Wednesday, December 13, 2017


I have never felt as sorry for Muslims as I did in Tunis.

Mohamed Bouazizi’s name and spirit are missing. The men here dally in dark cafes, drinking tea with mint leaves, watching soccer. There is no trace of any revolution. Ben Ali is somewhere comfortable, his Saudi backers even more comfortable. The new-old government in Tunisia’s capital have banned a political party, forgetting Britain's lessons with Sinn Fein. Hundreds of people dead in 2011, for what?

I have never felt as sorry for Arabs as I did in Tunis.

In 1956, freed from the yoke of French colonialism, President Habib Bourguiba convinced the Tunisian National Assembly to pass the Personal Status Code, which prohibited polygamy, defined court procedures for divorce, granted universal suffrage, and required the consent of both parties to a marriage. “With this one law, women became equal to men before the courts.” (Third World Women Speak Out, by Perdita Huston)

But Bourguiba miscalculated. Tunisia’s rural villagers did not know about the Personal Status Code. When a country is illiterate, how can they know the capital city’s intentions for them? They continued the old ways.

What happened to the ideals of this leader of women’s rights, this Arab feminist? Where is his spirit in Tunis? It is in a street named after him and a statue. (At least the street is lively.)

I have never felt so sorry for Arabs and Muslims as I did in Tunis.

A capital city should be filled with activity and discussion, but Tunis at night is dead. Most shops close at 8pm, street lighting is irregular, and finding the way back to my riad is difficult. Only stray cats, graffiti, and small garbage heaps acknowledge me. Sanitation workers cannot clean the garbage heaps from the busy day quickly enough—the streets are too narrow, too winding, too dark. I have seen men using handheld carts, the kind farmers attach to the back of oxen, hauling garbage alone.
There may not be enough money to fix potholes, install proper lighting, clean graffiti, create a flag that doesn’t look like a Turkish copy, or improve sanitation, but the police near the presidential palace ride shiny BMW motorcycles. In the city centre, numerous security forces carry the latest semi-automatic weapons.

Tunisian women have not convinced politicians to pay them to stand around with guns, but they have their own defense tactics. When an impatient grandmother wearing a black headscarf crosses a busy street, she wags her finger at each oncoming driver, not bothering to look, confident cars will stop.

I have never felt so awful for Arab Muslims as I did in Tunis.

Wherever I go, I enter at least one government building and take a photo. I take the photo behind the security barrier or entrance check. The photo is always of something harmless or within easy sight, something I can zoom in from outside if needed. In San Francisco, California, the police officers do not bother me, even when I loiter in their lobby. They have discretion and are above following pointless rules for the sake of following rules. Their job is to keep the peace and bothering a potential taxpayer does not make sense.

In Havana, in Tunis, and in any society with too few women workers and too much security spending, the story is always the same. When I step inside Tunisia’s Ministry of Finance and take a photo of the tiled wall, an armed and uniformed security guard runs up to me and grabs my arm, angrily ordering me not to take photos. He knows his job is pointless, but he must follow orders, tu comprends? Not following rules affronts his manhood, and in Tunisia’s post-colonial world, enforcing pointless rules is his raison d’ etre.
Other government workers, equally useless, not used to commotion, come outside their offices to observe. They have very nice suits. A nonconformist in a Tunisian government building must be an interesting sight to behold. Meanwhile, EU finance ministers approved a blacklist of 17 jurisdictions deemed as tax havens. Tunisia is on the list.

I have never felt so despairing for young Arabs as I did in Tunis.

When I ask a guide the following day if we can enter a government building, the one over there with the interesting tiles, he calmly explains the building I would like to enter is for government employees. He does not need to add the word “only.” It is understood in Tunisia, which held democratic elections for the first time in 2012, the government does not work for him.

I have never felt so sad for young Muslims as I did in Tunis.

My host, a kind man named Oussama, the owner of both French and Tunisian passports, tells me politicians loyal to Ben Ali, the president who fled to Saudi Arabia after the student-led revolt in 2011, are re-gaining power. It is unclear whether the police or military would arrest Ben Ali if he returned, despite outstanding warrants for money laundering and drug trafficking.  

Oussama opines that the students’ 2011 nonviolent approach may have been a mistake. He does not look like a man who favors violence. He is slender, calm, has many books in many languages. He explains that after the revolution, the state disappeared and the mafia entered the void, but now the state is making a comeback. Unfortunately, Tunisians have lost the most important thing—their energy, so palpable in 2011. Young Tunisians today say they—the politicians—are all the same, which is the worst possible outcome. I do not tell him my successful Arab friend in America refers to the “Arab Spring” as the “Arab Winter.”

I have never felt so happy for Arab Muslims as I did in Sidi Bou Said.
The sidewalks are (mostly) clean, excellent coffee exists in enough places, students with laptops write eagerly, and no one objects to people taking harmless photos. Posh restaurants, late hours, and stunning views of the sea and mountains seem indigenous, as does the color blue. It is impossible to be sad in a city where almost everything has been painted blue by man or Allah.
I have never felt so optimistic for African Muslims as in Sidi Bou Said.

Men and women sit together on rooftop salons, black and Arab Africans walk side by side, and men do not need soccer or cigarettes to socialize. Police officers with shoulder-strapped guns are also here, but they bring a different energy. They are more purposeful, more determined, more proud. One plainclothes officer in Sidi Bou Said is worth ten uniformed personnel in Tunis.

I have never felt happier for African Arabs as in Carthage.

Carthage has the nicest houses, the most money, the best-paved roads, and the most interesting history in Tunisia. Hannibal, son of Hamilcar Barca, was born here, his military tactics striking fear and respect into the hearts of the Roman Empire.

Tunisia’s most vibrant cultural center is here, away from most government ministries. Inside, surrounded by movie posters, I see, for the first time, Heinrich Böll speaking on television. Outside in December, young men and women of every shade of color mull about, chatting and laughing.

I have never felt so happy for Arabs and Muslims as in Carthage. 

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