An American Abroad

Archives for October 2014

My Monday: Camels, Cows and Candidates

On Mondays I head south along the Mediterranean coast to Mahdia, where I teach English classes to two groups of executives at Vitalait, one of Tunisia’s largest dairy products companies. I practice my French during the 70 minute trip with my driver, Mr. Dahoud. Mr. Dahoud keeps his radio tuned to a station that plays traditional Tunisian music. In the surging strings and operatic vocals, I hear echoes of the histrionic Tunisian rhetorical style.

Along the way I see camels. As many times as I’ve driven by them now, it’s still a neck-snapping not-in-Kansas-anymore moment. A train of about a dozen decked out in dromedary finery wait in a scrub field by the side of the highway. This is a tourist attraction, actually, but is still a sight to behold. As we drive further south, we pass through a town where there is a non-touristical working-class camel tethered to a post outside a small butcher shop. I assume the camel there belongs to the butcher. Perhaps he uses it to carry meat to his store. Perhaps it’s something of a family pet. Or perhaps it’s destined to become part of the butcher’s wares. I have no idea.

Finally we arrive at Vitalait’s headquarters and primary factory. There aren’t actually any cows there, though I always joke that the cows are my best students. I take Mr. Dahoud’s picture and head inside.

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I set up in a conference room and my morning students file in. These folks are the executive team of the company and their English is quite good already. Today they want to talk about yesterday’s election, so we go around the room sharing our experiences. Most the people in my class got text messages the night before the election telling them exactly which room in which school they were to vote in. No one reports the whole process taking longer than ten minutes. I get the same reports from my afternoon class, which is drawn from middle management. In both groups, there is a sense of pride, patriotism, and quiet relief.

Later that day, clouds are gathering as we start our drive back to Sousse. “Do you think it will rain?” I ask Mr. Dahoud in French. “God willing,” he replies in Arabic. I reflect for a moment on how the sentiment of that comment is so contrary to the typical American response. The desert is never far away here.

It does start to rain. And off to the east I see a double rainbow form.

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I don’t believe in portents, but if I did, this sight would sum up the mood of Tunisians right now.

Tunisian Elections

Except for the soldiers and armor-clad police standing around with Austrian Steyr Aug assault weapons slung over their shoulders, the Tunisian legislative elections here in Sousse resembled elections back in the States.



I visited two polling places this morning, both of which were located inside gated public schools. The process seemed orderly and peaceful. Posters on the walls explained the voting process.


Voters passed through the gates and consulted lists of names that told them where to vote. They located their voting rooms and checked in with their Tunisian ID cards. They were given paper ballots listing the names, numbers and photographs of each party. They marked their ballots while standing, folded them, and then dropped them in a ballot box. Their index fingers were dipped in indelible purple ink and they were on their way. The whole process took my friend Malek about ten minutes. There were police inside the polling places but my friend Malek who voted there reported that they did not closely observe or interfere with the voting process.


One of my friends, however, reported to me that after she voted, she was approached by a Salafist who asked whom she supported. When she proudly told him that she’d voted for one of the secular parties, the Salafaist demanded her name and phone number. Naturally, she refused to give that information to him. While she is a strong woman, she saw the conversation as an attempt to intimidate her.

Some people came to the polls dressed in the Tunisian national colors of red and white. I saw one little girl carrying a Tunisian flag as she went with her mother to vote. Cars drove by from time to time bedecked with flags. The mood was peaceful and happy, the presence of the gun-toting soldiers and police notwithstanding. I saw no campaigning in the vicinity of either polling place. Some people brought their children to see what a real election was like.


In both places, international election observers were very much in evidence. I talked with some of them from the National Democratic Institute. Some of their team had been here for months monitoring the run-up to today. Others had been in country only a few days. Some planned to stay until the presidential elections next month were complete. Other observers included people from a Tunisian lawyers’ committee and the Carter Institute.

The campaign that preceded the election was also remarkably orderly. I remember being in Bangladesh just after elections there and seeing political posters and graffiti on every available vertical surface in a rhetorical collage of images and words. Here in Tunisia, however, there are designated places for political posters, and every poster must hang in its properly-numbered equally-sized rectangle.


These rules were strictly adhered to, at least here in Sousse. There were also parades and rallies, but even these were relatively quiet affairs: a dozen cars driving down the street with their horns blaring, a lone campaigner passing out literature in a cafe, a rally whose sounds wafted into my neighborhood one night around 10:00.



As I write this, the polls are still open. Some of my students have been hired to work tonight as ballot-counters in a shift that begins at 8 pm and runs to 4 am. I look forward to listening to their stories in the coming week.

An American Looks at the Upcoming Tunisian Elections

Tunisia’s legislative elections take place this coming Sunday, the first under the new constitution that was adopted following the 2011 revolution.

