My first impression of Tunisia after being gone for eight years was not good.
I wasn’t sure what to expect in the country that kicked off the Arab Spring at the tail end of 2010. More freedom? More Islamization? Perhaps a little of both? What I first found instead was more crime.
As is typical outside the United States, shady individuals approached me in the airport and asked if I wanted a taxi. They’re supposed to wait in line at the taxi stand, but the impatient and unlicensed will venture into the terminal and prowl for tired arrivals like me.
I almost always wave these people off. Some of these guys aren’t even taxi drivers. They use their own private cars and charge exorbitant rates. You are well advised to avoid them.
But I was more tired than usual after crossing the Atlantic this time, so when a decent-looking sort asked if I needed a taxi, I figured, what the hell, I’ll hire him as long as he actually has a taxi and will use the meter.
He showed me his license, though of course it could have been fake. About the meter, “no problem,” he said. I refuse to pay some prearranged rate that’s four times what the locals will pay.
Before he even started the car, he placed a call on his cell phone. That right there tripped my threat radar. You may think that’s silly, but I’ve been lied to and shaken down so many times by people who drive for a living in the Middle East and North Africa that I assume everyone operating a taxi wants to rip me off until he proves otherwise. I shouldn't have agreed to let this guy drive me in the first place.
I didn’t understand everything he said to his friend on the phone, but I did hear him say he had an American in his car. This was not good. Why would he call someone just to say that? And did he think foreigners understand no Arabic whatsoever?
I secretly fished my house and car keys out of my carry-on bag and placed them in my hand in my coat pocket. You can seriously damage someone if you punch them in the face with a key sticking out of your fist.
He turned on the car and started driving. His phone rang again and he answered it. “Okay,” he said and nodded to the person on the other end of the line. Then he parked. We hadn’t even left the lot yet.
“What are you doing?” I said, all but certain at this point that he was up to no good and that it was time to find a new driver. Who the hell was he talking to? Why did the person on the other end of the line tell him to stop? My suitcase was in the locked trunk, but I'd leave it if I had to.
“Come,” he said. “We’re getting in a new car.”
Oh no we’re not, I thought, but I didn’t say anything. I first needed him to open the trunk so I could take out my suitcase.
We got out of the car and he popped the trunk. I noticed that he was taking up two parking spaces.
“Why are we changing cars?” I said.
“Come, my friend,” he said. “It is no problem.” He lifted my suitcase out of the back and placed it on the pavement.
“There is nothing wrong with this car,” I said and narrowed my eyes at him.
We were parked at the edge of the lot near a freeway less than 100 feet away. He began walking toward it with my wheeled suitcase in tow.
“Come,” he said.
Did he seriously expect me to leave a perfectly good taxi and get into a different car on the freeway, a car that was clearly being driven by the guy on the other end of his cell phone, a guy who knew I was American?
Everything was wrong with this scenario. I needed to grab my suitcase from him, but he was heading straight for the freeway. I jogged up to him.
“Stop!” I said and eyed his hand gripping my suitcase. I'd need to snatch it away from him and get out of there, but I wanted to wait for just the right moment. “I need you to explain to me what’s going on here.”
“Come, come,” he said.
If his taxi had broken down and he called for backup, that would be different, but that's not even remotely what happened. He went into the airport looking for foreigners, lured me to a legitimate-looking taxi in the lot, called an associate and told him he'd caught an American, and was ordered to bundle me into a different car on the freeway.
I could have been reading it wrong. I'd feel bad if I assumed the worst and later found out he had a legitimate explanation for his behavior. I didn't want to make a scene. Most people have a slight social fear of being rude and offensive, especially just after getting off a plane in a foreign country. But that fear is much less than the fear of being kidnapped and robbed. There was no chance I was getting into another vehicle with this man unless he physically forced me.
Just then someone yelled at him from behind us. We both turned and looked. It was a police officer pointing at his car. My “driver” had double parked in the lot and the cop was ordering him to move.
This was my moment.
I snatched my suitcase from him while he was distracted and while the eyes of the law were upon us.
“I’m not getting in another car with you,” I said and began walking briskly back toward the terminal, leaving him to deal with the policeman on his own.
He didn’t argue. He even nodded at me with a respectful look on his face, respectful because he could see that I wasn't an idiot and that I chose the perfect moment to get away from him.
I'm telling you this story for a reason. Last year the Tunisian government declared a state of emergency in the wake of a rising crime wave. Five times in the last year—including a week after this incident happened—the Tunisian government extended the state of emergency. Crime is out of control, at least compared with the country's normal low level.
