I’ve had to wait to post all of our experiences about Tunisia until we left the country because I was afraid of being stopped, detained, and who-knows-what else at the airport. Only a few days ago, Al Jazeera in Egypt was shut down, and Charlie Hebdo in France bombed for saying the wrong things about the wrong people. Censorship is something we’ve experienced in China, but the political tenor was quite a bit different than what we encountered on our travels through the Middle East recently. In Tunisia, we actually felt like we were being followed and watched, which is apparently, a common occurrence according to the Bureau of Consular Affairs.
Traveling the world, there have been very few situations that were truly frightening to us. In contrast, there have been many times when I’ve been scared and my fears were unwarranted. For example, we were really concerned about being mugged at the Lima, Peru airport, but we were there at least 7 times and never saw anything remotely criminal take place. I was scared that our visit to Turkey would look a lot like World War Z, but it turned out to be one of the coolest places on earth. I worried about Hurricane Raymond when we flew into Mexico City as the storm blew in. None of these fears ever amounted to anything. It’s the stuff we don’t plan for in advance…the things we don’t know about or even consider that always get us. And unfortunately, censorship has kept a lot of information about the Middle East under wraps.
The media in the United States sensationalizes a lot of things that aren’t that big of a deal and at the same time, they fail to cover events that are newsworthy too, which is better than censorship, but still misleading in some ways. We try to read between the lines and not react to everything we see in the news or on the government travel web sites because often, they’re inflated due to politics or public fervor. Up until this trip to Tunisia, frightening events have been localized; a chance encounter with an angry sheep dog at the top of a hill in Miletus, getting robbed in the middle of the night in Mexico, crossing paths with a Moroccan man in Tangiers who had recently gotten high on something, an 8.0 earthquake in Costa Rica. These are all things that could conceivably have happened to us at home in the United States.
But Tunisia was different.
I’ve studied violence recreationally over the years to try to understand it better and thus avoid it when we’re traveling. It pacifies me to read a book on the psychology of terrorism or what-not on long flights during a standing ISIS threat against a country we’re traveling to or from. There are different types of violence in different places. In some places, we worry about individual criminals. For example, in South Africa, extreme poverty drives some people to carjacking (there are flame-throwing BMW’s on the market in SA!). In Peru, there are Maoist insurgent groups and river pirates. Drug trafficking in Tangiers kicks up violence in unpredictable ways at the entrance to Morocco. In India, violence is random, shocking, and pervasive.
There’s genocide and there’s revolution. There’s crime, and then there are organized insurgent groups. All are violent but theoretically, traveling through a revolution is all about staying away from the crowd whereas traveling through a country where citizens are being systematically exterminated is all about not looking or talking like the folks who are being killed. Run-of-the mill crime is unpredictable, but we can fight back if we’re attacked, and possibly win. But an encounter with terrorists and insurgent groups isn’t likely to end well. Terrorists are indoctrinated with hatred toward us. Insurgent groups would undoubtedly love to capture us as hostages for ransom. Our only hope would be to kill before we were killed, or better yet, avoid them altogether.
The things that we’ve encountered in our travels that have made me fear for my life haven’t generally been the result of violence. I mentioned the dog in Turkey already and the earthquake. Riding in a car anywhere for any length of time in India and Nepal was always a terrifying and traumatic gamble. But I’ve never been to a place where I felt like the odds were stacked against me no matter what: where I could be deleted from the planet by consensus merely because I’m white, American, and possibly Christian. Where I could run but not hide because I’m the bad guy by default.
At the same time, I don’t want to give the wrong idea about Tunisia. There was a man at a grocery
store who let me go ahead of him in line at the vegetable weighing station once. After five weeks there, this small gesture was a big deal to me. There are good people there. I’m sure of it. But it’s the strong arms of the United States that kept us safe when we encountered the police with their big guns and inflated egos. Not our wits or a great sense of humor. No one in Tunisia took the time to get to know us, or even just acknowledge our humanity, because we’re very obviously on the other side of a line that has been drawn in the sand. I know the line is there, but I don’t know the conditions governing its existence except that the fact that I’m white-and-Western factors into it somehow. Whether the policemen with the automatic rifles kill me in the desert or not is really a question of whether or not the United States government will find out about it and then do something about it. If the political climate is such that they would find out and do something, I live. If the political climate is such that they wouldn’t, I die.
And that’s a funny feeling. I don’t really care for it very much actually and I think in the future, I’ll probably avoid it and Tunisia and head to places that are more fun and less scary.