Getting Situated in Tunisia

By: /
July 10, 2012
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I am in Tunis, Tunisia for just 10 short days, after which I move on to Egypt. My project is a comparative look into the process of democratic transition and consolidation in Egypt and Tunisia with a view towards the agreements, disagreements, and compromises within and between secular and Islamist politics.

Given my short period of research in both countries this time around, my expectations are limited. My goal is simply to gain a better understanding of the successes, obstacles, and concerns of anyone and everyone, be they journalists, officials, academics, or, perhaps most importantly, the general publics of Egypt and Tunisia, regarding the process of democratic transition and consolidation in both countries.

My first task is even less ambitious: finding the Centre détudes maghrébines à Tunis (or CEMAT) office where I’ll be working.

Google Maps charted CEMAT’s location approximately a kilometre away from my hotel. Yet, what should have taken me 15 minutes ended up consuming 45. As is commonplace in the Arab world, there were few street signs, scant numbered buildings, and bustling sidewalks. My directions, while explicit in some sense, read:

-From avenue Bourguiba, turn onto rue Jamel Abennasser and go down three blocks. 

-Turn right onto rue d'Angleterre.

-CEMAT is in the second block on the right, at the end of the second alleyway.

I encircled the block three times looking for this mysterious second alleyway. Asking passersby for directions led me through a labyrinth of passages in and between the central souk (marketplace) that shares the block with CEMAT.

In the end, after following mostly inexact directions (proffered with the best of intentions, no doubt), I asked a Tunisian gentleman who, recognizing my English accent, replied: “Okay, let’s look at the map together.” He asked one of the men I had previously asked for directions to show us to the entrance to CEMAT. And finally, I was there.

The building next door to the centre was demolished maybe a few months ago. The mysterious second alleyway was no longer an alleyway at all. It was now simply the side of a building.

I was exhausted, sweating profusely from the 40-degree heat, and chuckling to myself if only to keep my spirits high. A guard came to the door. “Recherche?” he queried. “Oui,” I replied. I was escorted into a beautiful white villa with blue painted doors and windows, air conditioning, and intricate tiling décor. I jotted my name in the sign-in book and felt lucky to have made it to such a beautiful research centre. CEMAT was to be my home away from home for the next few days.

Photo courtesy of the author