[…]What can we learn from all this? Today we have a multitude of perspectives rather than a universal truth. The previously posed question ‘could that be true?’ has to be reframed in a more appropriate way, asking ourselves under what conditions this can be true. It is crucial to negotiate anew each time the conditions in which these stories are to be told. The difficulty to assess truth-telling depends not only on the number of sources, but also (or perhaps, rather) on the way information is organized.
This is Mohamed Bouazizi Boulevard, the 4 kilometers long segment of the C125 highway crossing Sidi Bouzid in Tunisia.
The avenue is the main one in the capital of one of the poorest districts in the country.
Until the beginning of 2011, the street was named after Habib Borgiba, one of the former dictators of the country. Right after the Tunisian Revolution its name was changed to homage martyr Mohamed Bouazizi.
The street was the stage for the sparkling of the Arab Spring.
Sometime around noon, in the two-lane street in front of the governor’s high gate, the vendor drenched himself in paint thinner then lit himself on fire. By the time he died on Jan. 4 (2011), protests that started over Mr. Bouazizi’s treatment in Sidi Bouzid had spread to cities throughout the country.
At around 11am, I received orders to go to the square where some illegal vendors had parked their carts to sell fruit. I was supposed to stop their activities and confiscate the products if I caught anyone selling without a license.
When I got to the square all of the illegal venders had snuck away except for Mr. Bouazizi. I urged him to move on but he refused. He began yelling at me and accusing us (the authorities) of taking bribes from the other illegal vendors, I had the right to confiscate his goods, that was my job and I never felt guilty about that. My colleagues and I started moving his fruit packs from his cart to our vehicle. When one of my colleagues was trying to pass me his scale, Mr. Bouazizi grabbed my uniform badge with both his hands making me feel somewhat threatened. I decided to call the back-up team as the situation was getting worse. At that moment, a passerby asked me whether I had slapped Mr Bouazizi on the face and this is what ended up being the beginning of the popular story that has now spread all over the world, though at the time, I didn't expect that anyone would believe it.
Mr. Bouazizi continued to shout. He said that he would go to the Governor's Palace to complain even though he knew he would just simply have to pay 20 dinars to have his products back. The police team finally arrived, and my colleagues and I suggested that the officers confiscate Mr. Bouazizi's goods but the Chief of Police refused. There was already a crowd around us, and he wanted to act cautiously due to a mob gathering. He decided to ask Mr. Bouazizi to come to the Police station with all his gear. At the Police Department they confiscated one scale, two boxes of pears, two boxes of apples and three or four kilos of bananas.
When my shift was over I returned home and just after 1pm I got a phone call. It was from work, I was told that Mr. Bouazizi had set himself on fire and that I had to provide them with an explanation. I was shocked! I couldn't believe what I had just heard. I had the feeling that people would blame me for his suicide attempt. At that point people were already gathering at the Governor's Palace front gate. The revolution had started and in the evening, the president sent a special tasks force to Sidi Bouzid to stop the demonstrations. Before Ben Ali was toppled he ordered me to prison. It was the 28th of December and I think it was his way of trying to keep the people on his side. He tried to pretend that he actually cared about Mr. Bouazizi. I was in jail for three months and twenty days and no attorney had dared to defend me or take on my case before Ben Ali fled the country. After Ben Ali left, one attorney adopted my case voluntarily. She didn't charge me anything, still, it took over two months until my situation was cleared and now they have absolutely nothing on me.
SIDI BOUZID, Tunisia-They called it the "slap heard around the Arab world." And it never happened. Or so said on Tuesday the Tunisian policewoman who was accused of hitting a young man in the face four months ago, prompting him to set himself alight and triggering a chain reaction of popular anger against Arab police states that has since unseated two dictators and caused others to tremble.
"I'm innocent. I did not slap him," Fadia Hamdi, the 36[sic]-year-old policewoman, told a court in the provincial city of Sidi Bouzid before the judge dismissed the case and freed her.
