Friday, June 5, 2009

America in Tunisia: Obama, Embassies and Ambassadors

Yesterday was our first full day in Tunisia. My roommate and I were out on the restaurant balcony and enjoying a cup of coffee by 7am, both exhausted. But the view down the central avenue of Tunis - Ave H. Bourguiba - was stunning with blue sky above, the clock tower on our end and the tower of the Medina's (old walled city) Mosque visible down at the other end. The birds above us were engaged in a feeding frenzy as they swallowed up the newly hatched gnats and mosquitoes.

The 32 of us found our way to the office where our orientation is being held, dragging our feet except for when attempting to cross the hectic main street. Our morning consisted of two tours that were an attempt to get us out and moving and to delay the inevitable feeling of jet lag. We went on a tour of the Medina (the old (walled) city) where approximately 60,000 Tunisians still reside today. We weaved in and out of the narrow alleys with our cultural guide as he took us through the various souks (markets): the red hat market where they make and export red felt hats to other Maghreb countries, the metals markets where only three of the original hundreds of metal shops are still in business today, the jewelry market, the carpet and fabric market, and of course the tourist (crap) market/. As our guide Hatim noted, it is sad to see how all of the incredible artisans souks (markets) have declined to almost nothing with the rise of industrialization, to be taken over by small sandwich and tourist shops.

We of course finished late, leaving us with only about 30 minutes back at the hotel to clean our selves up and throw together outfits for visiting the US Embassy and and attending a reception at the American Ambassador to Tunisia's (Robert Godec) residence.

I actually expected the process of getting into the US Embassy to take longer than it did; in Senegal this February every time we went to the USAID office it took at least 30 minutes to get through security. But we all made it inside quite promptly. Our panel included a briefing on our safety in Tunisia (virtually crime free), Bush's Middle East Partnership Initiative, and a Q&A with the newest foreign service officer. The panel was extremely excited as Obama had given his speech in Cairo mere hours before. They had copies of his speech already printed out for us. Wes pent a fair amount of time discussing the new set of principles and political direction Obama set out, and what it means for Middle East diplomacy. It was incredible to be here in Tunisia for such an event and hopefully I'll be able to hear a bit from Tunisians regarding their impressions - although politics is viewed as a very sensitive subject here.

From the embassy we continued on to our soon-to-be new home of Sidi bou Said, the gorgeous affluent suburb of Tunis where the Ambassador's house lies just a ten minute walk from where on Monday we will begin having our Arabic classes.

The areas is stunning: white-washed houses all with blue doors and windows, cats running around everywhere, a warm breeze and gorgeous flowering bushes ( my Mom would absolutely fall in love with the flora here). We spent an hour checking out our new classrooms before walking to the American Ambassador's house.

The view of the Mediterranean Sea from his yard was stunning, and I felt so privileged to be in Tunisia for this program. After shaking hands with the Ambassador, who is an ultra-marathon runner and looks the part (even in his suit), I grabbed a glass of white wine and began my shmoozing. Anyone who knows me well knows how much I enjoy this. I met some very impressive Foreign Service Officers, who have been learning Arabic from the same teachers as we will have for our language study. While the conversation was amusing if not interesting (the usual self-promotion shtick that one would assume would be present), I unfortunately cannot say the same for the appetizers: mini hot dogs smothered with ketchup, small pizza squares and meatballs. Ahhh, us poor Americans really need such traditional food when in North Africa.

AnyIexpectedcrabcakes, the day finished with a couple glasses of wine back at our hotel in Tunis. The day was surreal in it's longevity and made today an extremely painful one of fighting the "tireds." Nonetheless, I can tell I have embarked on an amazing experience, and I am excited to meet my host family on Sunday and begin Arabic classes in earnest on Monday

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