December 03, 2012
Part of my reflections on my e-portfolio is about what it means to be an American in Tunisia, but there is also a bigger question of what America is and means in Tunis.
The protests that occured outside the American embassy on September 13th have colored my time here, and made it questionable to whether I will be able to return. Non-essential US Embassy staff are still not able to return, and I assume that decision is re-visited every month.
Unlike in Libya, the reason for the protests here in Tunisia really was initial anger over the film that insulted the Prophet Mohammed. When I was in Jordan, I was able to have a number of productive conversations about American values -- and particularly our respect for the value of free speech above all, even above the idea that we might insult or hurt others.
However, here in Tunisia, I am left only to live in the aftermath of the events, as they played out here, without having reason or opportunity to talk to Tunisians about their experiences and thoughts in the moment.
Yesterday, when I was in a very small town in south west Tunisia (the opposite side of the country and a very long 8-hour train ride) from Tunis, I actually saw some graffiti on the wall that was a commentary on the film.
The grafitti, which was written more than once, on a large wall in the middle of a small street in a tiny town, says "Hey American, Hey Coward. The Prophet of Allah, Mohammed, (Peace be Upon Him), will not (cannot be) be insulted."
I really wondered at the significance of this -- how many Americans really wander through the desolate streets of this tiny town called Tamerghza, and how many of them actually can read Arabic? I really think I might have been one of the first American tourists to see that -- there are NOT a lot of tourists in Tunisia right now, not at all a lot of Americans, even fewer travelling to the south, and let's be honest, practically none going out on strange excursions and wandering the backroads of small towns. Luckily, this is my forte, but still, I had to think that this sign was not actually made for me to read (it is addressed to a male regardess- presumably the male film director). This was a sign, directed at an American, but written by Tunisians, in Tunisia, for the benefit of the Tunisians in his local village. If it were really intended for a larger audience, it most certainly would have been written in French.
For me, it offered a hint at the many varied ways that Tunisians are reacting to the film, and how they take to street art to proclaim what I assume are widely held reactions to this perceived insult.