Ben Ali was forced to flee Tunisia in 2011, following months of protests against his government in the first phase of the "Arab Spring." As you may remember, the Arab Spring started in Tunisia, ignited (both figuratively and literally) when a fruit-seller's wares were confiscated by a government inspector. The frustrated fruit-seller doused himself with gasoline and set himself on fire. His act set on fire the mounting frustration of the Tunisian people, thus triggering the Arab Spring that spread beyond Tunisia and across the Middle East.
In this new beginning and new Presidency, my prayers and hopes are with the people of the Tunisian Republic for a brighter, freer future.
Tunisia will always be a country near and dear to my heart. I spent about five months there immediately after graduating from Wharton. While my classmates were still in classes and mostly recruiting for investment banking and consulting jobs, I had hesitantly made a decision to take a road less traveled. I had worked hard the previous couple of semesters to finish up my coursework to graduate a semester early. My plan was to use half the tuition saved to see more of the world and work on my language skills. I was incredibly blessed to have the resources to make this decision, and am profoundly appreciative.
International business positions were few and far between, and the competition was stiff. I wanted a foundation, besides the international business courses I had taken while at Wharton, to build a truly spectacular international career. While I had a basic understanding of several languages in addition to my native English - French, Arabic, Spanish, Hindi/Urdu – I knew that having so many languages listed on my resume was a liability unless I knew each of them well. The more languages you list, the higher the chances are that you will be interviewed by someone who speaks one of them. As soon as there is doubt cast upon your ability to speak one, there is doubt on the entire credibility of your professional profile. So the chance to get a deeper understanding of the world around me and to solidify my language skills seemed the perfect foundation for my future career. It might not seem like a big deal now, but all of my classmates were securing their jobs and futures in a relatively streamlined and prestigious process, and opting out of that process was a risk that I had been heavily warned about.
My gamble paid off tremendously in countless ways, including in my understanding of the world and my ability to function effectively in greatly varying cultural environments. It even paid off with the specific concern of credibly listing all the languages on my resume. When I got my first position focusing on international business and finance - with the International Finance Corporation, the private sector wing of the World Bank Group - I was given four half an hour interviews in four of the five languages. The department that interviewed me did not have an Arabic speaker, and so skipped that language. However, a key part of getting my second position with them, during a near hiring freeze due to the Global Financial Crisis, was an interview in Arabic.
Let me get back to my travels immediately following graduation. My itinerary - planned along the way - included Tunisia, Jordan, France, Pakistan, the United Arab Emirates, and Puerto Rico. I decided to spend most of my time in Tunisia. It was the least expensive country, in my own calculation, in which I could feasibly study both Arabic and French at the same time. It was known for being one of the more liberal countries in which Arabic is spoken, with a high level of tourism and comfort level with foreigners and their differing customs. Therefore, it was less risky for a young woman on her own, with little previous exposure to Arab cultures, to navigate.
I went without a formal exchange program. Not only did my Arabic and French become immeasurably better, I had some formative experiences, both beautiful and ugly. When my original housing arrangement was not working out, I found myself a beautiful apartment in the center of the city to live in alone, and negotiated the terms in Arabic with the landlord. I even managed to get my full deposit back when he tried to trick me out of part of it. Not bad for a young woman of 22 in a foreign land.
I did some bold business networking, for a love of meeting interesting people and trying to understand my own career path. I made friends with senior executives of the African Development Bank, whom I met in a Sheraton Hotel that my friends and I would visit to listen to the jazz (I also made friends with the jazz musician, who was super cute!). My friend, knowing of my desire to work in a multilateral bank, encouraged me to speak to the executives. She told me that they likely were working at the African Development Bank- basing her opinion on nothing but the air of importance that they wore and the darker color of their skin. Thinking her crazy to make such dramatic assumptions, I took my chances and it turned out that she was right. I even walked into the central offices of several major banks, asking in my newly improved French if they would be interested in an intern. I was informed that as a non-national, in some banks I would not be allowed. However, I had a few very interesting conversations and proved to myself that I had a lot of chutzpah. In retrospect, my inclination to engage in these activities was indicative of my future endeavors, strengths and passions.
