Hidden deep within the solidly middle-class suburb of Cité el Ghazela, the family home of Chiheb Essaghaier seems unremarkable and peaceful. The modest one-story house is hard to find, on a small side street most neighbors have never heard of. Several lush trees fill the front yard and laundry dries outside in the sun.
But for the past week this scene of domestic tranquility has been disrupted by a stream of outsiders eager to talk to the parents of a man accused by the Canadian government of planning mass murder.
Chiheb and another man were apprehended April 22 and charged with planning to blow up a railroad bridge to destroy a passenger train traveling between Toronto and New York. The plot allegedly involved the assistance of Al Qaeda elements in Iran.
The 30-year-old biology student has not lived in the Cité el Ghazela home for years. He has studied in Canada since 2008, specializing in biotechnology and pursuing a doctorate at INRS, a branch of the University of Quebec. He would seem a prototypical Tunisian success story; many in the country aspire to find a way to work in Canada, a prosperous Francophone country believed to hold numerous career opportunities.
It is not easy to speak with Raoudha and Mohammed Rached Essaghaier. Hunkered down in their home, they are wary of the media and upset by local coverage of their son’s situation. Meeting them required going through a chain of neighbors until one reached out to the couple.
When Tunisia Live arrived in the neighborhood on Friday, a team of journalists with a camera was already there, waiting on the roof of a home across from the Esseghaiers. They soon descended back to street level, hoping to get an exclusive video interview.
Inside, the house is modern and well-kept, the parents kind and welcoming. Cookies and soda were presented to their visitors without prompting. Amenities such as an Xbox video game console suggest a comfortable life. Photos of their sons dot the room. Chiheb’s portrait shows a serious young man, staring resolutely at the camera without the slightest hint of a smile.
The parents were well-dressed, the father donning a jacket before sitting down for an interview. The mother is thin and elegant, dressed in black. Her hair is uncovered; his face is cleanly-shaven. They do not seem like parents who would raise a child to accept a militant interpretation of Islam.
They said that local newspapers treated Chiheb as if he had already been tried and convicted of a crime. The mother presented a copy of Essarih that described her son as being involved in a plot akin to the attacks of September 11, 2001.
“They’re pressuring me and publishing all these pictures,” she said. “He didn’t do anything – it’s just because he has a beard.”
The parents made clear they believed their son was subject to prejudicial treatment because of his appearance, his origins, and his religion.
Chiheb grew a beard after he moved to Canada in 2008, a decision that would have been unacceptable for an academic during the regime of ousted president Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali.
When his mother inquired about his facial hair, Chiheb gave her a simple response: “I think I look more manly.” Her motherly advice was that he should try to trim it once in awhile.
“I don’t think he really had Islamist intentions,” she said. “Look at me, I’m liberal – I pray, but my hair is not covered.”
His father had asked him whether his lifestyle was becoming too religious. Chiheb responded by asking, “do you want me to start going to bars and hanging around?”
He recently passed a pre-doctoral exam, and was supposed to sit for another assessment this coming September. Regarded as a gifted student, he seemed on the path to success, coauthoring a number of academic articles and traveling to numerous conferences in North America. His father thought that this might help explain the arrest.
“Maybe they don’t want a Muslim to be successful,” he suggested. His wife quickly reprimanded him for saying this.
In light of this perceived discrimination, the Essaghaiers have decided to pursue the assistance of human rights advocates to help defend their son.
The parents see the recent bombing in Boston as motivating the Canadian authorities to arrest Chiheb, as well as pushing the media to pursue the story without, they assert, any evidence of his guilt.
“I’m confident, I know my son is innocent,” she said, “but I don’t like all these polemics around the story on Facebook and other media.”
The parents disputed reports suggesting that Chiheb was kicked out of his apartment, saying they have been able to send packages to him at his Canadian address. The father said he had gone to Canada and stayed with his son for two months in a home he described as “luxurious.”
Throughout the interview, the doorbell rang incessantly. The Essaghaiers did not even seem to register this as a distraction, clearly inured to this sound over recent days. After a while, persistent knocking on the front door echoed through the house. The team of journalists had clearly managed to get past the front gate.
“I am sick and tired of all these journalists coming and ringing and harassing me,” Raoudha lamented. “I can talk, but afterwards I just feel bad about my son.” She said she is diabetic, and that the stress of being pursued by the media is taking a physical toll on her.
The parents were cordial as Tunisia Live reporters left the house, but as they opened the door, the team of journalists awaited them outside, camera ready.