The mother of Mohamed Bouazizi, the young vegetable seller who felt so aggrieved by Hamdi's treatment of him that he set himself on fire, forgave the policewoman in a spirit of "reconciliation" and dropped the complaint against her.
Hamdi's lawyer said she had been made a scapegoat by deposed president Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali, who had her jailed as he fought to appease the protests triggered by Bouazizi's death.
Three months after Ben Ali's flight from Tunis, Hamdi's acquittal provoked jubilation among her friends and Tunisia's state news agency TAP declared the ruling a proof of judicial independence and a "break with the old regime."
Manoubia, the mother of Bouazizi whose name has been on the lips of millions who marched to overthrow Ben Ali and Egypt's Hosni Mubarak, told the court according to TAP: "I leave things in God's hands. For me, it is enough that Mohamed's martyrdom has resulted in freedom and the fall of tyrants."
Journalism makes a point rather than tests hypothesis. […] The journalist searches selectively and focuses on statements that support the point s/he is trying to make. The stories often include several people’s testimony in support of the point but exclude others whose statements might blur the issue or raise doubts. The point to be made largely decides the further course of their work. It guides not only the choice of people to interview but also the nature of the questions asked […] . Investigative journalism is a form of story-telling. Coherence is produced when facts are inserted into a narrative that has a structure that is familiar to the viewer. When facts are embedded in a coherent narration that appears to be real and authentic, they become plausible and convincing .
What happened in Sidi Bouzid? is an experiment in documentary storytelling. It is the result of research conducted for the conclusion of the Master in Documentary Photography program at AKV St. Joost. It aims to contribute to the debate on how journalism and documentary can engage reality, proposing an experimental way of presenting documentary research and narrative.
The project started in October 2011, during a field trip of the Master students to Tunisia. At the time, my purpose was to get a deeper understanding of the event that sparked the Arab Spring. My intention was to visit Sidi Bouzid, a tiny city in the middle of the country to research the story of the fruit seller Mohamed Bouazizi, the first hero of the Tunisian Revolution. I purposefully turned my back on all news coverage of the tale up until that point in order to find a different approach to the story. I wanted to get as close as possible to the truth of the events that unfolded on the 17th of December 2010, the day in which Mohamed Bouazizi and the municipal officer Fadia Hamdi, had the argument that allegedly prompted Bouazizi to commit suicide.
During my first visit to Tunisia, I tried to listen to the part of the story that hadn’t been heard until that moment. Although the event had been exhaustively reported on by news channels all over the world, very few of them had made any real attempt to hear Fadia Hamdi’s side of the story. That fact triggered my journalistic instincts. Consulting diverse sources is a fundamental principle of journalism that had apparently been ignored by most of the main stream media up until that moment. I decided then to subvert the logic applied by the media and do the opposite; I would only listen to Fadia’s side of the story. I thought it could be a way to find balance and a way to reach towards some kind of truth. I even believed that if I presented her side of the story as the absolute true I could change history and bring forth some kind of justice. Part of the outcome of this first visit to Tunisia was published in Welcome to Tunisia, a newspaper that is brought out to showcase works by AKV ST. Joost Masters.
Questions kept popping up in my mind. How close to the truth could I get? Should I actually construct my own truth? And what is truth after all?
The need to find answers to these questions and therefore understand my position as a documentary maker sent me back to Tunisia two months later. I wanted to know if my report actually got close to Fadia's version of the story, and moreover, I needed to listen to more people in Tunisia and figure out the general understanding of the event. I had listened to the main stream media and Fadia so far, but what about the people of Tunisia? Once again I was walking in the shoes of the journalist who goes to far-away lands which he barely understands, searching for the truth. The difference being that I suspected the truth to be intangible and unreachable in this case.
