Driving with Wahid

10/08/2018 Posted by admin

by Paul Johnson

Welcome to the cradle of the Arab uprising.

We are in our driver Wahid’s late model Mercedes diesel winding through the mountains east of Tunis.

Spectacular, jagged peaks rise from the city’s outskirts, then give way to a landscape of vineyards and olive and lemon groves. Northern Tunisia is lush and beautiful as the spring approaches. Such a special season of change for this small country.

“You know this Ben Ali?” Wahid asks of the former Tunisian leader whose ouster kicked off the uprisings that have shaken the region.

“Yes, he’s in Saudi Arabia now, but there will be no peace for him. There is no way a human can live with himself knowing he did what he did.”

Wahid is in his mid-50s. He works as a freelance driver and fixer for some of the foreign oil companies that operate in the region.

He lived abroad for a few years, learned English in the UK and has two daughters.

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The MP3 player in his car shuffles through songs by Katy Perry, the Arabic pop star Cheb Mami and Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Going On,” which he turns up. “See that KIA dealership?” he points out. “That was controlled by Ben Ali’s wife’s crooked family. That Renault dealership, that one too. Everything. Everything. Every big business here in Tunisia was controlled by them. You could not do anything without paying them off. This is why we had a revolution.”

Ask for a description of Ben Ali and his extended family and the only word Wahid uses that is printable on this page is “donkey.”

As if to underscore the point, we actually pass a few donkeys on the road and he laughs a very satisfied laugh.

When you talk to Tunisians like Wahid, you get a picture of a revolution driven not so much by the stunning acts of cruelty and injustice that have made the news over the past couple of months – they are significant, but are a different part of this story.

Interim government supporters are seen during a rally in Tunis, Tunisia, on March 5, 2011. Photo by Hassene Dridi, The Associated Press.

What the Wahids of Tunisia are talking about was the low level, day-to-day indignity of just trying to get by in a country run by an autocrat and his cronies.

From Wahid’s description, it amounted to an informal caste system with the “connected” at the top, and everyone else having to pay bribes and tribute to the regime for the basic services we take for granted.

“You couldn’t even buy a car here sometimes,” he says. “You would take the title to register and if the official liked it, he could just say ‘That car is mine now. How much you pay to get it back?’ If you have no connections, the police don’t help you, nothing.”

Think about that. If there is a chance that a DMV clerk could just take your car or demand a bribe, imagine what it must have been like to try to buy or register property, get a loan – or God forbid, start a business of your own?

It’s long been a cliché among Westerners that the system of “Baksheesh,” or bribes and payoffs, was just a naturally occurring fact of life in Arab culture. An established custom like shaking hands or handing out business cards that you didn’t question.

Talk to Wahid for a while and you realize that maybe we got this wrong, way wrong.

That we took this as being normal and OK only because we were mostly hearing from elites who were benefitting from this corrupt system.

Did it ever occur to us that the average person here might hate this arrangement?

It seems it finally took a young Tunisian street vendor setting himself on fire late last year to wake up the world to this fact.

“I’m happy about things,” Wahid says. “I think things will get better. More business, more investment.”

So it seems much of this revolt was a rejection of the old catchphrase, “It’s not what you know, it’swho you know.” A yearning for outcomes more based on what you know, and how hard you work, not on who your relatives are.

Paul is a Global National correspondent based in Washington, DC. He is currently covering the unfolding unrest in Tunisia, as well as Libya.

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