Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Back to the Future?

Last week I attended a reception at the U.S. Ambassador's residence to honor the Director of the Peace Corps, Aaron Williams. He used the event to announce that the program would be returning to Tunisia after a long absence. Although it used to have a presence here, the Peace Corps was not welcome during the years when the country was a police state. The revolution of January 2011 changed all that.

Fulbright Researcher Katie Larson, Sami Saaid of the US Embassy,
Me, and Fulbright Scholar Andrea Calabretta
The reception was the first gathering of the three Fulbrighters who are currently in Tunisia. (A fourth Fulbrighter will be arriving later this month.) Each of us owes a debt of gratitude to Sami Saaid, who coordinates the program at the U.S. Embassy in Tunis. Sami also attended the event and went out of his way to introduce me to a number of key guests.

Many of the people I met worked with the Peace Corps in Tunisia before it had to shut down. In fact, the reception doubled as a reunion of sorts for them. Although each one had a different story to tell, all of the guests I met pursued very interesting careers following their tenure with the program, and I have already made plans to catch up with most of them very soon.

The return of the Peace Corps might be a step forward for Tunisia. But the country may also be taking a few steps back as well. Yesterday and over the weekend, demonstrations on the main boulevard downtown turned violent when the police used clubs and tear gas to disperse the crowd. People have compared it to the way the police responded when the masses flocked downtown during last year's revolution against the former regime.

Up to now, demonstrations have been largely peaceful and have not led to clashes between the people and the police. This weekend was different because there is a new rule that makes it illegal to demonstrate on the main boulevard. This weekend's protests were a direct challenge to this new rule and set the stage for a response from the government. But no one expected the violence that ensued.

The main student union at my campus cancelled classes today so that students would be free to participate in another demonstration downtown later in the day. This one is supposed to be a protest against the police response to the recent demonstrations. I can sympathize with the students' desire to speak out. I only hope that the police do not again employ the tactics that everyone associates with the old regime.

Monday, March 12, 2012

Growing Pains

This past Thursday was not just another day of teaching for me. In fact, I did no teaching that day even though my class in Financing International Trade is a fixture on my Thursday schedule. I went to work fully expecting to have class. But I arrived to discover that the student union had decided to call a strike, effectively canceling all classes for the entire day.

The Headline of a Tunisian Daily
Captures the Sense of National Outrage
Two of my students broke the news to me. They explained that there was a violent altercation the day before at the Manouba Faculty of Arts, Letters and Humanities. It's a campus of about 8,000 students located on the outskirts of Tunis. Someone removed the national flag from a university building and replaced it with the black flag representing the Salafi, a conservative branch of Islam. Students throughout the country went on strike Thursday so that they could protest the desecration of the flag and demand that the government punish the person who committed the offense.

Tension has been high at the Manouba campus for months ever since the the university rejected a request by certain students to permit women to sit for exams while wearing a full face veil called a niqab. However, on this occasion, things got out of hand. In fact one of my students came to school on Thursday describing how she had been attacked. She works as a journalist and was on the Manouba campus to cover the story. However, her press credentials did not insulate her from being victimized.

The campus where I teach has had its share of tension, but it is nothing compared to what took place at the Manouba campus. I have only witnessed students making passionate speeches in the courtyard on isolated occasions. The relative civility may be partly due to the fact that there are very few Salafis who are enrolled at my campus. Manouba attracts a much larger number because the faculty offers courses in sharia law and related subjects.

In many ways, the tension between the Salafis and the larger university community at the Manouba campus exemplifies some of the philosophical debates that Tunisians have been having about the role that Islamic principles should play in shaping the country's political institutions going forward. However, until last Wednesday, those debates seemed to occur in a way that largely reflects the country's peaceful traditions. I hope the incident at Manouba remains an isolated one and not part of a trend.

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Lessons from Carthage

This past Saturday, I toured the ruins of Carthage with my friend and colleague Linda. She is spending seven months working for the International Criminal Court in The Hague. She paid me a visit on what turned out to be the coldest week in Tunisia in a half century. I'm convinced the frigid winter weather simply followed her here to make her feel at home.

