An American Abroad

My Old Weird French (Rental) Car

Back when I lived in Tunisia, I became fascinated with old, weird French cars. I rode in them every day back then and saw scores on the roadways. What struck me is that, for good or ill, French car manufacturers go their own way when it comes to design. That’s true of Citroëns in particular. No one could mistake an older car that came out of their design shop for anything else on the road.

Here’s one of the Tunisian Citroën 2CVs I spotted on the streets of Sousse and blogged about two and a half years ago:

So when I got the chance to rent an almost identical 2CV here on Curaçao and drive it around the island for four days, I jumped at the opportunity. The company that provides them here, Ducks United, takes its name from the popular nickname that these beloved, stalwart cars earned: the Duck. Here’s one explanation of how that name came to be: it comes

from the Ugly Duckling, a Hans Andersen fairy story. Before World War II, Citroën had a logo with a beautiful swan on it representing the floating motor (Le Moteur Flottant). At the 1948 Paris Car Show, the 2CV was likened to being an ugly duckling amongst the other handsome Citroën swans on show. Another version is that the beautiful Citroën swans had given birth to the 2CV ugly duckling. This nickname appears in many languages.

The car was delivered to the Bed & Bike Hostel where I’m staying in Willemstad. After some quick and easy paperwork formalities, the owner of the company, Geert Net, showed me how to operate the two (!) convertible roofs, the keyless ignition (a toggle switch and a push-button), the horn (a stalk protruding from the right of the steering column), the flip-up windows, and the shift. And then he left me to learn the car’s many quirks on my own.

My ride was a 1981 2CV 6 Club, one of the many 2CV variants that Citroën built its 42 years of production (1948- 1990). It had a two-cylinder air-cooled engine mated to a four-speed manual transmission. The shift lever poked out of the firewall, ran under the rudimentary dashboard, and then at its very end turned up and was topped with a satisfyingly-large shift knob that felt good in the hand. Because the car is so underpowered, the transmission got a good workout, even on the very moderate hills of Curaçao.

I soon came to appreciate my ugly duckling’s many virtues. Its long wheelbase gives it a much smoother ride than most cars its size. Its shift pattern is intuitive and easy to learn. And its distinctive design incorporates many complex curves, giving the body something like an Art Nouveau look.

Other parts of the car were, frankly, not so beautiful. The one-piece instrument cluster and dashboard looked like 80s plastic. And indeed, they were.

But overall, the 2CV delighted me. It seemed to have that effect on other people too. I got a lot of honks, waves, thumbs-ups, and smiles on the roads, at gas stations, and in parking lots.

The word “jaunty” comes to mind whenever I look at it. And while it’s probably not a good vehicle for high-speed highways and long-distance journeys, it was ideal for exploring this 171 square mile island.

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.

Café El Kasbah

The Sousse Medina doesn’t give up its secrets easily. I’ve spent dozens of hours there. After each visit, I walk away telling myself that now, at last, I know the place, know its byways and cool spots. Then on a subsequent visit I discover something new and amazing and wonder how in the world I missed it before. It’s like one of those dreams where you discover a hidden room in your house that you were only dimly aware of before.

My new friend Sheima and I had planned to go to Tiziri (a/k/a the Berber café), a place I have written about before. But when we got there this morning, we were told it was closed. A kid hanging out near the entrance to Tizieri said there was another café just around the next alley. This was news to me, but we stepped our way down a muddy path til we came to the Café El Kasbah.



Set into the ancient walls of the Medina, the café was chock-full of antiques. At times, the displays crossed the line into kitsch, but Arab kitsch still looks pretty good to this American.














We traded the camera back and forth taking photos of each other.




From a patio up on the roof, we could had a nice view of the medina. And at our feet, the floor was made of wildly mismatched tile shards.



Even as my time in Sousse draws, unfortunately, to a close, I am delighted to find that the town can still surprise me. I hope I can discover still more before I leave.

Souk Samedi

One of Sousse’s minor weirdnesses is that souk samedi actually starts on vendredi. I’ve been there several times, but always felt too self-conscious to take a camera. Today I got over that.

The souk sprouts up every week inside and around a walled market complex in Hammam Sousse. Generally, if you can wear it or eat it, you can find it at souk samedi. It’s not a picturesque touristy souk; it’s a place where the natives go to shop. Me too.

















Dar Kmar: The Audience

Although I came to hear the band, I came to see the audience.


Perhaps because half the band is a percussion section, it was almost impossible to sit still during the music. The drumming, the smoke, the accelerating tempo, and increasing volume combined to put people into an ecstatic dance trance.






There were a few brief moments of repose between numbers. I noticed that women in the audience outnumbered the men by about three to one. People generally danced in single-sex groups, and not as couples.









After I’d taken a bunch of pictures, I sat down to sip some tea. But one of the concert organizers came over and grabbed my arm and motioned toward the center of the room where people were dancing. “Je suis un phototographer, pas un danseur!” I protested to no avail. But really, I didn’t need my arm twisted.


Dar Kmar: The Band

First, you have to heat the drums. Camel skin gets more supple as it warms, producing a deeper, more resonant tone.


I was deep in the Sousse medina on a Saturday night at Dar Kmar, yet another venue that has no signage, no advertising, and no definable address. I’ve lived in Sousse for almost six months now and I hadn’t even heard of it until recently. It’s an extraordinary place, a house of music, art, food, and Tunisian culture. Finding it was difficult, but well worth the effort.



I was told they have music there every Saturday. The band on Saturday evening was a ten-piece traditional Tunisian ensemble.










The evening was my first extended exposure to traditional Arab music played live. The band was heavy on the percussion and vocals, accompanied only a keyboard and a shawm. Each song lasted perhaps fifteen minutes. Generally they began slowly and quietly and grew louder, faster, more percussive, and more passionate as they went on. The effect was hypnotic and got the crowd up on its feet to dance (see the following post). I plan to go back for more.

More from the Berber Café

It was another unseasonably warm day today, so I one again wandered the Medina and stopped by the Berber café for a cup of chocolate and a few more photos.





At the Berber Café

The temperature here in Sousse climbed into the seventies today. I’d been laid low with a cold and had spent the preceding week shivering in my unheated apartment. Today, though, the balmy weather did good things for my health.

I ventured out to a Berber café in the heart of the Sousse Medina. An American friend had introduced me to the Tiziri in the week before Christmas vacation. It was love at first sight then, and so I vowed to return. And so today I did.

The place is a little hard to find, with only this sign on the door to let you know you’ve arrived.


The Medina is a medieval warren of alleys and buildings where you could wander lost for days on end, but I lucked out and found it again without much difficulty. The café is built around an open-air courtyard and has several different levels and rooms.





I hung out in the courtyard people-watching and sipping cocoa. The old woman who took my picture for me was so nervous about being asked that her hands shook (which accounts for the slight blurriness of this pic, which I nonetheless like).



Over at another table, a group of people began singing. Then someone pulled out a guitar, someone else pulled out a drum, and soon a group of people mounted the platform at the end of the courtyard and began to make music. It was a beautiful moment.



Couples sat with their arms around each other (not a common sight here). A young woman walked over to me, asked if I spoke French, and then invited me to a Quentin Tarantino film festival there at the cafe.

I’d been feeling a little emotionally abraded recently, but the good weather, the music, and the relaxed friendly vibe at the Tiziri reminded me that there is still a lot of good in the world, recent global events notwithstanding.

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.

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.