The Jasmine Revolution: Requiem for a Spring

14 February, 2021

Mosaic mural photographed by Walid Mahfoudh (Flickr/Walid Mahfoudh)

Mosa­ic mur­al pho­tographed by Walid Mah­foudh (Flickr/Walid Mahfoudh)

“Through­out his­to­ry many nations have suf­fered a phys­i­cal defeat, but that has nev­er marked the end of a nation. But when a nation has become the vic­tim of a psy­cho­log­i­cal defeat, then that marks the end of a nation.” Ibn Khal­dun, Al Muqaddimah.

Farah Abdessamad

I remem­ber our days togeth­er jas­mine, when you were lit­tle (and I bare­ly taller), not even reach­ing the win­dow frame. You had tried climb­ing along the blue win­dow bars and we helped you with sup­port stakes. I had heard the adults whis­per his name in our own liv­ing room and as they shiv­ered, I shiv­ered, too. Lat­er I joined them and low­ered my voice. We were ter­ri­fied of invok­ing a ghost, or worse, a divin­i­ty. We were care­ful because there had been reprisals. Peo­ple dis­ap­peared and fam­i­lies wait­ed, some­times for­ev­er. Now he’s gone. Yes, the raïs final­ly left and it’s been a decade. 

I’d love to tell you what I’ve seen since those days—you stayed, I left. I freeze instead at the frag­ile equidis­tance between two points, Hope and Dis­en­chant­ment, a func­tion of one anoth­er, try­ing to mea­sure these two loom­ing tow­ers of impos­si­ble heights. The lat­ter pulls me, and I linger just a bit longer in this thresh­old, not to let the things that mat­ter be forgotten.

Changes start­ed ten years ago, with a win­ter deplet­ed from the scent of orange blos­som that lingers in the air. In win­ter, the sky would turn grey dur­ing months with­out tourists, with­out the return­ing emi­grants with their hard cur­ren­cy enveloped in nos­tal­gic fog and fil­ial duties. The rain brings sad­ness and we usu­al­ly shiv­er inside our homes which have not real­ly been built for the cold days. I imag­ined then that you also longed for a harass­ing sun and the gig­gles of chil­dren run­ning and splash­ing at each oth­er, play­ing in our sea. 

It start­ed a long time ago, maybe. You know that this land had sac­ri­ficed its most pre­cious in old, yes­ter­year times, to calm the cur­rents and appease the gods. Tunis was­n’t yet Tunis, and Tunisia was the name of a continent—Africa. We don’t like to remem­ber it today and we swear that the site by Salam­bo is part of a larg­er ceme­tery, that the chil­dren died of nat­ur­al caus­es. The rem­nants of their ste­les face towards the ris­ing, blaz­ing sun. Fire, this essen­tial, bound­less, sacred energy—a nec­es­sary heat to stay warm, an excess which kills you—was the only ele­ment able to con­nect the mor­tal with the immor­tal, the pro­fane and the sacred, in the hope of heal­ing and rebirth. And the street sell­er set him­self on fire and died, leav­ing juicy, fra­grant cit­rus fruits and a few veg­eta­bles in his cart, in a pro­pi­tia­to­ry ges­ture of pri­mor­dial truth—older than the Carthagin­ian infants had been when like­wise sacrificed. 


Street vendor Mohamed Bouazizi's self-immolation sparked the Tunisian revolution (Flickr/Far Out Flora)

Street ven­dor Mohamed Bouaz­iz­i’s self-immo­la­tion sparked the Tunisian rev­o­lu­tion (Flickr/Far Out Flora)

On the docile flames from our gas stoves we grill the skin of green and red chilies. We then mash them in a sal­ad. It stings the tongue, and it’s tasty. Ten years ago, I wrote strange words to update friends on a vir­tu­al plat­form who until then, did­n’t know who you were, beyond the col­lect­ed details of your king­dom, order, fam­i­ly, and vari­ety. I wrote about gov­ern­ment-backed snipers shak­ing our lives, about loot­ing, cur­few and reports of dead peo­ple whose blood irri­gat­ed your vines. 

