Letter from Tunisia

Roar runs 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,

It is that time again. It is time for a letter from Tunisia. Following the news events of the last month or so, I can’t help but feel a little melancholy about where we are. Tunisia has always looked to the United States as a source of inspiration and to some degree the people here try to model themselves after America and Americans. I would even say that the Arab Spring Revolution was inspired by the yearning for Democracy which the Tunisian people see as an American legacy. So, now what is taking place in the U. S. is baffling and frightening to people over here.

Having gone through years of Dictatorships and rigged elections it is impossible for us to reconcile that the Country that has for so long preached Democracy and the rule of law is devolving into some sort of third world banana republic. Tunisians are not known for involving themselves, outwardly, in other nation’s affairs, but many have actually taken to the streets to Protest the election of what is seen here as a decidedly unqualified and scary President. Yet we still maintain hope that the country will come to its senses.

I have written enough on the state of the world or at least the state of how we see America.

I wanted to let people know of the remarkable changes that have taken place here over the last 30 years. In 1987 there were few paved roads in the country and even fewer telephones. Things like cell phones or at that time car phones, and satellite television were things Tunisians saw in movies and heard about in passing. Now it seems as if everyone here has cell phones and just about every house has satellite television and other modern amenities. Large parts of the country have paved roads now and new bridges. Not that everything is paradise: far from it. There are some parts of Tunisia that have yet to come into the 20th century much less the 21st. The rural areas are still lagging far behind in such rudimentary necessities as electricity and running water. However, slowly albeit, these deficiencies are being addressed. Perhaps the biggest change in civil society here is the role and standing of women.

Women 30 years ago, while having the freedom to work at certain jobs weren’t doctors, lawyers, police, or even cab drivers. They were very rarely seen outside the home without wearing a garment, called in Arabic, sefsari. This was a covering from head to foot and would be worn in all kinds of weather.

Today, women participate in all activities of civil society and would not be caught dead in such restrictive and uncomfortable clothing unless they wanted to and mostly they don’t.

There is a bit of a backlash mostly from the Islamic religious zealots but thankfully they are in the minority and are largely ridiculed. The religious zealots I referred to are at the moment the biggest potential threat to Tunisia. You know them as so called Islamic State and Al Qaeda and their off shoots. They use the fig leaf of religion to try to appeal to the gullible. Kind of like the right wing fundamentalists in the states.

For these groups, one of their main aims is to dis-empower women. These people would like to have women back in the home and subservient to men. I will say this though, that when it comes to their rights, women seem very much assertive here. In the states, there is an ongoing quite frankly bizarre battle for abortion rights. Tunisia is a small and comparatively poor country. Women understand the importance of being in control of their bodies and thus of the family size.

From where I sit here, while the pace of progress may be slow at times, one would have to feel pretty good about the direction Tunisia is taking. The biggest two stumbling blocks I see is the economy is very depressed here. Largely, due to the adjustment being made after the Revolution and the threat posed by Islamist terrorists.

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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