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Issue Date:  April 15, 2005

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A showcase of tolerance and beauty in the Arab world


I was almost at the end of my two weeks in Tunisia, and the sights and sounds, the history and beauty -- and especially the people -- were all competing for space in my brain.

From spectacular Djerba island on Tunisia’s southeast coast up to El Jem with its colossal Roman amphitheater, on to old Carthage and modern Tunis with picturesque Sidi Bou Said perched on the Mediterranean, our group of a dozen English-speaking journalists had done it all. We had packed in just about everything one could see and do in Tunisia.

Now it was the last leg -- charming Bizerte and Tabarka, the Roman cities at Dougga and Bulla Regia, and back to Tunis. Our bus was zipping along the country roads when suddenly we slowed to a crawl. Modern Tunisia, meet ancient Tunisia: At a crossroads a mule-driven wagon laden with huge bales of hay had pulled onto the road in front of us. The animal clip-clopped at a steady pace, the bales dangling precariously off every side and effectively blocking the road. We couldn’t go any faster, and we couldn’t pass. There was nothing to do but sit back and enjoy the slow-moving scenery.

Then he came into view right outside my window. An old shepherd, looking like he had just stepped out of the Bible, stood just a few feet away. His gnarled hands grasped an equally gnarled staff, and a few scrawny, restless goats and at least two sheep clustered around him, nibbling grass and wildflowers. He wore an eclectic mix of garments, his head swathed in a length of white cloth that hung over his shoulder, a crazy quilt of other colors visible under his brown woolen burnoose. I waved -- a friendly Midwestern American wave. He squinted, hesitated. I waved again. In the nanoseconds that followed I realized that this man was old enough to have seen and suffered much from Westerners, from the Axis occupation and Allied bombings of Tunisia in World War II, through the era of French colonialism and its unwilling and bloody exit in 1963. Maybe he didn’t particularly want to greet this gregarious American woman and her busload of camera-packing comrades.

The shepherd slowly raised his right hand -- a tentative sort of wave. And then, in the gracious Muslim gesture of greeting, he bowed a bit and placed his hand over his heart. He was wishing me salaam, peace.

By now our bus was picking up speed. I returned the greeting, though I don’t know if my shepherd friend saw it. But he had just given me the best souvenir of my Tunisian trip.

That encounter was characteristic of the openness and warmth one finds in Tunisia, from modern cities like bustling Tunis to the relaxing island pace of Djerba.

A tiny slice of land

Geographically, Tunisia is a tiny slice of land wedged between its much bigger neighbors, Algeria and Libya. Its entire land area is just under 60,000 square miles -- roughly the size of the state of Georgia.

Its prime location at the tip of North Africa and just a stone’s throw from Europe, and its breathtaking physical beauty has made Tunisia the target of invaders and a magnet for more friendly visitors for centuries. “Many peoples have invaded Tunis,” goes a popular saying. “And they all stayed.”

-- Photo by Patricia L. Morrison

Yeshiva students in Djerba

Entire civilizations have come and gone in Tunisia -- Phoenicians, Romans, Vandals, Normans, Byzantines, to name just a few. Add to the native Berbers and North Africans the other arrivals: Arabs, Turks, Spanish Moors and Jews, Italians and French. They’ve all left a legacy that has been gracefully woven into the fabric of modern Tunisia. Near wonderful ruins of Roman cities like Dougga and Bulla Regia, for example, one finds old Andalusian Moorish and Jewish towns, Christian basilicas and colorful Berber villages.

Say “North Africa” and many Westerners think camels, sand and “Casablanca.” While Tunisia does boast a desert, the country’s northern zone looks like Switzerland, with snow-capped mountains, crystal lakes and acres of flowers. Its coastal towns with brilliant blue waters and matching sky resemble the French and Italian Riviera.

Tunisia breaks many old stereotypes of the Arab world, and is proud to do so. It is modern, but respectful of tradition and culture. It is officially an Islamic nation, but moderate and tolerant. Its population is 98 percent Muslim, 1 percent Christian and 1 percent Jewish.

Tunisia became independent in 1956. Its first president, Habib Bourguibba, lost no time enacting sweeping social and economic reforms that rocketed the country into a premier position in the Arab world. Tunisia’s progress continues under its current president, Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali, who ran unopposed in the last two elections. Under his leadership, Tunisia has moved to even greater modernization and economic stability: Eighty percent of Tunisians own their homes; workers have benefits and a minimum-wage law, and only 4 percent of the population lives at poverty level. Tunisians rank second in the world for voter turnout -- 94.9 percent.

The country is guided by a dual mantra: work and education. Surrounded by countries where unemployment is rampant, Tunisia is proud to call itself “the nation that works.” And learns. Education in Tunisia is free. Students, both male and female, take qualifying exams for advancement to university level. Students with lower academic aptitude can opt for vocational school, and the state writes the check for it.

Single-digit defense spending

Traditional Tunisian artisans, like potters and carpet weavers, also receive state funding to boost their industries. The state subsidizes some of the region’s traditional ways of earning a living -- camel herding and sheep raising, for example -- to ensure basic income and access to medical care.

