البداية (The Beginning)

It’s been two weeks since I arrived in Tunisia, flying south from Europe over the Mediterranean Sea to the North African coast. Today marks the one-year anniversary of Former President Ben Ali’s departure to Saudi Arabia, captured in explicit detail in this recent Al Arabiya piece (hat tip to Ravi Kaneriya).

Aside from overcoming massive jet lag, adjusting to 5 hours of Arabic class every day, and generally getting a handle on my new surroundings, I’ve had difficulty putting my initial thoughts down on paper. As many readers of this blog know, my fellowship was initially intended for Damascus, a plan that never came to fruition due to the ongoing uprising within Syria. With the hopes of broadening my country experience (ruling out Jordan & Egypt) not wishing to go to the Gulf, and fairly limited options given the broader regional instability (ruling out Lebanon, Iraq, Libya, etc), Tunisia seemed like the next best option. I partially raise this to affirm that, in no way should I be considered an expert on Tunisia — not just the in-country experience, but the history, culture, and current political dynamics — are all new to me, never before having been covered in any of my previous academic or professional experience. Like many Westerners, Tunisia first appeared on my radar when it launched the first revolution of the Arab Spring. I’m hoping to figure it all out simultaneously as I go along.

When I told people I was going to study Arabic in Tunisia, many looked at me strangely, saying, “but everyone speaks French there!” After serving as a semi-autonomous state of the Ottoman Empire, Tunisia became a French colony in 1881, and gained independence in 1956. However, unlike the experience of many other newly liberated states, Tunisians never fully disavowed the cultural practices or language of its former rulers, largely due to the pro-European attitude of its long-time President, Habib Bourguiba. The impact of this approach is strikingly apparent in contemporary Tunisia, and has made me second-guess my preconceived notions of “Arab culture” formed in Jordan and Egypt. Tunisia is exceedingly different from Jordan, for example (this will be a recurring comparison), in food, and gender relations, to name a few categories. What many Americans perceive as “Middle Eastern Food” (myself included) is in fact Lebanese food – many of the staples I came to know and love in Jordan (hummus, labneh, pita bread, tabouli, eggplant dip, you name it) are simply not eaten or available here. There is a very sad corner of my local grocery stores where a few bags of stale, crusty  حبز لبناني (Lebanese bread) — can be found. (More on this later – adjusting to the food has been extremely challenging, with the general flavor palate for all meals consisting of a mix of canned tuna, cheese, white bread, olives, and harissa – an extremely spicy red chili/garlic paste). In the French style, Tunisians eat baguette and many of the cafes on the main downtown thoroughfare don’t even have shisha (flavored water pipes) – something unimaginable in Egypt! (Heck, they even call them brasseries). Tunisians learn French starting in primary school, and the local colloquial dialect is a mix of Arabic and French, although Arabic predominates. Even though the local dialect is beyond my grasp at the moment, this mixture has made it extremely easy for me to communicate from the outset, as I can always refer to a word in French if I don’t know it in Arabic.

Again, I am cognizant that my lack of knowledge of Tunisia prior to the January 14th Revolution presents a significant challenge to my analysis of the current situation. For example, after hearing how “European” the country was, upon driving back from the airport on New Year’s Eve, my initial impression was that, with some obvious variation in landscape, it did not seem all that different from Jordan. My driver spoke Arabic, the radio broadcast was in Arabic, and at least half the women I saw were wearing some form of Islamic veil (though certainly more hijabs than niqabs or burqas). Only later did I come to understand that prior to January 14th, 2011, wearing any kind of Islamic veil was illegal, as was growing a beard for men (a sign of piety in Islam). In one example of the repression of personal practices that previously existed under the Ben Ali regime, an American who studied here in 2008 told me that the 20-year old son in her host family was often harassed and followed by the security forces because he frequently tried to attend the morning prayer. His mother only prevented his arrest by putting a picture of Ben Ali on the front door of the family home, and minimizing his excursions to the mosque to a handful of times per week. The very issues that frequently cause firestorms in the Western media when European countries try to enforce bans on the hijab, for example, were in fact fully outlawed in an Arab country for decades! It is in moments like these that I begin to realize how much the country has changed since the Revolution.

A fellow classmate from The Fletcher School has been in town for the past few weeks conducting research on a business proposal for a $100K Business Plan Competition back in Boston. Given the lackluster state of public transportation in many developing countries (though Tunisia is fairly impressive in this category) and frequent sexual harassment of women in public spaces, their initial idea was to create a family-oriented bus service for women and children, in order to provide a cheaper alternative to taxis. I was pleasantly surprised to hear that in their meetings with local citizens, many of them self-proclaimed feminists, this idea was widely condemned, with many Tunisian women refusing to accept the perpetuation of gender segregation. They also found that the idea did not enjoy wide support from the new government, notably led by an Islamist party, who clearly does not want to be perceived as forcing Islamic values down the throat of its citizens. Separately, the subject of belly dancing came up over the last week in a discussion with a Tunisian friend, who explained that it currently was not present in Tunisia — not because it had been condemned as immoral by a religious authority, but because many women felt it degrading to them (this is not Jordan!) From a purely aesthetic standpoint, a significant portion of Tunisian women dress in the European style, wearing tightly fitting clothing that would not seem out of place on the streets of any Western city (heeled boots, sweater dresses, skinny jeans, leather jackets, etc). While most skin is nonetheless covered due to the chilly weather here (40s at night and 50-62 during the day, with wind), I’ll be interested to see what the wardrobes look like in the spring and summer.

Much more to come later, but for now I need to get in a work-out prior to attending a lecture downtown with Georgetown Professor John Esposito at the Center for the Study of Islam & Democracy…..


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