The social fabric of Tunisia left much to be wanted. While it seemed a cruel assessment at the time, now that Tunisia has thrown off the yoke of Ben Ali, it is easier to talk about how things were less than healthy in that era. Previously, it led more quickly to hurt feelings. Before the Arab Spring, trust was missing in society. Tunisians could not trust their friends, and could not trust their neighbors. It was assumed that amongst them were informants of the government, meant to monitor the population for signs of dissent. Yet people talked of liberty and freedom, in the abstract poetic sense, quite often. At the time it struck me as exquisite intellectualism, which I am sure was also a factor, but now I understand that they were dreaming of what they did not have, much as the hungry might have visions of warm dinners constantly on their minds and tongue.
One of the most poignant indicators of this situation that I personally experienced was a trick that I learned after a couple of months of trying to avoid a few very persistent stalkers, a trick that actually leveraged the stronghold that the police had over the nation. My pleas to be left alone had not worked. My threats to hurt them, perhaps to be imagined, elicited laughter. My completely ignoring the stalker for a full twenty minutes – not even looking in his direction – served no purpose. Finally, I found the solution. One word, and any problem I had ended. Tunisia’s economy depended on tourism, and therefore the country went to great lengths to protect its tourists. I was told that two out of ten men were policemen, whether plainclothesmen or uniformed, and that once the police took hold of a person, there were no boundaries stopping them from doing exactly what they brutally pleased. Whenever my safety felt threatened, I would need to simply utter the word “police” and the man would be gone before there was time to say a second word.
While this trick gave me a huge measure of protection, I am glad for Tunisia that the police no longer hold the unbridled power that they used to. I just called, as I write this, one of my Tunisian friends still living in the country to confirm the last assertion about the diminished power of the police. He confirmed it, and when asked about the new President, replied “Ca va par maintenant.” Okay for now.
I do want to point out, however, that Tunisia’s pre-Arab-Spring problems did not stem, as popular ideas may lead one to believe, from Islamic terrorists, or something to that effect. Ben Ali’s rule was very staunchly secular. The root of the problem was the issue of control, one that is at the heart of many of the problems currently crippling the region, irrespective of where they fall on the spectrum between secular and religious. Ben Ali at the time was not called an autocrat or a despot. My young mind had to learn that dictators are never titled as such, and usually have great democratic titles like “President.”
I am excited for the Tunisian people that they are walking along a path to more freedom and equality, the virtues of which they spoke of so longingly. When I visited Tunisia again, in early 2012, only a year had passed since Ben Ali had fled. What I found was a country that was less organized, poorer, and suffering from scarcity of basic needs like bread and even aspirin. However, the atmosphere was also lighter. People wanted to trust each other again. People wanted their freedom and were exhilarated at having had its first tastes. They were happier and more optimistic about their future. I am also happy for Tunisians and optimistic about their future, and about the future of the children of my few remaining friends in Tunisia. I am hoping to have the chance to go back, see more progress, and to be delighted at the transformation. I also want to spend more time on the gorgeous beaches.
I have had the honor of traveling extensively through the Middle East - for work, pleasure and studies - before many dramatic and irrevocable changes. While some of the changes in the Middle East have been largely positive, like in Tunisia, others have been atrocious, like the terrible situation in Syria. When I visited Syria in 2009, I befriended a young man who managed the hotel I was staying at. Sometimes I wonder, is he still alive, and is his family? And then I think of Aleppo, and my heart sinks in sorrow for this beautiful city. There are talented Middle Eastern poets who write almost only on love and the sorrows of war.
Le jardin du consul
« La droit d’aimer la terre est imprescriptible »
« Restez ne bougez pas
Pour raison de grandeur les ruines restent ruines… »
« O que la vérité est menteuse
car l’infini de l’eau est démenti par la sable.
Tout n’est si beau que parce que tout va mourir,
dans un instant. »
De « Liban, Poemes d’amour et de guerre » par Nadia Tuéni
The Consul’s Garden
“The right to love the earth is inalienable”
“Stay; do not move
for reasons of grandeur the ruins remain ruins…”
“Oh how deceitful is truth
for the infinity of water is belied by the sand.
All things possess such beauty only because all will die, in an instant.”
From “Lebanon, Poems of Love and War” by Nadia Tuéni, an anthology edited by Christophe Ippolite and translated from the French by Samual Hazo and Paul B. Kelley.