I’d like to tell you the crime rate is still low by international standards. Maybe it is. But somebody tried to rob me (or worse) before I even got out of the airport. And a week later someone else stole my iPhone out of my pocket on a crowded train, costing me hundreds of dollars.
Worse things can and do happen to travelers. I was robbed by a policeman, of all people, in Egypt at the base of the pyramids. But I've gotten off easy compared with some of my colleagues.
There was a time when Hezbollah in Lebanon kidnapped Western journalists and chained them to radiators. Lara Logan was gang raped in Cairo. Daniel Pearl was kidnapped and executed in Pakistan.
Tunisia isn't that kind of place. People there are rattled, however, because the crime rate is spiraling upwards. My experience suggests they're right to be worried. The plural of “anecdote” is not “data,” of course, but I’m nevertheless in no position to argue with them and say crime there isn't much of a problem.
I interviewed a feminist lawyer a few weeks into my trip about women's rights. Since she's a lawyer, I thought I'd also ask about the rule of law. Does anything like that exist in Tunisia? Her English is not great, so she wasn't sure what I meant.
“Are the authorities above the law,” I said, “or does the law apply to everyone equally?”
“Since the revolution,” she said, “everyone in Tunisia is above the law.”
My first and lasting impression of Tunisia eight years ago was a positive one. Though its then-ruler Zine El Abidine Ben Ali sat at the helm of a corrupt security state—complete with secret police, media censorship, the banning of political opposition, and all the rest of it—he was an enlightened philosopher king compared with the likes of Moammar Qaddafi and Bashar al-Assad.
The economy is not excessively statist. The majority of Tunisians belong to the middle class. They receive a Western-style education. Women’s rights are more advanced than in any other Arab country by far and have been for a half century. I saw fewer headscarves and veils in Tunis than in any other Arab capital other than Beirut—and Beirut is half Christian. The country looked and felt partially Westernized even if its system of government wasn't. I imagine Spain and Portugal must have looked and felt similar in the early 1970s.
That was eight years ago. Christopher Hitchens visited five years ago and came away with the same impression. “I still could not shake the feeling,” he wrote in Vanity Fair, “that its system of government is fractionally less intelligent and risktaking than the majority of its citizens.”
The place felt pre-democratic to both of us. Lebanon is the only other Arab country that I’d say the same about. Lebanon, though, has serious problems that Tunisia does not. There are no terrorist armies in Tunisia that control territory the way Hezbollah does, nor do hostile foreign regimes interfere internally as the governments of Syria and Iran do. Around 99 percent of Tunisia’s people are Sunni Arabs, so sectarian communal warfare is a non-issue.
Nor does Tunisia have a problem with tribalism as do most Arab countries. There are no sheikhs in Tunisia. There haven’t been for hundreds of years. The heavily urbanized core of the country around greater Tunis has been an advanced civilization for thousands of years, even before the Roman Empire colonized the area in the second century BC.
Quite unlike Egypt, Tunisia has a small army that is categorically uninterested in ruling the country. And it has a huge population of secular liberals and leftists to keep the Islamists in check.
Last year a temporary government was elected to draft a new constitution. (Elections for a full-term government should be held later this year.) Ennahda, the Islamist party, won 42 percent of the vote and has more seats in parliament than any other.
We could have a glass half-full or half-empty debate about that. The Islamist party is the most popular even though most Tunisians voted for somebody else. The prime minister is an Islamist. Anyone hoping to see a liberal party in charge has grounds for disappointment.
By comparison, though, Islamists won two-thirds of the vote in Egypt, and a third of that vote went to the totalitarian Salafist party. Liberal parties there are all but irrelevant. If the military junta allows any serious change, it will almost certainly be of the Islamist variety because there's not enough base of support for anything else.
In Tunisia, the liberal, leftist, and center-right secular parties are strong when they band together. And they do band together on social issues. The Islamists were recently forced to abandon their push to enshrine Islamic law in the constitution. They have no choice but to back what Tunisians call a civil state, rather than an Islamic state, because that’s what the majority wants.
Most of Tunisia’s cosmopolitan secularists live in the coastal areas, especially in the dense urban core of greater Tunis. The capital city is built just outside the ruins of the ancient city of Carthage, which is now a clean and prosperous middle-class suburb, where the Roman Empire built its most important city in Africa.
