August 02, 2005

Law and Human Rights in Tunisia

Besides the refreshing change of palate, the other exciting thing about dinner at the Pakistani restaurant was that I got to meet some Tunisian law students. They spoke wonderful English, and I got to ask a lot of questions about the Tunisian legal culture, and politics.

It turns out that Tunisia is a civil law country, rather than a common-law one, although these days students here study both systems so they can understand the international environment. So, the courts here don’t really adjudicate constitutional rights so much. In theory it’s the legislature’s job to protect rights, but in practice Tunisia has a very strongly presidential “democracy,” and whatever President-for-Life Ben Ali says goes.

Also, the criminal justice system does not involve trial by jury, but rather by a judge, with three levels of mandatory review to root out error or bias. The two students were divided on how this system compares to the American one of trial before a jury of your peers. Both agreed that there is a greater potential for abuse in politically-motivated prosecutions. However, one of the law students felt strongly that for the average criminal defendant without the resources to afford a great lawyer, the Tunisian system ends up being fairer. Because there is no jury, it is the judge’s responsibility to find out the truth. Whereas in the U.S. adversarial system of justice, the judge is supposed to sit back and let the advocates from each side to present their cases, and let the jury decide. Thus so much depends on how good your lawyer is. He cited O.J. Simpson as an example of how money can cheat the system, and the high rates of incarceration of people of color as what happens to people who can’t afford good lawyers. However, the other law student thought the idea of a jury of your peers was fairer, because there is a greater number of people reviewing your case, not just one judge or three judges.

I told them that I wanted to go into human rights law, and we talked about that for a while. They were familiar with Human Rights Watch and their work in Tunisia, and it sounds like they have a pretty good reputation.

Pakistani Food

Tonight some friends from the dorm and I went out to eat at a Pakistani restaurant, that the British kids I met at Noah’s party about two weeks ago recommended. (See map at the bottom of this post if you want to go there.) Anyway, the food was great, and totally satisfied my craving for something different which I failed to satisfy at the Turkish restaurant yesterday. The set up was all-you-can-eat, for 8 dinar apiece (currently about $6 US). That's a bit pricy by Tunisian standards, but well worth it.

As far as I can tell, Pakistani food is basically Indian food, but with beef added. There was jasmine rice cooked with saffron and clove, flat bread, and plenty of curry. It was so wonderful to eat something completely different from my staple Tunisian dishes! Also, true to form, the Brits manage to sneak alcohol into the restaurant… Pimms’ No. 2, a mixed drink tasting something like a weak Long Island Iced Tea, with slices of fresh fruit, in a large thermos. (As far as the restaurant owners know, it’s a “special tea.”)

I have to say, you don’t realize until you’ve lived in a Muslim country for a month how important alcohol consumption is to your own culture’s social customs. Any social event, whether sponsored by my university for visiting academics, or just friends hanging out to talk, is going to involve drinks. Maybe in fact it’s something specific to the normal stand-offishness of British culture (which we Americans have inherited to a certain extent) that we actually need some chemical assistance to be social. Certainly, when you’ve gotten used to kicking back a beer with friends when you feel like relaxing and enjoying yourself, you feel quite out of sorts when all of a sudden that’s just impossible.

It’s not that there is no alcohol available in Tunisia. At fancy restaurants you can order wine, and hotel cafés may serve wine or mixed drinks. Also, there is one Tunisian brand of beer which you can buy at some grocery stores. (But it’s pretty awful.) But there are no bars here. The closest equivalent is a sheesha café, where you can buy tea, coffee, and a hookah pipe of tobacco. But these are exclusively male hang-outs, so that option is kind of closed to me as well.

August 01, 2005

The Turkish Kids

My first day in the dorm, I made friends with the Turkish kids. The Al-Manzah dormitory doesn't have a beautiful courtyard garden like the Al-Rashid dormitory which the school used last month, but it does have a central parking lot with a few spare tables, which operates as something of a social gathering space. Around 6pm, I was starving, and went over to ask this group of kids if they knew of a restaurant nearby. They invited me to sit with them, introduced themselves, gave me some juice and cookies, and invited me to join them in going out to eat a half hour later.

That moment of being so instantly and fully welcomed and made comfortable sort of put into relief the general social isolation I feel here. Making friends with Tunisians is hard because I speak no Tunisian, practically no French, and very little Standard Arabic. Plus, there's so many misunderstandings which crop up like pitfalls. Most people have certain ideas about Western women, and the customs for cross-gender relationships here are very different. When you don't have the linguistic fluency to clear these things up, things get complicated fast. (See Cari's post on Gender Relations in Tunis... I think it's not quite as bad as she says, but close... I will write something longer on this soon.)

Turkey is a pretty modern, very secular country, so these guys have much more in common with me culturally than with Tunisians. They're used to socializing in mixed-gender groups, for instance. Like me, they have felt a bit isolated here in Tunis, not being able to speak Arabic very well, and not speaking any French. Anyway, it was great to meet such a friendly group.

With the move into the dorm, talking to the Turks, and meeting my Tunisian RA (who lives in the dorm and helps us adjust and practice Arabic) I spoke a lot of Arabic yesterday. Plus I had a long conversation in German with one of the Turks. Great practice, but I did go to bed with a "language headache." It is located in a very specific part of the back of my head and always crops up when I'm trying too hard to understand a foreign language (or switch back and forth between multiple ones.)

Turkish Food

So, today my new friends at the dorm took me to eat at the Turkish restaurant, as promised.

I was really, really looking forward to this because for about a month now, my diet has consisted of a pretty limited regime of Tunisian dishes---couscous, sausage, rotisserie chicken, shwarma meat, eggs, tomatoes, cucumber, onion, French fries, and bread---with the occasional exception. I had never been to a Turkish restaurant before, and was excited about that, and, as previously mentioned, ready for anything different!

As it turned out, I really can’t tell the difference between Turkish food and Tunisian food. Both seem to involve lots of meat roasted on a rotating spit, tomatoes, onions, cucumber, and French fries! So, on the food level it was something of a bust, but at least the company was good.

I learned a lot about Istanbul. According to Rajeb, the five most beautiful cities of the world are Paris, London, New York, Tokyo, and Istanbul. Now, that sort of sounds to me like a list a Turk put together, but I had no idea it was such a major city. It has more people than New York! And it does sound quite interesting, the center of an awful lot of history and amazing architecture. I’d love to visit it sometime.

July 31, 2005

My new pad...

So, as much as I love Carthage and the proximity of our apartment to the beach, I've moved out. The daily commute was an hour each way, and it just didn't leave much time for studying Arabic, socializing, and exploring the city as I would like.

I now have a place in the Bourguiba Institute's dormitory, just 15 minutes from the school. My room is simple, but nice enough. Actually, the cinderblock walls, linoleum floors, small size, and thin walls remind me quite a bit of my old college dorm room in Pierce Tower, at the University of Chicago.

My roommate is Swiss (of part-Tunisian descent), and we can communicate imperfectly in four languages (English, German, Italian, and Arabic). Somehow that epitomizes the Bourguiba dormitory experience!

Here Comes the Rain

Tonight, about an hour after nightfall, it rained. This is the first time since I've been in Tunis that I've seen this happen, and it lasted for all of three minutes. But it was quite a downpour while it lasted

Funny how you don't notice the absence of rain until it comes.