(Subscribe to World Policy Journal here)
View PDF here
From the Winter 2014/2015 Issue "Europe Under Fire"
HAMMAM-LIF, Tunisia—At 8 a.m. the golden sun still glows dimly on the horizon, the sea and Tunis beyond. The town of Hammam-Lif is only just waking. Yet Mansour Hebchi, 32, in cargo shorts and sandals, has been up for three hours chatting with some 300 others in the slowly decomposing Dar el Bey. The massive structure was the summer palace of the old Ottoman beys—governors who ruled Tunisia until the French took control in the late 19th century. Prior to the uprising that ousted Tunisia’s former autocratic president, the palace was slated to become a museum. No longer.
Mansour and his assisstant, Sabri, saddle the horse before the start of the work day.
Heading out for a day of scrounging through garbage.
As he chats with the other squatters, Mansour fills a wide shallow bowl with feed, dropping it next to his skinny gray horse, which laps energetically at breakfast. His wife, Henda El Mansour, 21, leans against the door to the main entrance to the Dar, looking on. Mansour pulls a pack of cigarettes from his cargo pocket and hops over the low fence separating the parking lot of the Dar from the outside café next door. Seated on a plas- tic chair beneath an umbrella, sipping an espresso, he talks about his early life—growing up without a father and his young mother, who gave birth when she was 19.
He left school after third grade and worked in iron factories as a young man to make do.
In 2011, Mansour was forced from the small apartment he rented in Ham- mam-Lif by skyrocketing prices following the uprising that ousted former President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali. No longer able to afford rent, he, along with a mass of Tunisians who had been ejected by police from a makeshift tent city on a mountain nearby, moved into the Dar el Bey.
Mansour waits for his worker to bring in the bottles he’s foraged.
There’s value if you know where to look.
Mansour is only one of thousands of the Tunisian underclass—the under-employed or desperately poor, some getting by informally, many politically sidelined while Tunisia’s democratic transition unfolds in the halls of Tunis. With nothing to lose and possibly much to gain, forgotten by the system that has placed him in this position, this is the potential flashpoint for further unrest should the political transition not offer opportunities for a better life for those at the bottom.
Tunisia was the place where the Arab Spring first began with the revolution that unseated a longtime autocrat in early 2011. But for many like Mansour it has yet to live up to the promise of the early days and is failing those who embraced it.
The real gold is the water bottles, discarded but found.
“The revolution was good,” Mansour concedes. “You know what’s good about it? Before we couldn’t talk about the system. Now we say what we want.” With a smile, he adds, “I got married after the revolution! The 26th of January 2011. I couldn’t have done that before because I would have needed a contact in the municipality to give me marriage papers.”
A reward at the end of a long day.
LEAD THE HORSE TO WATER
Finishing his coffee, and throwing a few coins into the palm of the waiter as he passes the table, he shuffles back over the tiny fence into the dirt parking lot. He leads the horse over to his cart, assembled from scavenged objects, and straps him in with an endless array of buckles. Then Sabri Matlouf, 13, Mansour’s helper, hops up onto the bench, and they’re off down the highways and side streets of Hammam-Lif, and the neighboring area of Zahra.
Back home, Mansour head upstairs to great his family.
Rolling through courtyards between cheaply constructed white apartment towers, Sabri jumps from the cart to snatch a plastic bag stuffed with empty water bottles that’s been hung from the side of a dumpster. “Hizz l khobz ma3ek zeda,” (“Bring the bread with you too”), Mansour shouts to Sabri, and he grabs a neatly-tied bag of dry bread scraps also hung from the edge of the dumpster before running back to his perch on the screeching cart. With the money earned from his meager catch fishing bottles from the streets, and scraps of bread like these, Mansour tries to feed Henda and his three young daughters.
“I never made it past third grade, you understand? I got sick, and without my father around to take care of me, I couldn’t finish [school],” says Mansour, his horse trotting through the narrow streets of Zahra. “I can’t read well. So I can’t go into a government office, or any office for that matter and get a job. Factories, manual labor, that I can do. That would help me.” Quiet settles on the cart. Mansour’s eyes scan the vacant streets for dumpsters. The only sound is the horse’s hooves, and Sabri clicking his tongue.
His family—the reasons Mansour continues the daily grind.
Mansour pulls the reins, and the cart slows. Sabri hops off to check a cluster of dumpsters. He only manages to dig out a fist full of plastic bottles, throwing them onto the back of the cart before climbing back up onto the bench with Mansour.
