An American Abroad

Archives for September 2014

Beach Clean-Up

On Friday, my Access class took the TOEFL Junior, a high-stress testing experience for all. And so on Saturday, we celebrated by doing a beach clean-up. Litter is a big problem in Sousse and community service projects are a component of the Access program, so it seemed like a perfect fit.


The other two Amideast teachers (Jenn and David) and I met up with our students in the late afternoon as the light was turning golden.



We passed out gloves and huge heavy-duty trash bags and the kids fanned out to pick up the garbage. While our students scrambled to be part of the class that picked up the most trash, several Sousse residents came over to ask us where we were from and to express their gratitude for our project. One man said he had seen some British tourists at the beach earlier that day taking pictures of the garbage that litters the beach and he had wanted to cry. Seeing us, he said, made him feel hopeful again.























However, not everyone was so supportive. One of our students was hit in the face by another kid just for the hell of it, maybe because he thought picking up trash was for dorks. There was a motorcycle policeman nearby who gave chase to the assailant. Just as the student who’d been struck was finished telling us the story, the cop pulled up with the miscreant on the back of his motorcycle. He made the kid who’d hit our student apologize to him and kiss him on the cheeks: street justice, Tunisian style.

It was a fun day. All in all, our forty students collected over 80 bags of trash.


And my class won the trash competition, the prize being a trip to an ice-cream spot two weeks from now. But when we saw how disappointed the other students were, we decided that even though ice cream for all was not technically in the budget, we will reach into our own pockets and fund an ice cream celebration for all Access students. They were all enthusiastic and did a terrific (and much-needed) job.

Apartment Project

One of my resolutions on coming to Tunisia was to make my living space cozier than what I had in China. True, my apartment here will probably not be a long-term home, but even so I want it to be comfortable and pleasing.

I wanted a big desk, and when I saw some discarded cabinet doors and a stainless steel table base mouldering away on the terrace outside Amideast‘s offices, I had an idea. This is how it developed.





Also, when I was in El Jem, I bought an old window grate which someone had set into a wood frame and decorated with a folk art motif. It looks at home now on a wall in my apartment, just north of a couple of Vietnamese poster coasters that I picked up in Hoi An.


Next step: finding some posters for my blank walls.

Unidentified Dogs

I saw these two unusual puppies in the Tunis train station on the way to Sidi Bou Saïd last weekend.


I posted the pic to Facebook in hopes that one of my friends could ID them. But the closest I got was a suggestion that they are Catahoulas, which seems unlikely (though not impossible) in this part of the world. So I’m posting them to the wider internet.

Can anyone identify what breed they are?

Journey Back to Sousse

The journey back from Sidi Bou Saïd began on a light rail metro that connects Tunis to its northern suburbs. Some kids were having fun prying the doors open and hanging out of the train, or getting off at each station and then running back in once the train began to move again.


On the short walk from the light rail station to the inter-city train station, I caught a few more glimpses of Tunis, a city I’ve now been through three times but have yet to explore in any depth.



But apparently it has hipsters.


The train trip back to Sousse began uneventfully right around dusk. An hour later and about halfway home, however, the train died without warning. The engine shut down and the power went off. It was dark out and there were no lights or signs of settlements outside the train. The emergency lighting was feeble, just a few faintly-glowing bulbs that collectively put out fewer lumens than a bathroom nightlight. There were no official announcements of any kind, no conductors walking through the cars to check on people.

And so we waited while the temperature in the car climbed.

The people in my first-class carriage were in a jovial mood. I was traveling with one of my Amideast colleagues, David Thompson, who struck up a conversation with some of the people seated around us. Of course, being from America in this part of the world is a great conversation-starter. I was tired from the day of sightseeing and wasn’t in the mood to chat, but I listened in the dark, trying to follow the flow of Arabic, French, and English. The German man seated behind me was drawn into the conversation. I heard a question posed to him, one I’ve heard more often in Tunisia than in Asia or the US: “What religion are you?”

The German man said he really didn’t have a religion.

This provoked expressions of surprise from his interlocutors.

“So what do you believe?” a young man asked him. “You can’t just believe in nothing!”

I was glad when the conversation turned to other topics.

