First Impression of Tunisia

Jun 01

I arrived yesterday in Tunisia from Rome around 11:00 am local time, which gave me enough time to do a little bit of sightseeing as well as meet two friends with whom I had long discussions about the situation in Tunisia. My first impression upon arrival in the Tunisian airport, and one that was repeatedly confirmed throughout my first day’s experience, has  been the complete collapse of the tourist economy.  This is no doubt placing severe strain on ordinary Tunisians who depend on the large inflow of foreign tourists for their livelihoods.  The devastating impact of the absence of tourists first made its impression upon me at the airport itself, where two taxi drivers almost exchanged blows over who was going to have the right to drive me to my hotel.  

It also manifested itself rather plainly in the attention I received while strolling in the wonderful suq in the qasba (conveniently located only a ten minute walk from my hotel).  Merchants were not only thrilled to see a tourist, but they were particularly happy to meet an Egyptian, and there was much pride in Tunis’ role as a catalyst for the Egyptian Revolution; moreover, they seemed to view my presence as a token of pan-Arab revolutionary solidarity.  The depressed state of the tourism economy was also made plain to me by dinner host who kindly took me to Sidi Bou Said, a lovely sea side town not far from downtown Tunis.  Most of the stores and restaurants were closed due to lack of business; my host in fact told me that she had never before seen the town so empty.

So, it is at this moment that I switch from objective observer to a public relations agent:  If you want to help the Arab revolutions, my advice is buy a plane ticket, and go immediately, to Tunisia, Egypt or preferably both, do some sightseeing, and shopping!  The Tunisians, as well as the Egyptians, desperately need foreign tourists to help their respective economies during this difficult time. In addition, you get the benefit of visiting the respective countries without having to fight what would ordinarily be hordes of other tourists, so now, in fact, is the ideal time to come to North Africa and Egypt.  That’s right: go ahead, and make that trip to North Africa now.

After that commercial interruption, which was completely sincere, I return to my commentary: I also managed to witness many of the revolutionary locations, including, the promenade in front of the prime minister’s office, located at the border of the qasba, where revolutionary throngs gathered until Ben Ali fled the country.  Unfortunately, Tunisia seems to be gripped at the moment by political polarization, the latest sign being al-Nahda’s decision to withdraw from the Committee to Protect the Goals of the Revolution until the matter of settling a date for elections can be mutually agreed.  Secularist/leftist forces apparently fear that al-Nahda, a moderate political party with Islamic roots, will triumph in the elections, and forces sympathetic to al-Nahda fear that their opponents are conspiring with elements of the former regime in support of a military-coup in the event al-Nahda triumphs.  It is almost certainly the case that al-Nahda will win substantial support from the Tunisian electorate if and when elections are held.

While one should be very careful in drawing conclusions based on dress, I was quite surprised at the visibility of hijab-wearing women in downtown Tunis where I am staying.  One often gets the impression reading the New York Times that in Tunis at least, the hijab is a rare sight, or that Tunisians scarcely qualify as Muslims.  This is clearly not the case. While the incidence of hijab-wearing women is not nearly as prevalent as Cairo, for example, it is hardly exceptional. (One of my informants explained to me that the incidence of publicly-clad hijab wearing women increased in the wake of the revolution because the public pressure against it receded.)  I did not, however, see any burqa-wearing women, nor for that matter were there an appreciable number of Tunisian women who wore what the Egyptians call a khimar.  It is fair to say, I think, that Tunisian civil society represents a far more liberal Islamic conception of the public sphere than its Egyptian counterpart, particularly with respect to women, but it would be a far stretch to deny that it is, nevertheless, a public sphere which continues to be informed profoundly by Islam.

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