This shore­line has­n’t always been mine. My ances­tors left their native Ara­bi­an desert many cen­turies ago. They fled. Their belief was ini­tial­ly dif­fer­ent. They wor­shipped the old idols and sud­den­ly were told of a new god, The One with nine­ty-nine names. They weren’t sure about these changes at first and my tribe rebelled repeat­ed­ly, tak­ing up arms along the los­ing sides. They went east first, to mod­ern-day Syr­ia, Iraq and Bahrein, chas­ing after the hyp­not­ic clar­i­ty of sun­rise. They were expelled lat­er (thanks to a propen­si­ty for dubi­ous alliances) and turned west. First, to Egypt where they found a respite before a famine hit. Then they marched towards the evening of the world, reach­ing the African pink skies of the proud Romans, where a man named Han­ni­bal was once born.

There were more wars. We set­tled south min­gling between hot desert springs, with Jews and Imazighen, whose water we drank, and whose land we now occupied. 

I did­n’t real­ize how many Tunisians there were. I knew, but I did­n’t under­stand what a mul­ti­tude meant until they all came out in the streets on my TV screen, com­pact like a nation­wide ant colony. I watched between two pow­er out­ages, from my Beirut apart­ment, proud and anx­ious. They walked under the gold­en-tipped clock tow­er next to the cap­i­tal city of a fall­en empire. Are we too late, I asked myself. Time devours his chil­dren; the hands of the clock keep mov­ing and their motion was a call to action. Ten years, that’s 87,600 hours. 

It’s hap­pen­ing, I told every­one. It’s hap­pen­ing! We were the chil­dren of Harun Al-Rasheed’s exu­ber­ant tales, the chil­dren of his Ali Baba and we would retake stolen trea­sures from the thieves. I want­ed to see you again and mea­sure how tall you’d become. I imag­ined a future. 

I did­n’t hop on a plane to meet you. Our fire was con­ta­gious and set the region ablaze in a col­lec­tive pyre for which we weren’t quite pre­pared. After the ini­tial exhil­a­ra­tion, some­thing went wrong. 

Many win­ters lat­er, though some would say rather quick­ly, the fruits of our gar­dens turned sour. Clouds hung low­er. The sea wept. And at some point, you—gift from all gifts—even stopped bloom­ing in the evenings. Elders start­ed to regret the man they used to gos­sip about. They said life was too expen­sive, that garbage sup­plant­ed the wave of pro­test­ers and piled up in a hor­rid stench. They want­ed clean streets, the lux­u­ry to be bored again, to buy food with­out deplet­ing their dwin­dling pen­sions, to be sick with­out wor­ry­ing about med­ica­tion we can’t find in the country. 

Years passed. From bills, to bak­sheesh, defla­grat­ing bangs fol­lowed by loud­er silences. A beach, a muse­um, rub­bles and debris. A tac­i­turn, black ban­ner con­quered new spaces. I gazed before at cheeks-paint­ed faces and bod­ies hug­ging a scar­let flag. I mourn the dead peo­ple I see dai­ly on my online feed. I don’t know them, and I can’t help but notice the appear­ance of tiny bones and heads on some of these pho­tos. I try to deci­pher their blood stains like a grand­moth­er read­ing des­tinies in cof­fee grounds. They feel close; they feel like fam­i­ly. The tourists have left and haven’t come back.

Our land is known for its finest olive oil. The best one is hum­ble. It car­ries a residue at the bot­tom of plas­tic bot­tles we often exchange and reuse. And today, we have a new export com­mod­i­ty to col­lect extra rev­enues: the indis­crim­i­nate pulp of hope­less­ness from our young peo­ple’s flesh. One can dip a piece of warm bread in our con­gealed, cracked dreams. Many have learnt the ways men can die to sat­is­fy vir­ginal fantasies—while oth­ers sim­ply fight to breathe. 

