"Do you know his name?" asked Professor Manatschal
Updated: Sep 26, 2022
Sep. 25, 2022, by Amal Mekki
Tuesday, September 20th . Faculty of Arts and Humanities, University of Neuchâtel. It's the beginning of a new academic year. I have not lived this experience since 2013, when I decided, while still living in Tunisia, not to finish my master's studies (General Linguistics) and to devote myself entirely to journalism.
After 9 years, I found myself again in university classrooms, this time in Switzerland, just starting a Master of Arts in Social Sciences, specializing in Migration and Citizenship. After equipping the screen display machine and making sure that the picture and sound worked well, Professor Anita Manatschal announced the beginning of her presentation session on "Asylum Policy".
Professor Manatschal greeted us and began to introduce herself. She didn't know that, with my curious press sense, I had already googled her the night before and read all of her biography. I knew therefore that, in 2008, she had an internship at the Swiss Embassy in Tunisia. I was a bit pleased.
The fact that my teacher for the coming classes has one day passed through the country I left, made me think that maybe she still carries some of its smell!
The professor smiled when I introduced myself later and mentioned my Tunisian origin. She told us about her experience in Tunisia, and I told her in return, about my happiness with that.
Then the lecture began. It did not occur to me that Tunisia would once again occupy the subject of the lesson. The professor chose to introducte her lectures on "Asylum Policy" in the context of the Arab Spring events.
My first reaction was pride. I was pleased that my country’s name was mentioned again, and in the context of recalling that it was the first stop for the events and revolutions that have rocked North Africa and The Middle East since 2011, and their repercussions today still affect several regions of the world, including Europe.
But soon tears came to my eyes, as the professor pointed to Sidi Bouzid on the map of Tunisia on the screen. There, on December 17, 2010, a young Tunisian man decided to set himself on fire in protest against the repressive security treatment and his forced unemployment. What is the name of that city? The professor asked me. “Sidi Bouzid,” I answered, choking back tears. "And what was this young man's name? Do you know his name?" She asked again.
I felt the earth tremble beneath my feet, while the walls of the classroom narrowed around me. Swift images crossed my mind so fast: my dorm room in Beijing in December 2010, sitting alone in the dark, devouring the swarming social media accounts of videos of popular protests in Tunisia and police repression, then the image of my two Tunisian friends almost breaking the door of my room shouting, repeating the famous cry "Ben Ali fled, Ben Ali fled"... My picture while I was at Tunis-Carthage airport a few weeks later, my feet barely touching the ground, with joy, and my pictures while I was in the momentum of the sit-in in Kasbah 1 and Kasbah 2, pictures of a few months of pride and ecstasy... Then pictures of years of disappointment.
I was overcome by tears. It really got me choked up that I could not reply to the professor. The name "Bouazizi" did not leave my lips.
"Can one really forget all that preceded Switzerland? Suddenly lose memory? Or sentence it to death?"
Perhaps if I had not felt that the ceiling above me was about to hit the ground, I would have said to the professor, "He is the man who never dreamed of making a revolution. So he died happier than all of us before he saw it turn into a disappointment." Or I would say, "He is the man whose name became on every Arab and non-Arab tongue for several years before it turned into a curse on the lips of the disaffected, resentful of the Tunisian revolution and other revolutions."
But my tongue clenched while my tearful eyes hinted at the helplessness of the professor's features waiting for a response that will not come.
Two days later, we had an appointment with an introductory lecture on “Migration and Citizenship Studies” with Professor Gianni D'Amato and with the participation of Professor Manatschal herself. Professor D'Amato showed us a series of videos from the Swiss National Center of Competence in Research (NCCR- on the move) on a number of the Swiss's misconceptions about migration and migrants.
One of the videos, entitled “Migrants only care about their countries, not about Switzerland”, presents data that refute this and prove that although migrants maintain links with their countries of origin, they participate in Swiss public life and build their lives here.
This video in particular caught my attention. It seemed to me that it is illogical, and rather unfair, to expect a complete rupture between the immigrant and his country so that he proves his worth to be a resident or a citizen in another country!
Can one really forget all that preceded Switzerland? Suddenly lose memory? Or sentence it to death?
Could the crystal river Aare or the turquoise Lake of Neuchâtel erase the beaches of Bizerte from my memory? Can the captivating Alps make me completely forget the mountains of Ain Draham? Does obtaining a residence permit in Bern or Fribourg mean that I cross out my birth certificate in Beja?
Can't my memory expand for another city to be added to the list of cities in which I took my first steps and where I knew love, disappointment, joy and sorrow, and where I succeeded, stumbled, and then rose again?
Or else can't my heart expand, at this age, to another homeland? to another love?
Homeland, that dreamy image, is "two lands". One whose passport I still hold without living in it. And another where I live in but still don't have its passport. A homeland that resembles me in its estrangement, and a land to which I resemble to in my estrangement.
"Do you know his name?" asked Professor Manatschal. "Yes, he is called homeland."