We have been here nearly three weeks and Tabarka is an interesting place. I’m very happy we came to this wonderful place. Yet as a traveller I have experienced a range of emotions that could best be described as culture shock. In hindsight I probably should have been more prepared for my first visit, but similar to rocking up to a movie and not knowing anything in regards to the plot you soon work it out.
Regarding the plot that is Tabarka, Tunisia, there has been drama, tension and fear, intrigue and touching family moments of love. It’s a plot that I would recommend to others.
Prior to Arrival – What I Know
I have no prior experience of the world of Islam, except for what is available to me via the media. Much of this is negative and focuses on the extreme.
I have never sat down and spoken to a Muslim man or woman for that matter, or asked of their world. I am ignorant of the day to day lives of ordinary folk like me.
If there is a mosque in my home town I don’t know where it is.
Until recently I didn’t know the difference between Islam and Muslim, to me they were one and the same.
I have never picked up the Koran and I only vaguely remember facts about this religion from grade 12 religious studies.
I have read one book on Islam by journalists George Negus.
I know that girls and women have different rights to the rights I have in Australia.
I know there is a worldwide campaign where Muslims around the world declare that extremists do not act in their name. I love this.
I know that Muslims are faithful. That they pray five times a day and face Mecca whilst they pray.
I know that each year there is a holy month where every Muslim fasts from sun up to sun down and this is called Ramadan. I have always thought this a good idea for a country, or community and have wondered how Australia would do with a holy month. Even a week would do.
That’s it. Not a very extensive list really and this shows how ignorant I am of the day to day life of everyday Muslim’s in an Islamic country.
What I Learnt Just Before I Arrived
I know I have been told first hand by others who have travelled here and do business here that Northern Tunisia is safe.
I know that my Google searches told me this was a good place to visit.
“Tunisia’s national religion is Islam and the vast majority of its population is Muslim, but the country allows freedom of religion and does not have a history of religious repression. It is said to be one of the few Arab countries that is more or less accepting of its non-Muslim citizens, and it strictly enforces secularism in most areas of its government.” www.mapsofworld.com
I did know that Australia was facing its first “home grown” (a bit like sprouts) terrorist plot, as disenfranchised young Australian men planned to behead a stranger in the name of Islam on the streets of Sydney. Crazy stuff.
I did know what I had read on Smart Traveller. First reading really scared me. Then I looked at what other countries were rated and this helped ease my mind a little.
Click here to find out what our Government tells us re travel to Tunisia
I did know my government asked us to reconsider our need to come here. This was perhaps the most disturbing moment and made me very anxious.
Yet it was too late to change our mind on coming here, as you know from my previous post, Tabarka was a done deal.
I Expected Different And Have Not Been Disappointed
I knew coming to an Islamic country things would be different. My main concern is that we are safe. Otherwise, different is good, different is what we came here for. I know that when in Tunisia it is me that has to adapt, to abide by the rules even if they are contradict what I believe.
When in Tunisia be Tunisian.
What I did not expect has been how charming and warm the people have been towards us. Any person we have actually interacted with has been welcoming, kind and so friendly.
Our Arrival To A New Continent
Our warship welcome was something else, with that experience, I was looking forward to setting foot on new land.
As we arrived, my first observation was more about the smell than the people or culture. Never before had I been as keenly aware of the smell of the land as a whole, rather than a part of a location. Being absent from the land for days meant the smell of the land was removed and to have it return was a surprise. It wasn’t actually a pleasant smell.
As we motored into port we heard a loud whistle. It came from a shortish homely looking man who was waving his arms frantically, indicating clearly where on the wharf he wanted us to moor. He had a strong handshake and a broad smile and seemed genuinely pleased to see us arriving. He offered us both a generous welcome in both French and English.
Then the Captain stepped off the boat and was gone to do whatever was needed to allow us entry into this country.
As far as welcomes go I thought this was a pretty good one. So far so good.
