August 11, 2004

New Column

Here's my new Tech Central Station column about my experience with the legendary Arab hospitality, which I'm happy to report is alive, well, and understated: An American in Tunisia.

Posted by Michael J. Totten at August 11, 2004 05:50 AM
Comments

Great column, Michael.

Thanks for sharing with us.

My experiences with Arab hospitality (Egypt and Jordan trips in '93 and '97) are similar. All pre-9/11 of course, so I don't think anyone felt they needed to go out of their way to make sure I felt safe and/or comfortable - but I remember fielding an inordinate amount of questions about my opinions on Michael Jackson and, on the '97 trip, O.J. Simpson.

Posted by: SoCalJustice at August 11, 2004 07:06 AM

Hey, that's the first TCS article I've read twice. Good job, Michael, sounds like a wonderful place and a wonderful time.

Posted by: double-plus-ungood at August 11, 2004 08:17 AM

Well, that certainly brought back Uzbekistan memories for me. I recall the same preferential treatment for Americans as well. Part of that treatment I think comes from the novelty of Americans traveling in the Muslim world, but... I had Uzbeks tell me that Americans tend to be much friendlier than most of the European tourists they get. Their reasons made it clear that the difference was that Americans (and Brits and Australians, I should add) always seemed to have time to stop and talk to them (and buy things, in all fairness). Continental Europeans tended to travel on highly-scripted package tours that worked to keep them secluded from uncontrolled contact with the locals. Thankfully, I noticed younger Europeans more likely to travel on their own and are a little more "American" in their interactions. Again, this is all from just one country, so take it for what it's worth.

I'm a bit of an anti-social type, but I do have to say that the hospitality begins to wear thin after a while. I can't speak for the wider Islamic world, but I got the sense that in Uzbekistan, there was an expectation of quid pro quo. I always chalked that up to the Soviet influence though. I did meet some totally selfless, absolutely amazing, incredibly kind people who did not for one second hesitate to help make my life there pleasant, enjoyable, successful, and safe.

Posted by: Nathan Hamm at August 11, 2004 08:41 AM

Loved the article! I spent 9 months in Iraq in 2003 with the Army and had the oppertunity to work with the local population every day. My expireince was the same as yours, very facinating people and culture! Language was rarely a reason to not sit for tea. Since I could not go out on the town I would be brought tea, food and other food. Absolutly amazing. And, yes, they expressed gratitude and love to Americans!

Posted by: Tom at August 11, 2004 09:26 AM

What a nice story! It lights up my heart to think of all those nice people greeting you so warmly. The hippy in me accepts this at face value.

But the cold engineer in me questions the conclusions you draw about what their behavior means. Americans treated more nicely than Germans? It seems like a logical leap. Maybe you left something out to get the article down to the right size? Maybe you were welcomed more warmly because your wife is prettier or you both have kinder faces, or some other variable.

Also, I grew cold at the question about heritage. Go next time and say you are Jewish. My stepbrother, who is, said so in the home of some nice carpet merchants in Morocco. They were no longer nice; instead they locked my brother in a room and threatened violence. They eventually let him go so maybe it was all in good fun, just the old threaten-to-kill-the-jew joke. Sincerely, I believe they were authentically nice to the Americans.

And Tunisia is not Morocco. And not all Arabs hate jews. And Arab society can be lovely for a select group of people. And the people you met are probably good people down to their core.

And I've not the ability to romanticize the third world like I did when I was younger.

Posted by: Cort at August 11, 2004 09:34 AM

Cort: Go next time and say you are Jewish.

But I'm not Jewish. And I don't intend to lie and say I am just to see what happens. There are Jews who live in Tunisia, though. Not a lot, but some.

Americans treated more nicely than Germans? It seems like a logical leap.

We were treated more nicely than the two Germans we met. The reason I get the feeling it's because we're Americans is because there was a significant uptick in friendliness when the locals discovered where we are from. The Germans we met thought this was the case, too, and they think it's because Tunisia is full or Europeans and mostly devoid of Americans. We were novelties. Those are just guesses, though. It could be because they're afraid we hate them (although if that were the case, I would not have gone in the first place).

