Something really wonderful happened outside the Tunisian Embassy in London the other day as a crowd of us gathered to continue the demand for justice in the people’s revolution.
I was standing next to a woman, and, with tears in her eyes she revealed she had been inside the embassy that morning to get passports for herself and her family. Her face looked vaguely familiar but I could not remember where we had met previously.Just a few weeks ago she would not have been allowed to put one foot over the threshold but this time she was welcomed like a long lost daughter and given the red carpet treatment by the embassy staff – one even asked if she wanted to meet the Ambassador.
The more she talked the more I knew that we had met previously, but where?
Then we began speculating about the deposed dictator Zine el Abidine Ben Ali and his truly awful wife Leila who, we now know thanks to Wikileaks, fancied her chances of becoming the next leader of Tunisia when her ageing husband either stood down or expired.We both laughed at the irony of the location of their current bolt-hole … Saudi Arabia, The Land of the Two Holy Mosques and wondered how Ben Ali and Leila Trabelsi were coping with hearing the athan, or call to prayer, five times a day.
They had banned the athan from being played on state television, shunned fasting during Ramadahn and dismissed the hijab as being a foreign import and not part of the Tunisian culture.
Let’s just say they made it up as they went along and if they wanted fatwas they would wheel out their tame and obliging $cholars for Dollars.
Ben Ali, a brute of a man who made words and phrases like torture, detention without trial, political and religious persecution commonplace in Tunisia, is also credited with ripping off the hijabs from the heads of Muslim women. He banned them from wearing their scarves in schools, hospitals and universities and other public places. He saw that the Holy Quran was banned and desecrated in the cages and dungeons where prisoners of conscience are beaten if they dared to pray outside of allotted times. His brutal regime brought in happy clappy clerics whose narcotic-style preachings in praise of Ben Ali and his corrupt government certainly had the desired effect … it drove God-fearing worshippers out of the mosques.
No wonder the Muslim youth no longer clamoured to get into masjids on Fridays to listen to these khateebs who spent half the khutbah praising the President and his followers.
To our Christian friends, put it this way – can you imagine sitting in a church pew listening to some vicar or priest urging you to thank God for Tony Blair, George W Bush or Donald Rumsfeld and Dick Cheyney? Exactly!
My sister and I both wondered how Leila would view having to wear a black abaya, all enveloping cloak and veil, every time she steps outside her new home in Jeddah. I’m sure the Saudi religious police will be on hand to give the former hairdresser some encouragement. Of all the places in the world those two had probably expected to end up I think it’s a fair bet Saudi was no where near the top of their list as they boarded the flight from Tunisia. In fact what wouldn’t I have given to see the expressions on their faces as the pilot delivered the bad news. Sorry, we can’t get clearance for London, Paris, New York, Monaco or Geneva but how does Jeddah sound? It was Ben Ali’s barbaric actions and abuse of the most basic human rights which prompted me to first go and stand outside the Tunisian Embassy in London way back in November 2006 and protest in defence of our Tunisian sisters … and their right to practice Islam.
This man and his godless wife despised the religion of their birth so much and everything it represented that they did their best to turn the country in to a secular state. Did they do it to please themselves or the western powers which courted them and pretended to be their best ever friends? I remember in February 2009 driving through Tunisia with the Viva Palestina convoy encountering literally hundreds of Ben Ali’s henchmen who did everything in their power to stop us from praying and attending Friday prayers.
The horrified expressions on their faces when we stopped our vehicles in the middle of the road and prayed in the street is something I will remember for ever.
I recounted the tale to the sister outside the embassy and again we both laughed at the ultimate irony Ben Ali and the light-fingered Leila (she is reported to have looted 1.5 tons of gold as she fled) were now languishing in Saudi.
How poignant, having been shunned by their fickle friends in the West, it was Muslims who came to their rescue. Forgiveness is a major element in Islam and while it is far too early for Tunisians to even begin to think about that F-word, the ex-president and his wife should be grateful that some Muslims are prepared to show them the sort of mercy Ben Ali and Leila could never show their own people.
Now that he, in particular, has time to reflect on the brutalisation of hijab-wearing sisters, practising brothers and human rights campaigners, I wonder if he will discover the beauty of real Islam and not the distorted, diluted version he tried to force on his people?
I turned to the woman outside the embassy and wondered out loud if Leila will ever discover the beauty of the hijab. The words were barely out of my mouth when I suddenly recognized this woman.
We had first met in 2006, outside the Tunisian Embassy in London, at a protest. She had told me at the time in graphic detail of her own detention, abuse and torture at the hands of Ben Ali’s thugs.
I will never forget her dramatic words back then as she said in a shakey voice: “I came to London with my hijab still in my pocket.” I remember being moved to tears by her story.
And now she is planning to return but with her head held high and wearing her hijab with pride.
* British journalist Yvonne Ridley is the European President of the International Muslim Women’s Union