This is a country that knows how to prioritize: Tunisia has single-digit defense spending -- only 1.5 percent of the gross domestic product. But it invests a whopping 20 percent of its budget in education.

Early on, a leading Tunisian told me, “Tunisia decided against militarization, because it would be a distraction” from those things the country considers genuine needs. Instead, he said, Tunisia “wants to put its resources into social development -- social services and education.”

Some of the social policies are designed to make sure that growth is moderate and that the country of 10 million can keep pace with its educational and social goals. Family planning is encouraged and rewarded. The first two children in a family have totally free education and health care; there’s an incremental decrease in those benefits, and an eventual end to them, with each additional child.

A policy like this is a major paradigm shift in the Muslim world, where large families are the norm. But Tunisians seem to accept it because they see benefits. A hotel manager proudly showed me a picture of his two daughters. “Would you like to also have a boy?” I asked. “If God had sent me a boy first, then yes,” he replied diplomatically. “But just two [children] is best. If I have more children, I cannot give them many things I would like. As it is, my daughters have good education, a nice home. This way is better.”

In all likelihood, the hotel manager’s wife is also a wage earner, and if so she’s getting paid equally to a male colleague doing the same job. Tunisia is rare in the Arab world in promoting equal rights for women.

-- Photo by Patricia L. Morrison

In the Palais D'Orient, one of dozens of carpet shops in the Tunis medina, Sampia La Ghmouche, a weaver since age 5, displays her handiwork on the loom.

Hand in hand with women’s rights is Tunisia’s approach to religion. Although officially Muslim, the government is secular; among most Tunisians there’s no interest in Shariah law or an Islamic state with religious censorship or codes of behavior. Some Muslim women in Tunisia choose to wear a headscarf, but when they do it’s a matter of personal choice, not civil or religious pressure. Older women and those in rural areas are often seen in public wearing the graceful white sifsari, Tunisia’s unique cloak-and-veil combo. But even that is a matter of culture and tradition more than religious mandate. Public funds are provided for the maintenance of mosques, churches and synagogues alike. This approach has not scored points for Tunisia among some other Muslim nations, who view its secular approach as too liberal and un-Islamic.

Oussama Romdhani, director general of the Tunisian government communications agency, dismissed the criticism. “Once you make a decision [for moderation], you cannot go back,” he said. It’s Tunisians’ wholehearted acceptance of religious moderation, he said, that disarms terrorism. “Tunisians don’t want [fundamentalism] and they won’t allow it in our country.”

Tunisia’s passion for education, combined with its rich international history, makes it a traveler’s dream. Apart from the incredible beauty, archeological wealth and history that’s everywhere and eminently accessible, visitors will have no problem communicating. It was amazing to see how many Tunisians spoke a minimum of four languages (besides Arabic). It wasn’t uncommon to have a hotel housekeeper or a merchant in the souk call out a greeting in French, and then several other languages -- notably German, Italian and English -- until she or he guessed yours.

Although Tunisia is a visual and historical delight wherever you turn, Christians have the added bonus of visiting a region that was once the land of innumerable martyrs and the theological powerhouse of the early church. The church of Carthage was a leading light for early Christianity, producing some of the young faith’s greatest theologians: natives Cyprian and Tertullian; resident Augustine; and three popes -- Victor, Miltiades and Gelasius.

Where Louis IX may have died

The Crusades, one of the church’s less stellar moments, also made their mark on Tunisia: King (later Saint) Louis IX of France died in Tunis of dysentery. The French erected a gigantic basilica in his honor on Tunis’ highest point, Byrsa Hill. More a triumph of colonialism than of faith, the building is now a museum; its excellent acoustics make it a favorite site for concerts. Behind the church is a spectacular view of the Mediterranean and an excellent museum with significant Christian pieces. Ongoing archeological work at the site has uncovered both a Punic-era city and a Roman one, on top of each other in layer-cake fashion.

In a charming mélange of religion and myth that makes the Maghreb so delightful, there’s a story that Louis IX didn’t really die in Tunis. According to folklore in the city of Sidi Bou Said, named after a Muslim holy man, Louis only pretended to die in order to ditch his Crusade. He recovered, converted to Islam, fell in love with a Berber beauty and moved to the coastal town where he became its patron saint. Entertaining as the story is, though, its timing is off. The real Sidi Bou Said was already dead over 30 years when Louis reached Tunisia.

One story that is historically supported is the powerful narrative of the imprisonment and death of two of Christianity’s favorite martyrs. Vibia Perpetua, a 22-year-old noblewoman, and her slave, Felicity, were martyred in the amphitheater at Carthage on March 7, 203. Today one can still walk through the site.

Tunisia’s rich history, cultural and archeological wealth and magnificent scenery are matched only by the gracious, welcoming people who make it their home -- and make you at home among them. If you’re fortunate enough to get there, you’ll gain 10 million new friends.

Former NCR managing editor Patricia Morrison was one of 12 journalists invited to Tunisia by the country’s tourism bureau.

National Catholic Reporter, April 15, 2005

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