My Backyard View
While I waited for the Captain to sort out our paperwork, I sat back and had a good look around our new neighborhood. Across from our boat was another naval war ship, larger and more impressive than the one that greeted us. Also several other official boats that were obviously designed for security and policing of some sort. I could also see this was a large fishing port with many fishing vessels lining the walls ranging in size from small to huge. Standing guard over all was the ancient Roman fort.
The thought crossed my mind that in this place our boat looked ridiculous and out of place. She was too white, too plastic and frivolous amongst working boats and vessels of war. Our boat announced a stranger and I felt conspicuous. While I waited I did what I always do when anxious. I had a shower and then did the housework.
It took about two hours for the Captain to return with a party of three officers, including a woman, dressed in smart uniforms of grey and blue. They shook my hand and went over and around the boat. It felt more like an open home than a customs check. Not that I have ever experienced a customs, quarantine check before. I was concerned about the amount of alcohol we had in the drinks cupboard, as it had been so cheap in Spain I was prepared to risk it. We purchased what we could if we had come via an airport and hoped for the best. We thought it would be tricky and expensive to purchase alcohol here and had no idea if you could even drink in this country….
The official asked how much do you have but did not seem too concerned on the quantity, they did not check under the beds to see if I had stashed a bin full of French wine – I hadn’t by the way.
Once the official business was complete we were free to move about Tabarka.
Tabarka 2 Terror 0
Three Tabarka Tales
To understand how the first days of Tabarka went, I decided to share three experiences each different from the other, each leaving me with a different view of this place and in fact myself.
Tabarka is a holiday destination for many Tunisians and Algerians who live only a short distance from the border. For Tunisians the group most represented are couples on honeymoon. Everywhere I looked I saw young couples obviously in love, holding hands, walking close and communicating with each other. Apparently this is the one and only place for newly weds to visit. A wedding here sounds like a huge event and several days are put aside to celebrate, including a day of rest to make sure all is ready for the final celebration.
Love and respect are a universal language and the young love here looks the same as newlyweds at home. The only difference the women wear head scarfs or Hijab. The other give away that they are newlyweds is the intricate henna on the hands and feet of the women.
I am not seeing oppressed or miserable women, in fact the opposite. Yes I see women wearing the Hijab but also many who choose not to. I have been told by a woman it’s up to the girl if she chooses to take the veil. This is a serious commitment though and not a fashion statement that can be easily changed. I wonder if I had grown up in this country and my faith was Muslim, what choice would myself and my sisters have made regarding headdress. This place is hot and it’s not even summer anymore. Every day the temperature moves quickly into the forties. That would make the decision a biggy in anyones diary.
Pardon, Do You Mind
Here in Tunisia it seems totally acceptable to stand beside, touch and even climb onto your boat with or without your permission. Honeymooners in particular love it. I joked that we need to charge a photo fee and we could offer free marriage advice including helpful tips like how to help your husband find his inner chef. This space intrusion at first freaked me out but then I realised it was a cultural difference more than anything threatening.
As customs of theirs seem odd to us so do we appear strange to them.
Of an evening I smile to myself as the locals appear amazed that I the Miss am sitting on my computer or reading whilst my Captain is in the kitchen cooking. Little do they know the difference of quality between my cooking and his. If they did they would probably be more accepting of my Captain, the Chef.
I have been told straight up I am a Baddd Tunisian Wife! (so much for doing the dishes to make me a good wife)
Just a side note, we have been told it’s ok to divorce your wife if she is a terrible cook. We have spoken to one chap whose grandfather did this very thing. Can you imagine, I’d have to change my cooking ways or enjoy living with my mother for the rest of my life.
The next event of significance made me question my view of the world.
On the second day of our arrival, still knackered from the trip, Captain was downstairs having an afternoon siesta and I was outside reading a book. A car pulled up facing directly in front of our boat which in itself was unusual. It drove in at speed and 5 men piled out of the car all talking loudly. It was the speed, it was the proximity and the fact there were 5 men only a metre away from me. I was frightened.
So what do you do when scared you defend or attack. I chose a defensive move Jackie Chan would have been proud of.
I jumped off the outside seat and scooted straight to the kitchen sink and started doing the dishes.
