April 19, 2012

The Avenue Reads


The Avenue Reads (photo by Riahi Fatma)

Thousands of Tunisians crowded the heart of the capital yesterday, occupying Habib Bourguiba Avenue in a silent demonstration dubbed “The Avenue Reads.”

A Facebook page created for the event explains:

And what if we took over the avenue? Not with our chanting and demonstrations, but with our books. As usual, the idea is simple: on Wednesday April 18 from 5pm, we’ll head to the avenue, and for an hour sit in cafés, on benches, on steps, a book in hand. It’s not necessary to get to know each other, talk to each other…We’ll recognise each other just by holding a book. It will be the first silent demonstration on the avenue, with no political demand; we want to prove and show that Tunisians read, that those who will change the world are those that read. It is time to remember that our people are engaged, educated and literate. Invite your friends, come in great numbers, let’s create the event. To your books!!!

[According to the Arab Literature (In English) website, this last sentence can be more provocatively translated from the Arabic as: For he who does not read does not change history.]

Last week, Tunisia’s coalition government rescinded a ban on demonstrations on Habib Bourguiba Avenue, the site of frequent violent clashes between police and protestors since the ousting of President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali last year—the first salvo of the Arab Spring.

According to Al Arabiya News, approximately 74 percent of the Tunisian population of 10,732,900 is literate. “The literacy rate greatly increased after its independence from France. According to the 1996 census data, the literacy rate of the last generation of Tunisian men educated under the French rule (those born 1945-49) was less than 65 percent.”

Photos from the demonstration (scroll down the linked page to see the slide show by Ahmed Medien) show people of all ages and classes, many of them sitting on and along the avenue—a posture that is not permitted here in New York City’s Zuccotti Park, where Occupy Wall Street demonstrators have been required to stand, or face arrest. The NYPD, whose confiscation and destruction of the Occupy Wall Street library (reported here and here)—condemned by the American Library Association, the National Lawyers Guild, and the New York Civil Liberties Union, among others—should take note.

At tunisia-live.net Taha Mohamed, a Tunisian accountant and poet, described the scene as “post-revolutionary beauty … This is culture without boundaries. This is the project of the modern society. This image has been missing in Tunisia for 50 years.”

It’s missing here, too.


Dan O'Connor is the Managing Editor of Melville House.