Tunisia under President Ben Ali was a police state, where freedom of speech existed as long as you weren't criticizing the government, and direct opposition was punished. I had been in Tunis less than a day, and the security apparatus already had me looking over my shoulder. When I returned to my hotel to file photographs from the pro-government rally and eat dinner, I noticed two men sit, one casually reading a newspaper, at the table next to mine. I thought it was odd that they would pick that table in the gigantic and nearly empty dining room and it seemed a tad late in the day to be reading the paper. (10 p.m.?) The man reading tried to strike up a conversation, but it sounded too much like a mild interrogation--who was I, where was I from? What was my occupation, and for whom was I working? What was my opinion of Tunisia? And would I like to share a bottle of wine with them?
Uh, no. I evaded the questions, then pretended to be engrossed in my mobile phone. Maybe I am paranoid, but something was making me uneasy. When I moved to join colleagues at another table, I felt the questioner's eyes follow me. State security already knew where I was staying, and already knew who I was working for: I was required to provide that information upon my arrival at the airport. Perhaps they were just reminding me that I was being watched?
Protesters organized a general strike and demonstration for the following day, Friday, January 14. Tens of thousands of people gathered in the heart of Tunis on Bourguiba Avenue in front of the Ministry of Interior (in above picture, MOI is on the right), the focal point of so many grievances. The building was protected by perhaps 100-200 policemen, who formed a cordon around the outside.
I have learned a lot since this, the beginning of the Arab Spring. Revolutionary Lesson #1: It does not pay to be short at a ginormous protest. Even my Hail Mary was too short. (For you non-photo people, a Hail Mary is where you raise your camera above your head as high as it will go and press the shutter, praying that the photo you took blindly was magically in-focus and well-composed.) Luckily, I like to climb. First I stood in a planter (sorry, Tunisian civil servant outdoor gardener guy...), but I was STILL too short. So then I scrambled up a light post and balanced on a rounded edge while protesters braced my legs so I wouldn't fall.
I spent several hours at the demonstration. People chanted "Dégage!" which means, "Get out!" in French. (Because of Tunisia's decades as a French protectorate and the two countries' continuing close relationship, nearly everyone in Tunis seemed to speak French, in addition to Arabic of course.)
An attorney wore his courtroom attire to the protest.
Not much had changed at the protest after a few hours, so I decided to file some photos to the Times. (Non-journalist folk: to file=to send pictures, notes, reporting to the publication via the Internet. In this day of the 24-hour news cycle, journalists typically file several times a day on a big story.) It was mid-afternoon and David was filing notes at a nearby hotel. I just had to pick up my laptop from our hired driver, a guy we'll call Hamid. (Hamid was the same guy the day before who refused to drive into Hammamet to pick us up.) When I left the protest, the police appeared to be firmly in control and weren't allowing the protesters to get too close to the MOI.
Hamid and I had set up a meeting point several blocks away from the demonstration, as he had refused to get any closer. I picked up everything I had left in his car, which consisted of a huge backpack full of my laptop, a lens I wasn't using, battery chargers and all sorts of other things I didn't need while I was shooting. It was pretty heavy, but I could manage it until I got to the hotel, which was on the same street as the demonstration.
Revolutionary Lesson #2: Revolutions are unpredictable. No matter how normal things seem, the situation can change in a heartbeat.
As I walked back up to the protest, I saw immediately that things had changed. People were climbing the outside walls of the Ministry of the Interior. The air was tense--it felt like something dramatic was about to happen.
I knew that I had to keep shooting. No time to file now.
I fought my way through the thick crowd to the front of the building and climbed a small guardhouse next to the front door. I have never seen so many people in the same place before. To this day I marvel that I was there. I saw this with my own eyes. Tens of thousands of people raising their voices for change.
Wow. Unbelievable! My respect to the Tunisian people for their incredible courage.
Protesters began climbing onto the guardhouse. One tried to climb to the roof of the ministry building by using my huge backpack as a stepping stone, nearly sending me off the edge. The crowd was pushing toward the building more and more, until...
...there was a loud BOOM.
Several more booms followed and the air filled with smoke. I never discovered the precise reason the police began firing tear gas at the crowd, but I guess the shit, as they say, was finally hitting the fan in Tunis.
People in the crowd waved their arms, pleading for calm.
