This article discusses gun violence, explosions, Islamophobia, and terrorism.
After the 2013 assassinations of leftist politicians Chokri Belaid and Mohamed Brahmi in Tunisia, my friends and I often wondered how the murder weapons had been brought into the country.
It had been a dim two years since the 2011 Revolution. Many suspected that the Islamist political party, Ennahdha, had been responsible for Belaid and Brahmi’s assassinations. Mbarka Brahmi, Brahmi’s widow as well as an outspoken critic of religious fundamentalism, told her children that Ennahdha had killed their father as the assassin walked away. Rachid Ammar, the general who refused the dictator Ben Ali’s orders to shoot protestors, had resigned, partially because of his failure to root out al-Qaeda linked militant groups. The country was still under a state of emergency. Ennahdha had won the most votes in the post-Revolution election.
Off at our first years of college, my friends and I had all watched social media videos of our school, the American Cooperative School of Tunis, being looted and burned down by Salafist protesters. Angered by the Islamophobic film, Innocence of Muslims, they had initially launched an attack on the American embassy. After two of the protesters were shot and killed, the Salafists had moved on to the less heavily guarded school. Our school’s administration responded to the attack by changing our mascot from a falcon to a phoenix, a perpetual reminder that our dear alma mater had not only burned down, but might one day burn again.
We, by and large the children of African diplomats working for the African Development Bank (AfDB), came home to Tunis that summer of 2013. We’d all been to school at American and Canadian colleges and universities. Some of us spoke or understood French, but none of us spoke Arabic. This secluded us from much of Tunisian culture. For example, at the time there was a popular song by Tunisian Rapper, El Générale, called Mr. President, Your People Are Dying. Days before Ben Ali was ousted, El Générale was arrested because of this song. Though the song went viral on Tunisian YouTube and Facebook, my friends and I only discovered it years later.
Most of our time that summer was spent on my parents’ rooftop verandah, listening to music through a guitar amplifier and smoking hash mixed with tobacco. According to the budding musician in my friend group, who had ultimate control of the music, we were (quoting Frank Ocean’s song of the same name) “super rich kids with nothing but loose ends.”
Though the political climate left the country in a state of fear, to us it was a numbing and familiar feeling. Our various home countries were unstable—often either in the middle of a civil war, recovering from one, or ruled by a dictator. I myself was from The Gambia. My friends were from Ethiopia, Nigeria, Kenya, and Egypt. Many of us had lived in the tumultuous Ivory Coast, where the AfDB had been located prior to moving to Tunisia, because Tunisia was considered more stable.
Our class privilege meant Tunisia’s troubles had been more irksome to us than anything else. One major problem: the state of emergency interfered with our hash habit. It made our dealers jittery. One would only deal at a busy highway and insisted on carrying his product in paper croissant bags. Another asked us to break up our fifty dinar bills (the highest price for one stick of hash) into tens as he was worried that the police would arrest him merely for carrying 50s. The owner of the corner store that carried rolling papers repeatedly told us to be careful. Since smoking loose-leaf tobacco was uncommon in Tunis, it was obvious to him we were using them to roll spliffs.
After spending a long day procuring the hash, we loved spending the cool Tunisian nights high and tipsy at cafes. As Ramadan was during that summer, most cafes and eateries were open late into the night to service those who had prayed iftar after breaking their fasts. If our dealers’ fluctuating prices hadn’t emptied most of our pocket money that night, we would smoke on the way to the nicer of two nearby cafes. We ate crêpes and passed mint or apple shishas around, generally ignorant of the larger protests going on as a result of the assassinations.
As much as we enjoyed going to the cafes high, we were forced to stop after an unnerving encounter with the security forces. One night, more wasted than usual, we had just discarded a spliff and were about to enter a cafe. In our dazed state, a tank had somehow managed to sneak up on us. We watched it roll down the street and immediately returned to my parents’ house. Beyond the shock of seeing a tank in any setting, never mind high, I was saddened because I thought I recognized that specific tank from my walks around the neighborhood back in 2011, when Tunisian citizens had placed bouquets on them to thank their soldiers for not shooting at them, though Ben Ali had commanded them to do so.
