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.)
A subject I thought I would touch on in this month’s letter is what it is like being a blind person in Tunisia.
My view, pardon the pun, of Tunisia was very much colored by my youth and that I had my eyesight. I never really thought about how my life here would be affected by the loss of my sight; growing older has exacerbated the shock.
My family and I used to come to Tunisia for summer breaks. We would visit our grandparents and aunts and uncles. As Tunisia had and still has gorgeous beaches, I would spend a lot of time there. I had the freedom to explore the country, and come and go as I pleased.
As my life progressed, this was the picture I carried with me. I was in denial when I went totally blind, and of course I never thought about how my life in Tunisia would be affected.
Then familial (i.e.- my wife and son) and economic necessity forced me to leave the United States. Once back in Tunisia, I made a really troubling discovery.
Tunisia is a pretty dreadful place to live if you are blind, with difficulties ranging from mobility to communication to social interaction.
One of the great things available in the States but not here are rehabilitation centers. At these centers, people are shown how to cope with their disabilities. For blind people, this includes learning how to travel using a cane or a guide dog. Assistance with orientation and mobility teach the blind person how to negotiate automobile traffic, and the safe way to cross streets. I am sure you see how helpful this could be to someone newly blinded. Well, in Tunisia these kinds of innovations and adaptations are not available. So what does this mean for me?
It means that traveling by myself in the streets of Tunisia is difficult and can be hazardous. Sighted people might not think too much about the utility of sidewalks. It is reassuring for a blind person to walk on a broad uncluttered sidewalk as one makes their way to run an errand or just take in the sunshine. In Tunisia, there are few sidewalks. What is available is narrow and guess what? Cluttered with cars.
So it is not very easy for me to get about here unless someone is with me. Public transportation, buses, trains, and cabs, are either unreliable or inaccessible.
I mentioned communications in my beginning of this letter. Everybody here has cell phones and, oddly, for a country that is not exactly wealthy, they are usually the state of the art. People can get on the internet, Facebook, Skype and whatever else is in use now. There are not many accessible phones for the blind here, and iPhones, which are available, are so prohibitively expensive. This is another way I find myself isolated. Given where we are headed in this digital age, communication via the internet or email is essential to know what your fellow humans are thinking.
The other aspect of social interaction is how people deal with my disability.
Generally, it is very difficult for people to relate to me as a regular person. If I am out somewhere with my 12 year old daughter to buy something, the vendor will talk to her and not to me. I find this dehumanizing.
I realize much of what I described exists in the States but nowhere near the extent it does in Tunisia. Ironically, in the old Ben-Ali regime, there was a lot of progress in integrating the disabled community into civil society. With this dreadful revolution, started to raise the condition of the poor and downtrodden, social progress in this area has come to a halt. It is rather sad.
Tunisia, doesn’t realize by disempowering the disabled they subtract a population that has the spirit and intelligence to contribute great things to the Tunisian community.
Until next month. Have a great summer and 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: firstname.lastname@example.org.