A couple of demonstrators helped me and the ginormous backpack down from the guardhouse and I ran toward the smoke. After all, if the photos aren't good enough, I'm not close enough, right? (I think it was famous war photographer Robert Capa who said that.)
Which leads me to Revolutionary Lesson #3: Always carry lemons, onions or vinegar to a protest to counteract the effects of tear gas. Or better still, a gas mask!
This was my first experience with tear gas: I was woefully unprepared. No lemons, no nothing. I made just a few frames in the melee before a tear gas canister--I believe it is the plume of smoke seen in the upper left of this photograph--landed right next to me. I inhaled. (It was an accident!) I was completely overcome, choking, crying. I couldn't breathe. I couldn't move.
Two young Tunisian men noticed my distress and came to my aid. "Hey are you okay?" Nope, not okay. They lifted my backpack and cameras onto their shoulders and took me by the elbows, dragging me away from the gas. They stayed with me until I was breathing again and could talk. The staff of a nearby hotel, I would later learn it was Hotel Africa located fifty meters from the Ministry of the Interior, had erected a barrier in front of the hotel's glass exterior doors. My good samaritans deposited me on the other side of the barrier and, noticing the approach of the riot police, ran down the street. I yelled after them to come inside, but they said no, only foreigners were allowed. And then they were gone.
I took a minute to catch my breath. Dozens of people had taken refuge inside the hotel's lobby. I stayed between the barrier and the glass doors. Suddenly a tear gas canister rolled beneath the barrier, filling the small space and the lobby with gas. Everyone ran through the lobby's back door to the maintenance area of the hotel, where fresh air wafted in through the loading dock. The staff handed everyone a lemon and passed out cokes as we all recovered from the effects of the tear gas.
After a few minutes' rest, I decided to step outside. I was alone, and what I saw made me afraid. I decided to stay within ten meters of the hotel's entrance so that I could duck back inside, and, more importantly, so that others hiding behind the barrier could see if the police came for me.
Across the street, protesters who had taken refuge in the small side streets were forced onto the wide avenue, screaming and running with their arms raised as the police chased and hit them with their truncheons.
And I was alone on the street. Journalists who were guests in the hotel were filming from their rooms on floors above me.
Then I noticed that police were forcefully clearing the protesters from my side of the street. Demonstrators were terrified.
The police noticed me, but allowed me to continue shooting. A plain clothes policeman yelled, "Sahafa!"--"press" in Arabic--and the police stopped hitting the demonstrators with their truncheons.
A couple of cameramen joined me on the street, having been prohibited from filming from their hotel rooms. The guy chasing this protester was the one who yelled to the other police that members of the press were nearby.
I hope that our presence spared at least a few people from being beaten by the police. However, after just a few minutes of shooting, I was forced back inside the hotel by a more senior-looking plainclothes policeman.
So I decided it was finally time to file some pictures. It was a lucky accident that I had everything I needed to file with me. (A primary rule of a photographer friend, Chris Hondros, comes to mind: "Always bring everything with you!")
Another lucky accident, I ran into David Kirkpatrick, whom I had been unable to reach by telephone, in the hotel lobby. We sat together while we each filed our work to New York. While we were sitting there, the news reached us that President Ben Ali had resigned.
It is difficult to describe that moment. I can only tell you that I knew the world had changed. An Arab people had overthrown one of their own dictators for the first time ever. The power of that moment still gives me goosebumps when I think about it.
After filing our work, David and I stepped back outside. By then it was late in the afternoon, perhaps 4 p.m. We saw a man on the ground surrounded by police in the distance and tried to approach, but the police became very aggressive toward us.
I worry about what happened to that man.
A couple of other journalists came to us and recommended that we get off the street immediately, that things were getting really dangerous, that absolutely anything was possible at that moment. "They could murder a couple of foreign journalists without thinking twice." The army had stepped in and was enforcing an early curfew, and we needed to get back to our hotel, which was too far to walk to, as soon as possible.
David and I walked to the appointed meeting place and called our driver Hamid. No answer. We called him again. He didn't pick up his phone. He never picked up, and he never came to get us.
Outside the heart of downtown Tunis, not a soul darkened the street on this revolutionary evening.
Please read David Kirkpatrick's account of Jan. 14, 2011, in Tunis here.