As we walked away, we joked about the probability of seeing a tank while high. Underneath our laughter, we were scared, but it wasn’t the country’s amped-up security that made us feel this way. Our fear, the visceral kind that consumes and controls the body, became hyper focussed on what we came to think of as the Tunisian Gun. Out of our minds on Moroccan hash, we convinced ourselves that, because guns were so rare in Tunisia, both Belaid and Brahmi must have been slain by the same gun.
The same gun that would surely strike again. The same gun that could be mistaken for fireworks at a summer wedding. The gun that our parents’ diplomatic status, which had proved so useful in times past, couldn’t protect us from.
The Tunisia that I grew up in, from 2005 to 2011, was almost completely gunless. Hunters were each only allowed one firearm. They were to use nothing but shotguns to hunt. Their licenses lasted only seven days, for wild boar, and three, for thrush.
No unintentional gun deaths are on record. In 2013, only four men were murdered with guns. Two of those were Chokri Belaid and Mohamed Brahmi; that small number was still big enough for the assassinations to be described as a “wave” by Noureddine Baltayeb writing on the assassinations for Al Akhbar.
The Revolution itself was carried out without the use of civilian guns. The 2014 constitution—generated as a result of the Revolution, Ennahdha’s eventual relinquishment of power, and the efforts of the Tunisian National Dialogue Quartet—does not confer the right of civilian gun ownership.
The only guns I ever saw in the country belonged to the guards at my school and at the American embassy, which was within walking distance. My school held events and swimming classes at the embassy. The guns the guards wielded were almost all AK-47s, I think. But I can’t be sure since it’s one of the few guns that is name-dropped in media, it’s the only one I’ve heard of.
Those guns were a terrifying aberration to me. One could not help but stare at them, hanging off the guards’ shoulders even as they smiled at you. I could never understand the purpose they served. Though the security—guarded gates, frequent safety drills, and metal detectors at every main entrance—looked serious, in reality it was a rather lax affair. You could just walk around the metal detectors if you were in a hurry. The administration hired an al-Qaeda affiliate who, fortunately, turned out to be as bad at covering his tracks as the school was at vetting their employees.
Baffling too was the relationship my more conservative teachers had to guns. Once an American science teacher, originally from Venezuela and also a Republican, tried to connect with my class by telling us about the gun collection her late father had handed down to her. She described her father’s guns the way you might describe the family jewelry. Teary-eyed and grasping at the air as if the guns were there before her, she described them as “beautiful.” The entire class, except for the few Americans amongst us, were shocked. I remember interjecting, “Beautiful? How can a gun be beautiful?” My pubescent voice screeched. “They are literally made to kill people. What is wrong with you?”
I know now that her love of guns is a particularly American affection. One that results in my niece’s kindergarten having a sign barring guns from being brought into the classroom.
My school was where I also learned to love American rap music. In the 5th grade, an older boy called me “nigga.” The term offended me then, because I had only heard it used once before, with a hard “r,” when we were living in Saudi Arabia and my parents made me watch Roots. When he asked me what I thought the word meant, I believe I responded something along the lines of “a black rogue.” After everyone on the playground laughed at me, I was introduced to the more common use of the word.
From then on, rap music became a way to bond with the other black students and rap aficionados. Regardless of our countries of origin, we were taught and viewed by our teachers through an American lens. We picked sides in the mid 2000s sales beef between 50 Cent (who was mythical and comical, as he had been shot nine times and survived) and Kanye West (who has not been shot, yet). We torrented and shared every new album, song, and music video we could get our hands on.
Still, fondness towards any aspect of guns was a foreign concept to us, even if we understood that our esteemed rappers used gunshots “to convey to listeners the visceral quality of gun-related experience.” Even those of us who had spent our first years of college in the US were still puzzled by the mythic status they held for some Americans. That said, some of my friends who went to southern schools and had fired guns with friends admitted it was kind of fun.
Then Mohamed Brahmi was assassinated during Ramadan, only a few months after Chokri Belaid. Both had been gunned down in broad daylight. Rumors spread that there was more violence to come.
