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.

Sunday, January 22, 2012

The Land of Tuna

Tunisians seem to have a love affair with tuna.  It appears to be everywhere.  I've been here a month and I have had the fish in ways that I never before imagined.

My very first meal in Tunis was a pizza with tuna on it.  Just about any pizzeria will offer this as a menu option.  For my money, there's no substitute for good ole pepperoni.  A few days later I had tuna in an omelet.  It turned out to be a really hearty meal that I wouldn't mind having every once in a while. Tuna is one of the ingredients in lablabi, a local favorite that I had the "pleasure" to sample in my first week here. Last week I had tuna in a crepe. The jury is still out on that one. I also find it used frequently as a garnish to a popular dipping sauce called harissa. It's something that accompanies the basket of bread you automatically get when you order a meal at just about any restaurant. In a twist on that theme, one restaurant sprinkled tuna over the house salad.

Interestingly enough, I have not had tuna in a sandwich, although I have seen it on menus in sandwich shops. But I don't think it's the tuna salad that I'm used to making for myself.  It's just plain, unadulterated tuna that you can dress up with a variety of vegetables that you might consider for a garden salad. Who knows how many other ways I will eat the fish before I leave.

When I looked into the matter, I discovered that tuna is indeed widely used in Tunisian cooking. That may be due to the fact that huge quantities of it are harvested right off the coast not far from Tunis. In fact, fishermen catch so much of it that they have to ship a lot of it overseas.

All of this led me to ask some of the locals I befriended whether the names Tunis and Tunisia are derived from the word tuna. They assured me they were not. I figured that was the case, but I had to ask just to make sure. All the same, the country would seem to have every right to call itself the Land of Tuna. 

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Happy Birthday Freedom

This past Saturday, Tunisia celebrated the first anniversary of the day when protestors forced its de facto dictator to flee the country.  In the days leading up to the weekend, you could watch any number of TV programs about the historic events that gave birth to the Arab Spring.  Everyone was talking about it, and I didn't want to miss it.

Crowds Gather at Place 14 Janvier 2011
I met my friend Ahmed downtown, where thousands of other people had gathered to commemorate the day.  We started near a clock tower located at an intersection that has been renamed Place 14 Janvier 2011, in honor of the revolution.  It's not far far from the Interior Ministry.  If we were here a year ago, we would have been dodging bullets and stones. On Saturday, we had to muscle our way through a sea of people.  All the while, various groups holding banners chanted slogans that the crowd repeated in unison.

We managed to make our way through the crowd to a barricade that surrounded the Interior Ministry itself, the flashpoint of last year's revolt.  Behind the barricade, a small cadre of police marched in formation while playing the Tunisian national anthem.  Everyone within hearing distance chimed in, singing the words with pride.

A Family Remembers a Loved One Lost
We walked further down the Avenue Habib Bourguiba, the main thoroughfare that was closed off to traffic for the day.  Along the way, we encountered lots of small groups passionately debating the future of the country.  There were also families carrying large photos of loved ones who lost their lives in the revolution.  At the other end of the street, the mood seemed to be more celebratory.  There, an enormous crowd surrounded the Theatre Principal to sing songs all afternoon long.

A Youth Waves the Flag While the Crowd Sings
As a guest in this country, I can only imagine what the first anniversary of it's revolution means to its citizens.  Only they can tell you what it was like to live under the oppression of its former president.  Only they can tell you what it was like to challenge his rule.  Only they can tell you what it has been like to live in the country while it charts a course for its future.  The one thing that seemed clear to me is that everyone out in the streets on Saturday was taking full advantage of the chance to commemorate the day in their own individual way.  I was happy to be a part of it.

Friday, January 13, 2012

School's In!

This was my first week teaching and glad it's behind me. Not because anything went terribly wrong, but because I spent the last ten days worrying that something would. Sure, I had to adjust to a new environment. But under the circumstances, things went very well.

I'm teaching in the masters program in common law at the University of Carthage. The dean of the program introduced me to a few key people the week before classes started. The program is supposed to be conducted entirely in English, so I don't have to worry about teaching in a different language. However, outside of the classroom, everybody speaks Arabic, everybody has an Arabic name, and each one seems to have at least four syllables that I can't pronounce. I'm sure their names sound like "Bob" and "Sue" to them. To me, it all sounds Greek. I now carry around a piece of paper so that I can make a written note of the people I meet and the way to pronounce their names. I'm sure they chuckle at me behind my back.

