The experience of travel can bring all types of rewards. Perhaps one of the most beneficial rewards is that of being inspired to do something good!
On a post-Revolution study tour to Tunisia in the spring of 2011, Mary Tiryak of the Philadelphia area was impressed by many things and many people during this first trip of hers to Tunisia. The growth of civil society in Tunisia has been explosive since the January 2011 Revolution and ouster of former president Ben Ali.
A former professor of English at Temple University in Philadelphia, Mary was photographing throughout the country. One element of her photographs that came through over and over again were the smiles and the warmth of the people of Tunisia. These many faces are captured in what will now become a month long photo exhibit in the Philadelphia area throughout the month of June…”The Face of Tunisia”
Mary is presently back in Tunisia, having been so taken by her experience in 2011, preparing additional photos for the exhibition. An announcement of the exhibit is attached. Mary will be donating the proceeds from the exhibit to a Tunisian NGO (non-governmental organization) whose on-the-ground work was also inspiring to her. Proceeds of all photos sold will be donated to the Tunisian Association for Management and Sociability, www.taamstn.org
Thank you Mary, for sharing your inspiring visit to Tunisia with so many people!
The other day here in Tunis, where I live much of the year, I attended an event that brought out many families from the Tunis international community of business and diplomatic expats.
Having traveled quite a bit in Iran and knowing many Iranians, I spotted someone who clearly looked Iranian and took advantage of the festive atmosphere to ask the question of a total stranger…”are you from Iran?” My hunch was correct and he responded in perfect English, expressing interest in my familiarity with Iran. When I told him that I not only have studied Persian culture for years, but have traveled and led tours to Iran, there was even greater surprise.
My house in Tunis happens to be a short walk from where the event was taking place, so I walked home and shortly thereafter, returned with some of the TunisUSA brochures about our tours to Iran and brought them to him. The brochures include numerous photos, as well as quotes from Americans on how warm and welcoming they found Iran and its people. He was clearly pleased!
He noted that he has a brother living in the United States and after chatting a bit more about how cultural travel and engagement brings out the reality of the fact that Americans are quite beloved in Iran, he added that it is true, Iranians love Americans. It is unfortunately, only the people who represent our two governments where there is a lack of communication and trust…he added!
This conversation may have been simply one more of the frequent interactions I have with people from Iran, though in this case, as it turns out, I was speaking with an Iranian diplomat!!!
Travel is one of the best forms of diplomacy. The Stanford University Alumni Association has a trip to Iran this month, with over twenty participants and a wait list! Better understanding and improved relations only come from dialogue! Both sides of political debates must continue to work at dialogues, as there are often more possibilities than we know when we make the effort to dig a bit deeper and know one another better!
I had the pleasure of attending the Global Citizen Forum this past weekend in the United Kingdom, attended by approximately forty delegates from various countries. Participants were from Zimbabwe, Malawi, Uganda, Saudia Arabia, Tunisia, Palestine, Australia, Pakistan, Botswana, the UK, the United States, Argentina, Mexico and more. It was two and half days of dialogue and discussions on being a Global Citizen. While differences were expressed among the delegates on the definition of “Global Citizens”, the underlying common denominator among all delegates was the desire and belief of each of us that we have a responsibility to look beyond our own needs and find a way to utilize our individual talents to make the world a more connected and peaceful world.
Among the delegates and also one of the keynote speakers was former American Ambassador John K. Menzies, who served as US Ambassador to Bosnia from 1994-1996, a deathly and gruesome period in world history. Ambassador Menzies also participated in the Dayton Peace Talks and oversaw U.S. post-war assistance in Bosnia. Truly a task for the ultimate diplomat…which he is!
In his keynote address to our group, he reminded us of the old adage that one does not make peace with friends, but with one’s enemies.
I had the opportunity to have some discussions with Ambassador Menzies during the days of the forum. As one who has always believed that cultural engagement was an integral tool in overcoming stereotypes and even more so, in overcoming adversity among perceived enemies, I wanted to know what he would like to see taking place, vis-à-vis, the thundering talk circulating about a possible attack on Iran, and US – Iranian relations. His answer did not surprise me! He said he felt we (the U.S.) should be continually trying to dialogue and communicate on every level, from constant diplomatic exchanges, both openly and back channel, as well as encouraging cultural exchanges on every level.
Certainly, in organizing both adult and student groups through our programs in Tunisia, Iran, the Middle East and elsewhere, one can see the positive results that can come from these exchanges. Ambassador Menzies noted that while both President Obama and Secretary of State Clinton initiated such attempts early in their Administration, he was disappointed that they had allowed the lack of enthusiastic response from Iran at the time,to discourage them from continuing active efforts.
I very much share these viewpoints and have yet to find any negative results result from cultural exchanges and dialogue. The level of progress is not always predictable, but who would have ever thought that ping-pong could bring years of Chinese isolation to renew relations with the United States and much of the world?
Citizen diplomacy takes many forms and cultural travel and educational exchanges are certainly an important path. We will continue our efforts in the most creative forums.
