TCS Daily

An American in Tunisia

By Michael Totten - August 11, 2004 12:00 AM

Travel is where we truly meet ourselves. We remember what we must in order to endure, says the philosopher Henri Bergson. That is why so much of commonplace existence is forgotten, while our journeys never are.

-- Robert D. Kaplan, "Mediterranean Winter"

It was in Douz, Tunisia, an oasis in the deep south of the country at the edge of the Sahara, that I met the shopkeeper Jamel.

"Everything is free today!" he said as my wife Shelly and I approached his carpet and pottery shop.

"Everything?" I said.

"Everything," he said. "You're from England?"

"No, from America."

His eyes turned to saucers and he took a step back. Few Americans go to Tunisia. I didn't see one in two weeks. "Welcome to Tunisia!" he said and put his hand on his heart. "You must come sit and have tea with me." He didn't want to sell us anything. He just wanted to talk. That's how it goes in Tunisia if you're an American.

Word has it most Arabs hate America. That may be the case. Plenty are mad for one reason or other at least. You could be fooled, though, if you walk the right Arab "street." Tunisia is 98 percent Arab Muslim, but it's no hostile bastion of fundamentalism. Whatever gripes Tunisians may have about us, they certainly don't make it personal.

When we sat down for tea Jamel punched some numbers into his cell phone, waited, then muttered something in Arabic. Minutes later a man about fifty wearing a straw hat came in. "Hello," he said. He sounded like Tony Blair. "You're from America?"

"Yes," I said. "You're English?"

"No, I am Tunisian. I teach English here in Douz."

His name was M'hamed. He taught English to Jamel and most of the others in town who spoke it. Jamel did not call him M'hamed. To him, M'hamed was always "Teacher."

M'hamed asked my heritage and I told him it was English. But, I said, Americans come from every country on Earth. He grinned. "I know, I know," he said. "It is a great country."

"The shop is yours," Jamel said. "This is not my shop, this is your shop."

We talked for some time tucked away in the back of the shop where the molten Sahara sun couldn't reach us. M'hamed and Jamel said they wanted to meet Shelly and me every day that we were in town. At first I was taken aback and thought: We have a lot to see and do, and that is not going to happen. And yet it did happen.

We invited Jamel and M'hamed to dinner and asked them to choose the restaurant. They accepted, of course.

After the call to prayer we went to a cozy couscous place and ate by candlelight at a wobbly table in a tiled courtyard garden. Our waiter was a young handsome black man and was nearly, if not actually, the friendliest waiter who has ever taken my order. He called Shelly "sister," and said I was his brother.

It was then that I made my mistake. I paid the bill. It was nothing. Food in Tunisia is cheap, especially in the south. But I seriously -- and unknowingly -- messed with the Arab code.

I heard about it the next day. "You embarrassed me" M'hamed said, "when you paid for my dinner!" It wasn't a show. He really was cross. I felt like an ass and apologized, told him in my country he who invites pays. "You are not in your country," he said.

It came up again the following day and again the day after that. He just couldn't get past it. Finally, I put my hand on his shoulder and said "M'hamed, I'm sorry. I promise not to pay for you ever again." I could never say that to an American friend. But it made M'hamed feel better.

On a morning walk into town, before the heat made walking impossible, a man with a blue turban, a moustache, and bad teeth emerged from a date palm orchard and waved hello. He tried to talk to us in French -- all Tunisians speak both French and Arabic -- but the conversation went nowhere. I understand just enough French to know he asked us where we were from. "America," I said. He summoned a friend who spoke English and said something in Arabic. I waited for the translation: "He wants you to sit and have tea with him." We had no language in common. He surely had nothing to sell. He just wanted to sit with American guests.

Since everyone in Tunisia speaks French it's the first language they try when talking to Westerners. "Bon jour," they'll say, playing the odds. We all know what it means if we speak French or not.

But after two days in Douz nearly everyone in the square in the center of town who saw me said "hi." What happened to "bon jour" all of a sudden? I hadn't met most of these people before. Yet somehow they knew I spoke English.

I went to Jamel and told him of this. He laughed. "Why is this happening?" I asked. "What happened to the French I heard when I first showed up in this town?"

He tapped the side of his head. "It is a secret, my friend." I imagined Jamel, for whatever reason, told everyone in the square where the tall guy and his red-headed wife were from. He was kidding about the secret, of course. Secrets don't last long in Douz.

We bought a hand-made carpet from a jovial fat man in sunglasses -- a bargain at 25 dollars. "You must have tea with me tomorrow," he said. When he saw us the next day he beamed behind his shades and raised his arms into the air. "Hello, America!" he said.

Walking the square with M'hamed and Jamel: "Look," Jamel said and gestured to the right with his eyes. "There is your brother." I looked. Our waiter from the couscous place sat at a sidewalk café sipping coffee. He raised both hands and flashed us a toothy ear-to-ear grin.

It doesn't take long to make friends in this town.

I went to an Internet café and wrote on my blog about the Sahara. A young man sitting next to me said he wanted to study in America but didn't know which schools were both good and affordable. I wrote down a list of five. He invited me into his house.

