Tunisia, arguably the most progressive country in the Arab world, sits in northern Africa halfway between Egypt and Morocco. Like the rest of Northern Africa, it’s far more similar to the Middle East than to sub-Saharan Africa in culture. Out of the 30 countries I’ve been to on my world trip, I would deem Tunisia the second-least touristy (after Paraguay, which I would only recommend as a destination to my worst enemies 🤣😈). I met 30 locals and only 2 tourists during my three weeks in the country!

Photo: Ksar Ouled Soltane near Tataouine

Destinations

Tunis: Every building is white, there is an epic medina (old market), and the grand ruins of Carthage are just a hop, skip, and a jump away from the capital city

Sfax: Tunisia’s second-largest city is horribly polluted but has some intriguing colonial architecture and is a good jumping-off point to see El Djem, the most impressive Roman amphitheater outside of Rome.

Tataouine: A desolate city in the south that is surrounded by unique must-see ruins from many eras and empires

Tozeur: A small city on the cusp of the Sahara near some impressive oases and natural wonders.

Kairouan: A holy city for Islam, 7 trips here are considered equal to one pilgrimage to Mecca.

Mahdia, Monastir, & Sousse: Lovely coastal towns with grand fortresses, medinas, and mausoleums. (Do yourself a favor and skip the unimpressive tourist trap of Hammamet–because there are so few tourists here, the vendors are very desperate and aggressive and there’s not much to see.)

Tabarka: Tucked in the green, mountainous northwest of Tunisia that is a stark contrast to the otherwise dry landscape, this is quite an aesthetically-pleasing little corner of the country.

The Needles in Tabarka

Young But Not Free (Or Employed)

Some important stats on Tunisia:

  • It has 12 million people but is not at all densely populated (it ranks #144 in the world for population density). Large parts of the south and west are uninhabitable Sahara.
  • It’s one of the least free countries in the world–coming in at #116 out of 162 countries studied by the Fraser Institute. I saw some clear evidence of this myself–see next section.
  • The median age is 33, making it one of the younger countries in the world. This is common across the Arab world and a major contributing factor to the Arab Spring.
    • It has had an excellent education system since independence from France in 1956 due to a decision by Tunisia’s first post-independence leader to retain the French colonial teachers until Tunisian teachers could be properly trained and to keep the education system in French, rather than switching to the region’s native Arabic as well as significant government investment in education–up to 35% of the national budget at times, which is huge!
      • Also, university remains 100% free here!
    • However, the government has not been able to develop the economy to keep up with the education system, so there are extremely high levels of unemployment among both degree-holding and non-degree holding young people–a major issue brought up in the Arab Spring.
A cafe in the Tunis Medina

The Arab Spring

The Arab Spring began right here in Tunisia when a street food vendor set himself on fire and burned himself to death to protest mistreatment by the police and the government just a month after WikiLeaks was published and exposed some egregious government corruption. While it spread across the Arab world, it only had a lasting impact on the government here in Tunisia–in Egypt, for example, the government that was ousted by the Arab Spring was replaced by an even more oppressive ruling party.

A quote from the book I mention below: “By 2015, less than four years after the Jasmine Revolution, the country had adopted a progressive constitution, held fair parliamentary elections, and ushered in the country’s first-ever democratically elected president.”

Tunisia’s Arab Spring could not have achieved such success without the work of a powerful labor union that organized protesters around the country. This was a key factor missing in other countries’ less successful revolutions.

Sadly, many of these gains have been lost under wannabe-dictator current President Kais Saied, who came to power in 2019 and subsequently assigned much more power to the presidency and actually completely disbanded the Parliament this year (imagine if the US President could disband the Senate and the House! Like WTF? It amazes me how weak democracies in so many countries are.)

  • I saw evidence of the president’s suppression when I visited Tunis’ city hall plaza (Kasbah), which played a major role in Tunisia’s Arab Spring protests. Police barriers were placed all over the plaza so that only narrow walkways through the plaza were accessible and dozens of police vans sat nearby–which didn’t exactly scream “freedom to protest!”
Tunis’ city hall, where protest is currently banned

Tunisia: An Arab Anomaly

I read an excellent book with this title and now will highlight some key ways Tunisia stands out from the rest of the Arab world:

