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The Tunisian Sandwich

February 14, 2011 Leave a comment Go to comments

Libya to the east, Algeria to the west.  What could go wrong?

Not too long ago, before the change in government, I had a chance to visit some archaeological sites in and around ancient Carthage. During that trip, I spent some time with a dapper, 50-ish scholar, named Azzabi, who introduced me to the many wonders, complete with descriptions by ancient writers delivered from memory.


Azzabi looked and spoke like a compact, droll and delightful cross between Maurice Chevalier and an Italian professor of Classics. He was definitely a euro-centric, pro-West Tunisian. Surely much moreso than any actual member of an Italian university faculty.

During our time together, Azzabi shared some thoughts about his country. Among them were observations, like: “You have a President.  …(pause)…  Everybody needs a President, so we have one too.” And, “You vote, we vote, you have a constitution, we have a constitution. In the end, it’s all the same, no?”  …(pause)…  “On the other hand, you probably don’t refer to your head of state as President Hair Dye.”

Baths of Antoninus Pius

Further affirming his belief in Decadent Western Values, Azzabi remarked that, “One wife is good  …(pause)…  Less is better of course, but one is good.” 

Clever remarks aside, and there were many others, Azzabi made it clear that he was proud of his country’s progress. He said that twenty-five years ago, literacy in Tunisia was under 60%, and now it’s over 80%. Trying to keep up, I replied, “Fascinating. In the same period, literacy in the states has gone from near 100% to around 80% as well. We have so much in common!”

Azzabi also noted that boys and girls in Tunisia go to school together in the same classes all the way through university. And, he was glad that Tunisian women have made true progress: from holding significant positions in government, to being police and fighter pilots, to working with the public in all kinds of occupations. Azzabi summed this up by stating that, “The more influence women have, the better for the country.  ..(pause)…  Perhaps this is less good for husbands and headscarf makers, but surely better for the country, no?”

Turning a bit more serious, he said, “But our neighbors don’t see it that way. Tunisia is a modern sandwich between two stale pieces of bread. Libya and Algeria have a great influence in the borderland countryside here.” Then, with a wry glance over his glasses, he observed, “And this is reasonable. The desire to avoid bruises, broken bones and beheading almost always translates into ‘great influence’, no?”

At that point, the tone of our conversation shifted. After a brief, thoughtful silence and a searching look to better size me up, Azzabi got truly serious. With a firm gaze and his hand on my shoulder, he said, “The path to peace and freedom, my friend, comes from the evolution of responsible stability, often after social exhaustion. It is catalyzed by a great man or a few great men, not by the insanity of a French Revolution. I hope with all my heart that my country is on a responsible path.”

Part of the Carthaginian Harbor

Another quiet moment passed between us. After awhile, our talk moved on to less solemn and profound topics. For example, I recall an exchange over coffee about the globular clusters of corpulent tourists all around us, wearing their standard uniforms of mis-matched sweats, ball caps, tennis shoes and fanny packs.

  1. mary
    February 15, 2011 at 10:39 pm

    This Azzabi interests me. He’s funny. Did he really say these things? He says a lot with just a few words. Carthaginian Harbor is gorgeous.

    • February 15, 2011 at 11:07 pm

      Azzabi is very funny. And a true expert. In his profession, dealing with travellers most days, I think he gets to hone his jokes, timing and observations to a pretty fine edge. And, yes, he said all these things and more. The reason I have as much detail as I do is that each day of the trip, I jotted journal notes as I went; and each evening, I fleshed them out into full thoughts. Now, when I want to recall in detail what happened, all I have to do is thumb through my trip journal and curse my ghastly penmanship.

  1. October 7, 2011 at 7:45 am

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