An American Abroad

Anne Frank’s Message to Sousse

Terrorists today carried out an attack in Sousse, Tunisia, where I lived from August 2014 to February 2015. Much like the March 18 attack at the Bardo Museum in Tunis, today’s slaughter was both an attack on specific human lives and an attack on the Tunisia’s economy and its fledgling democracy.

Terrorism is a worldwide scourge. It can happen anywhere, at a church in Charleston, South Carolina, in a train station in Kunming, China, or in a museum of Roman antiquities. Despite the horrendous bloodletting, the world is, by and large, a safe and wonderful place. As Anne Frank (who knew firsthand the effects of fanatical hatred) wrote in her teenage diary,

In spite of everything I still believe that people are really good at heart. I simply can’t build up my hopes on a foundation consisting of confusion, misery, and death. I see the world gradually being turned into a wilderness, I hear the ever approaching thunder, which will destroy us too, I can feel the sufferings of millions and yet, if I look up into the heavens, I think that it will all come right, that this cruelty too will end, and that peace and tranquility will return again.

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But Anne Frank was not advocating that people wait passively for things to get better. Elsewhere in her diary, she wrote:

How wonderful it is that nobody need wait a single moment before starting to improve the world.

The terrorism of al-Qaeda and ISIS, like the terrorism of the Nazis, is not born of strength. Terrorism is a tactic of the weak. Resort to it is a sign of desperation, not power. The people I met during my time in Tunisia know this deep in their bones. It doesn’t make terrorism less scary, since you can be killed just as dead by a weak man as a strong one. But it does mean that the terrorists won’t win in the end. They may and probably will score tactical “successes” here and there, but the ideology behind the terror is spent. Attacks like the slaughter on the beach in Sousse today are like tantrums thrown by children who realize that they can’t have their way. Those who commit them are not brave; they are cowards.

So to my students, colleagues, and friends in Sousse, I say take heart. You are strong. It is the terrorists who are weak.

Terror at the Bardo

Today I woke to the news about the terror attacks at the Bardo Museum in Tunis. Having been to the Bardo in late January, I can picture the scene there very clearly. Seeing the photos of frightened tourists sitting on the familiar ancient Roman mosaic floors brought the terror home to me.


(Photo: Farouk Afi)

I spent the morning and early afternoon compulsively searching news sites for new information and contacting Tunisian friends and coworkers to make sure they were OK. The school I taught at, AMIDEAST Sousse, was closed for the day in light of the attacks as a precautionary measure.

My thoughts and hopes are with Tunisia tonight, the small country on the North African coast that welcomed me as a resident for seven months. When taxi drivers in Sousse would ask me what I thought of Tunisia, I would usually say that the best thing about Tunisia is Tunisians. The people I know there are no doubt horrified by what happened today and doubly disgusted that these acts of murder and savagery were committed by those who purport to carry the flag of Islam. I share their feelings.

One year ago, there was a terror attack in Kunming, China, about 70 miles north of where I was living. Like the attack on the Bardo, the Kunming attack took place in an building I had recently been in and knew well. At that time, I wrote:

I can well imagine the horror that the people at the Kunming train station felt as maniacs with two-foot knives ran through the station and indiscriminately stabbed, sliced and hacked away at innocent travelers. My heart goes out the victims and their families.

I feel the same way today about the people at the Bardo. And I hope I never have to write words like these again.

Support for Missing Tunisian Journalists

I saw this billboard opposite the Tunis train station today.


It’s a proclamation of support for Sofiene Chourabi and Nadhir Ktari, two Tunisian journalists who disappeared in Libya. ISIS subsequently reported that it had executed them, but there are now reports coming out of Libya that they are alive.

The images on the billboard were striking — the tied and hooded camera and keyboard. It’s reflective of the kind of free speech that is common in Tunisia and sorely lacking in other parts of the Arab world.

Terrorist Threats Against Foreign Teachers in the MENA Region

Yesterday I attended a meeting in Tunis about safety and personal security here in Tunisia. It was led by David Santiago, a former U.S. Marine who was stationed at the embassy here and who now is the Security Director for the American Cooperative School of Tunis. He gave an excellent presentation, after which I checked out his expat security blog and subscribed to his Twitter feed. I recommend both.

We discussed the fact that recently there has been discussion on ISIS and other jihadist websites about attacking foreign teachers and foreign schools in the Middle East, North Africa, and elsewhere. American and international schools are viewed as “softer,” easier targets than embassies and other more secure institutions. Various American embassies have put out warnings about this. Reportedly, schools in Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates, Qatar, Egypt, Jordan, Turkey, Bahrain, Oman, Kuwait, Sudan, Nigeria, Morocco, Malaysia, India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Indonesia — and Tunisia — were mentioned in the jihadist discussion.

