An American Abroad

Sheep Everywhere

As Eid al-Adha approaches, sheep are everywhere in and around Sousse. Sacrificing a sheep or other animal is a symbolic acknowledgement of the story of Abraham’s willingness to kill his son Ishmael because god commanded it, and god’s last minute provision of a lamb to slaughter instead.

As I walked to work the other day, I passed through a herd of about six dozen sheep, a dozen goats, some dogs, and three shepherds who were on their way into town. (I now have to mind the sheep dung as I walk through my neighborhood.) As I was driven south to Mahdia, I saw many enterprising shepherds selling their animals by the roadside. I also saw individual sheep in the back of trucks taking their last rides.

Sheep are expensive. A decent-sized one goes for between 500 and 700 TND ($275 to $390), an enormous sum in this developing country.

Even electronics stores try to cash in on the upcoming festivities. Check out this ad circular for televisions and laptops:


As both an animal lover and a meat lover, I’m of two minds about slaughtering sheep. I feel sorry for the sheep patiently waiting by the side of the road to be purchased, brought home, and ritually slaughtered. It seems barbaric. But how hypocritical of me, a guy who likes his lamb chops as well as well as the next man. I’m used to buying them shrink-wrapped in a grocery store. At least Tunisians know what’s on the end of their forks.

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.

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.

My New Neighborhood

I live in one of the newer parts of Sousse, a residential area that’s still largely under construction. The houses have clean, spare lines and are well-proportioned. In keeping with the building style and security needs of this and many other parts of the world, walls surround most of the houses. I have mixed feelings about those walls; they provide additional safety to people in their private spaces, but they make the public streets feel less safe. Still, I like the architecture of the place very much. I love walking to work and passing by these elegant buildings.












Moving Into My Sousse Apartment

One consequence of being robbed on the train from Tunis to Sousse last month was a scaling back of my plans for housing. I’d hoped to get a nice new seaside apartment, or maybe something in the medina, but it was not to be. Instead, I opted for a small one-bedroom apartment in the basement of a new house that’s just a ten minute walk to AMIDEAST.


Maybe this will be for the best. The rent is certainly lower than the places I’d been looking at, and the easy walk to work will save me money on taxi and louage fares.

I moved in on Monday and started rearranging, cleaning, shopping, and personalizing my flat.



It’s essentially one medium-sized living/dining/cooking area, a nice bathroom, and a smallish bedroom.



It’s very much a work in progress. I hope to have it looking better eventually. But for now, I am just happy to have a home.

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.

TuniPix Mix

A miscellanea of photos I took in Sousse last week.

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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.