An American Abroad

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.

Apollo & His Homeboys: At the Bardo Museum

During a recent daytrip to Tunis, I finally got to see the National Bardo Museum. As Lonely Planet notes, the Bardo is “[t]he country’s top museum [and] has a magnificent, must-see collection that provides a vibrant vision of ancient North African life. The original, glorious Husseinite palace now connects with a stark and dramatic contemporary addition, doubling exhibition space. Highlights are a huge stash of incredibly well-preserved Roman mosaics, rare Phoenician artifacts and early Islamic ceramics.”





























It undoubtedly has some amazing pieces, but as a museum experience, I liked the Musée Archeologique d’El Jem more. Part of the problem is one of display and lighting. I got the sense that the amazing artifacts at the Bardo could have been even more impressive had they been better exhibited. Still, being there and walking on mosaic floors thousands of years old and gazing at the incredible artistry of the sculptures made me think I might have been born in the wrong era. It is indeed a must-see.

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.

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.

A Low Point

My travel luck ran out last Friday on the train from Tunis to Sousse.

It was six in the morning and I was jet-lagged, insufficiently caffeinated, and burdened by two heavy suitcases, a heavy leather duffel, and a bulging nylon shoulder bag.

As I struggled to board the train, a fellow pushed by me. Then he feigned confusion, turned around, and pushed by me again. And again.

My only thought at that time was “what a rude idiot.” It never even occurred to me that he was actually a smart thief.

It wasn’t until I got to my seat and saw a zippered compartment of my shoulder bag open that I realized what had happened: I’d been robbed of an cash envelope that had been in my bag.

The only other time I was ever robbed while traveling was in Bath, England, about 25 years ago, at a very posh B&B. I suppose I can bear it once every quarter century.

I think of my loss now as tuition in the College of Hard Knocks & Unmindfulness. Last Friday, though, I was pretty miserable. And my first look at Sousse was colored by the loss of my hard-earned cash. I thought seriously of turning around and heading back to the US or to China.

I’ve since recovered most of my usual good humor and curiosity about Tunisia and the world around me. But in my last 14 months of travel to ten different countries, I have never felt so low.

First Day in Tunisia

On the evening of Wednesday August 6, I boarded a 767 in Detroit and flew east into the darkness. Eight hours later I landed in Rome and it was mid-morning. I had forgotten about the southern European custom of applauding when a plane lands.

I loved hearing Italian spoken and watching the people as I waited for my flight to Tunis, where I’ll be staying one night before heading to my new home in Sousse. One hour after I boarded that flight, I stepped off the jet stairs onto African ground for the first time in my life.

I chatted with my cab driver in French on the way to the hotel, recalling phrases I’ve heard in French movies and that I’d practiced in French classes so long ago. I was able to communicate pretty well in that language, though due to my recent year in China I said xiexie instead of merci and dui instead of oui. The French spoken with a Tunisian accent seems devoid of inner R’s, e.g., “centrale” is pronounced “centale.”

After a nap, I went out walking. My hotel is near Place d’Afrique, a nice-looking park on Rue de Palestine. I was here:

The neighborhood is a mix of embassies, foreign institutes, and auto repair shops. The architecture is a mix of decaying French colonial buildings, North African buildings with elaborate tilework in their foyers and fancy metal gates at their doors, and even some Art Deco.

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On nearby Rue Jerusalem, there is a trolley line and an old (Greek Orthodox?) church:

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Speaking of religion, I noted that women who wear a headscarf are in the minority here. It’ll be interesting to see how that varies once I get out of the capital city.

I chatted with a few people, and every Tunisian I talked to said not to trust Tunisians. The cretin’s paradox again. But so far, nothing has gone amiss.

Tomorrow morning I’ll get up very early and take a train to Sousse. There I hope to meet my new colleagues and find a place to live.

As I begin this new chapter, I’ve appreciated all the encouraging emails, texts, tweets, comments, and Facebook posts I’ve gotten from friends and strangers alike. Keep those cards and letters coming.