An article that came out yesterday states that Egypt has arrested someone who posted threats against foreign schools and teachers on jihadist websites. But the discussion is out there. I hope my friends and colleagues who teach abroad will be vigilant.

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.

Yuxi In Bloom, Under Construction, On Guard

Spring has arrived in Yuxi and the public gardens are in bloom.

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Other parts of town are considerably less scenic right now. There is a new mayor here, known to everyone as “Mr. Finger”: he points at a building and BOOM, it’s gone the next day. There are enormous highrise shopping and residential complexes being built in two different locations and an underground shopping plaza being put beneath one of Yuxi’s major commercial streets. There is a new outpatient care building being added to Yuxi People’s Hospital and numerous other medium-sized buildings sprouting up all over town.

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Meanwhile in the wake of the Kunming terror attack two weeks ago, there are still armed police and soldiers stationed around the schools and near shopping centers. They aren’t keen on being photographed, but I managed to snap this pic of them near a school.

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Terrorism’s Aftermath

In the five days since the horrible attack on people at the Kunming train station just 70 miles north of here, I’ve seen how the Chinese government and people react to terrorism. The current death toll is 33, with 130 injured, of whom 70 are in critical condition. It’s a little early for me to try to spin grand theories about what all this means. What follows is more of a notebook of observations.

  • I’ve seen detachments of police (or soldiers?) decked out in full body armor and carrying machine guns around Yuxi. Two days ago, they were near a construction site where a crowd of people had gathered to watch workmen put a temporary bridge over an excavation site. Last night I saw them standing outside Walmart. Today they were at a local public school. This is in addition to an increased unarmed police presence on the streets. And is it my imagination, or are those police sporting new uniforms?
  • I also saw a group of six Communist Party cadres dressed in civilian clothes and red armbands, carrying long thick wooden sticks, and walking in a somewhat ragged line around the public school. They were all men and all over fifty: not a particularly intimidating sight.
  • My passport was checked at the Mengzi train station on Sunday.
  • I interpret this as a big show designed to convince the people that the government and the party are going to keep them safe. Shows of police power and irregulars with big sticks makes me and my British colleagues feel less safe. The reaction of my Chinese colleagues and friends, though, is just the opposite. Here is a cultural impasse; I don’t understand the Chinese reaction and they don’t understand mine.
  • Chinese news stories are heaping lavish praise on the heroism of police on the scene at the time of the attacks. Stories in the western media, however, quote Chinese people as being less than pleased with the police response.
  • Rumors abound. I’ve heard that a bomb went off in Chengdu on the same day as the knife attack, that all the Muslim restauranteurs vanished from the streets of Kunming after the attack, that people wearing shirts with Turkic writing on them have been attacked, and that people with brown skins have been chased by angry mobs. I doubt most of these stories, but the point is that the state media’s refusal to go into detail about the attacks creates fertile ground for wild rumors.
  • Speaking of Uighurs, it’s been reported on American news sites that the Chinese government and news media have yet to use the word “Uighur” in any articles about the attack, referring only generally to “terrorists” and “separatists” and “the Xinjiang region.”
  • Atrocity photos of people injured or killed in the attack are circulating on Weibo and Weishin, pictures that are much more horrific than anything shown on TV.

Terrorist Attack in Kunming

In the last 24 hours, I’ve received many messages from friends and family expressing concern for my safety in the wake of yesterday’s horrific terrorist attack in Kunming. I appreciate all those communications; it’s nice to feel looked after by friends half a world away. Let me assure everyone that I’m fine and unharmed and so are the people I know there.

Kunming is about 70 miles north of where I live in Yuxi. Fortunately, I was nowhere near there when the attack occurred. I’ve been to Kunming about ten times, either passing through en route to other places or shopping for things (e.g., coffee) that are hard to find here in Yuxi. I know the area around the train station where the attack occurred. It’s a transportation hub that includes the bus station I use and the place where I get the shuttle to the Kunming airport. I have two friends there, former colleagues of mine who were among the first to welcome me to China.

I share the worldwide revulsion at yesterday’s events. I am shaken by the news photos of people fleeing the attack and running down Beijing Nanlu, a street I’ve walked every time I go to Kunming. Having just taken a train trip, I can well imagine the horror that the people at the Kunming train station felt as maniacs with two-foot knives ran through the station and indiscriminately stabbed, sliced and hacked away at innocent travelers. My heart goes out the victims and their families.