A changed Tunisia - Cdr (r) Najeeb Anjum - Wednesday, February 09, 2011

Source : www.thenews.com.pk

In June 1976, as I stood in front of the packed classroom addressing those teens for the last time at Lycee mixte de Zarzis, I had mixed feelings; happy to be returning back home in almost two years but sad at leaving another that I had made in Tunisia. The memories of my stint at Tunisia remain fresh after a lapse of more than three decades.

Tunisia is mentioned on very rare occasions in our national media, despite the fact that Pakistan was among the first countries to recognise it after it gained independence from France in 1956. Back then, Habib Bourguiba was not only a household name in his country and the Middle East, he globally symbolised Tunisia.

When I was leaving for Tunisia after my selection as an English language teacher soon after my graduation from university in October 1974, I had no knowledge as to what lay ahead.

I landed at Tunis International Airport after an eventful three-day flight from Karachi, via Damascus, Athens and Rome, the journey involving Syrian Arab Airlines, PIA, Iberia Airlines and Tunis Air. It was little after three in the afternoon but the autumn weather was chilly, and on top of that a heavy downpour welcomed me outside the airport.

Knowing no French or Arabic, I was perplexed, and cursing myself for leaving the comforts of my home in Larkana. Since I had reached Tunis three days behind schedule due to a technical fault in a plane, the Pakistani embassy was clueless about my arrival.

A courteous taxi driver rescued me from my predicament and took me straight to the embassy in the beautiful and affluent district of El Menzah in the capital of that modern, beautiful and tranquil country. I also had the good fortune of meeting one of the finest officers of our foreign service, Toheed Ahmed, the third secretary at the embassy, who welcomed me at his home many times during my stay in Tunis.

During visits to Boulevard Bourguiba for a cup of coffee in crowded and smoke-filled Café Tunis, where middle-class young people sipped the local Celtia beer and smoked Cristal-brand cigarettes, I was amazed to see policewomen managing traffic.

One of my most cherished memories is the annual Carthage International Festival in July at the ruins of the Roman Amphitheatre, where in 1975 I saw sitar maestro Ravi Shankar playing. A small town close to Tunis, Sidi Bousaid, offered tourists a glimpse into Tunisian folk culture. It contains the World War II cemetery of the soldiers of India’s 12 Rajput Rifles.

The hospitality extended to me was extraordinary, and never for a moment was I a lonesome stranger or felt homesick. During term breaks I often stayed with my young colleagues at their homes in Gabes, Sfax, Djerba, Sousse and Hammamet. It was a pleasure travelling in comfortable and efficiently-run public transport on well-maintained roads.

When the news flashed about the violent protests in Tunisia, it was hard for me to believe that the same docile nation was now thronging the streets and dethroning their president who had been ruling for decades. I asked myself what went wrong.

The students whom I had taught must be in their late 40s by now. Those bright faces observed the daily 8-6 routine in their academic institutions. Now Tunisian students came out on the streets. I, for one am surprised at the images of Tunisian students rejoicing at the closure of schools. Most frightening of all was to see teachers on strike.

Let us hope that once the people’s rule prevails, the social fabric will remain intact. I hope that Bourguiba’s legacy of a strong education system, empowerment of women and modernisation will continue unhindered.

Having experienced the Tunisian way of life intimately, I find the current fiasco and turmoil an interesting case study for political scientists and sociologists. I am sad and depressed at the present state of affairs and fervently hope that in the aftermath of the Jasmine Revolution the situation will remain peaceful.

I hope that Tunisians, with their high literacy rate, enlightenment and modern outlook, will be more pragmatic in future and preserve their identity.

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