Villanova University from Villanova, Pennsylvania (a suburb of Philadelphia) is currently in Tunisia as part of a program through their Center for Arab and Islamic Studies. The program was designed and coordinated by Villanova Professor Marwan Kreidie and Lowell Gustafson, Professor of Political Science and Associate Dean of Humanities and Social Sciences in conjunction with TunisUSA’s academic programming specialist.
This March 5th lecture was by Ahmed Hamza, of Kairouan, a 24 year old entrepreneur and Social Media specialist who played an active role in the early days of the Tunisian Revolution, both as one who was actively using the Social Media tools of tweeting and blogging, as well as being one of the founders of an NGO (non-governmental organization) that was helping to provide housing, medical needs and assistance to the thousands of refugees who came to Libya in February 2011, while Tunisia was still dealing with their own domestic changes resulting from the Revolution.
As part of this 3 credit course, students are meeting with people who have been involved with Tunisia’s Revolution and the democratization process taking place. Leading the program is Hatem Bourial, one of Tunisia’s noted writers and a specialist in culture, history, and the political scene.
The term the media developed as, “The Arab Spring” started with the sudden and unexpected flight of Tunisia’s President Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali to Saudia Arabia. The media was all over Tunisia, a country that previously, rarely made the news. But following the self-immolation of Mohammed Bouazizi and the flight of Ben Ali, Tunisia was suddenly front page news. Within ten days of Ben Ali’s departure, the media left nearly en masse for Egypt where mass government protests started on January 25th culminating with Mubarak’s stepping down from office on February 11th.
The “Arab Spring” continued to subsequent developments in other Arab countries where pro-democracy movements inspired by events in Tunisia, began their protests against their respective governments’ autocratic ways; Yemen, Libya, Bahrain, Syria, as well as far more modest protests in Saudia Arabia, Morocco and Algeria. All of these political uprising shared one thing in common, having been inspired by Tunisia, the country perhaps least known to Americans among these so-called, “Arab Spring” countries.
Of all of these countries, the only one to have achieved a democratic system resulting from their protests is Tunisia. Egypt has the trappings of change, but the reality is that the army is in control, with much of its leadership tied to the former Mubarak regime. The recent arrests of the Western NGO’s who have been in Egypt to help with the democratization and now being prevented from assisting in the transition to democracy, certainly does not bode well for Egypt’s democratization. The stories are well known of Libya and Syria, as the media covers the ongoing stories where daily battles have included shelling, bombing and thousands of deaths. Egypt remains a continued media story as the protests continue in Tahrir Square and more and more arrests seem to take place preventing a democratic process from really taking hold.
In the interim, there seems to not be a day that goes by where I run in to someone or speak on the phone with someone who knows my involvement with Tunisia. This usually leads to comments suggesting that in their mind, Tunisia is probably going through the same chaos as all the other countries of the “Arab Spring”.
That’s unfortunate, as Tunisia is the success story! Not everything is perfect, to be sure… However, it is quite amazing to think that after decades of autocratic rule, where prior elections were a charade, little Tunisia went from January 2011’s surprise changes to a ten month transition that included: developing electoral systems, citizens learning about political campaigns and forming political parties, all leading to the October 23rd elections that had Tunisians throughout the country waiting upwards of two to three hours to vote in that country’s first fair, transparent and peaceful elections. In the months since, the process of forming the Constituent Assembly charged with writing a constitution has been taking place. Indeed, discussion and debates have been vigorous, but they take place in an atmosphere of openness that is as open as that of watching C-Span covering the debates in the American Congress. Certainly, not everyone was pleased with the voting outcome, but all Tunisians take pride in the fact that much was accomplished in such a short time and all will admit that the elections were transparent and honest.
The Tunisian economy remains in a precarious state, battered not only by the Revolution, but also due to prior economic activities that were often illegally organized by the former regime and “The Family” around it. Labor strikes continue and their impact on preventing economic growth is clear. But, in a true democracy, strikes and labor unrest are part of the process. One only needs to look at Italy, France and even the US to see where the inspiration for Tunisia’s workers to demonstrate and strike originated. Italy and France are certainly the masters in the art of strikes!
While the US Congress has many members who see no place in the United States for a government administered health plan that ensures medical care to every citizen in the wealthiest country of the industrialized world…Tunisia continues to offer health care to all of its citizens, despite one’s ability to pay.
And as Americans struggle to afford to send their children to colleges and universities due to the highest educational costs in the world, one of Tunisia’s biggest problems, that of unemployment, is a result of that country’s policies of having built too many schools in their attempt to provide free education through university, as a right, for all Tunisians. How ironic?
While Tunisia’s problems since the Revolution began are not behind it, and there are many who are looking forward to the next elections in the hope of seeing different political parties in office, the country continues to move forward peacefully, with the democratic process that Tunisians embarked on, continuing. In many ways, rather than lumping Tunisia in with “The Arab Spring”, a better analogy might be the 1989-1990 fall of the former Soviet Bloc autocratic regimes, who also had a large percentage of well educated youth. In a matter of years, success stories developed about economically successful democracies in what is now, the “free” Eastern Europe.