  • Critical thinking is encouraged in school and religion is genuinely kept out of the education system. (Meanwhile, in Jordan, scientific textbooks begin chapters with verses from the Quran and in Saudi Arabia rote memorization is the defining characteristic of the education system.)
  • Freedom of religion is constitutionally protected, while in most other Arab countries, you can be JAILED for calling yourself an atheist.
  • Tunisia is strategically unimportant and lacks the natural resources of many of its neighbors, so it experienced less oppressive colonialism and has had less need to develop a large military (meanwhile, Egypt’s military is so powerful that every president since 1952 has been a military officer)
  • Women’s rights
    • See the bottom of this post
  • Many of the aforementioned distinctions are due to the influence of one man–Habib Bourguiba–who served as Tunisia’s leader for its first three decades of independence. Bourguiba studied in Paris and believed strongly that Tunisia needed to orient itself toward Europe. He was very oppressive and basically a dictator but he nonetheless accomplished

Language

The vast majority of Tunisians speak formal Arabic, the Tunisian dialect of Arabic, and French. University classes are conducted in French, while lower education consists of Arabic and French classes each year as well as a recently-expanded several year of English classes (imagine taking three language classes in school in a single year!)

Gen Z is the first generation to prefer English to French–most of them speak both equally well and prefer to converse in English since they see French as the colonial language that is much less relevant today than English. There’s also some issues of class here as rich Tunisians often speak to each other in French rather than Tunisian Arabic so the general mass of young people sees it as more “revolutionary” to speak English.

Meeting a Secret Agent

I had undoubtedly the weirdest encounter of my trip so far when I walked into the medina (old market) of Kairouan one morning. A girl walked up behind me and asked, “Are you from the US? I saw your shirt.” (I was wearing a Denver shirt.) She must have seen me earlier and then followed me since the back of the shirt didn’t say anything.

We chatted for a few minutes and she shared that she was from Texas and traveling solo. Then, as we were about to part, she said, “Don’t be alarmed if you see guys following you. They’re police from the embassy–they sometimes follow American tourists around to make sure they’re ok.” (Very odd. I definitely don’t think this is a thing!)

Then, 5 minutes after we parted, three plainclothes men walked up to me and asked for my passport (something that has never happened to me anywhere). They asked me several questions about how I knew the girl, where we had met, etc. and after I convinced them that we had just met right at that moment, they lost interest in me and walked away.

Now, mind you, this girl was a very unintimidating, normal looking person who didn’t seem like an an agent of terror or a secret agent or anything like that but I don’t have a better explanation for WTF was happening with her and why she was being followed so intensely lol!

Tamaghza Golden Canyon in the Sahara

Baguette Life

Walking around Tunis, it’s impossible to forget that you’re in a former French colony as about half the people on the streets are carrying baguettes! Baguettes are a major part of Tunisian cuisine–when you sit down at a restaurant, your table is usually already equipped with a basket of sliced baguette, some harissa (a spicy paste), and other dips.

Here’s some photos of my favorite Tunisian dishes 🙂 Harissa hlowa (a sweet peanut cake), hlalem soup (with Tunisian pasta & veggies), kefta (meatballs in a tomato sauce – my fave!), ojja (Tunisian shakshuka–maybe the spiciest dish of my trip so far!), and kamounia stew (which tasted remarkably similar to one of my favorite Mexican dishes–birria)

The Male Cafe

Despite being a self-described paradise for women, the majority of Tunisia’s cafes are for men only. Tunisian men are very social–after a long day of work, most of them head not for their couch to watch TV but to a cafe to smoke, drink fresh mint tea (the national drink), and chat with their friends. (While women spend much more time inside the home.) How I wish Americans were more like this!

The men I questioned about this said that there are cafes that are mixed-gender, but that those cafes have to be kept cleaner and nicer. I saw very few of these cafes though!

Small Town, Big Sculptures

The majority of non-touristy small towns in developing countries look quite bland and ugly, but on a bus ride from one city to another in Tunisia, I passed through a random small town called Al-Maharas that apparently had at one point had leadership that decided their town needed to have something special–a sculpture garden with giant dinosaurs, ships, robots, horses, and much more. The world needs more magic and spice like this!

A sculpture in Al-Maharas

Small Town, Big Sheep

Something I saw in several small towns I passed through in Tunisia were hanging sheep carcasses right next to the outdoor eating area of restaurants. I don’t mean a slab of meat, I mean an entire sheep with everything intact that you would think was alive at first glance if it wasn’t hanging on a string. Imagine having lunch with a dead sheep hanging five feet from your table!

I’m assuming that the restaurants are trying to brag about how fresh their meat is–message received!

I did not take any photos of this, you’re welcome!