A friend who had taken a gap year and stayed in Tunis told me that a Tunisian teacher had said that the day Belaid was assassinated was the day democracy had died. It felt as though democracy itself had been shot.
Coincidentally, trap music had begun to dominate the modern American rap scene. Trap’s characteristic ostentatiously bleak sound fit our mindset and environment all too well. We sought solace in hash and music, avoiding the realization that Tunisia was unstable in a new, unfamiliar way.
I don’t remember many of the songs we listened to on that rooftop verandah. I recall Saber Rebai’s version of Tunisian folklore staple “Sidi Mansour” because, anytime it came on, I would belly dance badly for my friends.
The other songs I can name, like Kendrick Lamar’s “Swimming Pools” and G.O.O.D Music’s remix of Chief Kief’s “I Don’t Like,” all feature choruses heavily reliant on the verbal mimicry of gunshots. The repeated snare drum in “Swimming Pools” is also reminiscent of pistol fire.
We would engage in a sort of ritual whenever these songs came on. Those who were rolling spliffs continued to roll, but those whose hands were free strutted around the verandah with their index fingers fingering invisible triggers. Pointing at the moon, at each other, at the distant city skyline, we would fire our imaginary guns in perfect timing to the music.
I imagine, to outside observers, we would have looked like little children, playing cops and robbers on the playground. We felt ridiculous but safe. The gunshot you expected to hear cracking through the air was now under your control; your arm aimed its path.
It never occurred to us to discuss where this love of gunshots came from, as we were too busy with our stoned pontifications about the Tunisian Gun. The song would end and a gunless song would come on. Training our ears to the night sky, anxiously puffing away at a disgusting amount of cigarettes, we waited until dawn to hear a real gun.
Even though, officially, Tunisia has roughly the same number of guns as when I lived there, unofficially it has way, way more. In 2017 Gunpolicy.org estimated the figure to be 123,300 which is about 14 times more guns than were in the country in 2007. According to their numbers, all of those new guns are illicit, as the number of registered guns—3,408—hasn’t changed.
Gunmen, some devoted to Daesh, used those illicit guns to kill 60 people in Sousse in 2015. Other militant attacks, which have hurt the country’s crucial tourism sector, have been carried out since. The Tunisian government keeps extending the state of emergency, as October parliamentary and November presidential elections grow closer. The increased power being given to security forces to oppress Tunisians invariably leads to more militant attacks. Based on their showings in municipal elections, I worry that Ennahdha, who have the most seats in parliament, will win the upcoming presidential election and lead the country away from secularity. Rebranding themselves as moderates seems to have regained them the public’s trust, though I’m not sure why. In the aforementioned article by Noureddine Baltayeb, he writes that Ennahdha leaders met with Libyan military leader Abdelhakim Belhadj and may have planned the assassinations of Chokri Belaid and Mohamed Brahmi. Belhadj had trained and provided weapons to Ansar al-Sharia, the Tunisian Salafist group responsible for the assassinations.
According to Interior Minister Lofti Ben Jeddou’s ballistic report, Belaid and Brahmi were killed with the same 9mm weapon. Tunisian security forces suspect that the man who killed both Belaid and Brahmi smuggled the murder weapon into the country from Libya.
Though the origin of that one gun is accounted for, I don’t know where all these new Tunisian guns are coming from. The Tunisian government seems unsure as well. In an attempt to show some control over terrorism, security forces have arrested Tunisians who own unlicensed hunting guns and bullets. But these are not the types of guns being used in the terrorist attacks, which tend to be AK-47s. Additionally, the perpetrators often have other equipment, such as explosive belts, and profess loyalty to radical groups such as Ansar al-Sharia.
I do suspect that Ennahdha might have some part in the increased presence of guns in Tunisia, considering it is likely that they have aided in the entry of Daesh members. Maybe, in guessing that Belaid and Brahmi had been killed with the same weapon, my friends and I weren’t as clueless about what was going on in Tunisia as we thought. Ennahdha’s actions were just so blatantly obvious that even teenagers who were not much more than guests were able to suss out the truth.
As we feared, it was the same gun.