Last modified: 7:58 AM Saturday, 14 January 2017

“There's a fossil that’s trapped in a high cliff wall.
That’s my soul up there.
There’s a dead salmon frozen in a waterfall.
That’s my soul up there.
There’s a blue whale beached by a springtide’s ebb.
That’s my soul up there.
There’s a butterfly trapped in a spider’s web.
That’s my soul up there.”

—Excerpt from “King of Pain,” by The Police (1983)

Eaten alive: the colonial experience

Consider how the spider takes nourishment of her prey.

A butterfly trapped in a spider's web

There’s a monarch in a web with its life torn out.
[ Image Source: Unknown ]

At no time does she bite off chunks from her victim and masticate them. Rather, she injects her struggling quarry with venom from her chelicerae and retreats; she then waits patiently for the poison to do its work. Gradually, the flailings and thrashings grow more sporadic and less purposeful; slowly they settle into spasmodic twitches, vainly expressed, at random from the truth; then comes a final faint flutter and the quiet of terminal paralysis.

At her leisure, the spider will return and dine. By then, not only will her venom have paralyzed her captive, but enzymes in it will have turned its innards to soup. The integrity of its integument will remain; the animal will therefore seem whole, as if it might at any moment shake off its lassitude and take wing. But its seeming solidity is a lie: Within, what remains of its blood, organs and brain no more resembles what once was there than the contents of your stomach, half an hour after a chicken dinner, resembles the ungainly living fowl scratching for its food in a barnyard. Nothing remains to chew; the spider will, at her convenience, drink the predigested former vital parts until nothing remains but an empty husk to be cut loose from the web and dropped to the ground, there to be worried and torn by wind, rain, scavengers and decay until it, too, is gone.

So battens the colonial power — even today in a putatively postcolonial epoch — upon those weaker nations that fall beneath its dominion.

Long ago, those countries were injected and paralyzed with the venom of conquest; with it came the psychological enzymes of dependence and subjugation, which corroded and dissolved all the attributes and institutions that make up a free and functional independent state. Observers in some of those nations have called such colonial subjection “infantilizing”; and surely there is a lingering sense that such states, even when nominally freed, no longer remember how to mature. Something essential has melted away, and despite the trappings of autonomy and modernity they remain backward satrapies ruled by puppets for the ultimate benefit of distant industries.

Thankfully, unlike the spider’s prey, the former colonies have not perished utterly. They have suffered inward decay, but enough vitality remains in them sooner or later to reconstitute something akin to the nations they once were.

Tunisia is a stellar example of this phenomenon. Forcibly made a French “protectorate” in 1883, it remained so until the leader of the independence movement, Habib Bourguiba, negotiated its nominal freedom in 1956. Bourguiba, to his credit, tried to achieve economic and cultural independence; but the forces of dissolution were still at work: Finally he had to accept a neoliberal aristocratic order in which the ruling elite ultimately ordained a kleptoplutocracy, becoming enormously rich by appropriating the nation’s wealth, selling it to Europe and America, and pocketing the proceeds. Meanwhile, it was notable that much of this elite was European in all save blood, speaking French and shopping across the Mediterranean. In 1987, a newly elected Prime Minister Zine Abidine Ben Ali — no ornament to his country despite his name — carried out a bloodless coup by declaring Bourguiba medically unfit to rule, and thus formalized the dominion of the worst elements of the elite.

But the venom gradually fades, and today a promising new independence movement has ousted Ben Ali. The Arab Spring that dawned in 2011 came first of all to this tiny country, and countless eyes now watch to see whether the neocolonial spiders will again be permitted to poison it into uneasy somnolence, or if this generation will know genuine independence and let Tunisia take wing once more.

Originally published as a review of an Al-Jazeera article on the Tunisian uprising.
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