La Goulette, port of Tunis. Wikipedia image

We were here talking on how globalization also had the opposite effect, of reaction and rediscovery of cultural identities. Let me expand on this a bit with a few memories.

[This post has been originally written in Italian]

The White-Bearded Bon Père

I was working in Tunisia at the time the campaign for the second re-election of George W. Bush was about to start. I often wandered around Tunis with a taxi driver, this beautiful white-bearded old man I conversed with on many things, politics, culture etc. He greatly helped me to explore the city since he knew every alley, every aspect of it.

I almost always ate at La Goulette, the main port of Tunis (see an overview above) where many Italians emigrated between 1700-1800 before they even ever thought to leave for America.

An area of the port bears in fact the name of la Petite Sicile. There I enjoyed fresh fish that fishing boats carried almost to the waterfront restaurants.

Ah quel vie, quelle poésie, la francophonie sur la mer de Carthage, la cuisine locale, les vins, le délicieux poisson!

(My table-companions were Tunisian and Italian and we always spoke French. Unforgettable memories)

One of the roads leading to La Goulette. Tunis. Click for credits and to enlarge

One day, while the old man was driving me as usual to the port’s restaurants, I said to him:

“What if Bush had already captured Osama Bin Laden and pulled him like a rabbit out of his hat at the last minute so that his victory in the forthcoming elections would be devastating?”

“They are too intelligent to fall into traps like that,” the old man replied with shiny eyes.

Minaret of the Great Mosque in Tunis seen from an alley of the Medina. Click for credits and to enlarge

Such an answer, given like that, with dreamy eyes, from this dear and good old man whom everyone called le père for his wisdom and who strongly condemned terrorism, puzzled me. I dropped the subject (and perhaps I shouldn’t have.)

Well, I thought later, if this touches the heart of such a wise old man, it is not difficult to imagine what 9/11 may have meant for thousands of young people: a fire, a burst of renewed Muslim pride which swept them and drove them to follow the example (still partly does unfortunately) of the “heroes” of the Twin Towers who sacrificed themselves – for the sake of Allah, his prophet and the civilization they represent – in such an insane, ruthless but also immensely spectacular (to them) way.

Pride Refound and Terrorism

Until September 11 the Muslims had always been badly beaten – the war lost in only six days by their venerable Egyptian leader Gamal Abdel Nasser, the West always trying to control their oil resources, Israel’s creation as guardian of the Middle-East and champion of the West etc.

At the time of the London bombings (7 July 2005) many had wondered how it was possible that almost adolescent, honest-faced youths had blown themselves up as suicide bombers thus killing dozens of helpless bystanders. Weren’t terrorists wicked, bloodthirsty killers?

Questions such as this show in my opinin a certain lack of understanding – of the human soul, of (fundamentalist) faith and of what the Islamic revolution meant to Muslims and especially to the Muslim youth, from the time of the Ayatollah Khomeini onward.


A strong but also humiliated culture, Islam, which resists globalization, but unfortunately when reacting with terrorism does the wrong thing totally, giving rise to distrust, hatred (and isolation) all around it.

Tunisians however (not only them) are good and moderate, friends of Italy and of the West. And a great number of them display self-critical attitudes:

Ouvrir les yeux sur soi et sur l’Occident suppose que le monde musulman cesse de se poser en perpétuelle victime. “C’est toujours la faute de l’autre, note Mohamed Charfi: le colonisateur, l’impérialisme, le système financier international, le FMI, la Banque mondiale. Quand amorcera-t-on l’autocritique qui permettra un diagnostic lucide de nos échecs ?”


Related posts:

Pain in the Heart

Mare Nostrum, Patriarchy, Omertà. 2

The Southern Shores of the Mediterranean

47 thoughts on “Tunis, the Port of La Goulette and a White-Bearded Old Taxi Driver

  1. I loved reading this post. The images, especially of the old man, are vivid.

    I think it’s quite possible 9/11 would never have happened had we not been meddling in Muslim nations. But whatever the causes of 9/11, I am certain those events had nothing to do with their “hating us for our freedoms” despite how many times Bush, Cheney, and others have insisted that’s the true cause.

    By the way, Bush’s reelection shook my faith in democracy and the American electorate. My faith has not been wholly restored and probably never will be.


