By Carlos Restrepo
Nabila Harig, an adjunct Arabic instructor at Webster University, sits in her living room on Skype with her nephew, Ahmed Kharrat. She holds a tissue in her hand, speaking in French and Arabic. Every once in a while she shouts the words “Tunisian revolution.”
Every night for the last three weeks, Harig, a native from Tunisia, has used Skype to communicate with her relatives about the overthrow of Tunisian president Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali, who had ruled the country for 23 years.
“He (Ali) is one of the richest people in the country,” said Nabila to her nephew. “People were suffering. The economy is bad and people were hungry while he stole from his people.”
The Tunisian protests started in December when 26-year-old fruit vendor Mohamed Bouazizi set himself on fire and burned to death in protest after a government inspector tried to confiscate Bouazizi’s fruit, according to a New York Times article.
Shortly after his death, riots sparked against the Tunisian government and Ali, forcing the president to flee the country on Jan. 14.
“Some people are martyrs,” Kharrat said in Arabic as Harig translated. “We wish it wasn’t like that. We wanted it to be peaceful, but the situation requires people to come out strong. The first reaction of the government was to strike back. But if they keep shooting they can’t kill everybody because everybody is standing strong.”
As Nabila Skyped, her husband Tim Harig came into the house.
Tim Harig is also an adjunct faculty member at Webster. He teaches Middle Eastern history. He said the revolution in Tunisia could mean a turning point in the history of the region.
According to Al-Jazeera, protests have spread to Algeria, Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Yemen, where men have burned themselves alive in demonstration.
“It’s a potential change for the whole region,” Tim Harig said. “Like when you think of the fall of the Berlin wall in 1989. This could be a lot like that.”
Speaking with caution
Tim Harig has traveled to Tunisia several times to visit his wife’s family. He said in Tunisia, he could have an open conversation with anyone about sex, religion, science or philosophy — but not about Ben Ali.
“I’m in the sea swimming and I asked one of her relatives what he thinks about Ben Ali,” Tim Harig said. “Everyone went underwater and swam away. Later, my brother-in-law said he could answer certain questions but only in the closet of his house.”
Since the president has fled, Tunis Afrique Press, the state-controlled news agency, has openly broadcast criticism of the president.
Nabila Harig said she was in tears when she first saw people openly speaking out against the government.
“All people feared each other before,” Nabila Harig said. “We didn›t trust anyone, even among our own friends, we feared them. We couldn’t speak up.”
Nabila Harig started to Skype with Leila, a close friend in Tunisia. She asked Leila, an English teacher, if she would like to be interviewed. Leila agreed to speak to The Journal as long as her identity was not revealed.
Leila said her message to America was to support Tunisians’ struggle for freedom and democracy.
“Share our happiness; be with us, support us,” Leila said. “We have always believed in justice and freedom and equality of opportunities.”
Connecting Webster to the Middle East
Nabila Harig teaches several introductory and advanced level Arabic courses at Webster. She said it’s very important for Americans to learn more about the Arab world, the language, religion, history and culture.
“Take a look at what happened in Iraq,” Nabila Harig said. “In my opinion, it would have been more successful if they (the soldiers) knew the Iraqis’ language, their culture and their traditions before they invade them.”
Nabila Harig said many students are discouraged by the difficulty of the classes. She said students shouldn’t take the class just to earn credits, but as a process to learn something very valuable in this society.
“It’s a commitment to a complete different language that is now part of our global affairs,” Nabila Harig said. “It’s influencing our lives. It’s not just exotic. It’s going to become a main part of our education.”
Tim and Nabila Harig are returning to Tunisia this summer. Nabila Harig said when she goes back, she hopes to find a free and open country. She also hopes to vote and perhaps start looking for a place where she can retire with her husband.
“I always have this dream that one of these days, I will be able to have a place there,” Nabila Harig said. “Now this could be the time — things are so much different now. I also hope that I can vote. I have voted three times in America but never in Tunisia.”
Tim Harig said he wouldn’t mind having a home there, but for now he and his wife will stay to teach in America.
“I consider Tunisia a second home,” Tim Harig said. “We have pretty good jobs here. We need to finish them up first.”