The slap that sparked a revolution

The Observer reports:

Manoubia Bouazizi has grown used to the idea that her son Mohamed no longer belongs to her but to the Arab world. In the streets near where she lives on the outskirts of Tunis, she is stopped by people who recognise her, who have heard she is the mother of the market trader who set himself on fire in protest against an authoritarian regime, who kick-started the Jasmine revolution, and so the Arab spring.

His likeness is everywhere. Around the corner from her home, a pizza restaurant proprietor has mounted a full-colour reproduction of Mohamed’s face in his window to advertise a special discounted “Revolutionary Menu”.

Manoubia freely admits she, also, has made money from the global interest surrounding her son’s death. Sometimes she will be paid by the media organisations who want to interview her, and she has a ready-made contract drawn up for them to sign. The family were given 20,000 Tunisian dinars (about £9,000) by former president Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali as compensation for their loss and there are rumours – which Manoubia denies – that she has sold Mohamed’s vegetable cart to a rich businessman in the Emirates.

Still, her new-found prosperity is much in evidence. The Bouazizi family used to live in a modest, concrete house in the central Tunisian town of Sidi Bouzid. Now Manoubia, her husband and her six surviving children have decamped to a large apartment in La Marsa, a pretty seaside suburb of Tunis. Inside, there are caged canaries hanging from the tiled walls and a computer in one of the bedrooms.

When asked to describe what kind of person her son was, Manoubia has difficulty replying. “I can’t think of one single memory,” she says. “He was a man of good faith.” When pressed, her daughter Laila remembers that her brother’s favourite meal was “steak and chips” and that he supported Esperance Sportive, a Tunisian football team. Other than this, the family is disinclined to dwell on personal detail.

For Manoubia, as for those around her, it seems that the man has been subsumed by the myth. “It is strange to think that my little Mohamed should grow up to become this person,” Manoubia says, sitting in the front room of her rented house, her black robes gathered around her and set starkly against a bright orange blanket covering the sofa. She turns away as she speaks, not making eye contact, and it feels sometimes as though she is reciting answers she has learned by rote, having formulated the sentences hundreds of times before. “I am proud and happy that he should have been the first spark of the revolution.”

It is a phrase I will hear again and again, in varying forms across Tunisia. Some will call Mohamed Bouazizi “the drop that tipped over the vase”; others will insist that his death “lit the touchpaper” for the Arab spring revolts. But listen closely and there is also a growing murmur of dissent among those who believe that Mohamed was not a political hero but a media creation, manufactured by a myth-making machine that swung into action in the immediate aftermath of his death.

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