    1. Thank you Paul. “Hating us for our freedoms” … every culture has its own traits and democracy is not easily exportable like a chest of tomato sauce. I understand how you feel.


    1. Being praised by you is an honour Jenny. I’m instead starting to be blocked by English. That is why, following Philippe’s advice, I’m posting a bit in my mother tongue too. Ciao


  2. I’ve always pulled out my hair listening to the explanations Americans offer or accept for the behavior of other cultures. Back during Vietnam I used to hear “Human life means nothing to them.” That got recycled in at least two conversations I can remember about Islamic zealotry. Glib, and meaningless; I can see someone saying it of Americans in any part of the world where we have made a mess that 99% of Americans will never witness firsthand.

    But I’m just as frustrated by the people abroad who have a monolithic view of what constitutes America. Hell, we disagree about everything. I wish I knew what we represent to them (which is one of the excellent things about following this blog and its other visitors). Probably one of the big mistakes we make abroad involves Americans leaping into situations with all four feet (I admit that is part of the national character), assuming they know exactly how they appear to the other parties.


    1. I agree America is far too diverse to be summed up in monolithic terms. There are few generalities about her that hold without significant exceptions.


      1. True, the U.S. is not monolithic. No country is. However the successive governments keeping more or less the same ways give that impression. Regardless of who is in power, nominally at least, things don’t change.
        Some countries have huge mood changes when the opposition comes to power, Spain for instance, but not the U.S., Britain or Canada for that matter, hence the feeling that we all think and act the same.


        1. The two party system in America does not come close to reflecting the diversity here. But the two party system is not going to change anytime soon. Yet why Britain and Canada? Why the “sameness” there?


        1. I think the two party system is part of the reason things don’t change in America, but I am clueless why they don’t change in Canada or Britain. Any ideas?


        2. I thought it was a question of the real big powers (industrial, military etc.) behind a nominal presidential power, which explains for example why Obama didn’t leave Afghanistan.


          1. Thank you for your concern. I don’t know what it is, MoR, but I’ve been unable to sleep for more than a little while at a time lately. *shrug*


          2. That’s good to know it passes. Thanks.

            Back to topic: This morning, I saw a video of the late comedian, George Carlin, who was talking on this very subject of who owns and controls the US. Of course, Carlin was right on the mark: The corporations, the military, the uber-rich, and so forth.


          3. That’s at least what we hear over here too and we see in your movies.

            These people must be filthy rich if they have such influence on the US.


          4. The two Koch brothers, who fund so many conservative schemes, have between them almost as much money as Bill Gates — who is the second richest man in America this year. Thank goodness he and Warren Buffett, the richest in America, more or less stay out of politics.

            Buffett is on record as saying that the uber-rich have declared war on the poor and middle class and that the uber-rich are winning that war.


          5. Everyone here who is not a Tea Partier expects them to soon be betrayed by the politicians they elected to office. At least, that’s what I am reading on the blogs, etc.


    2. @Sledpress

      I’m just as frustrated by the people abroad who have a monolithic view of what constitutes America.

      Americans are judged like any other. Every nation has to face misunderstandings etc. It’s no easier to be Italian, French, Indian, German etc. Stereotypes, mistrust, undervaluation – you name it – are part of the game of opening up to the world out there a bit, even just via blogs. Tough at times but enriching.

      Of course America being THE superpower is like floodlit on a stage. But we all are on a stage when we encounter foreigners, virtually or really. At first we are seen as stereotyped representatives of our nation, later only we are perceived as unique individuals within a culture.

      US …assuming they know exactly how they appear to the other parties.

      America is often ‘seen’ as too isolationist, too focused on herself to really deeply understand others and “how the US appear to other parties.” As we discussed over *at Paul Sunstone’s blog,* the US can hardly remain the dominant power in the world and still cultivate isolation. The two things are contradictory.

      Americans leaping into situations with all four feet

      Another gem of yours Sled 🙂

      A lion’s pose, I imagine, more than a cat’s. I wish there were more lions in the EU. There are very few.


