Letter from Tunisia

Roar will be running a periodic feature, “Letter From Tunisia,” written by Kemal Benyounes. Kemal is a dual citizen of the United States and Tunisia, is Muslim, blind, and lives in Tunis.  He offers a unique perspective on life in the mideast, the 2016 election of Trump as well as the Arab Spring and ongoing conflicts.  (Revolts recently led to a transition to a constitutional democracy in Tunisia.)

Dear Reader,

This is what I hope will be the first in a regular series of letters on life as a forcibly transplanted expat in Tunisia. I also hope that you will email me with questions if you have them.

You might ask: how on earth did you end up there? My parents were both originally from Tunisia.  My father worked for the Foreign Ministry and was sent to the Tunisian Embassy in the States.  The rest of the family, me, mother and sister followed along at the end of 1969.  I was four years old at the time.  I grew up in the states and went to school in the States.  Along the way I managed to lose my vision at the age of 22.  So, as a result of my disability, employment was difficult to come by.  While my father was alive he was a big help to me and my wife and child.  After his death, things changed and not for the better.

To make a long story short, I find myself in Tunisia because it was the only place where we had a home.  Coming to live here as a blind person is, to say the least, a culture shock.  The shock comes in two parts: the shock of trying to adapt to a different culture with different ways of thinking and interacting on every level.  That is to say relating to other men, and women. The other type of culture shock is the difference between the way people in Tunisia relate to the disabled as opposed to in the U. S.

One of the first things I noticed is that people here (and I think this is symptomatic of Arabs generally) communicate in an oblique way. You can never get, or rarely so, a direct answer to a direct question.  Direct questions are rarely asked and are unwelcome.  An example: If I ask directly for what I need, like obtaining a social security or medical card, I would rarely get help. However, if I put on a big show, say for example I would need to have a procedure done medically, I would then have to start out saying or conveying how if I don’t have it done my family would be bereft and it would be highly detrimental if it didn’t happen.  That’s different in the U. S.  I was used to being up front and relying on the nature of the circumstance to determine the outcome.  

Of course, sometimes even in the U. S. there needs to be a little acting especially with the bureaucracy.  However, what interested me most is the day to day interaction with regular folks.  It is almost impossible for a man to make friends with a woman purely on a platonic basis.  I don’t think either gender is socialized to do that, especially the men.  Women are to some degree starting to become more accepting of platonic relationships.  Men here, especially with regards to their female relationships have barely gotten out of the sixth grade.  Men are also having a hard time adapting to the new openness in Tunisian culture.  They seem intimidated by the new found assertiveness of women.  I think this may in part account for the rise of Fundamentalist Islam and terrorists such as ISIS. It seems to me that men have lost their patriarchy and in so doing lost their identity.

As for openness with other men?  Forget it–they can’t express their feelings to other men.  It is considered as somehow weak.  One thing I found surprising is that there seems to me a greater acceptance of homosexuality here then perhaps other Muslim culture.  

This country has some serious adjustments ahead of it especially after the Revolution.  In my next dispatch I will get into that and as I promised the experiences such as they are of being blind in a third world country.  So stay tuned.  



Kemal Benyounces is a 51-year-old, blind, duel citizen living in Tunisia. He graduated from Towson State University with a BS in Political Science and History. He moved to Tunisia to have better support for his disability. Kemal is married with two children. Kemal can be reached at: kemalbenyounes@gmail.com.

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