An American Abroad

Archives for August 2014

The Theater of Security

The four (!) security men stationed outside Le Restaurant Caruso here in Sousse were apparently chosen for their bulk and ability to scowl. I always wondered why they were there until last night.

I was finishing up my lasagna and sparkling water when I heard a hubbub outside. Through the large windows that looked out onto the sea, I saw the scene played out. A fat drunk man a thin undrunk man were arguing (a Tunisian national pastime) with increasing ferocity. Then a few ineffectual punches were thrown and the security guys reluctantly went into action and then pulled the combatants apart. A nearby woman was yelling abuse at someone in the scene. The arguers then went their separate ways.

Five minutes later, the fat drunk was back, armed with two 2x4s which he waved with exaggerated menace at the security team. They promptly and easily disarmed him and then released him to go commit his mayhem elsewhere. I left a few moments later thinking that one well-trained bouncer could have handled the situation better than the four scowling bulks.

Just a quarter-mile away from Caruso is a casino which is always attended out front by men and women carrying automatic weapons. Even to my relatively untrained eyes, these folks don’t look like they’d be of much help in a violent situation. They lack soldierliness, focus, discipline.

So my conclusion: just as in China, the authorities here put on a show of security without making anyone actually more secure.

Pro-Palestinian Demonstration

I was walking back to my Sousse hotel at about 8:00 this evening when I saw my first political demonstration in Tunisia.

There were about fifteen cars and trucks proceeding slowly along the road that leads to the sea. Men dangled out windows of the vehicles holding a roughly equal number of Tunisian and Palestinian flags. I also spied one yellow and black “R4BIA” flag of the Muslim Brotherhood. I saw no Hamas flags, however, and no guns.

Two men leaning out of either side of a pickup truck were attempting to hold a crude seven-foot replica of a Palestinian M25 Qassam rocket on the roof of the truck. It teetered and wobbled precipitously but, miraculously, didn’t fall over. The vehicles’ horns were all blowing in rhythmic unison.

There were no posters on the vehicles and the demonstrators weren’t chanting anything intelligible to me, so it was hard for me to understand precisely what was being conveyed, beyond exultant support for the Palestinian cause. Perhaps the recently-announced Gaza cease-fire between Hamas and Israel was being construed as a glorious victory for Palestine.

Taking My Class Outside

My class of AMIDEAST twelve-year-olds is wonderful: smart, funny, informed, articulate, and spirited. As we near the end of the course, I decided to get them out of the classroom and onto the terrace to have them practice giving directions in English. One student was blindfolded and another one was deputized to tell him or her how to move (“turn left!” “go straight” “turn right!”) to get through an obstacle course of desks. It was a lot of fun.

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TuniPix Mix

A miscellanea of photos I took in Sousse last week.

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Tunisian Ten

Some preliminary thoughts and observations, fifteen days in:

1. Bob Marley lives. In Tunisia. His anthems of human dignity are well-known and popular in this newly post-revolutionary society.

2. Speaking of music, last summer’s infectious Daft Punk hit, “Get Lucky,” is played in cabs and cafes. I wonder how many Tunisians grok the lyrics?

3. There is litter everywhere. I get that this is a country without the resources to spend on mere beauty. But to my mind, this doesn’t excuse ordinary people from picking up after themselves.

4. Well-heeled Libyans are crossing into Tunisia in their German luxury cars, looking to escape the violence and instability in their own country. This pushed up rents here right when I was apartment-hunting. Bummer.

5. There are lots of foreigners in this tourist town, but very few Americans. A cab driver today told me I was the first American ever to ride in his taxi. He’d been a cabbie for fifteen years.

6. I’m not a tourist; I live here. Or so I insist.

7. Malek, my Tunisian fixer and friend, was shocked that I wanted to ask my new landlord if I could paint the all-white walls of my new digs some other color. “No one in Tunisia does such a thing,” he insisted. Perhaps he was even more shocked when my landlord agreed without much fuss.

8. I lost 18 pounds during the year I lived in Asia. I fear I may gain it all back after a year in North Africa. Lots of starch, grains, bread, cheese.

9. I get a pleasure jolt rounding a corner and suddenly spying the Mediterranean glittering just a hundred yards away. I’ve never lived by the sea before. I think I like it.

10. The Sousse medina would make a great location for a movie. Its narrow labyrinthine streets defy mapping. When I’m there, the only way I can find my way out is by aiming at the sun.

Siem Reap is #7

I was pleased, but not surprised, to read just now that Siem Reap, Cambodia, was rated the seventh friendliest city in the world by Conde Nast Traveler.