      1. Things don’t change in Canada and the U.K. probably for the same reason: a powerfull civil servants body that tends to value continuity and is convinced that they are the real guardians of orthodoxy.
        As one of them once told me: “Ministers pass, we remain”. When the civil servants stonewall a minister or a governemnt measure nothing much can be done, it’s like trying to swim in a molasses lake.
        Don’t forget that they are unionized and cannot be gotten rid of easily, at least in Canada.


        1. Same thing here. As regards the foreign policies, for example, our civil servants body, as you say, at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs actually controls our foreign policies, no matter the Minister on charge. Plus, like everywhere, there are the big powers (industrial, military) with the peculiar addition of the Catholic Church, given its seat in our country.

          I think that in the US, as Paul S *is saying*, it’s more the big military and industrial powers plus the uber rich who control more or less everything. They may have less Federal and State bureaucracy.


          1. We have a fair number of bureaucrats and of course always a ready chorus of Tea Party and other types insisting that there are too many. They seem, however, to be susceptible to upheaval, at least when the light is shined upon them. As I live alongside the nation’s capital I am prepared to say that a good many of them are overworked. In one agency I was aware of hiring was frozen, by rule of Congress, though the head of a department was being treated for brain cancer and on extended medical leave; his immediate underlings took on his work along with their own and on a couple of infamous occasions slept on the office couch rather than bother going home.

            It varies by agency and by state of course, and everyone knows about the Defense Department’s unhappy history of expensive hammers and the like; now it seems they can’t afford flak vests, but I see they have increased the total size of a contract that requires an audit by the office responsible for such things. If you’re only dealing with chump change, less than ten million dollars worth of hammers, you can escape scrutiny. Austerity move or grease from industry? Hm.


          2. @Sledpress

            A good many of them are overworked

            I don’t think one can compare an effective bureaucracy like yours with the European one, especially South European, Latin. In any case cuts are everywhere because all nations have debts. Of course the US foreign policy ‘with four legs’ cost quite a lot.

            I think one problem you may have is also the debts of citizens. Here in my country for example we have a huge national debt, but individuals are great savers, which somehow adjusts things.

            But our economy is stagnant. I especially pity the young people.


  3. For the sake of ideas exchange I paste here the discussion around the *previous post*, identical to this one on Tunis but written in Italian.


    How interesting that you find the need to return to Italian! This post brings a new perspective to the problem of 9/11.

    Yes, Rosaria, the need for a mother-tongue is unquenchable. You know, Mediterranean Muslims being so similar to us I’ve always tried to understand their inner motives.

    Paul Costopoulos:
    Your taxi driver was a good and sensible man. It does give another perspective, as Rosaria has posted, to 9/11, when you look at it from the “other’s” perspective. It was indeed as devastating, if not more, to the Arabs and Muslims than to the USAers.
    In the U.S. it was one hit and run. For them, it is still ongoing and they have been trampled for the last 9 years and have lost so many lives lives, mostly civilians.
    He who sows the wind reaps the tempest.

    Perhaps as many as *one million lives*.

    Paul C, I guess they have been trampled for much longer than 9 years. Historical perspective can as usual provide some answers about human motives.

    Paul Costopoulos:
    I should have been more specific about duration of Arab trampling and number of lives lost.
    I’ll never forget a comment I heard from an European some 40 years ago. He said:”The only thing an Arab understands is a kick in the ass”. It struck me as racist and downright patronizing. Things have not changed much, I guess but now it’s drone launched guide missiles up his nose.


    Paul: There are Europeans and there are Europeans. And Americans are no better. This is a clash of civilizations, one of the most moronic things ever. With the West always trying to take advantage, a supremacy that will not last long though.

    Philippe: A realist and well balanced article Philippe. Stephen M. Walt while considering the necessities of realpolitik stigmatises the horrible figures of 100 Muslim fatalities for every American lost. I always got angry when I heard about American casualties only (not the Muslims’) on the news.

    And that British journalist, dry as only Britons can be: “If the United States wants to improve its image in the Islamic world it should stop killing Muslims.”

    Paul Costopoulos:
    Don’t worry MoR I do not put all Europeans or USAers nor Muslims for that matter in the same basket. It would be stupid of me to do so.


  4. *NOTICE*

    I know some of my dearest readers voted for Bush and later against Obama. This doesn’t mean anything to me. I like to discuss all ideas, I have mostly overcome any left-right difference and discussions are often much more interesting with ideas differing and honesty of course being present among the participants (which, as regards the readers I know, is beyond any doubt.)


