I’m packing my bags, getting ready to leave Tunis. While I’ve been too long away from my family, and am happy to be going home, I’m sad to be leaving. This is a wonderful country in many respects, and it’s a great time to be here for anyone interested in politics, media, and revolutions (guilty on all counts).
Here are a few observations on visiting and doing research in Tunisia.
- One can, of course, do most business in Arabic. Tunisians readily understand other dialects, which is good, because their own is quite hard to learn at first, although I’m doing OK after a month. But it remains very useful to know French here as well. So this is a shout-out to all those teachers who put me through seven years of French instruction in my teenage years: thank you! English is only occasionally useful.
- The food is good, particularly for those who enjoy fish and spicy dishes. Like the Tunisian culture, language and people, the food is a synthesis of the many cultures that have passed this way. Among the French legacies are baguettes, which one can find everywhere, very well made. Couscous is important, of course, and served differently from in the neighbouring countries. The olives are excellent (as much as 50% of Italian olive oil sold in the US is in fact Tunisian, bottled & labeled by Italian companies, I’m told). Where it is sold, local wine is very reasonably priced. I have drunk very little in the past month, but what I tried was very drinkable. Local beers are also perfectly acceptable. If you get invited to someone’s home for a meal, expect to eat well, and a lot.
- Still on food: Salami isn’t salami. Well, sometimes it is, but the word applies to pretty much any kind of processed meat product, made of beef, turkey or chicken. Jambon is, of course, not ham due to halal rules, but made from turkey mostly.
- It is often very, very hard to get a Tunisian to allow you to pay for coffee or a meal if your meeting is in a cafe or restaurant. Never mind if they are doing you a favour by having the meeting at all. One has to be most insistent. A very generous culture.
- One can have bad taxi experiences, of course, but mostly taxi rides in Tunis are reasonably priced (on the meter) and range from efficient to fun. On one of today’s rides, though, I thought the engine was going to fall out of the vehicle. Most have been in good shape – this is the first time I’ve encountered one in such bad condition.
- As in Egypt, this is on the whole not a big email culture (although social media are very popular and important). Do business by phone or SMS.
- The period after the fall of a regime, particularly a dictatorship, is inevitably uncertain. Tunisians are naturally concerned about the political, economic and social direction of their country. But I think optimism is reasonable: Tunisia is going to be fine.
Goodbye, Tunisia. See you again soon, I hope.