Following the horrendous terrorist attack in Tunis, it is inevitable that I am reminded of my week-long Chronicles assignment to Tunisia in September 2012. In view of the carnage that left 20 Western tourists dead on March 18, it is worth revisiting my notes posted in the immediate aftermath of that trip.
“I covered some 2,000 miles by rental car, bus, SUV, and a powered hang glider, The tour has confirmed that of faraway places we often assume to know more than we do. The first country affected by a wave of popular discontent known as the Arab Spring was full of surprises.
?“To start with, the country is safe for foreign visitors. There have been no attacks on tourists, either at the time of the  ‘Jasmine Revolution] or during the periodic eruptions of street protests since then… Even in dusty provincial towns, where no foreigners venture, gas station attendants and cold drinks vendors invariably greeted me with a smile and a polite “bonjour, Monsieur, ça va?” This is in contrast to the barely concealed hostility I have encountered on my recent trips to the West Bank, or – over a decade ago – in Libya.
“By the third day, I felt emboldened to venture on my own to the spectacular Roman city of Dougga, a three-hour drive from Hammamet, where I had the ruins all to myself for over two hours. At Téboursouk, on the way to Dougga, and at Qa Afur on the way back, I stopped casually at coffee houses for refreshments—the only European for miles around. Mustached men observed the strange sight behind clouds of tobacco smoke. Before long, some bold youngsters initiated conversations. Speaking French (however rusty in my case) definitely helps: it is still compulsory in Tunisian schools, and English has not made many inroads outside the capital and the coastal resorts. (As it happens, it also helps not being an American, or at any rate not admitting to being one.) The conversation did not need to be steered to politics, as most Tunisians find it the only topic currently worth discussing. Such encounters have been invaluable in helping me form a broad picture—more comprehensive and reliable than the one visiting foreign journalists get from their Sorbonne-educated, barely-accented colleagues over cappuccinos on Avenue Habib Bourguiba.
“The ‘Arab Spring’ stereotype – a simmering volcano of fundamentalism suddenly erupting and sweeping away a secularist autocracy – does not apply to Tunisia. The causes of the revolt against Zine el-Abedine Ben Ali in January 2011 were social and economic, no less than political. The country had outgrown him. Tunisia is blessed not to have much oil or gas – unlike its two neighbors Libya and Algeria – so it was forced to develop tourism, agriculture, and light manufacturing from its own resources. In contrast to the Emirates or Saudi Arabia, the Tunisians do their own work. The results have been impressive: it is the most literate Arab country, with the highest percentage of women in the workforce. It has good roads, reliable phones, clean if sometimes erratic water supply, and working sewers. Its roadsides are littered with garbage, but its living standards and the quality of its public services are second to none on the African continent. (Libya topped the chart until a year ago.)
“In the final years of his rule, Ben Ali made the mistake of pandering excessively to his big business cronies, including his second wife’s corrupt family. The anger of ‘the street’ had more to do with an uneven distribution of the fruits of prosperity and the stubbornly high unemployment rate – especially among the young – than with the kind of endemic poverty rampant in Egypt… The political process is nevertheless well established, the press is free, and not even pro-Western secularists regret the demise of Ben Ali… All this is light years away from Libya next door, or Egypt further east…”
Of course I would not repeat the venture today. Tunisia is demonstrably unsafe, and the sight of a lonely European tourist in a provincial coffee house is far more likely to provoke a fatal episode of Sudden Jihad Syndrome than it was two and a half years ago.
This is sad. I don’t know what Hakim my SUV kamikaze driver, or my pilot, or the kind gas station attendants and talkative youths, and are doing and thinking now. Some are probably despondent at the likely collapse of their livelihood. A few, I fear, are not averse to following the example of their coreligionists who carried out the attack on March 18. The loss is not only theirs, it is ours.