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In Rural Tunisia, Answering Everyone’s First Question: ‘Are You a Zionist?’

As a traveler and an occasional international journalist, I’ve learned to savor those hours in transit, of nothing of obvious or immediate interest. The drive from Sousse to Kasserine, from Tunisia’s developed and cosmopolitan coast to its impoverished and somewhat conservative interior, is one such trip. This past March, when I traveled the country with a fellow journalist, I spotted cacti ringing gravelly agricultural tracts, and shorn lambskin advertising roadside barbeque joints (if you stop at one of these, you’re pretty much guaranteed to be eating an animal that was alive earlier that same day)—squat, jagged mountains, and bored-looking, power-tripping cops pulling over every other driver. The drive offers nothing but the paces of ordinary life, the textures of Tunisia’s seldom-visited interior.

We were heading to Kasserine partly because of its outward lack of anything interesting or unique. Coastal Tunisians think of their country’s interior as backward and distant, indistinguishable flecks in the vast Arab desert, rather than a living participant in the country’s distinct, part-French, part-Magrebi hybrid culture. If you drive in from the coast, Kasserine hadly feels like the same country as Tunis’s Parisian-style Avenue Habib Bourguiba, or the self-orientalizing Disneyland of Sidi Bou Said.

But the coast underestimated the interior at its own expense: Kasserine was the second city to experience widespread protests against the quarter-century-old rule of dictator Zine Al Abedine Ben Ali, 10 days after an unlicensed fruit seller named Mohammad Bouazizi publically burned himself (to death, it would turn out) in front of the governorate building in nearby Sidi Bouzid on Dec. 16, 2010. The seemingly-permanent Ben Ali fled the country just one month later. Kasserine and Sidi Bouzid, cultural and historical outsiders worn down over decades of inertia and official neglect, had been in flames long before urbane and liberal-minded Tunis.

As journalists, we were in Kasserine to probe the poignant banality of the places and people that launched the greatest wave of civil protest the modern Arab world has ever seen. The two labor organizers we were scheduled to interview were typical of the kind of activists who had helped the Sidi Bouzid protests go national. Their concerns were local—the regional illiteracy rate hovered at 35%, and unemployment wasn’t much lower than that. But when the protests began, these were the people who had helped flood the streets with discontented union members, breaking Ben Ali’s meticulous illusion of absolute control.

I wanted to like and respect these people. But my colleague and I would find this quite impossible. “Are you a Zionist?” the plumper of the two men asked us, before we could even get a question in. If we were, the interview was off. My journalist friend had interviewed members of Hezbollah—actual terrorists, in other words—and they had never asked him such a question.

Later in the interview, the activists explained that their union encompassed the entire political spectrum in Tunisia, accommodating communists, Islamists, really anyone who stood up for the rights of the country’s workers. I asked if they would tolerate a party that wanted to restore the diplomatic relations that Israel and Tunisia had maintained until 2000.

“We’re not only against normalizing with Israel, “the balder one said. “We’re for criminalizing normalization with Israel…Being with Israel, or even thinking of normalizing with Israel, is almost like holding a Kalishnakov and shooting a Tunisian citizen.”

Now nothing feels more dishonest than mindlessly nodding along to something that I privately consider to be poisonous nonsense, but it’s a position that only the most timid of journalists will never find themselves in. When this happens, you know you’re not in immediate physical danger or anything, but you can feel the tension rise as your conscience bristles, and as your own self-censorship becomes a very real part of the news-gathering process. Will I give anything away? I wondered. Am I about to be angrily expelled from this office—from this town perhaps? The answers to these questions were “no” and “probably not,” but the discomfort was tangible.

As the meeting progressed, I found myself cycling through all the coastal stereotypes about those backwards and uneducated Tunisian country folk, and even guiltily agreeing with a few of them. Except that in Tunis, the prevailing views on Israel—even among members of the educated, liberal establishment—were even worse.

“I always explain,” Zeynab Farhat, the director of Tunisia’s national theatre, told my colleague the day before I arrived in the country, “that even though I am just a citizen without any importance in this world, I say shit for Israel. It doesn’t exist for me.”

“We are not people like Sadat,” Ahmed Ounaies, Foreign Minister for a few chaotic months after Ben Ali’s ouster, told us. “We will not land in occupied Jerusalem and embrace whoever claims to be the leader of Israel while they still occupy Arab territories.” But don’t worry, he said later in the interview. “We have no ideological complex with Israel. None at all.”

On one of our last nights in Tunis, a young Tunisian journalist who seemed to fear the recently elected and avowedly Islamist Ennahda party as much as he had once despised the corrupt and inflexible Ben Ali regime, gave us his opinion on the current situation in Syria. It’s bad, he said. But, he added, the Israeli oppression of the Palestinians is worse. (At that point, Bashar al-Assad’s government had killed over 9,000 civilians in a little under a year.)

Whenever Israel came up, I dutifully continued typing, recording opinions that were ignorant or uninformed, corrosive even, considering that Tunisia’s was the first society to demand and even affect the destruction of a modern Arab autocracy. In such a revolutionary environment it was notable that narrow-mindedness towards Israel was immune from reassessment. It was notable, but also discouraging, particularly in Kasserine. Whatever brief romance I had with rural Tunisia—with the country’s underdogs, the unheralded heroes of the Arab Spring—ended with the question, “Are you a Zionist?”

(photo of the Kasserine marketplace, by the author)

Armin Rosen is a New York-based freelance writer.

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