In ten years, it seems to me that after the whip splash and intox­i­ca­tion of col­or­ful, his­tor­i­cal after­noons, we haven’t dis­cov­ered how to love being alive, guilt­less and shame­less, to climb to the tip of a colos­sus and sur­vey the vasti­tude of our own pos­si­bil­i­ties. One leg in Tang­iers, one leg in Anti­och, a val­ley of abun­dance underneath—why haven’t we? 

It was­n’t sup­posed to per­ish so fast and so deca­dent­ly. We were to cel­e­brate the force of life and plea­sure and a car­nal, whole, Dionysian desire. At night, I won­der if these were trag­ic games we were nev­er sup­posed to win. Maybe we’re the guests to a celes­tial ban­quet and we’re the feast. 

My mem­o­ries, those that are mine and the ones I have adopt­ed as orphaned real­i­ties, haunt me. They seek to implant and prop­a­gate; they want to con­trol me. I try to hush them but I fail. I catch echoes that appeal for a sense of urgency and scream after news of a wreck. I hear voic­es, con­ver­sa­tions, slogans—dignity! The voic­es are search­ing. They’re ask­ing for direc­tions. I point them to the clock tow­er which only melts away.

Dur­ing a peri­od when we kept time accord­ing to the sun’s shad­ow, a bru­tal mur­der is said to have tak­en place in Ancient Egypt between two broth­ers. Osiris lost his king­ship to Set, who dis­mem­bered him. His wid­ow Isis looked out for him and cried incon­solably. Her tears filled the Nile, spilling in the sea which had col­lect­ed Osiris’s dis­persed pieces. She sailed off deter­mined to find his miss­ing remains. She suc­ceed­ed, and a child—Horus—was posthu­mous­ly con­ceived. Once adult, Horus avenged his father and defeat­ed the pow­er of his greedy uncle. Osiris lived on in the under­world while his son took his for­mer seat gov­ern­ing Egypt. Order was restored; chaos was vanquished. 

More tears and mar­itime wan­der­ings have coa­lesced into our frothy sea. The name of Isis res­onates dif­fer­ent­ly to our ears, less of a sav­ior than a threat. The god­dess has­n’t appeared to res­cue a hun­gry cho­rus of mis­ery from the crammed, cap­siz­ing and deflat­ing boats. 

What’s left of my tribe after ten cen­turies is leav­ing again. A new exo­dus has begun and our com­mon lan­guage is a lan­guage reap­ing a har­vest of destruc­tion. West? North? East or South again, back to a place where the sand can encrust our loose leather san­dals as we won­der how to grow any­thing on bar­ren fields? And we would suc­cumb to an unquench­able thirst for things we can’t hold and slith­er away.

I speak of we and this cycli­cal “we” once swollen and gush­ing keeps shrink­ing like every­thing else. Delu­sion­al sen­si­bil­i­ty entraps me in the after­time of a Spring mean­while we’re locked in sta­sis. Togeth­er, we, two or infin­i­ty, ten years or ten cen­turies, I no longer know and use the words interchangeably. 

I’m a speck of soot, a nigel­la seed stuck between some­one else’s teeth. I rep­re­sent noth­ing, no one, and my own fleet­ing image escapes me, too. I wish we had com­posed an expand­ed mate­ria med­ica that would have col­lect­ed reme­dies for our ailments—if you are sad, take this; if you need more rights, drink that; and if you want a future, one that shines and smiles, find this herb in that loca­tion, boil it until ten­der and as thick as a paste, let it cool, apply it all over your face for ten con­sec­u­tive years. You’ll see a dif­fer­ence then.