Most people I’ve talked to expect that what follows will be a coalition government of the largest secular and Islamist parties, accompanied by the usual horse-trading for cabinet posts and the perquisites of power. This outcome is variously viewed as:

a) a cynical sell-out of political principles by the parties involved,

b) a pragmatic and desirable result in a region where is can be dangerous to exclude either the religious or the secular parties from power,

c) a good excuse not to vote,

d) an authentic democratic expression of the popular will,

d) a mere rearranging of the deck chairs on the sinking ship of Arab democracy,

e) an historical echo of the unity politics of the United States immediately following the adoption of the 1789 constitution, or

f) a hopeful rebuttal to those who believe that Arab culture is incompatible with democracy.

Or any combination of the above.

I’ve seen things that make me hopeful about the establishment of democracy here. Foremost is a deeply-ingrained and pervasive disputatiousness and a willingness to speak out. When I do something in my classroom that students perceive as unfair, I hear about it. At great length and volume. Their respect for me as their teacher does not prevent them from challenging me. I see this same dynamic between employers and employees, between neighbors, and among people engaged in political discussions. Sometimes the Tunisian love of dispute produces histrionics, but I can forgive that since I understand how strong the fundamental instinct for challenging authority and ideas is. It seems to me like the kind of soil that democracy could take root in.

The Tunisian people are well-educated. Maybe because Tunisia is a small country, they know a fair amount about international politics. True, this knowledge has some blind spots and failings. There is a love of conspiracy theories that arrange the chance events of the day into grand cabals. There is an obsession with the plight of the Palestinians that’s nurtured by the media, distracts people from conditions here in Tunisia, and almost seems to be a kind of good-guys-versus-bad-guys entertainment. But even so, I am pleasantly surprised almost every day by the number of college graduates I meet, by the number of languages people speak, and by the widespread knowledge of the applied social sciences of management and business. The universities in some Arab countries turn out Islamic studies majors by the hundreds; I have yet to meet such a student here. If education is the rain that’s needed for democracy’s growth, then this is a wet climate.

Tunisia is not a country that is pulled apart by deep religious differences. This is a Sunni Muslim nation; the religious divides that rend countries like Iraq and Lebanon don’t exist here. What’s more, Tunisians seem to think of themselves as one people, one culture. I had a discussion recently with a student about subcultures, which he said did not exist in Tunisian society. “What about the Berbers?” I asked. “We’re all Berbers,” he replied. While that statement is not at all accurate from an ethnographic point of view, it does convey the sense of cultural unity that Tunisians feel. A monoculture isn’t necessary for democracy’s growth, but I suspect it makes it easier, especially during the early years of its establishment.

There are, however, two factors that may make it difficult for Tunisian democracy to flourish.

First among these is a moribund and isolated economy that is stifled by red tape. While there are, as noted above, a number of well-educated people here, they can’t get jobs. We Americans sell the idea that education is the ticket to employment, but that just isn’t true in Tunisia. Unemployment is high. In my two and a half months here, I have yet to see a new business open. Those who are employed often work for shockingly low wages. People complain that everything costs more since the revolution. The bureaucratic rigmarole involved in the simplest of economic processes—starting a business, renting an apartment, or building out unfinished office space—is daunting. And with the red tape comes corruption, since many authorities have the power to block business ventures unless the proper palms are greased. Unless a new Tunisian democratic regime can turn the economy around, I fear for its survival.

I also fear that Tunisia’s experiment in democracy will be undermined by powerful external forces. Tunisia is small, a country geographically the size of Wisconsin and demographically the size of Ohio. There are larger, richer, and stronger forces in the world that presumably do not want a homegrown democracy established in the Arab world: the oil kingdoms of the Persian Gulf, and radical Islamist groups such as ISIS and al-Qaeda, to name two.

I’m not going to go out on a prognosticatorial limb and predict how things will shake out. I’ve developed a fondness for the Tunisian people, though, and hope that Sunday’s election goes peacefully and marks the start of a new era in Tunisian governance.


Dougga is home to the largest Roman ruins in Africa. It’s situated in The Tell, a large and thinly-populated inland region of northern Tunisia that extends to the Algerian border. It wasn’t easy to get to. At 4:30 in the morning, I walked from my apartment to a Sousse commercial district, found a taxi which took me to the railway station, rode the train to Tunis, caught a light-rail trolley across town, took a louage (a shared taxi-van) to Téboursouk, and then took another taxi to the site. But it was well worth it.


I traveled with three excellent companions from Amideast: my fellow teacher David Thompson, the American Corner coordinator Sybil Bullock, and the American Corner intern Mariem Mhiri.


We were here:

Dougga is extensive, a UNESCO World Heritage site with many temples honoring Roman gods, individual houses, a public bath, cisterns, and an amphitheater. There are Punic and Byzantine ruins at the site too. The star of the show, however, was the forum capitolium, which looked magnificent on this cloudless fall day.


The amphitheater was not nearly as large as the one at El Jem, but seemed like it would be a great place to see a play as opposed to a gladiatorial spectacle.


The ruins cover a hillside whose topography resembles that of photos I’ve seen of Tuscany. Ruins nestle amid rolling hills, olive trees, and semi-arid scrub. We met a family there who claimed Roman ancestry and ownership of the olive grove. Other that family, however, we saw fewer than a dozen other people there.