  5. I’m sitting here with my Barbera D’Alba, enjoying your pictures. I used to live in Morocco. I spent time at the Algerian border. I wish I had something scholarly to say. What if that guy Paul Bremer (Bush’s appointee) had bought a copy of Frommer’s Travel Guide, ‘Let’s Go North Africa,’ and read it on the plane to Iraq. Well, that’s depressing.

    The wine is great!


    1. Morocco, beautiful. You don’t cease to surprise me Mr C. And you don’t have to say anything scholarly. I am simply excited that you have come back.

      Yes, very depressing.

      Good wine, Barbera D’Alba, thank you. I have been exploring the Piedmontese wines only recently, since, despite the fact my father is from that area, I am more into Tuscan wines.

      Cin cin!


  6. I appreciate how nuanced this post is, MoR. This topic is multi-faceted with myriads of sharp bends and deep caverns, almost beyond the scope of the Blog, n’est pas?

    I disagree on one thing: Nothing on that day was ‘spectacular’ because this word has a positive connotation.

    Mostly, what I have heard from Muslim people is that Americans do not know how they are perceived. This saddens me because the perception of them and their efforts is not balanced.

    What I have experienced in the Muslim world is ambivalence. First, service is paid to the horrors of terrorism: no one condones it but equivocation always follows. When I try to expand the conversation to the subject of Muslims killing Muslims in huge proportions today, a wall appears, because it is easier to stay with one arch enemy.

    Daniel Pearl failed to see this ambivalence, trusted and was lured to his death. His killers failed to see that Daniel would have done a fine and balanced job from their perspective. Hate has a dearth of intellect.

    Last year, in the USA, I attended a lecture given by the former Ambassador to Yemen on the current situation in Yemen. I was struck by the multitude of problems the poor Yemenis have to contend with: tribal fighting; refugees from Somalia; influx of terrorists, (real and would-be) and dire poverty suffered amongst wealthy, Arab neighbours. Let’s not discuss child brides and the consequences of such for their nation.

    The former Ambassador’s genuine concern and passion was inspiring as were the questions posed by the mostly American audience of diverse ages. No one had a negative gratuitous or superior attitude towards Muslims. There was all round genuine concern, combined with analytical and problem solving approaches. I was deeply impressed and remember thinking, my God, Muslims wouldn’t believe this.


    1. Distrust and diffidence are at the root of all evils be it between individuals, nations or religious groups. You are right, Geraldine, when you write “Muslims would not believe it” but then neither would we should Muslims say it and that is most unfortunate.
      The wall you write about reminds me of a saying I encountered some years back: “Me against my brother, my brother and me against my cousin, my cousin, my brother and me against my neighbour, my neighbour, my cousin, my brother and me against all the others”.


        1. Hi Jenny.

          Coniugi, ie husband and wife, let me see. Nothing similar but:

          Dio li fa e poi li accoppia. Moglie e buoi dei paesi tuoi. Cattivo amico, pessimo marito. Meglio un buon amico che un cattivo marito. Chi ha bella moglie non è tutta sua. Chi si marita con parenti, corta vita e lunghi tormenti.

          You mean I should have written about Russia? I know!! I’ll send you a mail about it.


    2. @Geraldine

      Thank you Geraldine, it’s nice to have you back!

      I disagree on one thing: Nothing on that day was ‘spectacular’ because this word has a positive connotation.

      Yes, ‘spectacular’, I understand, but consider it was used within a sentence meant to provide the “other’s” perspective. So, spectacular ‘to them’ (or many of them), but immensely horrible ‘to us’.

      This graph from *Pew Research Center* shows a burst of enthusiasm after 9/11 within some Muslim countries, but also a decline of it in the following years.

      I think we should understand why 9/11 first generated such enthusiasm.

      As for ambivalence, I think it is reciprocal. The conference you mention showed honest concern, but somewhere else both in the US and in Europe a lot of hostility and lack of concern is shown too. In Italy, traditionally soft with the Arabs, things are getting more and more difficult.

      This topic ….beyond the scope of the Blog, n’est pas?

