Forget that Mohammed Bouazizi died of wounds on January 4, 2011 suffered when he set fire to himself on December 17, 2010, 18 days before.
I have barely begun to write of it, only related my experience of attempting to burn my own hand to feel the feeling of skin peeling, and yet I couldn’t do it. Around four inches I had to remove my hand.
And so I struggle writing about someone burning themselves. And no, it’s not just burning themselves. Burning yourself is grabbing a pan out of the oven in a rush with no mitt, burning yourself is lighting birthday candles and turning one so the flame licks your finger, burning yourself is drinking coffee too hot in the morning and your tongue can’t tell you what the eggs taste like.
And, I’ve decided, it’s not suicide either. Because, there are many ways to kill yourself. People tend to choose quicker ways, ways that don’t require much action on their part. We’ll ignore the people who jump off bridges and buildings; they’re usually too afraid to go too high, and end up hurting themselves. They’re not serious enough about the whole ordeal. I don’t think they want to die too bad. Because, if they did, they’d just get it over with. They wouldn’t stand up, look around, yell at people, “Don’t come any closer! I’ll jump.” We’re coming closer because we know you will jump. It’s redundant to tell us.
Self-immolation, that’s a whole other offing. Offerings were burnt, American flags are burned, the Quran is burned, bodies are burned and ashes kept. I does not burn I. It just doesn’t make sense. If you want to die, die, don’t douse yourself in gasoline, don’t scratch that bulls-eye head of a match, turning yourself into a blaze. Heretics were burned, burned at the stake. Criminals were burned, burned with tar on them. I does not burn I.
I does not burn I. Until one does. And then the question is: why?
Why–the answer anyways–is a bit harder to come by. You have to think of a lot of things, depending on who you’re talking about. We’re obviously talking about people who are attempting to kill themselves. And we already know that setting yourself on fire exists outside the realm of suicide. It’s less private, at least in comparison to putting a bullet between your eye, or hanging yourself until your eyes bulge. Also we know jumpers are attention seekers; they like prying eyes. They’re the ones who always need to be the center of attention. And somewhere along the way they felt like the entire world, every person had turned their eyes away from them and that their I no longer existed. And so they stand with their toes perched over the edge to wrest back attention. They stand at the divide between the half-circle of people watching the end of their life on a bridge and the flat line that is the short end of the railing which separates ground from air, separates those who’ve the conviction to act and those who lie about wanting to die. Setting yourself afire has a different answer to the question why.
It can’t be just empty plates at dinner time. It can’t be no money, because poor people are everywhere. And it can’t be because the police abuse their power, because we have the largest population of inmates in the world. And it can’t be because he didn’t have a job, despite his college education, because I have many friends who don’t have jobs but have college educations. And it can’t be just corruption, because corruption is how capitalism works. You sell a lie hoping it becomes reality, and people cry when those hopes and dreams collide with reality: you failed.
The answer to the question why can’t be just failure. It’s not hunger, poverty, abuse, unemployment, lack of or presence of education, or corruption. And so what is it? It would be easy for me to say it is all of these things. But that would be a lie too, or not enough of the truth to be earnestly honest.
Stomach pains, empty wallets, bruises and broken bones, wasted days, no books to read; these are the things which ignite the metaphysical flames of revolution in the hearts of a people. Is this man no longer a man, but an effigy, burned and symbolic? At what point is he no longer a rude, college educated fruit vendor weighing fruit with unofficial stones? At what point does he erupt into hunger, poverty, abuse, unemployment, lack of or presence of education or corruption?
I want to know where hope is, where it fits in. If it exists in this world, which I hope that it does, where do we find it. It certainly doesn’t exist in the present, and if it’s in the past it’s of no use to us, and that leaves only the future. Where might our actions take us today?
We’ve beautiful things, our hearts, the intangible ones. The heart that exists somewhere in the space between the experiences we have and the way we understand those experiences. Our physical heart beats blood through our veins and arteries. Our real hearts beat hope into our Is. And when we can no longer see a future which is pumping, which could possibly bleed—the sheep had their throats slit, bled of their redness, before they were burned—we offer ourselves, I think.
Why did he want to die? I’ll burn myself on a hot pan, or coffee, or candle again and still not know, because I see something in my future which he no longer could.