It was November 24. The air inside the cafe was cold. It had been raining all day and winter had finally arrived. We sat around the table. All nine of us a bit quiet, not quite knowing what to say. Rhiana spoke up and asked Mounir if he was alright. His response almost brought tears to my eyes. He said he was fine, but he was not alright for the future of his country. For the future of Tunisia.
I knew what people would say. They would say things like this are bound to happen in the Middle East. Things like this always happen in the Middle East. But Tunisia is different. They have come so far since the revolution in which the Tunisian people forced their leader of 23 years to step down. Ben Ali fled Tunisia on January 14th, 2011 after the country demanded it. What followed was a transition unlike any other seen in the Arab world.
A National Constituent Assembly was created after four civil society organizations, known as the Quartet (the same group that won the Nobel Peace Prize earlier this year), called for the country to come together to discuss its future.
Tears began to well up in my eyes as I thought of how far Tunisia had come. I did not want to believe what I was hearing. A bus of the presidential guard had exploded in downtown Tunis, near the city center. Some of my classmates had been nearby earlier that day. We didn’t have any details yet. The first phone call our academic director received was from his daughter asking where he and his students were. All she knew was that a bus exploded downtown. She was not sure if it was some sort of accident or if it was a planned terrorist attack.
Next, our academic director started calling journalists he knew and other friends to find out what had happened. We quickly learned that the explosion had been from a bomb. We were not sure if the bomb had been detonated by someone from inside the bus or if it was someone passing by the bus. Either way, it was not good news for Tunisia.
It had been raining all day. I woke up in my apartment in Sidi Bou Said just like any other day, not quite wanting to get up yet because it was too cold. I coaxed myself out of bed. It was a rainy dreary day, but I decided to walk to the nearby bakery for a morning treat. The same man who was there every day greeted me with a smile and a good morning in Tunsi. I smiled back and said hello with my newly learned Tunsi skills. I pointed to what I wanted and said “I would love that” in Tunsi. The man was patient with me as I explained what I wanted. Although what I ordered only cost 1.60 DTN I paid with a 20 because I had no change. The man didn’t mind.
These daily interactions with the people here have made me love this country. Everywhere I go I am welcomed. My host family opened their home to me, as did all of the other families who are hosting students. I have not encountered hostility from anyone upon telling them I am American, rather they show interest and they are glad that I made the trip to come visit Tunisia after all that has been happening here.
Tunisia suffered two terrorist attacks this summer that have ruined the tourism industry. I have seen the effects of this first-hand as I traveled around the country with my program. After we heard the news about the attack last Tuesday we all sat around the cafe with heavy hearts and made our way back to the SIT offices.
We drank hot chocolate and performed Shakespeare while some students tried to get in touch with their parents. We were watching U.S. news sources to see if they would start reporting on it. I wanted to let my parents know I was safe, but I did not want to alarm them when there was no need. I was not in danger. I did not feel in danger. The attack had targeted military personnel and not civilians.
We woke up the next day and Tunisia was the same. Every day after continued as normal. We meet twice daily now to check in and a curfew was put in place for place for the greater Tunisia area from 9pm to 5am, but other than that nothing has changed. A few of my friends back home texted me after they read the news about the attack to see if I was ok. But many people do not even realize the attack happened.
The thing I want you to take away from this is that these things happen everywhere. Please don’t think it is only in the Middle East. I wish everyone could have the opportunity to experience the hospitality of a Muslim host family like I have. So please, add Tunisia to your list of prayers.