In which Sean Bigler
recalls getting hassled by the Man in Tunisia.
BY SEAN BIGLER
in the news these days with its riots and removal of long-time dictator/IMF
patsy Ben Ali, I thought I’d share with you a particular experience I had while
I spent my two years as a Peace Corps Urban Housing
volunteer in Tunisia
in the mid ‘90s. I was given the task of designing and building a house using
funds from a World Bank housing initiative. My job was to build a house with
the same amount of money a typical Tunisian family received… but I had to
complete it and move in. So I, a typical acid-dropping college graduate from
“Amerikia,” was going to show them how to build following a budget!
My story takes place about a year and a half into my tenure.
At that point, I had my foundation, floors, walls and most of the plumbing done
but needed to “pour” my roof over the rectangular part of my house.
To save money, I found a roofing company in the capital who
manufactured all the roofing components to spec; prefabricating the beams and
locking cement bricks for any roof dimensions. The problem was they had no clue
how to navigate the maze of new construction and unmarked streets that led to my
So I was bicycling through the streets that led to the main
road when some men from a hardware store ran out to ask me was I was doing. I
said (in Arabic) that I lived here and that I was drawing a map for a roofing
company. I had never seen this hardware store before and they had never seen me
so I had to convince them that I was indeed a resident and working for the
Peace Corps. I basically said, “@^*#$ you, I have a green card and who the
^&@#$% are you to question me? I live here!” That was a big mistake.
Let me explain my actions. After nearly two years living in Tunisia,
I had been worn down with the harassment I sometimes received from citizens who
couldn’t understand why I was here and why I spoke (broken) Arabic. I had
developed a potent arsenal of swear words and could be quite surly with
aggressive strangers. What I didn’t learn until later is that in Ben Ali’s
Tunisia, a great many citizens were government informants who reported anything
that looked suspicious: Muslim
fundamentalists infiltrating Mosques, signs of drug smuggling – or blond men
riding bicycles while drawing maps!
A few weeks later, I happened to ride by the same hardware
store on my way home. The same group of men ran out of the store and told me to
stop and come over. This time, I didn’t stop but waved goodbye and kept riding.
To my surprise, they jumped into a truck and began following me!
For the next 15 minutes or so we played a game of chase. They
would pursue me down the streets and I would ride across construction sites
where they couldn’t follow. Every time I cut across to another street the truck
would eventually catch up to me.
The game ended when I speed across the main street of town
and rode through a busy outdoor café. [Insert
movie scene here.] I thought that they wouldn’t dare touch me in public. They
drove to the other side of the café and cut me off, with me losing control of
my bike and falling to the ground. Several men wrestled with me and eventually
they threw me and my bike in the back of their truck. It was all very surreal.
They drove me to a police station about 10 minutes away
where for the next few hours I was interrogated by several police officers whom
I had not met before. Despite having my green card and work permit, they seemed
to play dumb with me; asking me repetitive and stupid questions. The officers
woke up the police chief and called someone from the Municipality who
eventually confirmed that I was indeed a Peace Corps volunteer and working in
the greater Tunis
So with torn clothes, bruises and an empty backpack, I was
finally released late that night. When I got home I went to one of my adopted
“families” in my neighborhood to tell them my story. I had formed
many close bonds with Tunisians during my stay and had been integrated into the
neighborhood; participating in weddings, religious festivals, social and civic
events. My troubles in Tunisia
almost always occurred when I found myself a stranger in a non-tourist part of
Most everyone agreed that I should go to my Peace Corps
office in Tunis
and file a complaint. So that’s what I did. A few days later, my Tunisian Urban
Housing coordinator and I paid a visit to the police station and met with the
police chief. At first the officers played dumb, then they tried to appease us
by bringing us Cokes and pastries. Feeling protected and cocky, I slammed the
bottle down on the desk screaming something like, “We didn’t come here for
refreshments, we came here for justice! It’s your job to protect me. I’m a US
Peace Corps volunteer!”
This outburst froze the room and made my coordinator very
uncomfortable! Nevertheless, the police became very accommodating after that,
promising to check in on me periodically to make sure I was safe. In return, I
had to notify them if another Peace Corp volunteer came to stay with me. After
the meeting, the police and I drove to the same hardware store where the
officers harshly – and physically – reprimanded the men who chased me down. It
was not my intention of demanding this type of “justice” but in some
parts of the world, this is how justice is done.
I eventually finished my house and later that year worked
with the local municipality to donate it to a homeless family. They moved in
after I returned to the US.
I will always be grateful for my time in Tunisia. It taught me much about
the wider world and its complexities. It also taught me to watch my temper and
mind my big mouth! Lesson learned?