Wednesday, June 3, 2009

Traveling to Tunisia and Initial Impressions

I made it. Tunisia. Tunis. The Mediterranean. Incredible.

Our flight from D.C. to Paris and Paris to Tunis went smoothly, with the exception of being delayed 30 minutes at Washington Dulles due to "bad weather", which was in fact the clearing of all air traffic while President Obama and his team boarded a massive jumbo jet for Egypt to present his much-anticipated speech to the Muslim world. I actually had a perfect view out of my window onto his plane, and watched the helicopters land, various caterpillar lines of SUVs speed around the runway, and important-looking people in business suits stand on the hot tarmac waiting for his arrival.

Deboarding at Tunis I immediately took a deep inhale through my nose to see if the North African airport smell was similar to the one I loved to experience in Ghana and Senegal. It was in fact very different, which has proved to be my initial impression in the past four hours since we arrived. Here in Tunis, the airport smelled of layers of dust accumulating since the rise of Carthage, which I had the feeling simply swirled around the tile floors and walls of the impressively elegant Tunis-Carthage airport. In West Africa, the first smell (which I've come to love and find comforting) is a mix of old wood and earth, with an indescribable hint of herbs and vegetation.

In short, I can see why North Africa and sub-Saharan Africa are differentiated: they have a completely different look, smell and vibe. The main boulevard here in Tunis (Avenue Habib Bourguiba) on which our hotel is located reminds me neither of Europe nor West Africa. Instead, it is distinctly Arab with a strong European flare: cafe's all along the street, small patisseries selling paninis, gelato, crepes and sandwiches au jambon, tables of men hunched towards each other while smoking cigarettes, a mix of Arabic and French conversation, and an intriguing combination of traditional and modern dress. I suppose I could most closely compare Tunis with Cairo, but Tunis feels far more European and less chaotic.

We begin our four-day orientation this evening; tomorrow we have lunch at the US Embassy and then leave for the suburb of Sidi bou Said (where we will conduct our language study)to be introduced to our Arabic teachers and program staff before having a reception at the American Ambassador's residence. We will then return to Tunis.

Friday and Saturday we will have full days of orientation here in Tunis, and on Sunday we will leave for Sidi bou Said once again, this time to meet our new host families and prepare for classes, which begin Monday.

I am incredibly excited to begin my Arabic, and have found that my cohort consists of a very eclectic mix who all share the passion for learning languages, in particular Arabic. Many are still in college; of the 32 of us here, only 7 are working on or just finished a Masters or PhD. Everyone's degrees vary considerably and make for a wonderful mix of interests and experiences. It will be a great group to study Arabic and explore Tunisia with.


  1. Drew, thanks for telling me about your blog! You are a wonderful writer, and I am so happy to hear that you are doing well thus far. I look forward to following along once in a while this summer!

  2. Indeed you're fun to read. I particularly like the smell thing, that's one of the most memorable thing about a new place for me. Looking forward to more updates...