I gave myself two hours before my first class to do a couple of simple things, like print my lecture notes. That alone took a whole hour. First, the school's computer could not read my USB flash drive. So I mailed the file to myself thinking I would use the school's computer to log into my mail account and print the file directly from there. That's when I discovered that the computer keyboard doesn't look like the one I'm used to. I couldn't even type in a web address! Luckily the dean walked in and got it done for me. That may actually be in her job description because I don't believe the school has a technology department.

I'm teaching two courses to a group of 24 students. After my first day, I did not think they were much different from any group of students you would encounter in the U.S., aside from the fact that English is their third language. But on the second day, I discovered something else. By the time class was supposed to start, only one student had arrived. She told me that it's typical for students to take some extra time to show up. On that day I had to wait 15 minutes. It's something they call Tunisian time. Because the students are supposed to be learning about how things are done in the U.S., I decided to introduce them to the American adage that time is money. The next day, not a soul was late.

Sunday, January 8, 2012

Common Kindness

I moved into my apartment on the Monday after New Years Day.  Ever since then I have been spending a good part of each day running the routine errands that come with getting settled in.  In the process, I have been treated to the kind of generosity that many people told me to expect from the locals.

I get around by taxi a lot because it's incredibly cheap.  For example, my ten minute trip to the law school costs around 3 dinars, which doesn't even amount to $2.00. And the drivers don't even expect a tip!  I usually include one, but this past Friday, the driver simply refused to take it.  He was a talkative guy who, like a lot of people I meet, couldn't understand how someone who looks Tunisian doesn't talk like one. When I told him where I came from and why I was here, he said that God must be looking after me.  Considering what I have overcome so far, I wouldn't doubt that.

Just today, I had to go out to get some things.  I can usually find everything I need at the Monoprix located two blocks away. But today the tomatoes were all picked over.  So I walked to a vegetable stand a little farther down the road.  I picked up one tomato and asked the guy how much it would cost.  He just gave it to me.  Tunisia is not the richest country in the world.  If that's going to change, the merchants may want to consider taking my money a little more often. In the meantime, the people have got to rank among some of the nicest in the world.

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Small Miracles

As I was planning for this extended stay overseas, I did not give much thought to how difficult daily life could be.  In the short time I have been here, I have learned to be thankful for the small things.

I had every expectation that my bags would arrive with me.  They didn't.  I was losing hope with each passing day.  But just as I was about to write them off, the airport called me on day eight to say that one of them was in its possession.  Curiously, when I got there to retrieve it, no one seemed to have a record of anything being found.  Thankfully, the agent permitted me to personally inspect the baggage room.  To my delight I saw not one, but both of my bags!  Imagine my relief.

I also did not expect to have problems getting access to my cash.  That's because my bank assured me that my ATM card would work in any machine anywhere in the world.  Things didn't happen that way.  I must have tried machines at six different banks before I found one that worked for me.  Believe it or not, the machine that worked is owned by Amen Bank.  Now, every time I leave one of its ATMs with cash in hand, I proclaim, "Hallelujah!"

Tuesday, January 3, 2012

Sex For Sale

I spent part of New Year's Day on a walking tour guided by an acquaintance I met the day before at a cafe in the centuries-old neighborhood of Bab el Khadra.  His name is Hechmi and he speaks no English and very little French.  We did our best to understand each other, but we did not always succeed.

During the course of our walk, I tried to get him to help me understand how a man in Tunisia could find a wife when there seemed to be so few women around to meet.  The next thing I knew, we were navigating our way through a medina just off a square not far from the French Embassy.  I have since determined that Hechmi led me to a red light district that apparently was known to all the world except me.  Until now.

The place was teeming with men and even a few adolescents.  As we negotiated our way through the crowd, we passed several open doors where we were offered a glimpse of what we might want to sample.  I personally thought the merchandise could only appeal to someone with few options.  That might explain why the going rate was as low as 10 dinars (about $6.50).  Even at those prices, the vast majority of potential buyers seemed to be merely window shopping, standing outside each door salivating at the goods on display.  Considering the income of the average Tunisian, that may be all what they could afford to do, leaving them content with a memory they might later recall on a lonely night.