Good grief! I thought. I can't even blog in this country without being dragged to a social event. I appreciated the friendliness, really I did. But if I took everyone up on his offer I would only see Tunisia from living room windows.

M'hamed invited us to dinner at his house. The next day, so did Jamel. They were friends, so of course we accepted. They couldn't possibly expect us to eat everything. I was given enough food for eight.

M'hamed insisted we come back to Douz and stay for two months. "You can stay in my house," he said. "You shouldn't have to stay in hotels. Much better to stay with friends."

But we liked the hotel. We had friends there, too, starting with Lotfi and the rest of the front desk staff.

Lotfi managed the desk. He took our money. He called taxis for us. When we needed a guide to take us into the dunes, Lotfi was the guy who arranged it. He made onward reservations for us in Matmata.

At first our relationship was strictly business. Then it shifted. I'd walk up to the desk. He'd smile, shake my hand, and start the formal Arab greeting routine. It's really something. How are you? Fine. You? Good. Did you sleep well? Yes, very well. And you? The weather was great for sleeping last night. Are you feeling okay? I'm feeling great. How are you feeling? Wonderful. How are you? A polite Arab asks "how are you" at least twice.

At one point I walked up to the desk to ask for a taxi. Before I could open my mouth Lotfi looked me in the eye, put his hand on his heart, and said "you are our friends here. You do know that, don't you? You are our friends." I was struck dumb standing. I just wanted a taxi. I don't remember exactly what I said -- some bumbling stock response that probably seemed (to an Arab) stilted and cold. I live in Portland, Oregon, one of the friendliest cities around. But we aren't that nice.

A week later in Tunisia's capital Tunis, 300 miles away at the opposite end of the country, Lotfi tapped my shoulder while I waited in line at a counter for a croissant.

"Lotfi!" I said. "What are you doing here?"

"Hello, hello!" he said. "This is a really nice surprise."

Shelly and I were going to catch the suburban light rail line out to Carthage. I knew right away we would put that on hold. Lotfi would ask us to tea.

"We must sit down and have tea," Lotfi said. So we did.

Every place in Tunis was friendly.

A waiter at the Café de Paris on Avenue Habib Bourguiba: "I cannot take any money from you."

Another waiter, at a different café: "You must come back. I need to see you before you go."

A random man on the street who only stopped to say hi: "America and Tunisia." He made two fists and placed them next to each other. "Friends."

Back at the hotel in Douz: A young 20-something waiter named Abdallah, who spoke barely a word of English, said he wanted to meet us for coffee. It wasn't until after he spent three or four minutes speaking mangled English and what was to us incomprehensible French before we figured out he wanted to meet us at a café next to the dunes. We accepted, but we did find it odd. We couldn't talk to Abdallah. He speaks French and Arabic. We speak English and Spanish. Maybe others would meet us, too, and could translate.

We met at a table outside the Café Les Dunes. It was just Shelly and I and Abdallah. There was no third party to translate.

He ordered coffee for us, and also a hookah pipe plugged with strawberry-flavored tobacco. It was night. Light from a bleeding moon washed over the dunes. The breeze was refreshing as a morning dip in the pool. The formidable heat of the Sahara in summer had passed. It was our last night in Douz. We would never be hot here again. It was easier to relax knowing that.

Abdallah passed me the pipe. "Good?" he said. It was one of the few words he knew.

"Good," I said. "Shukran jezeelen." Thank you so much.

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.

The next night in the Berber town of Matmata we met a pair of German travelers -- Michael and Jung. Both were in their 30s, like us. They were great guys. Traveled every year together, always to Muslim countries. Thought Europe was boring. Hoped, like us, to travel to Libya next. Tried, like us, and failed to get into Libya this trip. We shared a hookah with them, and that's when Shelly asked them the question: "Are you two ever invited to sit down for tea?"

They looked at each other, surprised at the question.

"By Tunisians?" Jung asked.

"By Tunisians," she said.

And they looked at each other again. "No," they both said.

No tea for the Germans. For God's sake, why not? They were friendly, respectful, interested in the country and the culture, perfectly charming, and they both spoke the language -- well, they spoke French at any rate, Tunisia's second language. Yet no one ever asked them to tea.

They came to the same conclusion as Shelly and I; we got asked to tea because we're Americans. I feel awkward about this, and I can't explain why it happens. I don't want special treatment, and I certainly don't expect it. That's just the way it is in Tunisia right now. Anti-Americanism isn't quite what it's cracked up to be.

I felt more welcome traveling in Tunisia than anywhere else I've ever been in my life. Partly this is no more than the legendary Arab hospitality, which I'm happy to report is alive, well, and understated. Even so, I'm more convinced now than before that the Terror War is strictly ideological. It has little or nothing to do with any clash of civilizations. If Tunisians thought me their enemy they chose a peculiar way to express it.

I found an email in my inbox when I got home. It was from Abdallah, the young man who smoked the hookah with us next to the dunes. His friend translated to English for him: "Hello darlings. I hope you remember me."

Don't you worry Abdallah and Lotfi, M'hamed and Jamel. We will never forget you.

Michael J. Totten is a TCS columnist. Visit his daily Web log at


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