“What’s bad about the revolution?” Mansour asks aloud. “I’m trying to raise a family, and I still can’t find a stable job. Prices have gone up. I can’t afford milk or [baby] formula.”
His children are excited to greet him.
So will he be voting in the upcoming parliamentary and presidential elections set to tie up Tunisia’s transitional period that began over three years ago? “I didn’t register [to vote]. You see me. I’m working in the morning, the evening. I’m trying to take care of three kids. When I come home, I’m beat. Plus,” he adds dourly, “I don’t follow a [political] party. Everyone has a party these days. So what am I going to register for?”
He snaps the reins, and the gray horse quickens. Now he’s on the highway back to the Dar el Bey, cars shooting past the cart. A man on a motorcycle weaves between traffic ahead of us at a light. A bag of recyclables bulges on the back of his bike. “You see him?” Mansour says. “He works for the municipality. They pay him to go around [Hammam-Lif] and collect plastic. I could use a job like that,” he says wistfully. To get a job like that, he says, he’d need to know the right person, or a lot of luck.
Pulling back into the dirt parking lot of the Dar, he tugs on the reins. Easing himself off of the bench on the cart, he unstraps the horse from its yoke, leaving the burlap sacks of bottles on the back of the cart for his second round of collecting in the late afternoon. Climbing the dark stairwell of the Dar to the second floor where he lives, Mansour ambles through dimly-lit halls past the empty windowsills where glass has been broken or removed. He pauses while Henda cleans their home in preparation for his arrival, taking a seat in a low-roofed room filled with everything from pulled-apart bed frames to thoroughly scavenged rotating fans. Bits of sugar are scattered on the floor, and ants are everywhere. Mansour says the room is used as a kind of workshop, where the squatters in the Dar disassemble found objects to sell as parts.
But sadly, there’s often not enough milk to fill the bottle.
Mansour’s daughters, Eya and Ritash, stumble out of the fluorescent-lit hallway linking the workshop to their home. Hair freshly-washed and tied back, they grab Mansour’s legs as he speaks about collecting bottles, and the middleman who is his customer. From the windows in the workshop comes the sound of feet shuffling in the courtyard below as other squatters hang laundry to dry. Moving down a few steps into a dark, damp hallway, he pulls back a curtain to his home—one room with light filtering through an empty doorway. Henda, dyed-blonde hair tied in a bun, sits quietly on a couch, cheek in her palm. Eya and Ritash look up at him reverently, beaming smiles. He smiles back down at them.
Sitting on their sunken sofa with Mansour, Henda talks about getting by in her daily life in the Dar. She used to live with her family in Zahra, the next neighborhood over, and worked for three years as a cleaning woman in the high school across the street from the Dar. But with children, she couldn’t keep the job, and had to quit. As for upcoming legislative and presidential elections and the widely publicized discussions on Tunisia’s future, her expression becomes pained. Reform is far from her mind.
“I recently went down to the municipality to ask about finding work. They brought me to the police station right away, like I’d done something wrong. I don’t know why,” she says, focusing on the high-handed measures poor Tunisians often accuse police of taking against them, including arbitrary arrests and violence in detention. “The cops still stop us, hit us. They do what they want to us.”
The end of the line. At some point, Mansour and the thousands of others like him in Tunisia and across the Maghreb will reach their breaking point. And then, they will be prepared to change the world—at all costs.
On the elections, saying nothing of voting, she cuts right to the point. “I heard on Al Jazeera that after the elections we are to be evicted from the Dar el Bey. A French or German company bought it. They’re going to renovate it and turn it into a museum.” Is she afraid? “Of course I’m afraid. I can’t sleep at night because I’m afraid the police could come at any time and evict us. And if they use tear gas, my little girls won’t be able to stand it.” Her grip firms up on the shoulders of Eya and Ritash, who sit squirming on the sofa with her.
Mansour rises. He moves over to a corner where his daughter Meysa, two months old, lies sleeping in a carriage, hidden from the rays of sunlight jumping in the empty doorframe by a little curtain. Meysa’s milk bottle is empty. Mansour looks at the re- maining drops of milk, and the empty tin of powdered milk beside the carriage, and his smile drops.
“A tin of powdered milk like this costs 15 dinars,” he says anxiously. “I don’t even have a dinar.”
Nicholas Linn is a photographer currently based in Tunisia who previously covered Yemen.
Sam Kimball is a writer who’s been covering North Africa over the past year and formerly reported from Leba- non, Egypt, and Yemen, where he met Nicholas.