After about an hour, a rumor swept through the darkened carriage, namely, that another train was coming to take the Sousse-bound passengers to their destination. Though I was skeptical at first, this turned out to be true. We gathered our belongings and made our way to the platform between cars to disembark. The darkness outside was disorienting, as was the one-meter drop from the carriage onto the tracks. Again, there were no railway employees to be seen and no step-stools to make getting down onto the rocky ballast easier. A young Tunisian man and I volunteered to help a plump woman out of the carriage. As she stood sideways in the doorway, the other guy reached up and grabbed her around her waist in front while I grabbed her from behind. On three, we lifted her out of the carriage and set her safely down.

The rescue train had electricity, lights, and air conditioning. As we settled into our new seats, a woman in our new carriage began to wail and sob uncontrollably. I never did find out why. That dampened what had been, up to that point, a pretty upbeat mood among the passengers.

A few days later, I heard a tale from a colleague at work that some people on our train had been robbed while we were stalled on the tracks. The story was that a group of guys walked through the darkened carriages and took people’s luggage from right under their noses. Was that why the woman was sobbing? Given my own experience with theft aboard the same train, the story didn’t seem impossible, but I was never able to verify it.

We finally got back to Sousse about two hours late. Even with the hassle on the train ride home, it was a fine trip.

Sidi Bou Saïd: Ennejma Ezzahra

The last stop for me in Sidi Bou Saïd was a tour of Ennejma Ezzahra (The Star of Venus), the grand villa built in 1912 by Baron Rodolphe d’Erlanger. Photography isn’t allowed inside the villa, but here are the views of the approach and a shot from inside the villa looking out.




The baron was a painter, an enthusiastic proponent of Arab culture, and a musicologist. As The Rough Guide to Tunisia notes, he “was one of the moving spirits behind the important inaugural Congress on Arab Music, held in Cairo in 1932, the first time Arab music had been treated as a whole and as a culture heritage worthy of both study and preservation.” He collected many traditional musical instruments, published a journal devoted to Arab music, and painted many portraits of Arab musicians. He wrote a six-volume treatise on the history of Arab music and maintained his own private orchestra. Fittingly, his villa today is now known as The Center of Arab and Mediterranean Music. It houses the Baron’s collection of instruments and is used regularly as a performance venue.

One of the most interesting feature of the villa is a water channel that runs through the entrance hall to the formerly open-air (now covered) plaza where performances take place. Apparently the Baron believed that the sound of gently flowing water enhanced the aural experience.

The villa itself would be a must-see on anyone’s Sidi Bou Saïd itinerary as a showcase for various Arab design styles. There is a cedar-ceilinged room built from wood imported from Lebanon. There are alabaster lamps built right into marble walls. Every room has a pleasing symmetry to it; it you see a bed built into one side of a room, you can bet that there will be an identical bed built into the opposite side. The villa was used as a location for a film adaptation of Lawrence Durrell’s Justine.

There is also an fascinating story about the Baron’s son, Leo d’Erlanger and his American wife that is recounted in a wonderful 1987 New York Times article:

As the stuff of romance, Edwina Prue’s story was hard to beat. There she was, a poor girl from America in a railroad station in London in the 1920’s when a nobleman saw her and fell in love with her. He did not introduce himself, but later traced her to her home in the United States, sent her orchids and a letter, and eventually married her.

And so Miss Edwina Prue, born in New York and brought up on a ranch in New Mexico, became Baroness Edwina d’Erlanger, wife of Baron Leo d’Erlanger. She is a widow now, after 47 years of marriage, in her 80’s and spending her time, variously, in Geneva, in London and in a palace here [in Sidi Bou Saïd] that many rate as one of North Africa’s treasures.

I hope to return sometime for a concert in this incredible space.

Sidi Bou Saïd: Around Town, Part 2

The area around Sidi Bou Saïd was settled in ancient times. There are fragments of some Punic flooring here, suggesting that there were villas there even in the third century BCE. It’s located amid what remains of Carthage, a great metropolis before it was destroyed by Rome in 146 BCE. The town was established in the 13th century, but the buildings that stand here today generally date back only to the 19th and 20th centuries. The main street winds up a hill to a cliff from which I looked out across the Bay of Tunis all the way to Cap Bon. It’s a well-scrubbed town, clean and well-kept. I tend to like a little more grit and decay, but there’s no denying Sidi Bou’s charms.












