29 March 1984 – Sidi Bouzid, Tunisia
The wriggling baby was placed on top of her so that his wrinkly head rested on her sweating shoulder. The labour had not been too painful and she smiled down at him as the desert heat abated a moment and a cooler breeze lifted the red and white flaps around the bottom of the tent. His arms and legs flopped about as his eyes widened in astonishment. The blinding place he had just been delivered into gradually came into focus and the urge to cry welled in his tiny chest.
“Shhhhh”, cooed his mother. “Who’s a strong boy”?
“He looks like a tough one”, said his father proudly.
“What’s your name, little one”? asked his sister, quietly, as she took his hand in hers.
3 years later
Walking down a dusty street in Sidi Salah, he looked up to see his father clutching at his chest and turning red.
“What’s wrong”?! he cried, as his father collapsed in a heap at his feet.
“My chest… so tight… I can’t breathe… God help me!!!”
“Son… ” his father gasped as his eyes rolled back in his head, “my heart! I… I… take care of your mother and sisters… I… I… can’t… breathe”.
“God protect you”, said his father as he exhaled for the last time, his head lolling awkwardly to one side.
“Don’t go! Don’t go! I need you”! he cried, burying his head in his father’s chest, tears streaming down his face.
He felt a hand on his shoulder and looked up into the gentle eyes of a passer-by. “Stay here, little one – I’m going to go and get help. What’s your name”?
23 years later, manning a fruit and vegetable stand in Sidi Bouzid
He looked down at the little girl staring up at him, hungrily. Her clothes were little more than rags. Her hair was matted and she had dirt smeared across her face.
“And what would you like, little one”?
“Well, take the one you want”.
“I don’t have any money”.
He put some apples, figs and dates in a small paper bag and passed them to her. “Take these”, he said. “Do you have any brothers or sisters”?
“I have two brothers”.
“Share it with your brothers”.
“I don’t have any money”.
“Take them”, he said, smiling. “Remember to share”.
“What’s your name”?
17 December 2010, at the Governor’s Office, after having $200 worth of produce confiscated by the police
“Give me back my fucking scales”!!!
“The Governor can’t see you”, said a police officer with mirror sunglasses, stroking a baton.
“Give me back my fucking fruit and vegetables!!! I have a permit!!!”
“Your permit is invalid”.
“I’ve had a permit from this office for 10 years!!! You’ve been robbing me for 10 years!!! I want to see the Governor!!! Now!!!!”
“I told you already”, said the police officer, sneering, “the Governor can’t see you”.
“Ten years you’ve been stealing from me!!! I pay for my sister to go to university! I can’t pay when you steal from me!!! I want to go to university!!! You won’t even let me run my stand!!! I can’t live!!!”
“Who”, said the police officer, grabbing him by the throat, “do you think you are, shouting at me? I don’t care about your whore sister. I don’t care about your permit and I don’t care about your fucking fruit and vegetables. Now get out of here and scavenge with the rest of the fucking dogs or I’ll break your skull. I don’t even know your fucking name”.
10 minutes later in front of the Governor’s Office in the middle of traffic
The gasoline felt vaguely refreshing as he drained the can all over himself. He shouted: “How can I support my family? How?!!!” He contemplated the match for a moment and when he struck it seemed to make a protracted scratching noise before the flames roared from his flesh. And as his skin burned and his hair melted and – just before his heart burst – he raised his fists into the air and screamed through the blackened hole that was once his mouth: “I am Tareq al-Tayyib Muhammad Bouazizi”!!!
And across the rooftops and through the streets and the trees – through the air of the souls of the living and the dead – Tunis, Cairo, Tripoli, Tel Aviv – the name of freedom was finally heard.