While Tunisia has fallen to the back pages of the media, it should be held up as a symbol of hope to other emerging democracies and encouragement should be given to all those countries coming forward to help Tunisia in its continued democratic transition…the United States among them.
Hopefully, the West will learn from Tunisia and its people, that the Arab world is not a monolithic bloc and once the West comes to know Tunisia and its people, it will no longer be a surprise as to why Tunisia not only started the democracy movement of January 2011, but leads in the race for success!
Can you envision what would happen to the United State’s travel industry if the many foreign embassies posted such a warning on their websites? Consider this statement…
“Tent camps have been built in the center of cities by angry demonstrators who refuse to respond to police. Use extreme caution when walking in central shopping and business districts in the United States. Demonstrations can potentially erupt into uncontrolled civil disobedience!”
Or this one…
“Protestors and demonstrators of the Occupy Wall Street campaign are using parks and business districts in US cities openly as their toilets, refusing to abstain from this action. Beware of the possibility of disease spreading!”
Or even more threatening…
“Despite attempts by police with water hoses and horses to stop protestors, loud and emotional demonstrators in dirty clothes are blocking intersections and sidewalks preventing citizens from passing by. Remain vigilant when visiting major United States cities!”
The tourism industry within the United States would be facing a major public relations problem and decline in revenues if these were the type of “alerts” that foreign embassies posted about the US on their websites. In fact, the descriptions above are representative of the situations that many of us witnessed in the US during the past months of the Occupy Wall Street protests!
Now, consider the fear that reaches American travelers when they read some of the “alerts” or “caution” reports on US Embassy webites:
1) “On both the Caribbean and Pacific coasts, currents are swift and dangerous, and there are few lifeguards or signs warning of dangerous beaches. A number of U.S. citizens drown every year… due to riptides or sudden drop-offs while in shallow water…”
2) “Although U.S. citizens have not been specifically targeted in terrorist attack…within the past few years, travelers should remain vigilant.”
3) “…open borders allow for the possibility of terrorist groups entering and exiting the country with anonymity. You are reminded to remain vigilant with regard to your personal security and to exercise caution.”
4) “…The subsequent transition of power has been generally peaceful. However, recent night-time political demonstrations and social unrest have resulted in the police forcibly dispersing crowds. You should exercise caution, and avoid demonstrations and spontaneous gatherings.”
5) “ General elections, which were peaceful and transparent, took place on October 23, 2011 and a new government assumed office on December 23. However, political protests, work stoppages, roadblocks and other public disturbances still occur. Demonstrations have degenerated on several occasions into violent clashes between police and protesters, resulting in deaths, injuries, and extensive property damage. While demonstrations have not been directed toward foreigners, U.S. citizens are urged to remain alert to local security developments and to be vigilant regarding their personal security.”
All of the above are currently on US Department of State webites. American travelers frequently consult US Embassy websites and see “alerts”, “warnings” and “caution” reports. While the Department of State has an obligation to warn Americans of potential hazards when traveling, as travelers, we must also distinguish the level of constant threat that comes within a country when we see such words. The listings above, all of which are current are for the following countries: # 1 above is for Costa Rica, #2 is France, # 3 is Denmark, # 4 is The Maldives and # 5 is Tunisia. Without asking questions from other country specialists and doing further research, one might imagine Americans choosing not to travel to any of the above locations.
Having spent much of the past thirteen months in Tunisia since that country’s January 2011 Revolution began, the reports of foreigners or foreign institutions being attacked range from few to none! Yet the above “alert” is the most recent posting on the US Embassy’s website for Tunisia, dated January 12th, 2012.
We have demonstrations and strikes in the US…which always carry the potential of erupting given the emotions of the disgruntled strikers. Our cities have crime statistics which report levels of gun violence that surpass nearly any industrialized country in the world. Yet, we hope foreign travelers use the same discretion and understanding that we, as Americans use, when we choose to go out at night in our own cities.
US State Department “alerts” and “warnings” are simply that…messages to alert us of possible problems. But these should be considered in proper perspective. Tunisia is NOT Syria!!!
Perhaps to someone who does not have a good pulse for world politics, or for someone who does not know their geography or simply has not taken the time to inquire…hearing about the very real problems that have been taking place in Syria is indeed, frightening and dangerous. We hear daily reports of killings, snipers, Syrian army attacks on local populations and the many, many horrors taking place at the hands of the Assad regime. To the uninformed, the tendency is to equate this problem to the entire Middle East and North African region?
The type of references about “safety” and “security” expressed in this video are a more realistic report of how recent American travelers found Tunisia’s atmosphere for travel.
Tunisia is not Syria…Yemen…or Libya. Tunisia is welcoming travelers from all countries with a particularly warm welcome for Americans, as are most countries in the Middle East and North Africa.
Always be cautious and attentive when traveling…but also, be realistic! Travel safely!