Sidi Bou Saïd: Around Town, Part 1

After touring the Dar El Annabi, I went walking around the town. In 1912, an eccentric French painter and musicologist, Baron Rodolphe d’Erlanger, built an enormous Moorish villa in town and then compelled the town to adopt a by-law mandating that all houses be painted blue and white. The result is either charming or a bit de trop, depending on one’s point of view. The town presents dozens of picture-perfect scenes, but it’s also a tourist trap where the souk sells the same t-shirts and mass-produced ceramics that can be bought elsewhere in Tunisia. Even so, Sidi Bou is well worth the trip.

















Sidi Bou Saïd: The Dar El Annabi

On Sunday, I traveled by taxi, train, bus, and light rail trolley to Sidi Bou Saïd, a pretty town nestled on the coast amid the few remnant ruins of Carthage. This trip was not about ancient archaeology, but about the artists and writers who visited or stayed and, for a time, made Sidi Bou Saïd famous among the continental intelligentsia. Paul Klee, Simone de Beauvoir, Albert Camus, Andre Gide, Flaubert, and Cervantes all made their way there.

Almost as soon as I arrived, I toured the Dar El Annabi, a traditional Tunisian house originally owned by a local mufti. Some of its 55 rooms are still occupied by the mufti’s grandson, a cardiologist. It’s a fascinating look at Tunisian design and artistic sensibilities. These pictures were all taken inside his house.















And for those wondering where Sidi Bou Saïd is, I was here:

Epistemic Closure, Tunisian Style

“If they can get you asking the wrong questions, they don’t have to worry about answers.”

— Thomas Pynchon

I had a discussion with some twenty-something Tunisians recently that left me discouraged. When the conversation turned to current events and the horrors that ISIS is inflicting on the people of Iraq and Syria, the conspiracy theories began to fly.

“Ive heard that ISIS is actually just an invention of the Americans and the Israelis,” said one. “I mean, if the US wanted to stop them, they could, but they don’t. Why? It’s because they don’t want to. They want to keep Muslims weak. It’s the same thing they did with South Sudan, dividing the country to make it weaker.”

“Did ISIS really kill those journalists?” another asked. “It doesn’t make sense. America is the most powerful country in the world. If those journalists had really been in danger, America would have rescued them. The whole thing was faked just to give America a reason to attack Muslims.”

And on and on, in that vein. Sometimes there were references to “Jew armies,” presumably referring to the IDF.

The people saying these things were college-educated, intelligent, secular-seeming, and western-oriented. But the common thread in their discourse was the premise that America, Europe and Israel were nearly omnipotent and omniscient, and therefore that everything that happened in the world was under their control. Once you accept that notion, you start to construct zany conspiracy theories to explain away Muslim-on-Muslim violence. I was reminded of the crazy conspiracy theories which posited that 9/11 was actually a “false flag” operation by the US, Israel or the UN.

Where to begin to break this circle of epistemic closure? The belief that America controls everything gives rise to conspiracy theories which reinforce the notion that America controls everything, which in turn reinforce the conspiracy theories, and so on. Challenges to either pole of this belief system only serve to reinforce it.

American culture is hardly immune to faulty thinking and kooky ideas, but somehow these phenomena are easier to see in other peoples. I have no sense yet of how widespread this kind of thinking is in Tunisian society. My hope is that it’s anomalous; my fear is that it isn’t.

The Y-Chromosome Café

This is a sidewalk café across the street from AMIDEAST Sousse. Notice anything about the clientele?


They all have Y-chromosomes.

Where are the women? The uneasy feeling I get looking at this reminds me of how I used to get creeped out in Indiana, wondering what they had done with all the black people.

It’s not that Tunisian women are forbidden to go to street cafés. It’s more that they are kept away from such places by culture and habit.

I have seen a few — a very few — women at sidewalk cafés. There are a fair number of women at my favorite café, but it’s not outside on the street. I also see women going shopping, working in shops and stores, and going from place to place. But they don’t hang out at streetside cafés. Are there public places that aren’t quite as visible where women congregate? I don’t know yet.