Marco Werman: Three years ago today, a Tunisian street vendor, a fruit-seller, lit himself on fire. That act of desperation sparked the Arab Spring, but in its birthplace, Tunisia, the revolution is far from over. There is a political stalemate between the Islamist-led government and the opposition. That's been dragging on since late 2011. Over the weekend, Tunisian politicians agreed on a new Prime Minister - Mehdi Jomaa. His job will be to lead a caretaker government until new elections are held next year. The politics in Tunisia are deadly serious, but perhaps a better way to understand what's happening in the country is through humor. The World's Carol Hills follows satire all over the globe and she's been following the saga of Tunisia and the Arab Spring through the eyes of a blogger and cartoonist named " _Z_".
Carol Hills: He is a Tunisian architect. He happens to work in Paris where he works for an architectural firm, but he has a huge interest in the politics of Tunisia and he became sort of a player in the Arab Spring and up to now, as a blogger and cartoonist, critiquing the Ben Ali regime.
Werman: Carol, you've met him. What's he like?
Hills: Well, I met him at Harvard a couple of months ago and he was there to speak to students about being a cartoonist and about urban planning. He was not in disguise. He is anonymous, but he was not in disguise. He is professional, speaks fluent French obviously, Arabic, some English, well-educated, and soft-spoken. But his cartoons are not soft-spoken and that's what's interesting.
Werman: So as a cartoonist, how would I know I'm looking at a work by _Z_? What's his style?
Hills: Well, he often uses a flamingo, a species that's native to Tunisia. It started out as simply part of his architectural drawings to illustrate things that were being planned for Tunis, but then it became a symbol for disenchanted Tunisians and for himself. The flamingo is kind of his trademark of a Tunisian who wants something better.
Werman: Why a flamingo, do you know? I mean a pink bird standing on one leg, is that significant?
Hills: I think he likes it just visually and it's a species that's there. It came out because of these giant projects being planned by the previous government that were gonna suck up a lot of the lakes where the flamingos live, and he was concerned not only that these projects were over-sized, designed for the elite, had nothing to do with the history or aesthetics of Tunis. But he also just likes the shape of the flamingo.
Werman: Nothing wrong with the shape of a flamingo. So how does _Z_'s work kinda track the revolution?
Hills: Well, he got started back in 2007 simply with a blog about urbanism, about the impact of the built environment on citizens, and so people responded because they were debating these giant projects I mentioned. And then he had things like showing little flamingos just as ornaments in these drawings and the flamingos started having thought balloons saying, "Get away from me. Don't build these projects." And then the flamingo morphed, as I said, into this symbol of Tunisians and he got such a huge response that he started realizing that there is going to be no debate about these projects and about the built environment until Ben Ali is gone. So then he started visually showing Ben Ali which was dangerous. The Tunisian government tried to crackdown on his blog, all sorts of things happened. But he continues to chronicle the post-revolution.
Werman: So plenty of fodder for _Z_ to draw on. What's he commented or what's he said or what's he drawn about this new acting Prime Minister in Tunisia?
Hills: He thinks that he is a safe choice, that he's part of no political party, he was a Minister of Industry for the previous acting Prime Minister that came in after Ben Ali fled, that he may have many things, but he has no political experience and he illustrates that in a very comical multi-panel cartoon.
Werman: Why do you find him interesting, Carol?
Hills: I find him interesting in part because I find the way he's documenting Tunisia a way that I can understand. And I think that's also the value of sometimes political cartoons and satire because it's kinda complicated, you're tempted to compare it, "Oh, it's like Egypt," but it's not. So I find him really an interesting way to get to the subject. And then meeting him at Harvard, he was there to talk to architecture students and history students, he's not really animated, but his cartoons are. He pushes the boundaries, he provokes people, in part because he thinks that's part of a healthy democracy, and he really wants to return to Tunisia and live there once he feels that there's constitutional protections for what he does. He'd like to move back and start a satirical magazine.
Werman: The World's Carol Hills. Thanks a lot.
Hills: Thanks, Marco.
Werman: Carol has narrated a slideshow showing the work of _Z_ from before the 2011 Tunisian revolution to the present. That's at PRI.org.