      I started this blog with a long historical perspective in mind: thousands of years rather than hundreds. For example I’m trying to trace those behaviours that were common to the provinces of the Roman empire and their possible survivals today. So I dedicated many posts to the Mediterranean people, of which parts of Islam, ie ‘the other shores of the Mediterranean’, are an important element so linked to Rome’s and to Southern Italy’s history.

      You can reach them from *here* (with also links at the end of the posting) in case you are so foolish as to venture in such stuffy territory 🙂


  7. @ Man of Roma
    “Yes, ‘spectacular’, I understand, but consider it was used within a sentence meant to provide the “other’s” perspective. So, spectacular ‘to them’ (or many of them), but immensely horrible ‘to us’.”

    MoR, several dozen Muslims died in the Twin Towers. Their families and friends would not consider “spectacular” suitable. It would also be immensely horrible to them. But, I get your point, overall.

    Thanks you for the Pew Research graph. Not all Muslim countries were represented, and, age groups, employment and other factors are not given.

    “I think we should understand why 9/11 first generated such enthusiasm.”

    Please understand that I do indeed understand and care.

    beyond the scope of the Blog, n’est pas.”

    Upon re-reading I now see why my sentence offends you. I’m sorry. It was meant more in terms of the topics overwhelming intricacies and how to respond. It has more to do with my hesitation than your erudition. Please forgive me for this as I forgive you for making a few assumptions about me.


    1. Hi Geraldine.

      You didn’t offend me at all. You’ve always been so kind here. I probably offended you instead with that adjective ‘spectacular’.

      I was just trying to place myself – I repeat – in the shoes of the Muslims, especially the young, in order to understand a bit why they reacted the way the did.

      [Update: I have changed the sentence into: ‘ruthless but also immensely spectacular (to them) way’.]

      I know I’m not the only one to care to understand. And pls, I don’t assume you don’t care or don’t understand (if I got what you mean). The Americans at that conference showed how comprehension of the ‘other’ is present. But pls let me say that not many Western media (Europe and North America alike, as far as I can tell) discuss much of the reasons of the ‘others’. They do, but not that much, and often Al Jazeera provides an interesting take unheard of in other TVs.

      The main point in my view is that the West (Europe and later America) has dominated and exploited the rest of the world from the Renaissance onward. [Wide ranging, I know]. This is why many ‘non Western’ people hate or dislike us, and America, the strongest Western superpower today, is under the lights. Which doesn’t mean we are bad. The Muslims, when they were mightier and more civilised, did exactly the same to us.

      This particular topic – 9/11, Muslim terrorism etc. – is thorny and concerns anyone of us ‘Western’. There were attacks in Madrid, London, Bali (against Westerners) etc. The Vatican was menaced several times. We have air fighters ready to take off in case of an attack, and my country, who participated in Iraq, is now present in Afghanistan.


      1. Hi Man of Roma,
        Sorry for the delay in responding, I’ve been away too. Thank you for tolerating my parsing one word in your thoughtful post. It was wrong of me. I’m very sorry.

        It is good to walk in other peoples’ shoes. I love this advice (heard it all my life), it’s full of goodwill. Given our history, the onus is on us to understand. I see. As the song goes “It’s gonna take a lot of love….”

        Many people are building bridges, like you.

        Btw: I have arranged for you and Mrs. Mor, in a little café nearby (turn left, right and left again), a bottle of Merlot, unsalted Tuscan bread and some proscuitto di parmi to make you happy.


      2. Dear Geraldine,

        I had nothing to tolerate since you were right. The word ‘spectacular’ was inappropriate for such a horrible tragedy.

        And you are a very sensitive person.

        And yyes, we’ll be there to eat and drink Merlot with you! Food and drinks will be on us. Of course, it is only good manners, you will host us at your home in Pennsylvania for a couple of weeks at least 😉


  8. MoR! I have just read your comment on Lola’s blog.

    You have never been too harsh with me! I’m not sure why you thought so unless my lack of visits over the last few months made you think so. Sorry about that, I have just been a little busy. I promise to try to do better in future 🙂


    1. You give me a great joy Andy! I was actually a bit sad about having been perhaps a bit harsh with you 🙂

      I also promise to visit you more. Ciao


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