Unfortunately, my well-traveled Sony NEX-5 camera finally gave up the ghost on this trip. I’m very disappointed; it’s only two years old and I expect more longevity and durability from Sony products. I switched to my little backup Casio Exilim, but it’s not a great camera to begin with. So the photos below here were taken by David and posted with his kind permission.



This little guy followed us for some ways, perhaps looking for a handout. Alas, we had nothing to offer him.


I auditioned as Roman statuary. Don’t think I made the cut.


ISIS in Sousse?!?!

This appeared recently on the wall near a school here in Sousse and was photographed by my friend Sybil Bullock:


Yes, that’s the ISIS flag. But I’m not sure of the meaning behind it. It could just be the work of some zealous but misguided football (soccer) fans who want to project a badder-than-thou image. Or it could be something more sinister. I’m hoping for the former.

American Music at the Movies


I’ve put together a film series for the American Corner here, a library and cultural center jointly funded by Amideast and the US State Department. The idea is to present different genres of American music through the presentation of movies that feature the music in its cultural context. The first film, Lady Sings the Blues, will be shown at 5:30 this Wednesday and all are invited.

Here’s the program for the whole series:

1. Lady Sings the Blues. 1972. Jazz. Starring Diana Ross, Billy Dee Williams and Richard Pryor. The story of the life and career of legendary jazz singer Billie Holiday.

2. Crossroads. 1986. Blues. Starring Ralph Macchio, Joe Seneca, and Steve Vai. A young and gifted classical guitar player dreams of playing the blues.

3. Easy Rider. 1969. Rock ‘n’ roll. Starring Peter Fonda, Dennis Hopper, and Jack Nicholson. Two hippie bikers ride from Los Angeles to New Orleans in search of America.

4. The Commitments. 1991. R&B. Starring Robert Arkins, Michael Aherne, and Angeline Ball. A working-class Irish band is determined to bring soul music to Dublin.

5. Walk the Line. 2005. Country. Starring Joaquin Phoenix and Reese Witherspoon. A chronicle of country music legend Johnny Cash’s life and songs.

6. O Brother, Where Art Thou? 2000. Folk. Starring George Clooney, John Turturro, John Goodman, and Holly Hunter. Escaped convicts travel across Mississippi in the 1930s trying to find a buried treasure.

7. 8 Mile. 2002. Hip hop. Starring Eminem and Kim Basinger. A young white Detroit rapper tries for his chance at fame.

Istanbul: Bits & Bobs

There are always some photographs and memories that don’t fit neatly into a trip’s narrative.

These three photos were taken in or near Taksim Square. There is an old funicular line that still carries people up and down the hill from the sea.




I took these two photos because the clapboard buildings remind me of the architecture of northern New England. These buildings would not be out of place in Waterville, Maine (although Waterville doesn’t have Roman aqueducts).



So farewell to Istanbul. I’ll be back, probably around Christmas.



Istanbul: Unauthorized Public Art

One advantage of being in town when many shops were closed for a holiday weekend was that I got to see more tagging, graffiti, and other UPA (Unauthorized Public Art). The artists of Karaköy use security grates and decaying buildings as their canvases. The result is an amazing public gallery.













Istanbul: Karaköy

Karaköy is grittier than Sultanahmet, with small shops, cafes, narrow streets, graffiti, studios, music stores, vintage clothing boutiques, and picturesquely derelict buildings. In other words, my kind of place.


After a trolley ride across the Golden Horn, I looked back across the waterway at the Haggia Sophia.


I then followed the steeply sloping streets up into an old residential district and then back down to the waterfront.














I really liked this guy’s wood-fired multi-pot coffee maker.


This sheep has been dyed with henna to symbolize innocence. It is presumably taking its last walk before winding up as dinner at someone’s Eid celebration.


This family was begging on the street. I didn’t see very many people in this condition.


I snuck a picture inside a vintage clothing store.


Up this road and just around the bend is a side street that contains one of Istanbul’s red light districts.


Once upon a time it was open to all and frequented by sailors from all over the world. Recently, however, the street has been closed to foreigners. A guard stands at the metal door to the brothel street, inspecting ID cards. No Turkish ID, no entry. This is presumably an innovation of the Erdoğan government, which has been pushing Turkey in a more religious and conservative direction.

Istanbul: Sultanahmet

The Blue Mosque, the Haggia Sophia, and the Grand Bazar: the big three Istanbul tourist attractions are all located in the Sultanahmet neighborhood. But at the time I was there, the Haggia Sophia and the Grand Bazar were closed for Eid weekend. So I wandered around the area, seeing what I could see. It’s definitely touristy, but still well done.












I decided that when I die, I’d very much like to have a gravestone like this (although possibly with a Golden Retriever instead of a lion).


I was able to walk around the exterior courtyards of the Blue Mosque, but there was a two-hour wait to get inside. With my time so limited, I decided to forgo such a visit this time, but still got a few photos.





I passed by the Burned Column, where a statue of Constantine once stood. There’s not much left of old Constantine here now, the statue of him having long ago been pulled off the column and destroyed.


Nearby is the Nurusmaniye Mosque, which has the nicest public bathrooms I have ever seen.



I zig-zagged my way back to Aksaray, looking down steep streets toward the Sea of Marmara.