Colonial Forests

Something I read about and later witnessed in Armenia was the fact that Soviets planted entire forests in dry parts of the countries that they thought looked too barren. Passing through the Tunisian desert, I also saw some forests that looked like orchards with evenly-spaced trees–except they were just random oak trees that were not being used for cultivation but simply were put there for aesthetic purposes by the French colonists. So bizarre to see such an unnatural forest in the middle of the desert!

A Mecca for Women

The majority of Tunisian women do not wear hijabs, there is a long history of Tunisian women working outside the home, and women’s rights have been protected in the Constitution since the 50s, something the US certainly can’t say and something that even the chauvinists of Tunisia never voice opposition to. Many Tunisian women are quick to call themselves feminists and are very proud of their country’s record on women’s rights. (I asked a Tunisian woman I met what her second-favorite Arab country was and she said, “None! This is the only country in this region I have freedom as a woman.”)

I met with Sana Fathallah and her team at the Femmes & Leadership Association in Tunis, a nonprofit that works to empower women and youth across Tunisia, to learn more about feminism here.

  • Abortion became legal in Tunisia the same year as Roe v. Wade and birth control was legalized here 6 years before France!
  • Tunisia passed an anti-racism law that prohibits discrimination based on skin color, a big step for a country where the country’s small black minority (concentrated in the rural south) has traditionally been excluded from many opportunities
  • Women have had the right to vote and run for office since 1957. (Saudi Arabia still doesn’t allow women to vote in all elections). Until the Parliament was recently disbanded, women made up 47% of city councils and 28% of Parliament due to quotas–this is a percentage point higher than the US Congress (27%)!
    • However, progress has stalled here–the President is not enforcing the quota system and this year’s new Parliament is expected to be only 1-5% female
    • Also, female politicians face the barrier of being expected to prioritize childcare over their jobs, not being used to speaking up as much as men, and less knowledge of the French language which is commonly used in the political world here
      • Sana, who is a businesswoman, shared that she’s sometimes asked by men she works with if she needs to leave work early or skip meetings to care for her children
  • Femmes & Leadership is focusing most of their efforts on a youth empowerment program as there is a giant exodus of youth from Tunisia into Europe, usually illegally and through the dangerous method of taking a boat across the Mediterranean, that has only gotten worse since the pandemic and the Ukrainian war-induced recession. Parents are even selling their gold so they can pay for their children to take this dangerous journey–that’s how limited they see opportunities in Tunisia to be. Some rural areas have hardly any young people left.
    • The program is called Peace Builders and trains youth to be leaders in their community by empowering them to take on a community project like building a park or an art space
  • On the org’s wishlist for the future is to help create a second-chance school for the 120,000+ Tunisians (~10%) of the population who have not obtained a high school diploma and are therefore ineligible even for vocational training
    • Illiteracy has actually been increasing in Tunisia in recent years since many youth see the very real fact that getting a diploma or college degree here may not result in employment for them and choose to drop out instead
The Femmes & Leadership team

Not Exactly a Mecca for Queer Folks

While Tunisia is a relatively positive place for LGBTQ people to live their lives compared to most of Africa and the Middle East, it still lags significantly behind nearby Europe in rights and cultural acceptance for this community. I spoke with Weema Askri from the LGBTQ organization Mawjoudin We Exist in Tunis to gain a local perspective on this.

  • Tunisia has anti-gay sex and anti-morality laws on the books–the most common way these laws are enforced is by police arresting trans women for dressing apart from their biological sex on the street
  • There has never been a Pride in Tunisia, but Majoudin has hosted an annual queer film festival for the past three years
    • Attending the festival surely feels like a risk to some as there is always an intimidating police presence outside. This year, the police forced organizers to cancel the planned afterparty.
  • The most significant progress for queer Tunisians in the last decade has been that they no longer think they are alone, that other LGBTQ folks exist, and they are aware that there are organizations they can reach out to for help.
    • Queerphobic Tunisians no longer say that Tunisian doesn’t have any LGBTQ people, which was a common argument until recently
    • It’s still common for queer youth to be kicked out by and face violence from their families if their sexual orientation or gender identity is revealed (usually not by choice). Lots of people are outed online, with intimate messages and photos shared against their will.
    • While there are some supportive young straights, half of Tunisian youth are more religious than their parents due to a religious revival so it’s not quite the same generation gap in acceptance we have in the US
  • Politicians will doctor stats and say positive things about LGBTQ rights when they’re abroad and then come back to Tunisia and do and say nothing on the issue. There are no queer people or open allies in the government.
With Weema at Mawjoudin’s office
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