Mohamed’s story doesn’t belong to anyone. It’s the story of the simple man, like millions of others, who, after being crushed, humiliated, and denied in life, became the spark that set the world ablaze. No one can ever steal his death.
On December 17, 2010, a young Tunisian vegetable seller named Mohammed Bouazizi went to the provincial headquarters of Sidi Bouzid in central Tunisia, doused himself with gasoline, and set himself on fire after a run-in with police over his confiscated vegetable cart. Of this, the Arab Spring was born. In March, 2011, writer and Moroccan expatriate Tahar Ben Jelloun, recovering from an illness in his adopted country of France, began to write a fictional version of Bouazizi’s story. In his Page Turner interview, he says, “I was thinking, the whole time, of the Vittorio De Sica film ‘The Bicycle Thief.’ I replayed it in my mind, and I wanted to write with the same dryness, the same pared-down quality, and especially the same truthfulness.” To be honest, I’m not sure he made it, but then, I generally find fictionalization of a true story to be difficult to read, particularly one so recent as this.
The fictional Mohamed is, like his real-life inspiration, stuck in a position of powerlessness and poverty. The story opens after the funeral of his father, with Mohamed responsible for the support of his entire family including diabetic mother, in need of medicine. He starts by burning his diploma in the sink, in frustration of having wasted his time on education that isn’t employable. Then he sets himself to more practical matters, and little by little, manages to eke out a living for his family by selling fruit from his father’s old cart.
Mohamed does so many things right: he notices what other fruit vendors are doing, adjusts his tactics, and when a rare stroke of luck befalls him, he makes the most of it. The only thing he doesn’t do “right” is pay bribes and extortion demanded by everyone at every level, from the fruit wholesaler to the licensing officials to the police. And of course that’s the point: here’s a bright, ambitious, industrious kid who’s held in place by a system he’s unable to beat. Or, more accurately, by a system that can be beaten only one way: by fire.
There was too much injustice in the country, too much inequality and humiliation.
It’s necessarily a horrific story; injustice ramps up at every turn. I understand the design of the story called for a certain style. Who am I to second-guess such an illustrious writer, but I felt that design didn’t do the story justice. Then again, maybe that was the point; maybe to tell this story in a more satisfying way – either more stylistically pared down or more floridly – would’ve been a betrayal of the subject.