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,

This letter comes as we in the Muslim world generally, and here in Tunisia specifically, are observing the month of Ramadan. We begin day number 10 as I write this.

I am sure many of you know what Ramadan is, but to those who do not, perhaps an explanation is in order.

Ramadan is a month of fasting. Every day for 29 or 30 days, depending on the lunar calendar, people fast from sunup to sundown. That means no food or, horror of horrors, no water. Your genial correspondent has decided to undertake this fast, though as a diabetic, I have an out, which if exercised, would excuse me from observing this ritual. From an experiential perspective, adjusting to it is not as hard as you would expect. The first two or three days of fasting are a little uncomfortable; thereafter, one gets used to it.

Because virtually everyone in the country is fasting, you don’t feel like you’re carrying the burden by yourself. There is something to the adage “misery loves company.”

Here in Tunisia and around the Muslim/Arab world, special radio and T. V. programs are featured to take advantage of the fact that unlike an ordinary month, families are gathered to break their fast together. This is a shade of what life was like before the advent of the Internet and television. People actually spent time together as a family and spoke to each other.

What I find interesting is that women are generally the focal point of Ramadan. I am sorry to say that there is a great deal of emphasis on women as housewives. That is, they are doing the cooking and cleaning to get ready for the evening’s meal. There is a lot of nostalgia at this time for the traditional roles of men and women. I cannot really pinpoint what the male does that is special. It seems to me that despite the fact that Tunisia has become a two-income household country, all the man seems to do is come home and break his fast. Again, the burden is on the woman to make sure everything is prepared, even if she may have had as hard or harder a day while at work.

If it sound like I am not overly enamored with Ramadan, you are right. I am not. I suppose that if society seems to accept this lack of balance and fairness, who am I to complain?

This leaves me with an explanation of societal roles in the country as I see them:

It is fashionable to attribute backward thinking or oppression of women on Islam. My observation is that the old Bedouin and nomadic way of life in North Africa and the Middle East is largely responsible for the patriarchal structure of Arab society. Islam’s tenets grafted almost seamlessly onto that society. This is why Islam gained such quick and widespread acceptance in the region. From the death of the Prophet Mohammed to about 750 AD, Islam spread from Arabia to Iran, through India, to North Africa, and Spain with a good portion of Eastern Europe.

If you look closely, all these societies have one thing in common. They were generally pastoral patriarchies. Muslim fundamentalists seek to take advantage of this residual patriarchy.

In a weird way, Tunisia tries to struggle against the old ways of thinking and doing things for 11 months of the year. For one month, Ramadan fades back to the old way of thinking.

Ultimately, this old way of thinking (tied to religion) is an incredible barrier to progress, and is keeping Muslims, Tunisians especially, from developing a robust and egalitarian society.

I sincerely hope (though I doubt it will happen in my lifetime) that people will wake up and see that religions of all stripes put us into a kind of straitjacket. Since Islam is ostensibly the religion in which I was raised, I hope and pray we can reduce or eliminate any pernicious influences.

Well, enough of my scribblings. I hope to be back next month. Until then, take care.



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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