August 24, 2005


I'm pretty busy with classes this week... the final exam is Friday! So I might not post much. But I wanted to give you guys something new.

A friend who's back home in Turkey now sent some digital pictures, now included in my earlier post from when I first moved into the student dorm a few weeks back.

Also, this has nothing to do with Tunisia really, but you should check out the website of a college friend of mine who is a professional photojournalist now. His work is amazing, and he's got stuff from Pakistan, Iraq, Darfur, etc.

There's a permanent link to his online gallery to the right of this page.

August 22, 2005

Unwanted Attention, or, Being Female in Tunisia

First let me clarify that Tunisia is not Saudi Arabia; women have a lot of freedom here. They work outside the homes in similar numbers to Latin American countries, they choose who they marry, they drive cars in roughly equal numbers to men.

Still, as an American woman, I don’t quite feel comfortable here. And it’s hard to tell how much of the objectionable treatment from men is due to my being a foreigner, and how much of it is stuff every Tunisian woman puts up with.

The biggest thing is the unwanted attention on the streets. I can’t walk several blocks without random strange men commenting on my attractiveness. Back home, this would be considered very sketchy, and a violation of my personal space. But here, it is par for the course. With few ways to meet girls, young men call out to promising faces on the street. If she smiles or replies back, that’s an invitation for him to come talk to her. So, you just have to ignore it.

This was most disturbing back before I could understand what they were saying, and just noticed husky voices calling after me. Now that I understand more French and Arabic, they are mostly saying harmless things like “Hello, pretty” or “how are you?” It’s not exactly harassment, just, well… unwanted attention. And when it starts to pile up, it gets really annoying.

Also, some men are really disturbingly persistent. Over my two months here, I’ve had two or three come up to me, start speaking to me in French, and actually follow me when I turn and continue walking away. I turn, explain firmly in Arabic that I don’t speak French and don’t want to talk to them, and walk away. But they continue to follow and speak in French. At this point I turn around and yell at them in Arabic and make a scene, which usually makes them go away long enough for me to make my escape.

I really look forward to being home, where I can wear the clothing I’m comfortable in, and be treated in ways I’m comfortable with.

August 21, 2005

Personal Space

Arabs are very physically friendly. As an American, I often find this uncomfortable.

This morning, for instance, the cleaning lady stuck her head into my shower to ask how much longer I would be staying in the dorm. I stuttered to remember the days of the week in Arabic with her face a foot from mine.

In the U.S., we like to keep about two feet (a half meter) of space between us and the next person at all times. Only the people you are really close to… your mother, your lover, are welcome inside this space. Here, that rule just does not apply.

On the subways, I often see young men with their arms draped around a friend, sitting on each others laps, or just generally getting way closer than is acceptable for two adults not in a romantic relationship where I come from. It’s even common to see strangers touch each other in friendly ways (but always same-gender).

A week ago, I was trying to use an ATM machine, which was giving me problems. A Tunisian man stood very close, ostensibly trying to help me out. Now, either he stole my card, or the machine ate it, I’m not sure. (I cancelled it quickly and no money was stolen.) The point is, I couldn’t tell at the time whether his closeness was suspicious or not, because people commonly stand way closer than seems reasonable to me. Today I noticed several other people using ATM machines, with the next person waiting standing within a foot.

I don’t know what larger point this reveals about differences between Arab and Anglo-American culture. But it’s just one of those little things that contributes to the culture shock.