Tuesday, May 26, 2009

What is Drew doing in Tunisia?




On Sunday, May 31st I will be leaving for Tunisia to be part of a summer intensive Arabic language program. "Arabic? Tunisia? Where is that place?!" you may ask. Let me fill you in.

Tunisia is a relatively small progressive Muslim country about the size of Georgia in Northern Africa, bordering the Mediterranean Sea and sandwiched between the massive instability that is Algeria and Libya. It is the northernmost country in north Africa. If you look at the map you can see it in green just below Italy, you can also spot Egypt, Senegal and Ghana where I have also conducted past research or travel).

Tunisia received its independence from France in 1956. The country's first president, Habib Bourguiba led the country for 31 years, repressing Islamic fundamentalism and establishing rights for women unmatched by any other Arab nation. In November 1987, Bourguiba was removed from office and replaced by Zine el Abidine ben Ali in a bloodless coup, who is currently serving his fourth consecutive five-year term as president; the next elections are scheduled for October 2009, which should hopefully make for an interesting summer of politics.

Around forty percent of the country is composed of the Sahara desert with much of the remainder consisting of particularly fertile soil and a 1300 km coastline. It has a population nearing 10.5 million people, of which 98% are Arab and 98% are Muslim; 68% of the population lives in urban areas. The standards of living are among the best in the developing world and conditions for women in Tunisia are better than almost anywhere in the Islamic world, from a Westernized perspective: the total fertility rate and HIV adult prevalence rate are smaller than in the United States, while the life expectancy at birth is slightly higher than in the US: the total fertility rate (TFR) is Tunisia is regionally low at 1.72 births per woman while the life expectancy at birth is 75.8 years. The first president banned polygyny and ended divorce by renunciation (where the husband had the right to divorce but not the wife), set a minimum age of marriage for girls to 17 (now 18) and banned the wearing of the hejab (veil worn by women) from schools.

Arabic is Tunisia's official language. However, in Tunisia, the dialect is Tunisian Arabic. French also plays a major role in the country, despite having no official status. It is widely used in education (e.g. as the language of instruction in the sciences in secondary school), the press, and in business. Most educated Tunisians are able to speak it. Many Tunisians, particularly those residing in large urban areas, readily mix Tunisian Arabic with French. So I am psyched that when my Arabic fails me, I can practice my French.

Now that I've sufficiently bored you with these facts, let me tell you about what I'm actually doing in Tunisia. However, if you'd like to know more you can check out the CIA World Factbook, Wikipedia, or Wikitravel.

This spring I received a Critical Language Scholars Program (CLS) fellowship. The CLS Program is part of the National Security Language Initiative (NSLI), a U.S. government interagency effort to expand dramatically the number of Americans studying and mastering critical need foreign languages. It is sponsored by the United States Department of State, Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs and administered by the Council of American Overseas Research Centers (CAORC). It provides fully-funded seven to ten week group-based intensive language instruction equivalent to one year's language study in an American university.

My hosting institution in Tunisia is the American Institute for Maghrib Studies - Centre d'Etudes Maghr√©bines √† Tunis (CEMAT), where I’ll be learning Modern Standard Arabic and Tunisian colloquial dialect. Classes will be held 5 days per week for 4 hours per day plus one or two hours per day for Tunisian dialect, lectures on Tunisian culture and history, and activities in Arabic. I'll have approx 4 hours of homework a night. So in short, I'll be living breathing, and eating couscous in Arabic.

I leave May 31st for Washington D.C. where we have a two-day orientation before flying to Tunisia on June 2nd. We will be spending our first four days in Tunisia getting accustomed to the time change etc, then head to the (apparently) stunning suburb of Sidi bu Said which lies on the Mediterranean coast about 10km from Tunis, and next to the ruins of Carthage!!! You can find Sidi bu Said on the Tunisian Map, northeast of Tunis. Our official classes begin Monday, June 8th and go for 8 weeks. Four of those weeks we will spend living with host families, while the other four will be spent living in shared apartments - there are 32 of us in the Tunisia program.

And WHY am I learning Arabic you ask? Last summer I spent 10 days in Egypt following my summer of research in Ghana. I immediately fell in love with the Arabic spoken language - it sounds so lilting and poetic. I picked up as many words as I could during my tens days there (which I've since forgotten...) and decided I'd really like to return to Egypt to study Arabic further. I've always loved learning languages, and with my Master's in Public Health focusing on global reproductive health, I feel that being able to speak Arabic will greatly enhance the potential locations for work, not the mention my ability to effectively conduct my work. Hopefully in the future I can use my Arabic back here in the States working with Arabic-speaking immigrants on reproductive health. Although I applied to return to Egypt, the program placed me in Tunisia, and I am extremely excited to experience a new country and culture.

Why should YOU love Tunisia?

Best part first: the Star Wars desert scenes in the orginal and prequels were filmed in sounthern Tunisia! You can actually spend a week doing a tour of all the Star Wars sites used in the movies, including Ong Jemal where Darh Maul's lookout in The Phantom Menace; Sidi Bouhel where jawas parked their sandcrawlers, R2D2 trundled along and Luke was attacked by Tusken raiders; Chott el-Jarid where the Junland wastes were populated by Krayt dragons and sand people; Sidi Driss Hotel where Luke drank a blue milkshake; Medenine where Anakin Skywalker;s Phantom Menace slave quarters are and where Qui-gon discovered Anakin's parentage. The Berber tribes built the incredible underground caves used as houses which were filmed in the Star Wars prequel as Anakin's slavery quarters.

The word "Africa" comes from Tunisia! After the Romans destoyed Carthage they wanted to name their newly aquired territory. 50km west of Carthage was an area inhabited by a Berber tribe called Afri, and the new province of Africa Terra (land of the Afri) eventually referred to the entire continent.

On the outskirts of modern day Tunis lies the ruins of the famous Phoenician city of Carthage founded in the 9th century B.C. and dominated the western Mediterranean in the 6th century B.C. The famous Carthaginian military leader Hannibal led an invasion of Italy that nearly crippled the rise of the Roman Empire.