Reflections on three decades—and one revolution—in my adopted homeland.
By Jerry Sorkin | “People are talking—loudly—about The Hairdresser,” Salah marveled. “Can you believe it?”
The cashier at my neighborhood drugstore was alluding to Tunisia’s First Lady. For years, to call Leila Ben Ali by her name was to invite trouble. Widely resented as a kingpin of corruption, the president’s wife could only be discussed by a fearful public in coded terms. But suddenly, the rules seemed to have been upended.
It was January of 2011. Protests had shaken the country over the past several weeks. It wasn’t the first time I’d seen demonstrations, but these were different. The army had responded with tear gas, and even live ammunition. For the nearly 30 years I’d been visiting and eventually living in Tunisia, I’d tried to distance myself from domestic politics. But that was impossible now.
My first visit to the country had, strangely enough, been spurred by another political convulsion: Israel’s 1982 invasion of Lebanon. As a Penn student in the late 1970s and early ’80s, I had taken to organizing pot-luck dinners that brought together Israeli Jews and Palestinians. My small-scale attempts at citizen diplomacy somehow came to the attention of a Washington-based Tunisian journalist. And after Tunisian president Habib Bourguiba permitted leaders of the Palestinian Liberation Organization to establish new headquarters in his capital after being forced out of Beirut, this journalist found my number in the Philadelphia phone book.
Soon I found myself accepting his offer to introduce me to like-minded people in Tunisia, which I added to the itinerary of a summer trip I’d already been planning to the region.
My fascination with the Middle East and North Africa dated to a high-school job as a “schlepper” in a warehouse owned by an Iranian importer of Oriental rugs. Through the books he kept in his office, I learned that there was much more to the carpets I was unbaling and rolling out than met the eye. My first trip to the region, as an intrepid 16-year-old, cemented an affection that deepened during my years in Philadelphia, where I became an entrepreneur in buying, selling, and restoring rugs to put myself through school.
From the moment I first set foot in Tunisia in 1983, I knew it was unique among its neighbors. Drivers kept in their lanes. Work crews hit the streets every morning, sweeping the sidewalks and clearing the gutters. It was an eye-popping contrast with the chaos of places like Egypt and Morocco. The very notion that a taxi driver would flip on his meter for a foreigner without being asked, and return correct change, was enough to make me blink and wonder where, exactly, I’d come.
Bourguiba, who had become president in 1957 after helping win independence from France, had fostered a strikingly different sort of political culture than many other Arab leaders. The Tunisians I encountered had gained their positions based on professional competence rather than family ties. Indeed, many of the bright people I met, particularly within Bourguiba’s government, were often the sons and daughters of school teachers, carpet weavers, and people from small rural towns—a situation very different from neighboring countries, where upward mobility depended almost entirely on family affiliations.
But nothing crystalized Tunisia’s distinct identity like my visit to Houmt Souk, a market town on the island of Jerba that housed a flourishing Jewish community. Jews have lived in North Africa for millennia—through periods of high culture and artistic achievement, to darker years enduring a second-class dhimmi status that subjected them to special taxes and other restrictions. Yet the Jerban Jews seemed to have no self-conscious concerns, as they broadcast their Jewish identity with kippas and necklaces bearing the Star of David. I couldn’t think of anywhere else in the Arab or Islamic world where this would have been possible.
After that first trip I returned again and again. Since 2010, Tunisia has been my home for nine or ten months out of the year. My travels became richer and richer. From the southwestern capital of Gafsa, to the mountain villages of the northwest, people of all walks of life have welcomed me with invitations to share coffee or couscous. Among its deeply gracious citizenry I also found the love of a dynamic, wonderful woman who is now my wife.
Yet the country’s seemingly progressive hum concealed a deep divide. In the arid south-central region, parched farms yearned for the water redirected to faraway resort hotels in the coastal Sahel. To citizens in the interior, the seaboard’s wealth of economic development seemed less like the product of natural geographic advantages than political favoritism. Despite a tripling of GDP during the 23 years of autocratic rule by Zine El Abidine Ben Ali—the former intelligence chief and prime minister who succeeded Bouguiba in a peaceful coup d’etat—there remained two separate Tunisias.
I vividly remember visiting Sidi Bouzid province, where Mahmoud, a young flag-waving street protester, told me, “It is our turn to rule now. The Sahel has ruled for long enough.”
Several months later, Sidi Bouzid became known as the “cradle of the revolution,” after a merchant, Mohammed Bouazzizi, set himself on fire in protest, triggering the countrywide uprising.
Almost overnight, the Tunisia I had come to know was gone. A society that had only known life under a strong leader—whose autocracy ensured that workers would show up and sweep the streets, and that everyone else would in fact obey the traffic signs—suddenly had no president. The police who had long kept a lid on petty crime—and violated due-process laws as they did—abruptly lost their legitimacy. The revolution had begun.
In October 2011, a mere 10 months after Ben Ali fled to Saudi Arabia, Tunisians turned out in record numbers to elect an assembly charged with creating a new constitution. In what, according to international observers, were the country’s first free and fair elections, citizens often waited for hours to exercise their newfound democratic franchise. A plurality of the vote went to Ennahda, an Islamic party headed by Rachid Ghannouchi, who had spent his last 12 years in exile in the UK and many prior years in Tunisian prisons.
One year of little accomplishment led to two years, which led to nearly three years of rule by Ennahda, who staffed the most important ministries with their chosen people, most of whom had little or no experience. All the while, Tunisians watched their country regress in most every arena. Foreign investment all but disappeared. For those in neglected regions who had pinned their hopes to Ennahda’s promises of jobs and investment, economic opportunities were hard to find.
Prospects were little better even in long-favored areas.
“We used to get the crumbs of what the former president’s in-laws would care to throw our way,” lamented the janitor of an old building in a poor Tunis suburb. “Now we don’t even get the crumbs anymore.”
The crumbling security apparatus made Tunisia a breeding ground for Salafism, a puritanical element of Islam that counted a significant jihadist element among its adherents. The situation frightened away visitors—compounding my own challenges in getting a fledgling cultural-tourism business off the ground.
And yet the country was truly becoming free, and its democracy real—with all the fractiousness and uncertainty that brings. A newfound freedom to speak has resulted in vibrant political talk shows on radio and television. I marvel at my privilege to have lived through it—in fact, to be living through it now, given that the fruits of the revolution have yet to ripen, and Tunisians may have to wait to harvest them for some time. Yet they have planted the tree of democracy—a feat whose uniqueness in the region was honored by the surprise selection of the Tunisian National Dialogue Quartet, a group of four civil-society organizations, as winners of the 2015 Nobel Peace Prize.
So I find myself once again facing an incredible opportunity to build bridges—this time by developing cultural tour programs that embrace the Revolution, rather than be intimidated by it. The same philosophy that drove me to unite Israelis and Palestinians at a communal table years ago now drives a different enterprise: bringing others to my adopted home to learn about democratization as it actually unfolds, meeting with political actors, academics, journalists, and other members of a nascent civil society.
By helping Americans to better understand this unique segment of the Arab and Islamic world, which is far too often painted with the same brushstroke, I hope to acquaint others with the place whose distinctive spirit first riveted my attention in 1983 and has held my heart ever since.