Arson attack sends Tunisia’s Sidi Bou Said mausoleum up in smoke
Issued on: Modified:
On Saturday, two days before the second anniversary of the fall of former Tunisian President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, the mausoleum in Sidi Bou Said, in a chic northern suburb of Tunis, was deliberately set on fire. The anthropologist Youssef Seddik describes his anger at the destruction of the mausoleum’s precious manuscripts.
On Saturday, two days before the second anniversary of the fall of former Tunisian President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, the mausoleum in Sidi Bou Said, an upmarket northern suburb of Tunis, was deliberately set on fire. The anthropologist Youssef Seddik has described his anger at the destruction of the mausoleum’s precious manuscripts.
Despite the best efforts of firefighters, the blaze destroyed parts of the monument and several valuable objects. Authorities are investigating the cause of the fire, but the finger is already being pointed at Salafists, fundamentalist Muslims inspired by Saudi Wahhabism.
The radical Islamists, thought to number between 3,000 and 10,000 in Tunisia, have been accused of organising a series of violent acts since the Tunisian revolution two years ago. According to Touenza, an organisation working to strengthen civil society and democracy, the fire was the twelfth attack on a Tunisian mausoleum since January 2012.
Photo of a tomb in Sidi Bou Said before the fire
After the fire, local residents paid their respects by lighting candles. Photo sent by Zayani Monem.
"The authorities could have put the manuscripts in a safe place, but the guardians of the mausoleums have refused to hand them over"
Youssef Seddik is an anthropologist who lives in Sidi Bou Said.
Several manuscripts were burnt in the fire, notably ‘Annaqd’, a book that’s part of the work of the ‘wali’ (saint) the mausoleum was erected for, and which carries the wali’s ‘tariqa’ teachings. These manuscripts are extremely rare; only a few copies exist. Korans were also burnt. They were precious because they were decorated with calligraphy by Sidi Bou Said’s closest disciples.
A local resident holding a burnt manuscript. Photo posted on Twitter by ayalez_hdi.
With the repeated attacks on mausoleums, the authorities could have put the manuscripts in a safe place. But the guardians of the mausoleums, who are usually the descendents of the wali, have stubbornly refused to hand over the books. They even refuse to allow researchers to have access to them.
If you ask me, the Wahhabis are, without doubt, behind this attack. They want to impose their extremist doctrine on Tunisians. It’s not a recent conflict. In the 19th century, Tunisians refused to follow this movement. [In the book ‘Le dromadaire de Najd’, the writer Ridha Ben Slama describes how Ibn Saud and Muhammed ibn Abd-al-Wahhab, the founders of the Wahhabi movement, tried to convert the Hammouda Pacha Bey (1759-1814), the second Bey of Tunis, to Wahhabism around 1810.]
After the fire, local rseidents came to see the destruction. Photo sent by Zayani Monem.
This religious doctrine considers the preservation of sacred mausoleums and prayers to saints as a form of “shirk” – the sin of associating other gods or beings with Allah. But people are not idiots. They know that saints are not gods but scholars and devout men.
The day after the fire, local residents organised a march to the presidential palace to condemn what they see as inaction on the part the authoties to deal with extremists
In the 1920s, the extremists went as far as destroying the homes and mausoleums of the Prophet Muhammed’s companions in Saudi Arabia. They even tried, but failed, to destroy those of the Prophet himself. I am convinced that today, in Tunisia, the fundamentalists have a timetable to destroy all traces of this tradition from people’s memories.