Out on my bike, cycling the muddy tracks. I am thirsty. In the middle of nowhere, a sort of futuristic building, big round windows like portholes on a cruise ship. The door is open, there is someone inside, so I enter the gloomy space. Stainless display units, dusty and litter-strewn. Cats everywhere. Seated at a bench, a Danny de Vito look-alike. “Welcome, join me” ,he invites, with the typical hand-sweep gesture to the chair opposite and the offer of a glass of lemonade. I recognize a bored man with a tale to tell. “So, what’s happening here?” I ask. And we have a life story: Let’s call him Mehmed; his is just another story of lives in transition.
So before the revolution, Mehmed was the manager of this fish emporium out on the lake. Like so many other ‘thriving’ enterprises, it was owned by people close to the ruling regime. They had leased the entire lake for 30 years, and established a fish farm: the usual seabass and daurade but with the interesting addition of eels. Eels. Something about them makes me squirm. Exported to Italy by the ton in massive containers. You can imagine: tens of thousands of eels enter the container in single file and end up a solid writhing knot of slip-slimey resistance. (Actually that appears to be a false image: there are NO pictures on internet of writhing masses of eels – or at least i could not find them)
Anyway, back to Mehmed’s story: born and raised in a poor community in the north west, he worked hard, studied maritime stuff in Tabarka and then moved on to Sfax to look for work. I’ve been here long enough to understand that ‘Sfax’ = hardworkers. Sfaxians are heart of the business community in Tunisia. You go past a factory just about anywhere in the country, you find it was set up by a Sfaxian. A Sfaxian will die to get ahead. BUT they won’t let anyone else in. The rest of the population talk about Sfaxians with admiration and contempt in equal measure. So, there’s young Mehmed, stubborn as a mule (his own description) will not be pressured into anything .. trying to get ahead in the closed Sfaxien society.
Well, cut to the chase, he gets a break, arranging supplies for fishing fleets, and he marries a local girl. Then he starts to move closer to home, first Bizerte fish farming, and 16 years later, ends up running this gleaming stainless steel fish market / cafe / fish farm on the lake for the boss ‘Ali’. Things go well. Very well. He manages 20 people, he is happy. He is successful.
Fast forward to the Arab Spring and the rapid exit of President ben Ali and his closest cronies. That’s when the cozy world of business fell apart. No revenue, no money. No sign of Ali to pay the wages. All the fish escaped into the lake. The winners in this fishy tale.
Meanwhile, Mehmed has taken up residence in the lakeside depot; he’s been living, eating sleeping there for over a year. His sole objective: to prevent the owners from removing the last remaining assets. He has a court case against them, claiming unpaid wages and redundancy; it’s stuck in the system, awaiting judgment. At first all the employees took turns on duty. But they got other jobs, got bored, got wise, or gave up. Mehmed can’t leave, because he has the most to gain… or lose. His old mates call in, bring him a coke, a sandwich, some cigarettes, and stay half an hour for a chat. After that, he’s on his own again. Nothing to do all day.
He tells me that the owner Ali turned up once at night, and tried to remove one of the huge refrigeration units. Mehmed asked him: ‘Where are my wages? Why don’t you pay me?’ Ali replies ‘It’s difficult, I don’t have that kind of cash’. To which Mehmed replied: ‘Then you can’t take the fridge‘, and he took out his mobile to call the Customs. Because ‘the society’ owes taxes to the government. It’s also being investigated for falsifying the accounts of amounts exported and prices paid. .
Mehmed’s account is that this is the moment where he stood up to the big boss. That all his working life he had been afraid, never asked for better wages because there was always the fear: “They will accuse you of some theft and you are sacked and you lose everything”. Which is pretty much where he finds himself now. But he is resolute: “I’ll never accept that again”. And he does not say a word against the revolution (and there are those that do).
It must be lonely. There’s a TV but the electricity was cut off when the society stopped paying the bills. A while back, Mehmed noticed a guy collecting trash and bottles and cans, so he invited him to store his stash in one of the units, and then to sleep there. “Now I have someone to talk to in the evening”
He keeps wiping his hand across his face, in disbelief that his life can have turned around so badly. Mostly, he talks about the hurt. “I thought they were my family. I gave them everything. I used to get up at three in the morning and drive out to the lake to check all was OK. Now the owner can’t find the money to pay me? I have lost almost two years of my life. I never go home. My sons have to pay for the house and our living expenses. What kind of life is that?”
He speaks about other businesses that closed after the revolution, but where the employees and owners got back together and said: let’s make this place work. He has heard of a garment factory where the women brought their savings and gave it to the boss saying: “We want to work”. He comments: “If my bosses had been like that, I would have worked day and night for this place. I love work. It’s been my whole life. Now I have nothing”.
In the local village, I mention this story. “Ah, Mehmed! What a bastard. He used to cheat everyone. He’ll tell you one story, and he’ll tell the bosses another.” Well, ain’t that always the truth? We see our lives through our own eyes. Mehmed is the centre of his own story. And like everyone else, he’s in transition. When I travel to the city, whether in taxi or train, I pass in front of his building. He’s still there.