Defence Handbook For Western Women:
If in doubt do the dishes and look domesticated
My logic – Before I over-react I will act like a good Tunisian wife, assess then call to the Captain if need be. Maybe I should have got out a fry pan…
As I cleaned the cups my head and heart were both racing.
The men left pretty quickly after they had arrived racing off to have a swim.
As I finished the dishes I contemplated my alarm.
What if this happened at home, would I have been so freaked out? They didn’t look like terrorists in their shorts, the loud dance music certainly didn’t speak extreme as I heard it coming. Yes the music was Islamic but it had a great base and I’d dance to that.
Yet I continued to be on edge, in the past day and a half we had been treated with nothing but courtesy, kindness and for the most part warmth. I needed to answer the question……. is this high level of alert really necessary in Tabarka.
From this point on I decided to stop the fear and return to my natural state of not being afraid of strangers. I needed to leave my prejudices behind and enjoy this place.
It was only about 5 minutes later one of the young men came back to grab something from the car. I said hello and we started talking, his English skills were excellent. The conversation was pleasant, respectful and not dissimilar to chatting to one of my son’s friends. I was asked if I was enjoying my stay and was there anything we were having trouble with. I said life was fine except I was yet to connect to the Internet. No problem says he. He calls his friend from the water, tells me his friend is clever with the internet, he says come with me we will sort your Internet out for you. By this stage the Captain was awake and is part of the conversation, hence the four of us go 100 metres away to a local Orange shop.
In no time at all I have 8GB of data on my iPad and my phone now has a Tunisian phone number. Next the young man says let me buy you a meal to welcome you to our country. No no says I, but if you allow us to pay we will have a coffee with you. The strange thing was the second mate stayed in the car. I insisted he join us and after much persuasion from his mate the four of us sat down for a coffee. I have my suspicions that it was the cost of the coffee more than anything else holding him back from initially joining us. We chattered and shared our lives for the next 90 minutes. It was delightful, interesting and a pleasure.
I clearly recall how hurt they appeared when we told them our government advises Australians not to visit their country. They could not understand. As long as you are not stupid and do not travel south, you are safe and welcome.
I was impressed by these young men. They appeared family orientated, respectful, hardworking and loved their country. As young Muslim men living a life based on their faith they were as far from the stereotype of extreme anything. Their parents, if not their country would have been proud of these men this day.
When we returned to the boat it was dark and we found the three mates left behind, sitting on the rocks in their bathers waiting patiently for our return. I was mortified I did not realize they had been abandoned at our expense. We quickly offered our apologies. No problem said they. “You’re our guests and it is an honour to assist you in our country. Welcome.”
Amazing. I felt ashamed of myself for being so fearful from the first moment. (Very soon I had reason to be fearful.)
3. An Algerian And Captain S. Holmes
It was day three, we were both starting to get our heads around our surroundings and how best to live in Tabarka for a short time. We had organized for covers to be made for our helm stations as well as our dinghy and motor. This was going to take two weeks to complete so we decided to stay put. We could enjoy the town, get to know the locals and we had a few jobs that needed doing on the boat.
My initial fears seemed faraway and I was starting to relax….
The incident happened just off the boat. I had climbed off to feed one of the many kittens that live next door to us. As long as I didn’t touch the cats, the Captain was ok with my daily pet fix. One particular little white girl who is braver than the rest comes to me each day for a feed.
I had only been off the boat for about a minute when a brand new white four wheel drive Mercedes Benz pulled up close beside me. Out jumps an overweight man who was well dressed and on his own.
No alarm – right.
He wanted to shake my hand, I said no, my hands are covered in fish. Not an issue come, come. Beside his passenger side door he had a bottle of water that he offered to rinse my hands with. Then we could shake hands which everyone does here as part of a greeting.
OK thinks I, this is fine.
No not fine!
No sooner had I stepped to the inside of the car door this creep is grabbing my arm and trying to drag me into his car. He tells me you come with me to my hotel, we drink whiskey we have a good time. No thanks, says I. He is groping, pushing his body onto mine and then trying to kiss me. I was in a dangerous situation with a full blown nutter.
Fortunate for me, he gets the idea I mean No and he leaves.
