EDITOR’S NOTE: It’s been more than a year since the early, heady days of what some have called the “Arab Spring” protest movements led primarily by Arab young people yearning for greater personal and political freedoms. This is one of six stories in Baptist Press today exploring the lives of six men and women coping with radical change. And, for an overview story about the intervening months, see today’s Baptist Press story, “Whatever happened to the ‘Arab Spring’?”
TUNISIA (BP) — A harsh sun glares down on the dusty town square where Arab history changed one day.
It was Dec. 17, 2010, a day like any other in sleepy Sidi Bouzid, a provincial capital in southern Tunisia. But a young fruit vendor named Mohamed Bouazizi couldn’t take it anymore. Couldn’t take the frustration of paying bribes to local inspectors for the privilege of making a living. Couldn’t take the pressure of barely supporting his mother, disabled uncle and five siblings. Couldn’t take the humiliation of another day with little hope.
So on that day, he refused to pay the expected bribe.
They took his apples and pushed him to the ground. One inspector is said to have slapped him. Bouazizi demanded justice at city hall and the governor’s office. He was ignored. He went into the street with paint thinner, doused himself and set himself on fire.
He lingered in agony for days in the hospital, then died. But his rage and despair set Tunisia — and much of the Arab world — on fire. Millions of mostly young people took to the streets to cry for freedom from tyranny and corruption, freedom to pursue a better life. The “Arab Spring” was born.
On a spring day more than a year later, another young man, Shamal*, stands in the square in Sidi Bouzid. Clad in jeans, a black warm-up jacket and dark shades, he contemplates the mural of Bouazizi, now a revered martyr, that dominates the street. A memorial sculpture of Bouazizi’s fruit cart is adorned with these words in graffiti: “For those who yearn to be free.”
Shamal understands the meaning behind the words. “I didn’t know how it feels to be free, because I never experienced it,” he says thoughtfully.
That was before. He knows what freedom feels like now — the kind of freedom no government can give.
Shamal’s yearning started early. Now 27, he grew up in a small town in northern Tunisia. He dutifully went to the mosque with his Muslim family but got into trouble when he began questioning the tenets of Islam as a teen.
“I tried to find God, to look for God, but I was kicked out from the mosque two times,” he recounts. “If you are asking too many questions, it’s like lack of faith.”
He grew curious about Christianity and bought an Arabic-language Bible during a visit to Italy. But he couldn’t understand it and gave up in frustration. One day, a stranger showed up at the family home asking to rent their other house during vacation time. “I saw him reading the Bible and I told him, ‘Yeah, I have one like that. Could you explain it to me?’ He said, ‘Sure. Grab a chair.’ So he spent his vacation talking to me.”
Later, Shamal met other believers and visited churches in Tunis, the nation’s capital. He liked what he heard, but it wasn’t enough to make a life-changing decision. He prayed to hear the truth from the source: the Lord Himself.
“God answered me with a vision,” he recounts. “I saw someone wearing all white. It was so bright. He was stepping forward and I was stepping backward. The first word He said was, ‘Do not fear.’ I felt someone touch me on my shoulder, and I was alone in the house at that time. It was real. From that day on, I am following Jesus.”
In those early days of faith, Shamal was so excited about Jesus that he couldn’t stay silent — regardless of the situation. Once again, his readiness to talk about truth got him into trouble.
“I was disturbed by the police many times,” he says. “The hardest time maybe was the first time I got arrested. I never got arrested before, so I felt really bad that time behind bars. I said, ‘God, that’s not your plan for me for sure. You don’t want me to be here.’ I really felt frustrated. I didn’t have any courage. I was blaming God: ‘Why are You doing this? I’m doing good things. Why am I here?’
“But the good thing is I got to share with the police guard in that jail. He said, ‘Why are you putting yourself in this position?’ So I shared with him my testimony. After a while he became a believer, and all his family. That’s when I figured out the plan of God: I was in the jail because of that person. No matter what’s happening, I know God is in control.”
Five years later, Shamal is just as excited as ever about telling people about Jesus. But he’s wiser about when to speak up and when to wait. Still, he’s ready whenever God moves. Like the time a man on the tram was trying to read a book and couldn’t find his glasses. He asked Shamal to read to him. The book turned out to be a Bible given to the man by a taxi driver. Shamal read it to him and later led him to faith in Christ.
Or the time Shamal and a friend took a wrong turn driving and picked up a man needing a lift to the hospital so he could donate blood for his ailing brother. He asked Shamal and his friend to pray for his brother. Shamal happily obliged -– and mentioned Jesus in his prayer.
“I’ve been wanting someone to tell me who Jesus is,” the man said after Shamal’s prayer. “I don’t have any idea why I want to know. I just want to know.”
They explained the Gospel and led the man to Christ on the spot. “He was crying with tears. I got overwhelmed myself at that point,” Shamal says, smiling at the memory. “I like to serve God. It’s not an easy journey, but I have a lot of happiness in following Jesus.”
He’s also experiencing a lot more freedom of expression and movement since 2011’s “Jasmine Revolution” toppled the Ben Ali dictatorship and its stifling control of daily life in Tunisia. The new freedoms could disappear as various political and religious factions jockey for power, but Shamal is taking full advantage of them while they’re available.
“Before, I was controlled by the government,” he explains. “I had to go and sign in every three months and tell them everything — what I did, where I moved. If I was having any guest in my home, I had to go and ask permission. I really hated that. I feel more free now in doing God’s work. He has a plan for Tunisia. But nothing happens without prayer. We need to pray. There’s been a lot of change, a lot of new circumstances. I’m sure God will use it to build His Kingdom here in Tunisia.”
Whatever happens, Shamal has a personal goal he believes is God-given: to disciple and train 100 leaders who will in turn train others to make disciples.
“That’s my main vision,” he states, quietly but firmly. “And I’m not going to give up on it.”
*Name changed. Erich Bridges is the International Mission Board’s global correspondent.