Two years ago this month, former Tunisian President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali and his family jetted from the North African country, amid large-scale uprisings that launched the region's manifold revolutions.
In the haste, like those scurrying from a foreclosed home, they took what belongings they could but left behind the rest. As Tunisia continues to unpack from two decades of his repressive reign, the current government's "commission on confiscation" has made a modern archaeological find of Ben Ali and his relatives' opulence, excavating more than 40,000 objects from their private palaces. Of those, 12,000 items—worth 20 million Tunisian dinars (almost $13 million)—have been up for sale at an auction this month. It's a first look at the hoarded goods and a rare window into the question: How does a dictator live?
In Gammarth, an affluent suburb of Tunis, the capital, a sprawling exhibition space called the Cleopatra stands on a cliff above the Mediterranean, along a road of seaside resorts. Garish motifs borrowed from ancient Egypt, including hieroglyphics and golden pharaonic statues, grace the walls. Rooms are filled with the effects once owned by Ben Ali, his wife, Leila Trabelsi, and more than 100 of their family members accused of being in cahoots with the former regime. The Ministry of Finance says earnings from the sales will go to the government's coffers as the economy continues to struggle and unemployment remains high. Under such circumstances, there are complaints that the 30-dinar entry ticket, about $20 per person, is unaffordable for the average Tunisian. Others argue they shouldn't have to pay to enter, in the first place, saying the property really belongs to them, acquired with the money Ben Ali wrested from the populace.
Still, some have made their way, perhaps not with an eye to buy anything, but to bear witness. After passing through a metal detector, visitors are greeted by a red Ferrari and white Lamborghini. There are also several Porsches and Escalades and even a tiny electric-powered car. Interrupting the gleam are red rectangular banners propped amongst the vehicles that carry the white crescent of the Tunisian flag and Arabic wording, "Revolution of Freedom and Dignity." Each features visual reminders from the rousing days of the revolution: Portraits of young martyrs, clashes between protestors and soldiers, and older women with raised fists.
A group of men test the ignition of one car. A woman in a gray headscarf smiles as she poses next to a Rolls Royce, while her toddler son hangs on to the fender and her husband snaps the scene. These luxury automobiles come with a past. Auction officials say a Mercedes Maybach on display was a gift from late Libyan President Moammar Gaddafi to Ben Ali and is the only one of its kind in Africa. And they claim that a close by Aston Martin is one of only two such models in the world, the other being owned by British singer Elton John.
Surrounding rooms are suffused with dozens of jewelry sets inlaid with diamonds and other precious stones; musty-scented carpets and rugs from Mauritania to Iran; fine art with oil paintings from Tunisian and European artists; and case upon case of sculptures and statues from North Africa to East Asia—with a curious number depicting eagles and horses. Outdoors there are jetskis, speedboats and even go-karts.
Ali Salhi, an upbeat auction organizer and inspector, says he continues to be astonished viewing the treasures.
"We haven't become accustomed to the sight of these things," says Salhi, bearing a light beard, sheer collared shirt and scarf around his neck. "This was first time we saw these things up-close. We could never have imagined all of this stuff. All Tunisians and all the visitors who come to this exhibition are surprised."
Besides wealthy Tunisians, shoppers have come from around the world, including those from the oil-rich Gulf and Libya. The cars and jewelry are being sold at silent auction while other items are available by cash at fixed prices. What didn't get snapped up before the auction ended last week will be vended later through other channels. But Salhi says because there's fear that some of Ben Ali's supporters want to buy the merchandise and return it to the ex-leader, there's a list of people who are prohibited from making any purchase.
At times, the artifacts belie common perceptions of Ben Ali. Reputed as a staunch secularist, the former president and his authorities cracked down on religious expression, such as harassing women in headscarves or men with beards. Yet in the exhibit there is a Koran with a silver casing and a tapestry with the 99 divine attributes Muslims use to refer to God. There are also large pieces of black cloth embroidered with golden Arabic calligraphy. One details a popular verse from the Koran, often recited as a prayer of protection. At the top of another, Allah (God) is spelled out, and its frame is carved repeatedly with the phrase, "And there is no victor but God," which the Moors popularized by covering their Alhambra palace in Granada, Spain, with the line.
The sterile ostentation can make the former ruler and his family seem like abstract entities. That is, until the final ballroom. Here, hundreds of high-end designer stilettos, boots, clunky pumps and handbags are stacked on tables forming a huge oval. Names like Chanel, Escada, Jimmy Choo, Valentino, Dolce & Gabbana, Burberry and Louis Vuitton abound. A purple clutch goes for 1,980 dinars ($1,200), while a Prada purse goes for 2,200 dinars ($1,400). Racks suspend fur coats, evening gowns and traditional Tunisian robes. Clasping the sleeve of a dark Italian suit triggers a sudden and eery intimacy. What if Ben Ali once wore this? Unlike a visit to thrift stores like Goodwill or the Salvation Army, where the anonymity of donors detaches one from the previous possessor's history, the source of these clothes is clear. Who would want to buy or wear something that Ben Ali, the target of Tunisians' ire, or his relatives may have once donned?
In the same room, an outer ring of carts are piled with sundry personal items and house ware, such as ties as well as bedsheets and linens wrapped in plastic. These corners resemble a haphazard yard sale. Shelves are cluttered with cologne and cosmetics, including several containers of unopened anti-aging cream. Nearby cashiers ring up some clients.
In a way, Scherazade Amri, a middle-aged, stay-at-home mother of three visiting the expo, isn't surprised by the spectacle. Amri says overseas shopping trips by the former president and his kin were well-known. But recalling his tenure, she describes how they were quick to take the public's money and keep people poor and silent, allowing no freedom of speech.
"We knew all of this," she says of the auction articles. "But when I saw them," she exhales heavily in disbelief, "they were very very very expensive items."
Her feeling upon seeing the jewels, cars and clothing: "Sadness. Sadness," she says. Why? "Peril," she says before taking an extended pause. "Of the country." She tries holding her face taut, but her eyes redden and upwell with tears.
Amri recomposes herself. With blondish hair and clad in a long black jacket, black tights and boots, she speaks softly and less loquaciously than say her storyteller namesake, as she talks about keenly participating in the revolution. She says people have hope but there's still work to be done, such as boosting the economy, for the country to succeed.
Perhaps repossessing Ben Ali's remnants is part of that.
"I have hope in the sales," Amri says. "Inshallah (God willing), it will go toward what people need and what the country needs."
And then she walks to join her husband at a counter to buy a small hair dryer for her daughter.
Follow Nafeesa on Twitter @NafeesaSyeed.