Last August, anthropologist and 20-year Maui resident Holly Formolo moved to Tunisia, North Africa. She went to teach English to grad students, but had no idea she’d see history unfold. As Formolo—and the world—watched, the Tunisian people drove out dictator Ben Ali with vehement, at times violent protests and the upheaval quickly spread across the region.
We sat down with Formolo, recently returned to Maui, to get her take on what she witnessed.
What were your first impressions when you arrived in Tunisia, and when did you first notice there was unrest?
The city of Tunis is about 7 kilometers from the Mediterranean, with beautiful beaches, date palm trees everywhere—so from the airplane my heart was singing. I was thinking, this is the right move, everyone thought I was crazy for leaving paradise. In my classes, I would try to inspire casual conversations in English with my students, bringing up their [political] situation. Students would look around in fear and close the window if they mentioned their own government. They’d say ‘Ben Ali’ and turn to their cell phone to make sure it was off. They really thought that just saying his name could trigger something in their cell phone and they would be able to GPS their location—and these are educated people, some with master’s degrees. There’s only one news agency in the whole country, and the censorship is just ridiculous. There were pictures of Ben Ali everywhere. His image was plastered all over the country, even on the archaeological sites.
I was in Istanbul visiting friends for Christmas and New Year’s. I was on my friend’s computer, and I saw a story about unrest that had started in this small town in the south of Tunisia called Sidi Bouzid. There was a kid who lit himself on fire in protest because the local police publicly humiliated him for not having a permit to sell the fruits and vegetables on his cart. While he was in the hospital completely wrapped like a mummy with a feeding tube, Ben Ali showed up for a photo op. He had a look on his face that was so fake. The young man died after four days in the hospital, and that was the start of it. The people had had enough. I checked with my friends back in Tunisia, and they didn’t know anything was going on. The initial uprising started December 17, and here I am on Christmas just finding out about it. I went back to Tunisia New Year’s Day, and by the time I got back, the protests were starting to escalate. Most of the people who took part in the revolution were young graduates, educated—they wanted freedom, democracy, they didn’t want the president and his family to keep prospering while the country sank deeper and deeper.
When did you realize the revolution was headed to Tunis, where you lived?
At this point I was following Facebook and Twitter regularly and all reports were saying that the protesters were going to come into Tunis to generate manpower. There would be demonstrations starting while we were still teaching, so for about two weeks it was tense. About January 10, the protesters had arrived in Tunis and that’s when things started to really get bad.
Talk about what happened.
They cancelled all classes until further notice and the entire city was under strict curfew. My friend Stephen [another American teacher] invited me to his roof to take a look at the protests. Everyone said, ‘don’t go out of your house,’ but as an anthropologist I was not going to miss this chance. We saw tear gas canisters being shot our way, and we started getting smoked out, even on the top of the fourth floor. You could see crowds on the street—there were protesters, onlookers and there were people just trying to get home. And so we decided to go to the street.
The police didn’t want the onlookers to unite with the protesters, so they would fire shots into the air at first and come on their scooters and push everyone back. We could see from 50 meters away all the onlookers running toward us, so we knew to run in that direction—and then we heard gunshots. We were getting tear gassed pretty thick at that point and Stephen was up with the protesters, so we kept in communication by cell phone.
We couldn’t get back to our apartments because the police were blocking us from both sides and they were shooting at everyone—tear gas and real bullets from rifles. The protesters were armed only with rocks. You had police gunshots coming from many directions, a lot of shots in a row, and you could see the guys turning the corner, coming back to take refuge where we were hiding. I saw Stephen, he was limping and holding his camera with blood coming down his leg. Then all the Tunisian guys with him picked him up and carried him toward us. It was this moment of realizing, holy shit, I’m being shot at.
The bullet went in and out of Stephen’s right thigh and lodged in his left thigh. Blood was just rushing down. A friend helped us get to the hospital. The only way was through the gunfire. I kept thinking, I’m gonna die.
[At the hospital] we realized Stephen wasn’t going to die; it missed his femoral artery and missed the bone, but at this point people started flooding in with way worse gunshot wounds—men were dying and women were getting out of cars with them, blood everywhere. People were reciting the Koran and women were wailing and throwing themselves on the ground.
We left the hospital through the chaos and went to stay with friends in the suburbs. The army got there overnight, and no one was sure if the army was going to follow the orders of the government and police and shoot the protesters. There was this element of, maybe they’re going to defy orders, which is what they ended up doing. They stood with the people and were the heroes of this revolution.
Now that you’re back, how do you feel? Have you had time to reflect on the experience?
My thoughts are definitely still back in Tunisia. Of course, the situation there has been followed up with the revolution in Egypt, with more countries brewing. I think Tunisia gave the whole Muslim world hope that they can get rid of these dictatorships, and I think all the dictators were watching really closely.
It’s incredible to be back on Maui. It was my job to keep it together for everyone while I was in Tunisia, and I knew that when I came back to Maui I would just lose it. Now that I’ve arrived, it’s this flood of emotions. Every time I see someone I cry—I cried when I saw you. I can finally let go and that’s something I couldn’t do for weeks. But that’s nothing compared to the people of Tunisia. I can’t imagine what it must feel like for someone who has waited all their life to be heard.