Gariwo: the gardens of the Righteous

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"So I helped the tourists at the Bardo"

interview with Hamadi Abdesslem

Inauguration on 15 July 2016 of the Garden of the Righteous of Tunis, inside the Italian Embassy. Fruit of the joint efforts of Gariwo and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the Garden will be the first in an Arab country, and will inaugurated by Dr.  Ben Moussa, lawyer and Peace Nobel Prize Laureate.

The first trees of the Garden will be dedicated to four outstanding figures: Khaled al-Asaad, Palmyra's “keeper” slaughtered by Isis; Mohamed Bouazizi, the young Tunisian street vendor who immolated himself and gave rise to the Jasmin Revolution leading to the fall of Ben Ali's regime; Khaled Abdul Wahab, the Tunisian who during the Nazi occupation rescued dozens Jews; and Hamadi Abdesslem, the Tunisian guide who rescued the Italian tourists during the attack against the Bardo Museum.

Hamadi told us about his memories of that dreadful day of 18 March 2015, described the current situation in Tunisia and expressed a great wish: to be able to see again - or at least to hear from - the Italian tourists he rescued.

How did you become a tourist guide?

I started working as a guide in the Seventies, I studied Italian and I started my career as a guide in Tunisia. I earned the sympathy of many Italian tour operators - such as Francorosso, Alpitour, Edenviaggi - and I became their representative in Tunisia. I also accompanied several Italians abroad, to the Ivory Coast, Senegal, Malta, Egypt and Morocco, and then I got back to Tunisia and I went on working as a guide. From the tours in the desert I passed to the excursions for the cruises of Costa Crociere and MSC. I usually organized visits to Carthage or the medina of Tunis, but as chance would have it, on 18 March 2015 I would have to accompany the group that planned to visit the Bardo Museum.

What do you remember of that day?

We arrived at Bardo around 11 and we started our excursion. Everything was quiet. We entered the Museum and there was nothing strange, but after half an hour we started hearing shooting. I did not immediately think of an attack, as it did not seem possible to me. I instead believed it was a maneuver, because near the Museum  there is a barracks. It was one of the tourists who told me: "Hamady, you are wrong, it's an attack!" and soon afterwards we saw a bullet very close to us in Virgil's room. At that point we all laid on the ground in great silent, and on me, I don't know why, descended a great calm. As I know the Museum a little bit, I went with 45 tourists to the staircase leading to the administration offices. From there there is a door opening onto the outside, then we exited the Museum and crossed the whole park, until we reached the police office of the Bardo, where we found shelter.
It was a tremendous shock... We were safe, but two minutes after our escape in the same room 9 people died.

How did you find the calm and lucidity to act on that day?

I thought about it a lot in the days that followed the attack. Surely in my character there is a lot of tranquillity, and maybe that was the element that helped us survive. I tried to keep calm, to remain silent. Also when we crossed the park, I never thought the worst might happen - although there of course could have been terrorists on the terrace ready to shoot at us. It was a spontaneous, natural response… I really believe in God, and I say God's will took us in the outside.

How do you feel today when you get back to the Bardo?

When I come close to Virgil's room I see again what happened, I live that day again. They are dreadful images. People cried, there was fear all around, everybody searched for their traveling companions, but unfortunately not everybody survived. We were all incredulous about the events, no  one thought there could be a terror attack.

What is the situation at the Bardo Museum, or generally in Tunisia, today?

Unfortunately today there are very few tourists. We are not Paris, we are not Brussels, where after the attacks things got back to normalcy. We still are that Arab and Muslim country where phobia of Islam hampers tourism. I have many friends who tell me they want to come back to Tunisia, but they are scared. The Italian, Spain, French tourism - that has always given much to the economy of our country. Now we content with Russian groups, but the majority of the people who come to Tunisia stay at their hotel, only a few have the excursions.

Do you see some opportunity of renewal for this business?

The resumption of tourism depends on many factors, but above all on the security and political stability of the country. I think we could renew the activities starting from 2017, very slowly. My hope is that the first big ships of Costa Crociere and MSC decide to come back; this would be a very good starting point for Tunisia to regain its position of 2014-2015.

For your courage demonstrated on 18 March 2015, you will be dedicated a tree in the Garden of the Righteous of Tunis, which we will inaugurate on next 15 July. What does this recognition mean to you?

I was enthusiastic to hear this wonderful news. Ever since the attack nobody called up again, no one talked with me or my colleagues about what had happened. When I heard about this recognition I was very happy, it is a total emotion to me. And it is even more so because it comes from Italy, and my whole career has been devoted to Italy and the Italians. I have always considered you as friends and never as customers, and at 65, after 35 years of work, this is my greatest satisfaction, the most beautiful gift of my career.

I am really deeply moved, and I hope thanks to this recognition I will have the opportunity to keep again in touch with those who were on the bus with me.

So you did not hear from the people you rescued anymore?

Unfortunately not, I never succeeded again in hearing from them. Costa Crociere cannot give me their contact data and I do not know how to do to reach them. I hope I can do, maybe if the news of this recognition is spread by many newspapers and tv channels, some of them will contact me…
A the moment of their departure from the harbor we experienced a very moving moment, and I would like to see again or at least hear from these people, with whom I shared a dreadful moment of my life.

The Garden of Tunis will be the first Garden of the Righteous in an Arab country. What kind of message can be spread from this initiative in  your opinion?

I think it will be a strong message, and not only to relaunch tourism and trust in Tunisia. This Garden will show how Islam is a religion of peace and will change the wrong ideas that terrorists gave of it. Islam has always been a religion of peace, and we want this peace to remain forever.

Martina Landi, Gariwo editorial staff; translation by Carolina Figini

30 June 2016

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