No Felafel in Tunisia

Dear all,

Happy (Tunisian) election day! Happy (Islamic) New Year!

Some of you may have known this, some not, but I have moved to Tunisia for the foreseeable future to teach English, improve my Arabic (and, apparently, learn French), and figure out whether I want to get a PhD in History or Anthropology.

I have been given a job with AMIDEAST — a non-profit that runs numerous institutions throughout the Middle East and North Africa, some with a focus on English teaching, some with a focus on providing testing and other services, some (such as our branch) with a focus on both. I’ve only spent a few days at the office but already I feel like they will be good people to work for. I have heard some horror stories from friends who went to do English teaching abroad, only to find themselves with no support or materials. In contrast, at least on the surface, the teachers here seem to have plenty of resources and support. I suppose time will tell.

Right now I’m in the pre-pre-teaching phase. Before I start teaching, I’m going to do a “mentorship term” where I sit in on the class of an experienced teacher and get do lead an increasing percent of the class until I teach the last few classes myself. That starts late next week. Right now I’ve been observing classes, learning about the school, and working to find an apartment. Until I do, the school has put me up in a hotel that is conveniently close to it and serves (fairly mediocre) breakfast.

As for Tunis (and Tunisia) itself, my thoughts are fairly mixed. Right now I’m still in a pretty heavy adjustment phase, one which I went through when I moved to Jordan, Morocco, and Lebanon. I know from these experiences that it will pass, but it still doesn’t make it any easier. The sheer stress of being somewhere new and confusing, in a language you don’t understand as well as you like or think you should is stressful. There’s something too about the garbage (strewn about the gutters and corners of every street but thankfully not burned everywhere ala Jordan), grime (I know it sounds cliche, but there is somehow sand and grit on everything), unflltered car exhaust (no smog checks here, I can assure you), sad street cats (I saw a diseased looking kitten the other day surrounded by its own feces), and pervasive cigarette smoke (one never has to go more than a block to buy cigarettes here) that gets to you. That being said, none of these things are unique to Tunis. All of them have existed, in some extent, in all the non-rich countries I’ve visited or lived in, and I ended up having a great time in all of those places. So I know that, ultimately, I will have a great time, but right now I’m still reeling from sensory overload.

That being said, there are more parks here than in Beirut, the food is better than in Jordan, and the fact that French is the go-to second language means that most people’s English is worse than my Arabic, giving me plenty of chances to practice.  I’m sort of wondering why, given that I have such a hard time learning this language, I insist on learning it three different ways (I now know three different ways to say “because” in Arabic, not to mention the 5-10 different ways to say “good”) but this does at least seem to be a conducive environment for it what will all the dirt cheap cafes that abound (most espressos/cappuccinos I’ve had have run in the US 50 cent range). Also, all the overwhelming activity is exciting, if exhausting.

Also, I get to see democracy happen in a place where it hadn’t (and may happen more democratically than in much of America). I suddenly realized today when at an ice cream parlor (also delicious, cheap, and a challenge to the laws of physics as they attempted to put two scoops on a finger-width cone) that almost everyone I could see had the tip of their left index finger stained purple. Even the man who tried to swindle me into buying him beer later (and had, ironically, voted for Anahadha, the moderate Islamist party) had his finger stained.  I found myself, possibly unfairly, silently judging everyone I saw who DIDN’T have their finger stained (the vast minority). Also, one consistent thing I’ve found is that, is democracy allows for one thing, it’s the freedom to shout your opinions at each other, no matter which side of the Atlantic you’re on. I honestly don’t care which of the main parties win but hope that whoever does can do so with a coalition and stability and help entrench the democratic process and with it a greater government and international investment in Tunisian civil society.

There are a billion more stories, details, and insights I could add but this seems to be pushing the limits of what I dare to expect anyone to read. My goal is to actually write this on a more regular basis (weekly?) so that I don’t feel like I have to save everything up for one giant mind dump.

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