x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 28 July 2017

Ben Ali's butler spills the beans

It's hard to criticise him, but Lotfi Ben Chrouda's book about the 23 years he spent as butler to the deposed Tunisian president Zine El Abidine Ben Ali feels like a missed opportunity.

Illustration by Sarah Lazarovic for The National
Illustration by Sarah Lazarovic for The National

Of the mountain of books that have begun to surface in the wake of the Arab Spring, Lotfi Ben Chrouda's entry will surely be remembered as one of the slightest to have made it onto that pile.

Ben Chrouda spent 23 years as a hired help working for a prominent family in the Tunisian capital of Tunis, until circumstances beyond his control - specifically the Jasmine Revolution - brought his employment to an abrupt end earlier this year. Out of work, he has since written a memoir of his life in service.

Such a turn of events might make for a personal, if not necessarily diverting book, were it not for the fact that his place of work had been the opulent surroundings of the presidential palace, and his employers were none other than Mr Zine El Abidine Ben Ali and his spouse, Leila Trabelsi. Last week, the couple, who fled to exile in Saudi Arabia in the hours after Ben Ali relinquished power, were sentenced in absentia to 35 years in prison, after a Tunisian court found them guilty of misusing public funds.

Entitled Dans l'ombre de la reine: par le majordome des Ben Ali (In the Shadow of the Queen, by the Butler of Ben Ali), Ben Chrouda's book was published in France a week or so before the courts delivered their verdict. Written with the help of Isabelle Soares Boumalala, a literature teacher and journalist, In the Shadow of the Queen begins with the extraordinary moment in 1994 when Trabelsi marches into the kitchens of the presidential palace, where Chrouda had first been employed as a cook some years earlier, and tells him: "You're going to work for me." He is instantly promoted to the position of butler, where he has a ringside view of the Tunisian leader and his wife over a protracted period.

So what do we learn from Chrouda's 190-page volume? Sadly, not so much.

The author reveals that Trabelsi was both manipulative and controlling; that all the staff were afraid of her; that Ben Ali was deeply in love with his wife and let her rule the roost, deferring to her on all domestic matters; that he was blind to both his wife's flaws and, more critically, the creep of the revolution until the very moment he was swept from power; that all the staff were bound by confidentiality agreements preventing them from revealing such details ... until now.

In all of this Chrouda maintains he was "just a butler", powerless to stop the worst excesses of his employers, unwilling to speak his mind for fear of compromising his safety and his employment. In an interview he recently gave to France24 television news to promote the book he said that he hoped its publication would help him "forget what happened and ... retire".

It's hard to criticise Chrouda, given the course his life has taken, but it's also hard to shake the feeling that his "what the butler saw" memoir represents a missed opportunity.

The book, which has not yet been distributed in the UAE, appears to be heavy on gossip and light on analysis. It adds little to what we already know, delivering a succession of mundane revelations (Trabelsi, manipulative, who ever knew?), and it fails to move the narrative of the revolution any further forward, although its author was, literally, stood in the corner of history for close to two decades.

Indeed, by concentrating on the tiny details of the most powerful household in Tunisia, he is rendered as guilty of missing the bigger picture as his master. He spills the beans, but not the ones we want him to. Perhaps this would explain why the title is currently nestled a long way from the top of the best-seller list on the Amazon France website.

Really then, it may well now be the perfect time for Chrouda to retire and forget what happened.