It helped that the Captain was not far off, when I told him about the cultural exchange, he was shocked and angry. How did this happen so close to the boat? He wants us to go to the police station right away, much to my dismay. I say no he is gone now and I shall be more careful. I didn’t want trouble, I just wanted to go about my life without drama or causing angst with anyone who just might be crazy. I kept thinking how could I be so stupid?
I blamed myself, for being naïve enough to get so close to his car. Don’t we tell our children that this is dangerous? Most staggering to me and I still can’t believe it, I continued to be polite throughout the entire episode. Not once did I raise my voice or call out to my Captain who was oblivious to the incident right next door to him. In Australia we call this assault by the way. Not sure what you call me. Shocked perhaps.
The Captain is not happy that I won’t notify police and disagrees with my decision, but he allows me to have the final say.
Soon enough all goes back to normal and we discuss how to remain safe and how disturbing the incident was. We both agree I was lucky to walk away. It could have been worse. We agree from this point forward no longer would we allow anyone aboard Miss Catana. Photos yes, but only from the outside of the boat.
Later that evening I sat amazed as I watched the Mercedes Benz return and this time Mr “I’m a Dick Head” had brought his mate with him.
What was wrong with this guy?
I suppose if your culture is different you may not realise just how big a tool you really are. Coming back a second time showed one of two things, how different his view was of the situation or how big a moron he really was. Either way I couldn’t believe he had come back to socialize.
As bold as brass this dude pulls up like we are going to welcome him aboard.
I am going to try and quote as best I can and I want you to try and imagine the now angry Captain speaking in a strange accent in basic English to ensure Mr. I Drive A Mercedes understands.
“You are a bad man. You disrespect my wife. You are bad. You tried to kiss her. You need to go away now! Go. I have told the police.”
In the meantime the Captain is racing down to give this guy his marching orders.
Captain S. Holmes decides this needs to be followed up. Action was required. He and Carlo our next door neighbour jump into a taxi to try and find this guy and get his full number plate. So within 30 seconds of the incident, I’m sitting at home, alone, thinking what if this nut job finances a terrorist cell, what if he comes back, what if… What if my husband does not come back? As these thoughts went through my head my past hours of feeling secure were now quickly dissipating .
About half an hour later Captain S. Holmes and his trusty side kick Carlo return with the number plate. They had gone to every posh hotel in search of this car and were determined to pin down where this idiot was staying. The option of not going to the police was no longer an option. As we arrived at the station we were greeted by men with very large weapons slung casually over their shoulders with handguns at hip.
As the Captain tells our story, the police are now also not happy. Turns out this guy is an Algerian and his behavior is not ok nor welcome. At one point there were 10 men, I counted twice, all standing and talking, some raised voices some not as they discussed what to do. If your wondering where I the Miss was at this point, I was standing to the sidelines not included in the conversation. In Tunisia, it appears that a police station is a man’s world.
Once all had seemingly voiced an opinion, Captain and I were ushered into the Police chief’s office. This office was straight from a seventies police drama. The walls were lined in large tiles similar to a flooring of cork tile. The colours everywhere were different shades of brown. Artwork included a large framed map of Tunisia which had seen better days and of course the national flag. We each had a sturdy brown leather chair to sit in, opposite the chief who sat at a large desk that was suitably imposing in size and lacked clutter. I couldn’t help thinking that this room was as it should be, a Tunisian Police Chief’s Office.
The “Chief” also seemed to be straight out of casting. He was a tall man, with thick black hair and dark gentle eyes. He offered us his sincere apology and said that this was not acceptable in his country. He told me to be careful. That it is very important for me to stay with my husband and remain careful. He then assured us that we were safe while in Tabarka, we had his personal guarantee we would be looked after and no harm would come to us, as long as we were careful. (Are you catching what I am throwing – be careful)
Blimey – how’s this for service? This guy was true to his word. No sooner had we got back to our boat we were told to move her to right outside the port authorities office which is manned 24/7. There are lights, people and safety in this new location. The presence of police drive by’s are regular and we feel if need be we can go to the guard and ask for assistance.
I have been saddened to see