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.

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.