The result is precarious, of course. It is not a report, because it lacks the basic principles of journalism. It isn’t an artistic project either. The work is merely the assumption that the position of the documentary maker is a fragile one, and the recognition of the uncertainty of representation showed as a patchwork of opinions, including mine. This platform presents what could be called a “black hole”, consisting of a repository of “truths” that swallow up any attempt at finding one unique answer for What happened in Sidi Bouzid. Instead, the conclusions are questions. A net of reflections and possible interpretations about one set of events, presented in paths that the viewer can navigate through.
Rodrigo Marcondes is a documentary maker and producer of 'What Happened in Sidi Bouzid?'
The past can be seized only as an image which flashes up at the instant when it can be recognized and is never seen again.’ The moment it is seized and becomes a historical artifact, it buries the past rather than reflects it. If it didn’t, then history would never be the history of the victor, but the ‘past as it really was’.
Fadia Hamdi ... also known as Feyda Hamdi, is a 45 year old municipal officer of Sidi Bouzid. She is one of the pivotal players in the event that sparked the Tunisian Revolution and the wider Arab Spring. Ms. Hamdi was accused of slapping the street vendor Mohamed Bouazizi in the face during a discussion in the morning of December 17, 2010. According to many international media channels, she and her aides allegedly abused the street vendor, beating and verbally offending him. The fight was over a few boxes of vegetables and one scale that Ms. Hamdi was trying to apprehend. Mr. Bouazizi was a non-registered vendor in the city. Supposedly, Ms. Hamdi's slap prompted the vendor to burn himself in front of the governor´s office in a desperate act of protest, initiating the series of riots that later led to the revolution. Several international newspapers and TV shows published a story in which Ms. Hamdi is pictured as guilty of aggression and accused of taking bribes to let illegal vendors keep selling in Sidi Bouzid. Ms. Hamdi was sent to jail on the 28th of December of 2010 on orders from the ex-president Ben Ali himself (several days before he was deposed by Tunisian Revolution). However, Fadia Hamdi has never been convicted. On the 19th of April, 2011, after spending 3 months in prison, all charges against her were dropped due to the absence of evidence. It's very hard to claim whether Ms. Hamdi assaulted Mr. Bouazizi or not. An alternative version of the facts is that Mr. Bouazizi himself assaulted Fadia. In another account, on that morning, Ms. Hamdi and her coworker went to the place where illegal marketing happens in Sidi Bouzid. According to her, Mr. Bouazizi started yelling at the officers and accused the authorities of taking bribes from other illegal vendors. Fadia then tried to confiscate Mr. Bouazizi's vegetables and scale. She and her colleagues had started moving his fruit boxes from his cart to their vehicle. Mr. Bouazizi then supposedly jerked Ms. Hamdi's uniform badge. A physical confrontation is said to have started, and, in this version, right after that she called the Police. Mr. Bouazizi was then brought to the Police Station where he actually had his products and scale apprehended. Neither side opened any investigation about physical assault.
According to Fawzy Hamdy, Fadias' brother, the accusation against her is "the lie that toppled the dictator".
Over the 2010-'11season, "60 Minutes" continued its dominance as the number-one news program, drawing an average of 13.36 million viewers per week - a 1 percent increase over last season and more than twice the audiences of its network news magazine competitors and more than five million viewers ahead of the most-watched daily network evening news broadcast.
At around 11am I received instructions to go to this location because illegal vendors were working there. When these vendors saw us coming most of them ran away. But Mohamed Bouazizi didn’t. I had told him earlier during the week that we would confiscate his products if he marketed irregularly. I tried to argue with him, but he started yelling. It was an unexpected reaction.