“The explanation for Tunisia's success,” Robert D. Kaplan wrote in The Atlantic, “begins with the fact that modern Tunisia corresponds roughly to the borders of ancient Carthage and of the Roman province that replaced it in 146 B.C., after a third and final war between the two powers. ‘Africa,’ originally a Roman term, meant Tunisia long before it meant anything else. Archaeologists have uncovered 200 Roman cities in the fertile farmlands of northern Tunisia, where the vast majority of the population lives. North Africa was the granary of the Roman Empire and produced more olive oil than Italy. The Romans built thousands of miles of roads there, and also bridges, dams, aqueducts, and irrigation systems; one aqueduct alone, still partially visible near the town of Zaghouan, carried 8.5 million gallons of water daily to Carthage, fifty-five miles to the north. Fifteen percent of Rome's senators came from Tunisia. Not only the Romans but also the fifth-century Vandals and every conqueror since, including the French in the nineteenth century, made the fertile north of Tunisia their base in North Africa.”
The area has been an advanced civilization, however, for 3,000 years, even before it was conquered and annexed by Rome. Phoenicians from Tyre, in what is now Lebanon, colonized north-central Africa and erected the city of Carthage as their capital. Its first queen, Dido, was immortalized by Virgil in his unfinished epic poem The Aeneid.
Carthage was a serious Mediterranean power. Its military commander Hannibal—widely considered one of the greatest generals in the history of the world—nearly conquered Rome in the Second Punic War in the 3rd century BC. (Punic is the Latin word for Phoenician.)
He raised an army of Carthaginians and mercenaries from Numidia and beyond, marched them through what is now Spain and France, and swept them over the Alps on the backs of elephants to invade Rome from the north.
“You have not a single ship even to escape with your lives,” he said to his army when they reached northern Italy. (I am quoting him here from the Roman historian Livy’s lucid and gripping classic, The War with Hannibal.) “Facing you is the Po, a greater and more turbulent river than the Rhone. Behind you is the Alpine barrier, which even in the freshness of flower of your strength you almost failed to cross. Here then, where you have first come face to face with the enemy, you must conquer or die.”
Hannibal ultimately failed, though not before he proved to Rome that Carthage could pose an existential threat to Rome’s very survival. Cato the Elder later took to saying “Carthago delenda est,” Carthage must be destroyed, at the end of every one of his speeches.
At the end of the Third Punic War, Rome did destroy Carthage. Its soldiers razed the city and either killed or enslaved all its inhabitants. It is not, however, true that Rome salted the earth as is sometimes alleged. Rome rebuilt the city, settled thousands of its citizens there, and made north-central Africa the core of its near-abroad empire. No place in Africa was ever developed—physically, culturally, or politically—as extensively as was the area around Carthage.
(Tunisia is closer to Europe than you might think. The Italian town of Pantelleria, on the island of the same name, is only 37 miles away.)
Before Tunisia was conquered by Arabs shortly after the time of Mohammad, it was an integral part of the Western world for almost 1,000 years. The Mediterranean culture of the people in the Tunis-Carthage area was never replaced wholesale with that of the Arabian Peninsula. Even today the coastal elite views itself as having something of a hybrid identity, being not entirely Arab or Western, but a mixture of both.
Whether or not Tunisia is strictly an Arab country is controversial right now. Political parties are squabbling about it because the answer will affect the new constitution. Conservative parties insist Tunisia is Arab while some of the liberal parties demur. Most political analysts I spoke to believe a compromise will likely be struck; rather than defining Tunisia as an Arab country per se, it will more likely be defined in the new constitution as a country whose language is Arabic.
Most Tunisians in the interior of the country do not feel they have a hybrid identity. They define themselves as Arabs and Muslims, full stop. They doesn't mean they're carbon copies of Gulf Arabs. They aren't. In some ways they’re the cultural descendents of the Amazigh, or Berbers—the indigenous inhabitants of North Africa that predate even Carthage and Rome—whether they’re conscious of it or not. For the most part, they aren’t conscious of it. Unlike the coastal elites, most are really only comfortable defining themselves as Arabs.
You can learn all this easily enough by reading about Tunisia. I’ve known it for a decade. But I needed to spend time in the hinterlands so I could absorb it. It’s always a mistake to study a country without leaving the bubble of its capital city, especially in a place like Tunisia where the cultural differences between Frenchified Tunis and the more typically Arab countryside are so vast.
So I spent my first week outside the bubble. My best friend and sometimes traveling companion Sean LaFreniere joined me for that part of my trip. We rented a budget car at the airport and headed out to the hinterlands almost at once.
Sean, too, had a jolting experience at the airport, though in Frankfurt, Germany, on the way.
His connecting flight to Tunis shared a gate in the airport with another to Manchester. When he got there, half the people in the waiting area were on their way to the UK, the other half to Tunisia. Nearly half the passengers waiting at the gate were dressed extremely conservatively. Women covered their hair and even their faces. Men wore long beards and skull caps.
