January 19, 2011
Tunisia MeltdownBy Marion DS Dreyfus
In the wake of the president fleeing his country to escape the widespread "student' riots," Tunisia is not what it, until very recently, seemed. Who knew the Tunisians were so repressed?
Wherever one went in the country, those Ben Ali banners were everywhere. When I was there in 2010, we were told that "enlightened leader" and authoritarian regime head President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, after 23 years of peaceful rule -- always smiling benignly, even affectionately, from billboards near the highways or larger streets -- was elected by an overwhelming majority. He had contemporary ideas about education, work for women, sports for the underprivileged, industrial privatization, and so on. Ali has taken cover in Saudi Arabia from the mass protests and looting of Tunis as the "Jasmine Revolution" (after the national flower) proceeds chaotically.
Schools and universities are closed, and tourists have run back to their European nests. One had no idea that the elections were fixed; one thought the people were content with their leadership and that Tunisia was a working democratic republic. Tunisia is decidedly Eurocentric, and I daily met and interacted to some extent with dozens of businessmen from France, Greece, Spain, Germany, Italy, and the U.K., and also Jordan, Egypt, Morocco, Libya, and Cyprus. None seemed to exhibit the least stress or concern about freedom on any level.
Ali, for those who have forgotten, was formerly Habib Bourguiba's minister as well as a military figure, in office since 1987, when he acceded to the executive office after an expert medical team adjudged longtime leader Bourguiba unfit to fulfill the functions of his presidency (Article 57 of the Tunisian constitution).
I was impressed in Tunisia by the level of education for even the middle class, and I was unaware of the apparent high rate of unemployment. All Arab countries feature men in djellabiyas strolling along the pavements, or sitting and genially smoking a hookah pipe, or drinking scalding espresso with a mud-like consistency. It's a normal sight all over the Middle East. In hindsight, I guess it was noted in passing that some highly educated professionals had left the country, seeking better opportunities, and these coffee-drinking denizens were unemployed, but I came away with the impression that life in Tunisia -- at least in the bigger cities -- was comfortable and actually progressive. No one spat at me, gave me the evil eye, or derogated my clothing or person, and hijabs were by no means universal, especially in the big cities. In tiny towns, of course, one saw niqabs and hijabs, but not even there, not universally. These women in colorful scarves and garments scurried along, water gourds on their heads, busy with their domestic tasks. Few women tarried to talk. None, actually.
One rarely even saw a policeman in the dusty backwater villages scarcely worthy of the name "town" along their aged, rutted roads, some built by the Romans two thousand years ago. In the major cities, one did see police, but the bustle and rush common to all metropolitan centers in any country echoes about the same level of traffic police and unexceptional order-minders.
So now, the police are gunning down anyone who breaks curfew? This puts that unassuming -- and, one thought, peaceful -- Mediterranean Sea-hugging sliver country, squished like a rough, dangly earring between far larger Muslim neighbors on both sides, in a different light. On the map, Tunisia's Maghreb slice of windy Sahara to the south is as parched and sandy, and as dune-rippled, as that of its larger neighbors. The Tunisian Republic is the northernmost country in Africa by a smidgen, bordered by huge Algeria to the west, unfriendly Libya to the southeast, and the Mediterranean to the north and, especially, the east.
I was clearly not given an accurate picture, or else I absorbed a message very different from the one generally afield among the resident Tunisians. A hint was available when I tried to find or attend a synagogue anywhere but on Djerba Island. Somehow, they were never "open" for a look-see, or they were "now closed for repairs" or some such, even when I could see one within a short walk. It resembled nothing so much as a non-distinctive stone war bunker, quite low to the ground, flat-roofed, with slits for windows to...minimize "distractions" from ill-wishers? I couldn't visit. Sorry.
Thanks to my every conversational opportunity with (selected?) contacts there, and my own in various places, I felt that the obvious Eurocentricity of the country, and the fact that they speak a pentagram of languages without inhibition and trade so commonly with Europe, rendered Tunisians a cut above the underlying foreignness and official froideur evident in other (less advanced/democratic) North African and Middle Eastern countries.
In fact, in Tunisia, when people learned that I spoke Hebrew, they pestered me to teach them the hors d'oeuvres welcoming phrases, though I tried practicing my Arabic and learning more from them. It was a friendly rivalry that they usually won, their victory a courtesy from me to my hosts.
I was under the impression that the leader was distinctly beloved. Evidently, that too was a mirage created for our sake, or it is a fluidly acted myth they advanced until it couldn't be upheld anymore. The country has now had three interim leaders in the space of two days, with no stable future on the horizon.
Perhaps that is a partial explanation for why Arafat in preceding decades was welcomed to Tunisia, and why he lived so comfortably there with thousands of his acolytes? And why there was violence against the continent's most ancient synagogue, in Djerba, where visiting European tourists were shot down for no reason? Without question, German Christians were not the original targets of these bullets.
Now, I worry for all the Westerners who bought property in Tunisia in the little alleyways and nooks that I traversed -- in Carthage, "holy" Kairouan (supposedly third in line after Mecca and Medina, but I have my doubts), desert Tatooine, and elsewhere...those unfixed-up medieval stone shambles with high, brick-relief-accented walls and ancient stones. But once they emerge into the souk, what will greet these foreigners with "summer cottages" in this picturesque backwater? This could be a perilous time for anyone not local if even the locals are being shot.
One hopes that this is a popular uprising akin to the "green revolution" in Iran, but we saw what happened there, didn't we, as Ahmadinejad mowed down opposition, destroyed ballots, stole the election, shut down the internet, and then tortured, incarcerated, raped, and killed thousands who opposed his "election." We so smugly fancied Tunisia far above such Neanderthal goings-on.
It sure does make our visit, via 20:20 rear-view hindsight, look peculiar. And now-defunct tourism will surely make those who managed to see Tunisia among the privileged few. It may take a while for the country to reassert its cosmopolitanism in any meaningful way for new visitors.
Can one safely say now, without fear of contradiction, that au fond, it looks like an Arab country, no matter how fancy the storefront and how glistening the jewels, is still just...an Arab country?