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 Readers,

My sojourn in Tunisia has been both interesting and frustrating. I should perhaps explain how I got to be here.

My family were from Tunisia originally: both Dad and Mom. We came to the States when Dad was sent to the Tunisian Embassy there by the Foreign Ministry. We arrived in 1969 when I was four years old. There we stayed for the next 30 years. I came to view America as home and Tunisia as some country we would visit for vacation. In 1999, two things occurred which were life changing for me. My Dad died and I lost my job. These two events for me were, of course, traumatic but more importantly I found myself in America with no home and a wife and son to think about. As Dad had a home in Tunisia the best course of action seemed to me to go back there. I felt like that my boy needed a stable place to grow up in and this seemed to be a good solution. In the meanwhile I bounced around from friend to friend in America trying to get work.

People weren’t knocking down my door to hire a disabled person and so the only work I could come by were temporary jobs. After 10 years of searching for work and not getting anywhere I came back to live with my family in Tunisia.

When I was much younger I would have considered this to be a blessing but looking at a place through the eyes of an adolescent and no or at least not much of a disability: is a far cry from seeing and understanding a country as an adult and a totally blind one at that. Also, that we would come to Tunisia on vacation puts a completely different perspective on a country then living there permanently. The atitudes of the folks in Tunisia towards when we would come for vacation were much different and more welcoming then they became when we came to live here.

I consider myself more of an American by upbringing then a Tunisian. The cultural differences for me are very striking and at times disconcerting. While Tunisia has made great strides in its development. It still remains an Arab/Muslim country with all the conservative outlook that this entails.

For me as a blind person being here is very difficult. The country is not geared to assist people with disabilities and as a result there is great difficulty in integrating into the society. In the U. S. I am use to being independent and self sufficient. Here everything is difficult. For example, the ability to get around on my own is hard if not impossible. Such things as and I know this might seem minor but it is important, as sidewalks are not very accessible to me here. In the states I am use to uncluttered sidewalks and wide ones at that. Facilitating safe traveling. Here, if there are sidewalks they are either too narrow, cracked and crumbling, or have obstacles on them; i.e. cars. This does not make for safe traveling. Traveling in the States with a white cane  In the states assures one a measure of safety. By and large drivers respect the cane. Tunisians on the other hand seem either not to know what a cane is for or care. if I am in a new city I can generally call on someone who is an expert at helping the blind negotiate that city, also known as an orientation and mobility instructor. There is nothing like that here. Good luck getting any sort of adaptive equipment in Tunisia. Even, if I could find such an animal it is prohibitively expensive. There is no government assistance to help with such things. Though, I fear that even in America with the advent of the cretins in power those things will be either cut back or eliminated. Well, let’s hope not.

For all of the excitement in the West about the Arab Spring or the Tunisian Revolution. It seems to me as if much more attention was paid to the disabled community under the old regime then it is now. As far as I am concerned this is a major loss. How I interact with people here is also much different.

Having grown up in the States I found having women friends a blessing and an education. For all the progress, here made, with regards to women’s rights there is still a big barrier between the sexes. It is frowned upon to have a woman friend and if she happens to be married then it becomes almost impossible. Many close relations that I had with young women here had to be abandoned when they would get married. To pick up the phone or even to go out for a drink becomes completely out of the question. This seems to me fosters an increasing misunderstanding between women and men. It also, makes for a boring life when the only people you can communicate with are the same sex members. Being cut off from half or slightly more then half the population seems, somehow, counter-productive. There is so much more to say about life here and in the coming months I will do just that. Suffice it to say if I could I would go back to live in the States in a heartbeat. I do miss it there with all of its vicissitudes. So, until next month take care


Kemal Benyounes

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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