When I was there in late April, I was so impressed with place that I wrote “After a few days there, I left thinking that even if Angkor was not just a tuk tuk ride away, Siem Reap would be a fine place to visit or to live.” Nice to see that the posh readers of Conde Nast think so too.

Tunsian Blue

One of the first things I noticed about Sousse was the quality of the light here. The sun reflects off the waters of the Mediterranean and illuminates the sky. The ambient light is brilliant but not harsh. It’s the kind of light that could compel a painter to set up a studio, the kind of light that poets could write about, the kind of light that could drive a man mad. For the first time I understood the irony and the majesty of the title of The Sheltering Sky.

The sky seems unnaturally blue, as if wavelengths here are just a mite shorter. It’s not quite real, like a movie shot on film stock that’s not quite right.

And these shades of blue are recapitulated in the paint used on the doors and windows of Sousse, especially in and around the medina. Call it Tunisian blue.











First Look at Sousse

After my unexpectedly costly journey from Tunis to Sousse, I woke up Saturday morning determined to look at my new hometown through fresh eyes.

This is what I saw.

Here’s the view from my hotel room balcony. Note the church — an unexpected find in this Muslim country.



As I walked out of the hotel lobby, this was my view of the Mediterranean Sea at the end of the street.


The beach is not a Beautiful People’s playground; it’s much more of a local family scene. The sand is fine and the water is clear and unimaginably blue.







I made my first foray into the medina, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, a huge walled city-within-a-city.















I didn’t explore ten percent of it, but I’m sure I’ll be back often.

I was here:

A Low Point

My travel luck ran out last Friday on the train from Tunis to Sousse.

It was six in the morning and I was jet-lagged, insufficiently caffeinated, and burdened by two heavy suitcases, a heavy leather duffel, and a bulging nylon shoulder bag.

As I struggled to board the train, a fellow pushed by me. Then he feigned confusion, turned around, and pushed by me again. And again.

My only thought at that time was “what a rude idiot.” It never even occurred to me that he was actually a smart thief.

It wasn’t until I got to my seat and saw a zippered compartment of my shoulder bag open that I realized what had happened: I’d been robbed of an cash envelope that had been in my bag.

The only other time I was ever robbed while traveling was in Bath, England, about 25 years ago, at a very posh B&B. I suppose I can bear it once every quarter century.

I think of my loss now as tuition in the College of Hard Knocks & Unmindfulness. Last Friday, though, I was pretty miserable. And my first look at Sousse was colored by the loss of my hard-earned cash. I thought seriously of turning around and heading back to the US or to China.

I’ve since recovered most of my usual good humor and curiosity about Tunisia and the world around me. But in my last 14 months of travel to ten different countries, I have never felt so low.

First Day in Tunisia

On the evening of Wednesday August 6, I boarded a 767 in Detroit and flew east into the darkness. Eight hours later I landed in Rome and it was mid-morning. I had forgotten about the southern European custom of applauding when a plane lands.

I loved hearing Italian spoken and watching the people as I waited for my flight to Tunis, where I’ll be staying one night before heading to my new home in Sousse. One hour after I boarded that flight, I stepped off the jet stairs onto African ground for the first time in my life.

I chatted with my cab driver in French on the way to the hotel, recalling phrases I’ve heard in French movies and that I’d practiced in French classes so long ago. I was able to communicate pretty well in that language, though due to my recent year in China I said xiexie instead of merci and dui instead of oui. The French spoken with a Tunisian accent seems devoid of inner R’s, e.g., “centrale” is pronounced “centale.”

After a nap, I went out walking. My hotel is near Place d’Afrique, a nice-looking park on Rue de Palestine. I was here:

The neighborhood is a mix of embassies, foreign institutes, and auto repair shops. The architecture is a mix of decaying French colonial buildings, North African buildings with elaborate tilework in their foyers and fancy metal gates at their doors, and even some Art Deco.

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On nearby Rue Jerusalem, there is a trolley line and an old (Greek Orthodox?) church:

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Speaking of religion, I noted that women who wear a headscarf are in the minority here. It’ll be interesting to see how that varies once I get out of the capital city.

I chatted with a few people, and every Tunisian I talked to said not to trust Tunisians. The cretin’s paradox again. But so far, nothing has gone amiss.

Tomorrow morning I’ll get up very early and take a train to Sousse. There I hope to meet my new colleagues and find a place to live.

As I begin this new chapter, I’ve appreciated all the encouraging emails, texts, tweets, comments, and Facebook posts I’ve gotten from friends and strangers alike. Keep those cards and letters coming.