Middle East

Tunisia’s baguette-wielding activist gives bread riots modern meaning

The Tunisian demonstrator who inspired the creation of Captain Khobza. AFP - 7 -18 - 2011

TUNIS: Tunisia’s dictator fell to an uprising touched off by a tragic young fruit vendor, but post-revolution leaders are kept in check by a comics superhero armed with a French baguette.

This unlikely champion has picked up the legacy of Mohammad Bouazizi, 26, who set himself on fire in December to protest police harassment and in doing so triggered a wave of discontent still sweeping the Arab world.

Captain Khobza (bread) wears a red Superman cape, a mask and the traditional chechia hat. He has a cigarette dangling from his lips and carries a French baguette everywhere he goes.

“It’s an image of a Tunisian who is not afraid,” said one of his creators.

The clips, posted on Facebook, are produced several times a week and the page has already attracted close to 200,000 “friends.”

There was no place for satire in Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali’s Tunisia, but Captain Khobza’s sharpshooting humor takes full aim at a lingering tradition of media sycophancy.

His character was inspired by a picture shot on Jan. 18 by an AFP photographer, at the height of the protests. It showed a lone man defying anti-riot police on a Tunis street with a baguette held like a machine gun.

Captain Khobza’s appearance may be comical but, beyond the joke, his French baguette – the ubiquitous bread introduced by Tunisia’s former colonial ruler – strikes a deep chord in the country’s popular and political culture.

The picture was shot on Habib Bourguiba avenue, a central thoroughfare named after the former president whose regime was nearly felled in 1984 by so-called “bread riots” over the rising cost of basic food goods.

The subsequent repression was led by Ben Ali, and began his rise to power.

The unnamed baguette-toting protester caught on film in January embodied an uprising that many saw as finally picking up where the 1984 riots left off.

“Based on this picture, we created a fictional character on Facebook, who talks like a Tunisian and has a sharp sense of humor,” said one of Captain Khobza’s creators.

The clips have also spread fast on YouTube and Internet social networking sites but the team behind them is keen to remain anonymous.

The group of five young communications professionals, who call themselves “Baker 1, Baker 2, etc.,” put episodes together in their free time.

“We meet at around 5 p.m. after work and sometimes we stay until three in the morning,” said one.

And while the revolution may have unhinged one of the world’s most entrenched dictators, Captain Khobza finds plenty to pick on in those who took over when Ben Ali fled to Saudi Arabia.

In one of the latest deliveries, Captain Khobza is the star guest on a television show where the host and all the people interviewed on the street unanimously sing the praise of the channel’s owner.

In this episode, Hannibal TV, a channel owned by Larbi Nasra and launched when Ben Ali was still in power, is the object of the bread-wielding avenger’s scorn.

Its millionaire media boss was accused of broadcasting false information after Ben Ali’s flight in a bid to facilitate his return. The channel is now a favorite target for Tunisians’ newly liberated anger.

Can Captain Khobza’s vitriolic wit shift a media scene that has known nothing other than state-controlled journalism for half a century?

“We’re trying to get things moving a little, to be spontaneous. But for the media to really change, it’s going to take years,” Baker 1 said. “They’re not changing as fast as Tunisian society is.”

But he feels the post-December changes will not be undone. Even if the new freedom of tone unsettles some political parties, they appear to accept it as a fact of life in the new Tunisia, he argued.

“There was some criticism from supporters of the Ennahda Islamist movement (banned under Ben Ali), who took umbrage at the way we caricatured their leader Rached Ghannouchi.

“But our fans put them in their place,” he said.

The buzz created by Captain Khobza is such that plans are afoot to scale up and create a regular television series.

In the meantime, a batch of 15 episodes could be aired in August during the holy Muslim fasting month of Ramadan, the time of the year when Arabs watch television the most.

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on July 19, 2011, on page 9.

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