Posted by: Michael J. Totten at August 11, 2004 09:46 AM

Michae,

they like Americans. Great. What did they think of the U.S. govt/policies.

Posted by: David at August 11, 2004 10:23 AM

Great story.

Reminds me of my time in the Turkish countryside. We stopped off in a village by the side of the road, desperate for something to eat. Alas, no restaurants in this desperately poor town. But some villagers who seemed to own a small blacksmith shop invited us to sit with them for some soda. We were not exactly sure what to do, as they didn't speak any English and we spoke no Turkish. So we just kind of sat there and smiled at one another. My friend Josh would try to ask them questions every once in a while, to no avail. Very nice people, though. They seemed very impressed by our Turkish rental car. We were never sure which kind of gas to get for it, and they provided no answers.

I'm headed to Cairo for 10 days in September. I doubt I'll get the kind of warm reception you got, Mike, but I'm eager to see what I find.

Posted by: praktike at August 11, 2004 10:52 AM

Fascinating article, Michael - almost surreal.

People are people. On your last two threads I've stayed true to my public position concerning Islamic fundamentalists who stand against us.

Nowhere have I said that being muslim equals being an enemy. Not yet. The 'whole and nothing but the whole' literal interpetation of the Koran and subsequent execution of its philosophy as practiced by the fundamentalists is a grave and unavoidable threat. That does not mean that there cannot be reform from within. If we believe that all men are free agents then we stay true to our own priniciples if we narrowly focus our attention on the acts of men...and not the religion they happen to hold up as their justification. Not yet.

With apologies to Terry Prachett, I paraphrase the paradigm of the Ventnari, Patrician (dictator) of Ank Morpork: "He abhorred unnecessary cruelty (but was bang on necessary cruelty when the need arose)." That rule works for me.

I spent an interesting morning-after encounter in Pattaya Beach with a bunch of Saudis that my SP squad had seperated from a liberty party of Marines the night before. The venue (our shore billet - we lived LARGE!)was the restraunt of a high-end Euro-style hotel/resort on the north end of the strand. I recognised them first (I was in civvies) and went over to the table and poured coffee for them - careful to slop a bit on the saucer of the lead cheese. Granted, they were not at their best. Obviously, somebody had slipped large quantities of Chivas and Wild Turkey into their tea the night before (one of the reasons we met in the first place) and they looked pretty low. I enquired as to their health. I asked if they were interested in adding any facts to the report of the night before (mutual combat when we arrived, no arrests by the Thai police [Sgt. Pham and your big S&W, luck to you whereever you are])and then wished them peace and a pleasurable day. One of the minions even showed up that evening at the SP shack for a short while and exchanged pleasantries. "Proud young men make mistakes" sticks in my mind.

I want a world where my kids can travel where their dreams take them. Hell, I'll even settle for a reasonable expectation that showing up for work isn't a combat experience. I want other people to extend the same respect of person and creed to others that I do. What you think is your own affair. What you do - your actions affecting others - you must be responsible for.

Idealist. I think I'll put that on my calling card along with the other stuff.

Posted by: TmjUtah at August 11, 2004 11:22 AM

Edit:

How about "...the paradigm of Ventnari, the patrician (dictator) ofAnkH Morpork" (from the Discworld novels).

Posted by: TmjUtah at August 11, 2004 11:25 AM

Great article, Michael. In case you somehow missed it, I wanted to point you to this article by someone who did manage to get into Libya:
http://slate.msn.com/id/2101814/entry/2101817/

Sorry if this has been brought here up before.

Posted by: Clay Taylor at August 11, 2004 12:50 PM

Hi Michael,
My brother just sent me your article. It is very well written and very true! My husband is Tunisian (from the south- Touzeur). They are single handedly the most friendly people ever. I got annoyed with my husband telling 3 and 4 people we would come for dinner on the same night. Then I realized he couldn't say no to them. It would be rude. We were just there in May. We brought our son for the first time. They all loved him so much. I thought it was because they love my husband so much, but it is also due to them loving America. They make a very clear distinction between the government and its people, partly because they do not want to be associated with what their government does. Our nieces and nephews kept showing off our son saying he is their "American cousin". It is a beautiful country that produces beautiful people, in spite of the horrible dictator who calls himself president.

