watching the large, red letters R,C and D being ripped off by a demonstrator from the roof of the party’s headquarters and being thrown to the ground. The RCD – Rassemblament Costitutionelle Democratique – had been the ruling party in Tunisia from Independence, in 1956, till that day.
Like most of the international press I arrived late in Tunisia. Like most, I had failed to understand that what looked like small ‘bread riots’ in the rural areas of the most quiet North African country would quickly become the beginning of the Arab Spring.
In mid-December of 2010 – roughly one month before my arrival – a humiliated street vendor, Mohamed Bouazizi, had set himself on fire after his goods were confiscated and he was slapped in public by a policewoman over a licence issue. ‘Forgive me if I did not obey you’ he wrote to his mother in a note he wrote before going to buy the petrol he used to set himself on fire. The short letter continued: ‘Blame our times, not me. I am going and not coming back. Look, I did not cry and tears did not fall off my eyes.’
And he ended: ‘I am about to travel and I ask he who leads the travel to forget’. But he was not forgotten. The small, timid protests that followed his self-immolation, in the rural Sidi Bouzid, continued everyday, despite hard repression. They turned into the avalanche that forced Tunisia’s strongman – Ben Ali – to flee and that, eventually, shook all Arab capitals and most of the world.
Witness to how little the rest of the world had understood what was happening is the fact that – only a few days before Ben Ali’s escape – French president Nicholas Sarkozy, who in a few months was to become the main force behind Western armed intervention on the side of anti-regime rebellions in the Arab world, was offering to send French experts to advise Tunisian police forces on crowd-control.
I flew to Tunis on a Monday. My departure was decided in great hurry over the weekend and I remember clearly wondering in the streets of Rome on Sunday evening, looking for a cash machine, knowing that I would not be able to withdraw what could be considered reasonable ‘escape money’ for the highly unpredictable, potentially dangerous situation I was about to enter. ‘Escape money’ – in that case – meant enough cash to get a lift to Sicily from a fisherman if things really degenerated. But luckily there was no need for that.
As I landed, Tunis and the Tunisian people had crossed the shadow line. Their president had fled, an order that had lasted decades had dissolved. They faced the real unknown the way I had never seen happen before. There was room for anarchy, looting, civil war. But there was none of this.
There were battles every day. The ‘revolution’ was made of battles and they are the object of the pictures you’ll find in this essay. But in the mornings – before the battles resumed – Tunis revealed its gentle, human nature. Which never ceased to impress me. A gentle, intelligent, dignified city. The system had broken down but the people looked after their city. They cleaned it, defended it. They woke it up with hot coffee and warm bread every morning.
My delay bore a precious gift: Surprise. Not a small thing in a world were most things seem pre-arranged, unavoidable, predicted. In the streets of Tunis history felt unwritten, unknown. There were no tweets, no advisories that anticipated events. The street came first, everything followed. These people were walking towards the edge, the verge of their destiny and to tell about this I – and all the other journalists there – had to walk with them.
2. METRE BY METRE
There was a topography of the revolution in Tunis. The political consequences, the analysis of the situation would follow, but in those days history could be seen unfolding watching a city plan.
The whole nation was represented by an avant guarde of citizens who simply advanced through the streets of the city, conquering landmarks, a few hundred meters from each other, one after the other. Sometimes, ten meters a day.
The momentous advances invariably stopped in front of a police line. In order for the Revolution to go forward the police cordon had to be broken. It happened in front of the Interior Ministry, then – 700 meters away- in front of the headquarters of the RCD, the ruling party, then – 1 km away – around Government House…
I may be wrong but it looked like the advancing rebels were themselves surprised by their revolt. For how hard we looked for them, I could see no chief, no plan, no puppeteer. Every new meter of conquered city brought everyone deeper into an unknown where none seemed to be in charge.
The second part of this article will be published later this month.