Sean spent a few days in Tunis by himself in 2006 and, like me, noticed how relatively few women wore headscarves. Almost none covered their faces. But the waiting area was packed with covered women.
My God, he thought. Tunisia has seriously changed since the revolution.
Then a flight attendant made an announcement. The plane to Manchester was ready to board. Nearly all the conservatively dressed men and women stood up. Those who remained seated—the Arabs on their way to Tunisia—were dressed, almost every last one of them, like Europeans.
I arrived two days before Sean did and had already soaked up the semi-European atmosphere of the Tunis area, reminding myself all over again why I like Tunisia more than most places where I make my usual rounds.
Sean skipped Tunis this time, however, and went straight with me to the countryside. His initial impression was very different from mine.
“Tunisia is a little run-down,” he said as we drove through provincial towns like Beja and Jendouba that hardly anyone has ever heard of and even fewer tourists bother to visit.
He wasn’t wrong, but these sorts of judgments are extremely subjective and relative. My eyes had grown accustomed to the place and his hadn't. I've also seen worse. A lot worse.
“You only say that,” I said, “because you haven’t seen Baghdad or Cairo.”
Beja is run-down compared with a place like Seattle, for sure. It’s also run-down compared with Tunis. Most Americans would agree with Sean and think much of Tunisia is a bit on the shabby side.
But it’s really only a little bit shabby. Some buckets of paint and a little less littering would take care of 80 percent of its problems, at least aesthetically. The country is practically Switzerland compared with most of the African continent. It’s like Canada compared with Egypt and Iraq. Entire swaths of those countries are in truly horrific condition. Most of what I’ve seen in Libya is frankly appalling. All Tunisia needs to look like a First World country is a minor facelift.
It would only look like a First World country on the surface, however. What struck me almost at once upon leaving Tunis is how culturally unexceptional the Tunisian hinterlands are. In the regions away from the coast, Tunisia looks and feels like a generic Arab country. It’s a bit cleaner than most and the landscape is prettier, but it’s otherwise a lot like everywhere else in the Arab world. No one as familiar with Arab countries as I am could possibly mistake the interior for Europe or even Turkey.
I didn’t pick up on that the first time I visited because I had never been anywhere else in the Middle East or North Africa, but now it’s obvious. Most Tunisian towns wouldn’t be out of place in a country like Jordan. They could be in the West Bank. They could be in Iraq if Iraq were in better shape than it is.
Tunisian exceptionalism is a coastal phenomenon. One would have to be in denial, or to have stayed too long in the bubble of Tunis, to think the country that kicked off the Arab Spring is categorically different from all the others.
Albania and Kosovo are categorically different from the rest of the Muslim world. Support for Islamists in those countries is in the low single digits. Their people are pro-American and pro-Israel. The number of women who wear headscarves is vanishingly close to zero even in the conservative countryside. These things aren’t true even of Tunis, let alone the remote parts of the hinterlands.
The city of Le Kef, our first overnight destination in the interior, was temporarily the capital of Tunisia during World War II, and it was used by Algeria’s FLN (the National Liberation Front) during the war against imperial France in the 1950s. The ancient Numidian King Jugurtha made his last stand against the Roman Empire near here atop an imposing tableland that today bears his name.
Sean found Le Kef a bit on the dreary side when we first got there. I found it refreshing. Here is an inland city that doesn’t look generically Arab. And it commands an impressive view of the valley below.
Arab cities often look rougher around the edges on first glance than they do on the second, however, and Sean came around to my point of view after we took a side trip to the much poorer city of Kasserine an hour south.
“Le Kef might be one of the nicest places we see on this trip,” he said. “We have to get up early in the morning and explore so we can take pictures.”
Le Kef could be great if its economy improves only slightly and if the whitewashed buildings and houses get new paint jobs. A bit more tourist money would do wonders for the place. Nowhere in Iraq looks even remotely like it.
Robert Kaplan was also impressed with the city.
“Le Kef,” he wrote, “a town of 50,000, is no fundamentalist enclave or Third World disaster zone. Its women are assertive and dress in fashionable Western clothes. It has a large Internet café, cash machines, new apartment blocks, elegant street lighting, dependable plumbing and electricity, and reforested hillsides. The taxi drivers use meters and wear seat belts. Nearly everyone I met had been to France or Italy, and the road to Tunis, the capital, two and a quarter hours to the east, is busy with traffic. But no one I met in Le Kef had ever been to Souk Ahras, a town of Le Kef's size in Algeria, although it is only an hour's drive away. ‘There is nothing in Algeria—anyway, it is too dangerous,’ a local businessman told me last January, referring to the Algerian civil war, in which Islamic extremists hijacked buses and murdered the passengers.”