They are terribly afraid that we will invade them. I just kept telling them that they have no oil, so Bush and his friends can't get rich off of them. I hope some day to go there and find that they have a president they elected, kind of like here in the USA!

Posted by: Kristin Tlili at August 11, 2004 01:11 PM

Thanks, Kristin.

I should address this comment of yours: They are terribly afraid that we will invade them. I just kept telling them that they have no oil, so Bush and his friends can't get rich off of them.

We won't invade Tunisia not because Tunisia has no oil but first and foremost because Tunisia doesn't threaten anybody in any way shape or form. Tunisia doesn't invade its neighbors, nor does it incubate terrorism, anti-Americanism, or any totalitarian ideology. It's basically the Costa Rica of North Africa. They have more to fear from Libya and Algeria, although less today than before since both countries seem to be settling down at least somewhat. If they want to stay off our "list," they're doing just fine as they are. No need to worry. I don't think any American would put up with an invasion of Tunisia any more than we would put up with an invasion of, say, Bolivia.

Posted by: Michael J. Totten at August 11, 2004 01:49 PM

We should invest in Tunisia, big time.

Posted by: praktike at August 11, 2004 01:54 PM

Interesting how outstanding the hospitality is outside of the US. I travel extensively on business here in the US and generally spend the evenings channel flipping at the hotel. In Kuching, East Malaysia (on Borneo) I never got the chance. I was invited somewhere every single night for three solid weeks.
It may be the novelty of hosting foreigners. We (the folks at my company) treat the visiting Malaysians with more hospitality than we do traveling Americans.

Posted by: Doug Purdie at August 11, 2004 02:08 PM

Wonderful story. In many ways, it mirrors my experience in northern Pakistan (in 2000). Some of the friendliest people I ever met. I wonder, from time to time, about the ways that it may have changed since then. Glad to know that some parts of the Muslim world have not been radicalized over the past few years.

Posted by: Al at August 11, 2004 02:20 PM

Praktike: We should invest in Tunisia, big time.

Do you mean financially? I don't think they need it, to be honest. I was surprised how not-poor that country is. I knew it wasn't a third-world blast zone, but I didn't expect it to look like the first world, which is exactly what it does look like - at least in the north where most people live. I know some of the Arab countries in the Gulf are pretty wealthy, but I didn't think any of the non-oil states were. We don't read about Tunisia much, so I just filled in the blanks and goofed up in my expectations.

Posted by: Michael J. Totten at August 11, 2004 02:32 PM

Great article, MJT! Reminded me of travels in the early 80's when I spent five months hitchhiking around France and then attended university in Germany (Tuebingen) for two semesters. When I told German students about how well received I had been in France, often being invited to stay with people or at least to a meal, they were, to a man, astonished. When not astonished, then disbelieveing. Must be something about Germans--ya think?

As to David's comment, he might be surprised to know that everyone is not hyper-politicized--ie, not everyone is buying into the Moore/Chomsky/Zinn meme of "America, bad; Euros, good." Hope he's not too disappointed to know that.

Recently I spent a month in Burma. When people found out I was American, I was almost embarrassed by how enthusiastic/supportive they were of Bush & Co.'s tougher stand against the generals. Still waiting for those geniuses at the New York Times or on NPR to report on that . . .

Posted by: chris in st. louis at August 11, 2004 02:37 PM

Michael, what a fabulous article. I have read every one of your Tech Central columns since I first happened on your blog site. This was the best of the best. Thanks for sharing your experiences with me.

Posted by: GMRoper at August 11, 2004 10:11 PM

Great, personal, brief note, Michael.

Have you actually tried to be a travel writer yet? Do you have any favorites that you read yourself?

It's really touching to read about your experiences, and you have a gift for expressing slightly emotional moments with the right words to convey, even enhance, the emotions. The selection of many such moments becomes multiplicative, not merely additive. Congrats.

Posted by: Tom Grey at August 12, 2004 12:49 AM

"Tech Central Station" - TCS - is a far-right propaganda arm for right-wing corporations. They are paid and paid well by the Far Right to smear and trample the free speech of true liberals and progressives such as Noam Chomsky and Michael Moore.

