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TAOUFIK BEN BRIK: Only Whispered Cries In Tunisia Now

Translated Wednesday 26 May 2010, by Isabelle Métral and reviewed by Bill Scoble

L’Humanité interviews the Tunisian writer and journalist who has been harassed by the police since his release on April 27 after six months’ imprisonment.

He dropped in on us at l’Humanité as an old friend will do. Happy to be free; but still feeling the strain after six months spent in Ben Ali’s jails, following one of those gross stratagems of which the Tunisian regime makes a speciality. At the end of a short visit to France after his release, the Tunisian journalist quickly returned to Tunis, for he refuses to live in exile, just as he refuses to remain silent. In Tunisia he is still the target of unbearable and constant police harassment.

HUMA: The sentence you have served was in retaliation for your writings and your opposition to the Ben Ali regime. Tell us about your experience in prison.

BEN BRIK: Ben Ali’s rule was already naked. My trial was actually no more than the nth trial of this regime. Ben Ali is a two-headed hydra: propaganda on one side, guns on the other. There is nothing we can do personally against guns, so we try to counter the propaganda. I believe I have truly become an agit-prop expert: writing is not the sole weapon. Besides, my best articles are those that are not written. Nothing annoys Ben Ali more than my capacity to play without a ball. I expressed myself when I was in prison, I went on hunger-strike, other people wrote. I became a platform for angry contest, a public issue, giving others an opportunity to express themselves.

HUMA: You often say that in Tunisia there is no free press left, none that is truly worthy of the name. What media are left to journalists then?

BEN ALI: In Algeria they killed the journalists; in Tunisia, in contrast, they killed the trade. The press was blown up with an A bomb; nothing is left but a desert. Am I a journalist myself? The regime finds my poems more provoking than my articles. Those that still write are the last of the Mohicans, brave people who try to express themselves on the web. There are only whispered cries to be heard in Tunisia now. Ben Ali has muzzled everybody. Tunisians cannot hear, they cannot see, they cannot speak any more. The country’s soul was wrecked on a reef. There is no press left, no theatre left, no poetry, no films. Ben Ali is a tyrant whose power is undisputed. Nobody is a threat to him. Nobody challenges his rule but a score of individuals crying in the Sahara desert.

HUMA: Were you tortured?

BEN BRIK: Torture is standard practice in Tunisia. Most of the fellows who were with me in Siliana prison had been “normally” tortured: you just cannot imagine anyone being jailed without first being tortured: it’s a compulsory preliminary. Was it really torture? In the police station after my arrest, they shut me up naked and manacled in a small one-by-two-meter room where a score of pathetic policemen kept turning the lights on and off and showering me with gross abuse. “How dare you speak Ben Ali’s name, you bastard!” they kept saying. Those kinds of thugs will drive you beyond fear to neutralize you by resorting to physical and psychological violence.

HUMA: If the violation of fundamental freedom is so blatant, why does the international community keep silent?

BEN BRIK: Tunisia is a country of no importance. It has no oil, no borders with Israel. If there weren’t a few individuals left in the country who are good writers and orators, the country would never be talked about any more. It would only be a small dictator-ruled country strangled between the GIA’s Algeria and Khadafi’s Lybia. Ben Ali is a second-rank dictator nobody is interested in. The media no longer even cover his so-called elections. As for Ben Brik, Radhia Nasraoui and their likes, their misadventures are no longer of any interest either.

HUMA: If there is no press left, no civil society, no political debate, how can things ever change in Tunisia?

BEN BRIK: Maybe a film should be made about a country without a past, a present, or a future. Tunisians wander about in a desert without knowing why, without a destination. It’s an Orwellian 1984. But just one among so many cases!

HUMA: Is the “Tunisian case” a good illustration of the Arab world’s inertia?

BEN BRIK: The geography of the case is damning. Tunisia belongs to the poorest continent, Africa. It lies in the Arab-Muslim region, ruled by a club of reptilian tyrants – which rules out the possibility that it might become democratic. We should not deceive ourselves: the Northern powers want the status quo to be maintained. Rulers of the type of Mubarak, Kadhafi and Assad, who exhaust and tyrannize their peoples, are useful because people that have been defeated are powerless.

HUMA: What about the lawyer and Human Rights activist Radhia Nasraoui: is she also harassed by the regime?

BEN BRIK: She shares the fate of all those who dare challenge Ben Ali, who want to lead free lives. Like Hamma Hammami or Sihem Bensedrine, Radhia feels like a prisoner, she can feel the vice getting tighter by the day. Day after day she has this cohort of policemen trailing her during each and every one of her moves, who cordon off her house, frighten her kids. What can she do? Desert the country? Leave it to Ben Ali’s rule? That’s out of the question. We shall never choose exile.

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