As I hobbled across the Tunis Carthage Airport, loaded with three suitcases and a backpack, I took a deep breath hoping to catch a whiff of the jasmine. The “Jasmine Revolution” in 2011 transformed Tunisia. It enlivened the state with activism and ushered in a new era of democracy and political freedom. This dynamic spirit rippled across North Africa and inspired the people of Libya and Egypt, sparking protests across the Gulf and the Levant. It even brought home the crushing reality of autocracy and authoritarianism to the rest of the world. And a flower inspired it all.
Jasmine has a rich history in Tunisia. During the summer, jasmine thrives in this Mediterranean climate. Neighborhoods are adorned with overgrown jasmine bushes sticking through fences and covering buildings. To decorate their houses, Tunisians put jasmine flowers next to their front door as a perfume to greet visitors. There are even jasmine peddlers. They wear red vests, white linen button ups, and trousers, while they peddle jasmine necklaces and bundles up and down busy street corners and popular cafes. Rather than being a useless touristy souvenir, these jasmine crafts are a national accessory. It is with this jasmine legacy that Tunisia launched a new political chapter.
After three days of Arabic classes, I wanted more than a whiff of jasmine; I wanted to hold one. And so I decided to visit the epicenter of the Jasmine Revolution in downtown Tunis. From what I had read, I pictured the main boulevard, Habib Bourguiba, to be sweet like jasmine and as dynamic as the spirit that inspired a rush of protests across the region. I expected the Tunisian people to still be inspired by their accomplishments and hungry for greater political change. The papers I read explained that the security issues stemming from extremism in the region were being resolved with democratic participation and liberal economic initiatives, but all my research and idealist conceptions did not match the reality I saw before me.
I saw poverty, and I could not escape it. Nor could I escape the presence of the police and the insecurity that plagued much of Tunisia. I stopped in front of the Ministry of the Interior on Habiba Bourguiba. The Ministry of the Interior was the main site of protests as the home of Ben Ali’s extensive police state; since Ben Ali’s police state had fallen, I expected it to be peaceful. Instead, I was overwhelmed by the barricades and brigade of policemen guarding it. On top of the strong police presence in Tunis, there was rising border insecurity with Libya and Algeria. During my time there, there were two terrorist attacks on Tunisian national guardsmen. I, like the Tunisians, felt trapped and uncertain about what these two attacks meant.
And as I saw more of Tunisia, I understood the desperate poverty that cripples the south of Tunisia in a way reading about it never could. Most of the cities possess a meager local economy, mainly fueled by local agriculture and some development. With all these problems still rattling Tunisia, I wish there was still jasmine in the air. Maybe it would add a bit of hope to a place that needs it.
Photo credit: Olivia Flynn