I wonder - How much did Mr. Totten get paid by Halliburton for his article? How much for his blog? Curious why Mr. Totten is touted by the Far Right such as LGF and Instafascist?

The right-wing "warbloggers" are today's digital brownshirted stormtroopers, but be advised that we are on to you goosestepping sheep.

To quote Professor Chomsky from his blog:

"Seen in the light of the apparent fabrications which lead to an oil war masquerading as an endless crusade against "terrorism," the entire rise of the Far Right "warblogger" is just more proof of predatory imperialist aims outlined by the crypto-fascist Project for a New American Century. The pro-Sharon neoconservative cabal provides a pretext for the end of any possibility of social justice in a reactionary state."

I wonder how Mr. Totten will retort. Or doesn't he want to cut off his corporate pimp?

Posted by: Rainbow at August 12, 2004 06:09 AM

Man, that is getting up really early in the morning just to troll.

That was a very good article Michael. As a measure of how good it was, it has me thinking that maybe a trip to Tunisia would be worthwhile, and I'm someone who never has the slightest desire to ever leave the continent.

Posted by: Dave Ruddell at August 12, 2004 08:28 AM

Good article, a friend of mine wants to go to Africa. I've been to Kenya and wanted to go back. People were very friendly back in the 80s, but I'm a little leary since al Quaeda appears to be pretty active there.
I'll talk to her about Tunis.

Good liberal parody comment above, it touched all the bases. Haliburton, Instafascist, Chomsky, Michael Moore, digital stormtroopers. It only left out a reference to chimpy or shrub. I'll give it a B+.
There is one thing I don't understand, why the heck would Haliburton care if I like Tunisia? Wouldn't me liking it make it more difficult for Shrub to invade and steal their (insert whatever they export)?

Posted by: Veeshir at August 12, 2004 08:46 AM

Hi :

I too enjoyed your article.I have been to Tunisia twice ('93 & '95) and enjoyed it thoroughly. Yes the hospitality and friendliness is legendary. I was married to a Tunisian man for 9 years. I think the novelty of being an "American-aya"- as I was called, was one of the reasons behind their extraordinary hospitality. But also my father-in-law spoke often of his boyhood memories of WWII and how the English and American soldiers would pass out candy and friendly smiles- - so I believe that impression and good will lingers 60 years later.
Believe it or not, this legacy was one of the reasons I was terribly upset about what happened at Abu Graib. I felt that our reputation (as the US people, not just the US Goverment) would be damaged for decades to come.

Another thing I recall on a resort trip to Hammamet was how crazy, rude and disruptive some of the German tourists were there. Perhaps that's why some Tunisians have a poor impression of them...? ( Probably the same way Mexicans in Cancun feel when Americans get crazy during Spring Break etc).

Thanks for a great article. I look forward to going back there again some day.

Posted by: Loretta at August 12, 2004 08:56 AM

Michael,

A large part of the reason that Germans are not treated as Americans are may well be that during World War II, Tunisia was the only piece of Africa occupied directly by the Germans. The other parts were all held by surrogates. I'm sure these folks have long memories, and they will remember that it was the Anglos, whether ANZAC, British or American is irreolevant, who lifted that occupation. The Germans did not treat those they occupied well, to say the least. Go read at www.commentary.com "In Search of Righteous Arabs" about some of the issues of that. Granted, it is from a specific viewpoint, but I'm sure that it is at least verifiable.
Tunisia sounds like a place to visit. I wish I could, but 2 kids under 6 make that kind of travel simply unenjoyable.
Regards,

Mike

Posted by: Michael at August 12, 2004 09:38 AM

An eye-opener, and one that reinforces the fact that North Africa is most assuredly not the Persian Gulf in its attitudes.

You are, however, a little too glib in dismissing attitudes towards Jews, noting that there are (a few) Jews left in Tunisia. There's good reason why there are few Jews left in any Arab nation. The Arab world is rife with hatred against Jews, in part, or perhaps especially because of the mere existence of Israel.

