Feeding hopelessness: Mouna Guebla’s attack in Tunis

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Mosaic-tiled funerary slabs rest against the wall which the ancient Carthagenian site of Puput shares with an Aquapark, amid overgrown grass and hordes of mosquitos. 

At around 2pm on 29 October, Mouna Guebla was walking down busy Habib Bourguiba Avenue in Tunis, her heart heavy, her mind buzzing, and her bag loaded with a coarse home-made grenade.

She was the only one to die when it blew up in front of a police checkpoint near the Ministry of Interior and the French embassy, leaving eight policemen and one civilian injured.

Mouna was due to turn thirty in just two days’ time. In 2014 she had graduated from her MA in Business English, but had been unable to find a job to put her efforts to fruition, and spent most of her days tending her family’s herd of goats in Zorda, a village south of Mahdia. Interviews with her parents show them in a spartan dwelling, sitting on thin mattresses on the floor.

They are not always teenagers who enroll on a whim. They are strong women who make a choice

The local radio station Radio Mosaique FM published a disturbing photo of Mouna as she lay lifeless on the scene of the attack, her face blackened, sunglasses pushed over her forehead revealing her eyes still open, her hand resting on her chest, wearing a brown veil, a simple pink cotton top, and a black jacket.

At around 3pm on 29 October, I was in an airport waiting at the gate for my plane to Tunis when I learnt of the attack in the centre of Tunis. I still boarded the plane, having previously regretted cancelling a trip following the Manchester attack last year.

Tunisia has been under a state of emergency since the attacks in 2015 targeting foreign tourists first at a holiday resort in Sousse, then at the National Bardo Museum in Tunis, containing some of the world’s most precious mosaics. The attacks severely damaged Tunisia’s tourism industry, my taxi driver explained as he took me to the medina from the airport. There is much less work for taxi drivers, he told me, and I soon learned that he was trying to excuse the unfair price he exacted for the ride.

But this was a rare occurrence, as most hosts and merchants in Tunisia are eager to make a good impression, earn their wages fairly, and encourage tourists to return to their soukhs and hotels. One evening in Tunis, an elderly man clad in an orange tunic escorted us through the dark and empty alleys of the medina’s soukhs with his candle-lit lantern to find our restaurant, not asking for a tip but clearly deserving one. Our hostess in Tunis (who cooked the most lovely breakfasts for us), relieved that we were not cancelling our stay, told us that many others had, and that she felt it was a shame to allow the attackers to achieve their goal of disrupting the peace.

The young couple staying at the hotel with us, who had been among the crowd running from the explosion, begged to differ, and were busy looking for options to leave the country.

While the modus operandi suggests extremist connections, it is unclear whether Mouna’s actions are connected to the Daesh attacks of three years ago, and other ‘occasional’ ones which have occurred particularly on the borders with Algeria. It appears her cousin was involved in the attack on the Bardo, and local news sources suggest Mouna may have been radicalized over the internet. Reactions in the Tunisian press have been varied, mostly condemning the event described as an isolated terrorist attack. Majdouline Cherni, the Minister for Youth and Sport, cautioned against using poverty to justify terrorism, while on Saturday the national state of alert resulted in a twenty-eight-year-old woman being arrested for applauding the attack on Facebook.

While Cherni pointed to new ‘citizenship academies’ which would aim to sensitize youth to the struggle against terrorism, her comments referring to attempts at justifying Mouna’s attack reveal perhaps a general unease in the Tunisian administration as it continues its efforts to turn around Tunisia’s fate at home and its image abroad.

The same narrative offered by my taxi driver in Tunis was mentioned by a guide I met at the archaeological site of Puput, on the outskirts of Hammamet. The state of abandon of the swamp-like site (where the mosquitos inherited the fighting spirit of their Visigothic ancestors), sharing a wall with a deserted aquapark whose slides provide an unsettling backdrop to the funerary mosaiced slabs, prompted me to ask the man sitting at the entrance what had happened to the extraordinary remains.

‘There is no money, this is the problem’, he replied. An archaeologist trained in Tunis and Rome, he told me of various plans to build a museum to house the wealth of funerary finds which now lie in storage, plans that were never realized and seem far from actualization. There is no lack of skill-force to carefully preserve the mosaic floors of baths and mansions to rival those of Piazza Armerina in Sicily, but there is neither the funding nor apparently much interest from the government to back such projects.

Neither, for that matter, is there much being done to clean the streets and beaches, and prioritize recycling and provisions against littering. The entire panorama reminded me vividly of the situation which has brought Italy to its hands and knees in the last decades.

Financial instability plagues employment rates (with unemployment at 15.5% in 2017), tourism, the preservation of the national heritage, and the health of Tunisia’s environment. An appearance of indifference and lack of progress from the government’s part may very well be driving the country’s youth to seek recognition, fulfillment, purpose in the teachings of Daesh.

Their marketing efforts directed specifically at marginalized women offer an alternative to those who see no end to their sacrifice and social exclusion, Nikita Malik explains in her article in Forbes last September.

In an interview in Saturday’s La Presse de Tunisie, Sociologist and Feminist Nabila Hamza warned readers against sanitizing the event as the actions of a powerless victim manipulated by the men of Daesh. ‘To think that they are all manipulated, defenseless women under male domination, and inevitably hostile to violence is to deprive them of the responsibility of their actions, which incidentally many of them wish to claim. These are women with experience, at times in their thirties or forties, they have a story, a past, they have depth. They are not always teenagers who enroll on a whim. They are strong women who make a choice’. Mouna can not and should not be exonerated of her agency in the explosion of 29 October. On the contrary, Hamza suggests, authorities should place more importance and more attention on young women in similar situations to better understand their motives and methods, and thus be better prepared to prevent any future occurrences.

As a thirty year-old woman familiar with the frustration of job searching in an economically-unstable country, I can certainly empathize with Mouna’s story, if not with her final fatal choice. Hamza recommends deradicalization and reintegration centres to fight Daesh’s recruitment efforts. A more longterm solution might also involve a greater focus on the cultural and environmental sector in Tunisia, to ensure that its heritage and natural treasures are properly preserved and can serve their functions of fostering unity, knowledge, and a culture of peace. The link between culture and development is well documented, and one of the main raisons d’être of bodies like UNESCO, which has recognized a number of sites in Tunisia as world heritage.

The frightened couple sharing breakfast with us in Tunis decided to stay and continue to enjoy their holiday. Appreciative, our hostess then shared a story with us. She is a dancer and cinema enthusiast, and was busy preparing for the opening gala of the Carthage Film Festival. When the attacks at the Bardo museum happened in 2015, she was at the cinema. Squares of light began to flicker on illuminating the dark stalls as news of the attack made its way across social media and relatives and friends enquired about their loved ones’ safety. A few people left the hall, but the majority stood up holding hands for a minute or so, forming a human chain of hope and resistance. To her, inspired as she is by art and beauty, flight is futile, the show must go on and we must be stronger.

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Traditional architecture in Tunis.