SIDI BOUZID, Tunisia — Mohamed Bouazizi spent his whole life on a dusty, narrow street here, in a tiny, three-room house with a concrete patio where his mother hung the laundry and the red chilis to dry. By the time Mr. Bouazizi was 26, his work as a fruit vendor had earned him just enough money to feed his mother, uncle and five brothers and sisters at home. He was 10 years old when he became the main provider for his family, selling fresh produce in the local market. He stayed in high school long enough to sit his baccalaureate exam, but did not graduate. He never attended university, contrary to what many news organisations have reported . Mohamed Bouazizi (citation) dreamed about owning a van.
He applied to join the army, but was refused, as were other successive job applications. With his family dependant on him, there were few options other than to continue going to market . Tunisia’s official unemployment rate is 14 percent, concentrated among young people, but the rate is much higher in Sidi Bouzid, say local union leaders, who put it at higher than 30 percent. Neglected by successive central governments, bereft of factories, seized with corruption and rife with nepotism, Sidi Bouzid and the small towns surrounding it are filled with idle young men, jobless, underemployed or just plain poor.
Faida Hamdy, a 45-year-old municipal inspector in Sidi Bouzid, a police officer’s daughter, was single, had a “strong personality” and an unblemished record, her supervisor said. She inspected buildings, investigated noise complaints and fined vendors like Mr. Bouazizi, whose itinerant trade may or may not have been legal; no one seems to know .
On the morning of Dec. 17, as Bouazizi pulled his cart along the narrow, rutted stone road toward the market , other vendors say Ms. Hamdy confronted him on the way to market. She tried to confiscate Mr. Bouazizi’s fruit , but he refused to hand them over. They swore at each other, the policewoman slapped him in the face in front of about 50 witnesses and, with the help of her colleagues, forced him to the ground . Bouazizi wept with shame . “She humiliated him,” said his sister, Samia Bouazizi.
Mr. Bouazizi walked a few blocks to the municipal building, demanded his property, and was beaten again, they said. Then he walked to the governor’s office, demanded an audience and was refused. With no official wiling to hear his grievances, the young man returned to the two-lane street in front of the governor’s high gate, [...] drenched himself in paint thinner then lit himself on fire . The fire burned and burned. People ran inside and grabbed a fire extinguisher, but it was empty. They called for police, but no one came. Only an hour and a half after Bouazizi lit the match did an ambulance arrive .
Yet when Mohamed Bouazizi poured inflammable liquid over his body and set himself alight outside the local municipal office, his act of protest cemented a revolt that would ultimately end President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali's 23-year-rule . Bilal Zaydi, 20, saw the vendor’s relatives and friends outside the governor’s office that afternoon, throwing coins at the gate. “Here is your bribe,” they yelled. Over the next day and half the protests grew and the police “started beating protesters, and firing gas,” he said. Mr. Zaydi, a high school student, slept during the day, and then he and his friends would take on the police at night . The uprising that followed came quick and fast. From Sidi Bouzid it spread to Kasserine, Thala, Menzel Bouzaiene. Tunisians of every age, class and profession joined the revolution. Students, teachers, the unemployed and lawyers joined forces in Sidi Bouzid and neighbouring towns, braving torture and arrest.
It took Ben Ali nearly two weeks to visit Mohamed Bouazizi's bedside at the hospital in Ben Arous. For many observers, the official photo of the president looking down on the bandaged young man had a different symbolism from what Ben Ali had probably intended.
Three weeks after he set himself on fire, Bouazizi died in the burn unit . After Bouazizi's death, the protests became widespread, moving into the more affluent areas and eventually into the capital . Protesters took to the streets with "a rock in one hand, a cell phone in the other," according to Rochdi Horchani - a relative of Mohamed Bouazizi - who helped break through the media blackout. The Tunisian authorities in the region tried every means possible to thwart the flow of videos. There were internet and power outages in Sidi Bouzid and neighbouring towns . Yet even if a muted majority did not actively share news of the protests online until mid-January, Tunisia's 3.6 million internet users - a third of the population, one of the highest penetration rates on the African continent, according to Internet World Stats - were able to follow news of the uprising on social media thanks to a solid core of activists .