While I still hope for a big­ger we, one which brush­es against the bor­ders of epic rivers, the sea and the desert, the image of a sky comes clos­er in my dreams. There, I see a shape twirling some­times, approach­ing and van­ish­ing. It does­n’t scare me and no, I don’t think it’s the angel of death vis­it­ing pre­ma­ture­ly. When its gold­en neck shim­mers under a mid­night sun and my eyes meet its pur­ple robe, I rec­og­nize the mighty ani­mal. I wel­come it with pure joy. There’s a flam­ing halo envelop­ing its body, includ­ing along its saf­fron-col­ored feath­ers. It lives beyond 500 man-years—even one thou­sand accord­ing to some—and its nest is made from cin­na­mon and frank­in­cense. It tick­les my nose. It’s the com­fort­ing sight of anoth­er Semit­ic creature. 

Phoenix comes from the same root word as Phoeni­cia, and ancient writ­ers agree on the bird’s prove­nance: Ara­bia. Its death is either flam­boy­ant, con­sumed by osten­ta­tious fire, or as slow as human decay. From its ash­es, it ris­es again. A new cycle begins from this rebirth, just as the sun returns every day to break the chains of our nights. I wake up before I can touch the burn­ing feath­ers. I watch the bird ascend into the ether when it merges with oth­er beams and the love-fire spark of Venus. 

L'Ouroboros , Salvador Dalí

L’Ouroboros, Sal­vador Dalí

Despise not the ash, for it is the dia­dem of thy heart, and the ash of things that endure,” a 16th-cen­tu­ry alche­my trea­tise, the Rosary of Philoso­phers, instructs. In its hey-days, alche­my pulled togeth­er ele­ments, such as fire, water, air; qual­i­ties, hot, dry, cold, humid; and prin­ci­ples, such as volatil­i­ty or sta­bil­i­ty, to study the work­ings and pos­si­bil­i­ties of trans­mu­ta­tion. It embraced tra­di­tions from the fields of phi­los­o­phy, chem­istry, med­i­cine and spir­i­tu­al­i­ty. Through dis­til­la­tions and purifi­ca­tion pro­ce­dures, an alchemist hoped to gen­er­ate an elixir of perfection—gold, eter­nal life, a return to the divine. Con­duct­ing their care­ful exper­i­ments and tem­per­ing with sub­stances, medieval alchemists from the Arab world chal­lenged the impos­si­ble with an ambi­tion to ele­vate the basic to noble, to com­bat degra­da­tion and con­trol alter­ation. Yet no new life can arise before the death of the old one. The ser­pent eats its own tail to illus­trate that “the one is all, and all is one” affirm­ing it obeys a uni­ver­sal law which binds all of its liv­ing com­po­nents together.

Enan­tio­dro­mia is a fan­cy word to describe one thing run­ning to an oppo­site, such as hope col­lid­ing with despair, hug­ging in a com­bus­tive, tight embrace. We shout but who lis­tens any­more? We’ve been tossed aside. No one needs our beach­es and hand­i­craft and oil any­more. We’ve slipped out of his­to­ry, in the periph­ery of larg­er stakes and big­ger empires. Or rather, we joined his­to­ry and his­to­ry vom­it­ed us the same way the sea dejects its plas­tic con­tent on our shores every day. After so much des­o­la­tion we’re miss­ing an immu­ni­ty. Our pain seems to be the unin­tend­ed anec­dote to a palimpsest. Who holds the pen to our erasure? 

Is it all about ret­ro­grad­ing, or start­ing over, I won­der. Al Nad­him con­served a mon­u­men­tal body of knowl­edge in his medieval Kitāb al-Fihrist, pass­ing a torch of schol­ar­ship and awak­en­ing from one civ­i­liza­tion to anoth­er. There has to be more, more than a glitzy cage and more than live-streamed noise we leave behind for those not yet born. It’s tight in there, stuffy, and I know there’s a way out because there has to be one to reverse the har­row­ing dim­ness of this impasse.

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