My Friend Linda at the Roman Baths
We took a train that runs from downtown Tunis to Carthage and other northern suburbs. We knew where to get off, but there were no signs to indicate where to go once we reached our destination. A taxi driver came to our rescue and offered to be our guide for the afternoon. He asked for a fee that seemed to be fair, so we took him up on his offer.

He took us to to over seven sites dating as far back as the eight century B.C. By the end of the day we saw an amphitheater, a coliseum, a ritual burial ground, a military dock, a villa, the Roman baths, and a hilltop that was the location of a complex consisting of a museum and the Carthaginian necropolis. In all we spent four hours looking at ruins.

Our first stop was the necropolis. After we paid our fee, we found ourselves accompanied by a distinguished looking gentleman who proceeded to recite the history of Carthage, starting with its founding by a group of Phoenician colonists led by Queen Dido, the sister of Pygmalion. It was a compelling story. But once he finished telling it, he held out his hand. A bit surprised, we made a donation. But he insisted on being paid more.

Ruins of the Roman Baths
It turned out that our museum guide was part of a fraternity. At nearly every site, we found ourselves greeted by people who insisted on either selling us a souvenir or serving as our guide. However, our experience earlier in the day prepared us for this, and we managed to avoid being separated from any more of our money. But we were not prepared for what happened at the very end of our tour.

We told our driver to take us to the home of my new friend Samia, who lives not far from the ruins. To our surprise, the driver insisted on being paid an amount that was nearly twice what he first asked for, claiming he did more than what he first agreed to do. Not wanting to violate some unwritten rule while a guest in a foreign land, we reluctantly complied.

We told Samia about our experience with the driver, and she wasted no time getting him on the phone. Linda and I heard her speak Tunisian in a calm but stern voice before hanging up about five minutes later. The next thing we knew, the driver returned and gave back everything we paid him except the fee he first quoted, claiming it was all a misunderstanding. Linda and I were mystified.

Me and My Friend Samia
We asked Samia what she said to convince the driver to come back. She said she began the call by asking if he was the driver who just dropped off the two Americans who work at the U.S. Embassy. Apparently, that half-truth was enough to get him to reconsider what he just did. I knew the U.S. passport came with benefits. I just didn't know this was one of them. I'm glad I was with a friend who knew how to play that card for me.

Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Justice Ginsburg Visits

Last Friday, my students had the privilege of hosting U.S. Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. Her visit came just ten days after the students were treated to a video conference with Justice Breyer at the U.S. Embassy. I suppose that's the kind of attention you get when you are the only students getting a degree in American law in a country that's in the process of writing a new constitution. Whatever the reason, the students are making the most of their apparent celebrity status.

The event capped off a trip to Egypt and Tunisia where Justice Ginsburg met with local judges and scholars. This particular occasion was an informal one where she invited the students to ask questions. Most focused on the role that a judge plays in the development of legal rules in a common law system like the one in the U.S. It's a topic we spend a lot of time discussing in the two courses I am teaching. Although the students might have something to gain from my experience as an attorney and professor, there's no substitute for the insights of an actual jurist. So the conversation with Justice Ginsburg was a valuable complement to the discussions we have in class.

U.S. Supreme Court Associate Justice
Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Me
Members of the local press covered the event. One journalist asked Justice Ginsburg what it was like to be selected as one of the 100 most powerful women in the world. The judge assumed that her name appeared on the list because of her position on the court, and she admitted that she would not have her job if fortune did not work in her favor. Her answer made me recall the conversation I had with her before the program got going.

During our chat, she seemed genuinely interested in the work I am doing and wondered what it must be like to be doing it at a time when the country is undergoing so much change. I didn't offer an answer to that question. But I did tell her that it was not the kind of experience I anticipated. Between the time I applied for the job and the day I started work, Tunisia gave birth to the Arab Spring and found itself charting a course for its future while the rest of the world watches to see what will happen next. In my mind, I have to give some credit to the angels of fortune for putting me where I am today.

Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Free for All

The roads of Tunis are not for the faint of heart. I've been stunned by the unregulated way both drivers and pedestrians seem to conduct themselves. This is what have observed thus far:
  1. Lane lines are for decoration only; nobody pays attention to them. Ever!
  2. There's one rule that applies at an intersection: Go! It's the other guy's job to avoid you.
  3. When you encounter a traffic signal, you can proceed only when you see either a green, yellow or red light. This is not an exaggeration.
  4. There's no rule against making a left turn from the right lane or vice versa. 
  5. If you missed the street where you wanted to turn, just back up. The drivers behind you will just have to move out of the way.
  6. One way streets are just a suggestion. This is also not an exaggeration.
The chaos creates so much stress that one of the locals I've met says she takes a deep breath whenever she gets behind the wheel. Things are just that bad. At least I have not seen anyone attempt to text and drive under these conditions.

From what I gather, driving rules have always been observed with some flexibility in Tunis. But the situation apparently got worse after the revolution. Ever since then, the police are not as visible as they used to be. So you find more and more drivers doing whatever they can get away with.

I don't know if the traffic rules are the only laws that Tunisians are observing with less regularity in the wake of the revolution. If not, let's hope the country doesn't take too long to get its new government up and running. I can't imagine that Tunisians fought a revolution to gain the freedom to live without rules.

Sunday, January 29, 2012

The Ambassador's Ball

This past Friday evening, nearly all of Tunis was celebrating in one way or another. Most people were cheering the country's victory over Niger in the Africa Cup of Nations, an annual soccer tournament that seems to have the stature of the World Series. Friday night also happened to be the date of the U.S. Ambassador's Winter Ball, one of the two big events sponsored each year by the Embassy. I was one of the lucky ones who attended.

U.S. Ambassador to Tunisia Gordon Gray and me
It was at an elegant hotel in the nearby suburb of Gammarth. Everybody seemed to be ready for a good time. And Ambassador Gordon Gray was no exception. I had a chance to chat with him a bit. He's an approachable guy with an easy sense of humor. He was also the face of the U.S. government when it criticized the way Tunisian security forces treated protesters during last year's revolution. Other criticisms expressed by his predecessor helped stoke the flames of discontent when Wikileaks revealed his remarks late in 2010.

The ball was my first encounter with such a large gathering of U.S. nationals. Most of the ones I spoke with could carry on a conversation in French or Arabic or both. Yet it was remarkable how many of them said they had a hard time understanding the frarabic that people speak in Tunisia. That was reassuring to hear, because I was beginning to think it was just me.

The language situation may be changing. Ever since the revolution, English seems to be coming into vogue at the expense of French. It remains to be seen whether Tunisians will get better at English, or whether the current blend of French and Arabic will simply start to incorporate elements of English. If that happens, future visitors may have to cope with having to understand something you might call fraraglish!

Thursday, January 26, 2012

Justice Breyer Speaks

U.S. Supreme Court Associate Justice Stephen Breyer
Yesterday, I had a field trip of sorts with my students. We carpooled to the American Embassy to attend a digital video conference with Justice Stephen Breyer of the U.S. Supreme Court. It's not every day that someone of his stature sets aside a portion of his day to share with you. So I was really looking forward to the event.

The U.S. Embassy has consistently reached out in various ways to support the masters program in common law at the University of Carthage. In fact it was someone at the Embassy who advised me to consider teaching in the program as a Fulbright Scholar. The Embassy was also instrumental in arranging this event between Justice Breyer and the students. However, the audience also included a few other members of the local legal community.

Justice Breyer appeared on a screen from a conference room at the Supreme Court in Washington, D.C., and he chose to speak entirely in French. Because Tunisia is in the process of writing a new constitution, he focused on the distinguishing combination of features that has made the American system work in America. He paid particular attention to the need for an independent judicial branch whose decisions are respected by the general public and the other branches of government even when those decisions are unpopular.

My Masters Students in Common Law
at the University of Carthage
It was a wonderful lesson in civics for me. But he stressed that the American system will not necessarily work anywhere else in the world, including post revolutionary Tunisia. So, even though Tunisians might be able to learn something from the American experience, Tunisians would have to write a constitution that works for Tunisia and it's unique situation.

The students took full advantage of the chance to ask some very penetrating and insightful questions. But the caliber of the questions did not surprise me. In the time I have spent as their professor, I have come to expect nothing less. It only reinforced in my mind why the University of Carthage is often described as the pinnacle of higher education in Tunisia.