These are not dhimmi Jews, subservient to their Muslim masters; these are Jews with guns and 'tude, very much in charge of their own turf. Big difference, and definitely part of the reason for such hatred. Whenever someone tries to sell you on the"golden age" of Muslims living in peace and harmony with their Jewish and Christian cousins, look a little more closely at what really took place. And we must not accept the relativistic argument that Muslims treated their Jews better than majority-Christian lands. That this may have been true in the past condemns Christians for past sins; it in no way expiates Muslims for theirs.

Bottom line for me is that people are people, and most of us, if not threatened, will respond with kindness. However, we will also tend to be conditioned to hate if we are subjected to years of anti-Jewish propaganda, as is much of the Arab world.

Note that is "tend" to be conditioned to hate. However, your experience in Tunisia should remind us that there is always hope.

Thank you.

Posted by: Jack Rich at August 12, 2004 09:49 AM

Rainbow,

Generally when someone writes a post like yours I kick them out of here for being pathetic right-wing trolls who pretend to be idiot leftists. I can usually tell it's a fake leftist because the caricature is so over-the-top. But I can't quite figure out if you're pretending or not. You're almost a total cartoon character, but not quite.

TCS is libertarian, not "far right." Halliburton doesn't pay be a penny to write anything, but my editor Nick Shulz does give me a paycheck for my articles. I don't apologize for needing to pay the mortgage.

Besides, if I'm such a fascist, why did I write an article about the nice Arabs in Africa? I thought the line was that I'm supposed to hate them or something. You guys need to get all your bullshit in one sock.

Posted by: Michael J. Totten at August 12, 2004 10:31 AM

Oh, by the way Rainbow, you're on troll warning. One more post like that and you're out of here forever and ever.

Posted by: Michael J. Totten at August 12, 2004 10:32 AM

I loved this:

We couldn't talk, not really, not without a common language. But we tried all the same and we laughed when it didn't work out. There was never an awkward moment. He expected nothing from us. He just wanted to share his Sahara.

Beautiful. Thanks for sharing Michael

Posted by: Mary at August 12, 2004 10:38 AM

michael,

wonderful, wonderful article!

Posted by: bill at August 12, 2004 09:33 PM

But without all that Haliburton money, how will we ever get that second basement put in?

Posted by: shelly at August 12, 2004 10:55 PM

Thanks Michael. Great writing.

Prak: We should invest in Tunisia, big time.

Do you have a fund in mind?

Posted by: crionna at August 13, 2004 10:01 AM

Michael great writing and great article.
The paradoxes of the Arab world are many and deep.
I wonder if any ever asked you of the reasons for any politics of America or ever mentioned Israel? I wonder if they wanted to or really didn't care, and thought it secondarily or tertiary in importance to just meeting an American?
Was the friendliness totally genuine? could some have been friendly but in a calculated way?

I went to a Club Med in Martinique, (French) in the Caribean once. 2 friends I met were Tunisian Jews who now live in France. One was orange and dark like an Arab and the other could have passed for a light Sicilian. I never asked them about Tunisia and why they had left because at the time I couldn't have cared, we were only interested years back in talking to all the women there, I still know his full name, and would love to ask him many questions about life in Paris for him these days as well.

Mike

Posted by: Mike at August 14, 2004 08:39 AM

I see that nmany readers are making the mistake of thinking the so-called Arab world as homogeneous and taking Tunisia as representative of it.

Contraryly to some Arab countries they have a pre-islamic past (Carthago), meaning they never swallowed the myth about everything being darkness before Islam. And that their feeling of Arabness is mild at best.

Their political regime is liberal and democratic by Arab standards

Fundamentalists have been kept in check (meaning that they probably never got so much traction). Tunisia has the most liberal woman status in the Maghreb and probably in the whole Arab world (to begin with poligamy is illegal AFAIK).

Their economy depends on tourism, meaning that they can't afford the luxury of sitting in a sea of oil while hating and dreaming of world domination since they have no oil and they aren't part of the masters race.

The jewel of their industry is their textile industry who works mainly as subcontractors for the firms of the Marais in Paris who are 90% Jewish...

Posted by: JFM at August 15, 2004 12:23 AM
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