But charming streets, a local uniqueness, cosmopolitan influence, and a spectacular view do not mean a place like post-revolutionary Le Kef will be okay. Algeria is only 25 miles away. It’s within bicycling distance. Surely there must be places over there that are politically and culturally similar even if Souk Ahras isn’t one of them.
The border between Tunisia and Algeria is not ancient. Places on each side of it have been part of the same general region for thousands of years. There is nothing eternal about the frontier that divides them today. St. Augustine, the famous Berber philosopher and Catholic theologian, lived in a part of Roman Africa that is now just on the other side in Algeria, but many Tunisians think of him as one of their own.
And it wasn’t that long ago that Algeria was one of the bloodiest places on the face of the earth. 150,000 people were killed there in the 1990s during the civil war between the Islamist insurgency and the Soviet-style police state. Algeria’s Islamists were as vicious as Abu Musab al-Zarqawi’s in Iraq. They massacred civilians indiscriminately, but at the same time they singled out for destruction journalists, artists, intellectuals, feminists, hairdressers, and anyone else deemed even vaguely liberal or cosmopolitan.
“Algeria has this thing,” said an American friend of mine who married an Algerian man from the Kabyle region and lived in Algiers for a while, “this terrifying impulse toward violence that’s always just under the surface.”
Tunisia isn’t like that. Tunisia’s mainstream culture is moderate and even pacifist. “People here were terrified during the revolution,” said Ahmed Medien, a young local journalist based in Tunis. “Since when do we have guns in our country?”
It’s hard to say, though, if a moderate mainstream culture by itself can inoculate a country from violent upheaval. The average Algerian wasn’t interested in seeing his country drown in fire and blood, but it happened anyway. The average Iraqi didn’t want his local marketplace car-bombed on a regular basis, but it happened anyway.
Tunisia developed a Salafist problem almost at once after Ben Ali fled to Saudi Arabia. Salafists are the worst of the worst—political totalitarians who wish to impose an iron Islamist state and at least a regional caliphate if not a global one. Ennahda and the Muslim Brotherhood are described as “moderate” far more often than they should be, but they actually are moderate compared with the Salafists. At a recent rally in downtown Tunis they declared war on “the Jews.” Not Israelis, “the Jews,” including the 1,500 or so Jews who still live in Tunisia.
The government condemned the Salafists for their bigoted declaration. Even Ennahda, the “moderate” Islamist political party, condemned the Salafists for their bigoted declaration. That wouldn’t have happened in Egypt. Tunisia’s mainstream culture really is tolerant.
If even one percent of a population is dangerous, though, you had better watch out. You’ll brush elbows with hundreds of people just walking through a souk in a medium-sized city. You can easily walk past 1,000 people a day in a major city. Markets aren’t usually dangerous though. Nothing will happen to you if there are hundreds of witnesses in every direction. But if you’re out in the mountains or desert—especially in a place like Algeria where the Salafist Movement for Preaching and Combat is still active—no one is likely to save you if you’re blindfolded and thrown into the back of a van.
Before Ben Ali was overthrown, no one would out himself as a Salafist by growing a long beard or waving their creepy black flag, which is the same flag used by Al Qaeda. Anyone who did that would be arrested at once. Around one percent of the men now dress like Salafists, though. They’re nowhere near as popular as they are in Egypt where they won 25 percent of the vote, but they’re around, and their numbers don’t seem to be getting smaller.
I made sure Sean knew exactly what their flag looks like before he even got on a plane.
“If you see anyone with that flag,” I said, “keep your distance, especially if no one else is around.”
I saw a small group of Salafists waving that flag in downtown Tunis. They didn’t scare me. There were hundreds of regular people around. Most eyed them warily just like I did.
But on a dark night in Le Kef, when no one was walking the streets except me and Sean, we came across two of them on a corner. One was a small woman with a veil over her face. She sat behind the counter of an information booth that was still open despite the late hour, the black flag stretched wide across the back of the booth over her head.
Across the street stood an enormous male bruiser, at least six and a half feet tall and rippling with muscles, who acted as the woman’s “security guard.” The Salafists are hated. They know it. Their movement is still illegal even with Ennahda in power. That small woman needed a security guy.
“There’s that flag,” I said to Sean.
The enforcer heard me speak English and flashed me a menacing look. I didn’t say anything else. Sean didn’t say anything else. No one else was out that night but a few feral cats. Sean and I gave the booth and the goon a wide berth.
The Salafists’ numbers are small. But what will become of Tunisia if the number of Salafists continues to grow?
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