As a middle-aged white man it’s not often that I get the honour of a spot of racial profiling but one of the joys of travel is that you get to stand out from the crowd and at times attract a lot of unwarranted attention, instead of being only notable as just another lanky, speccy git back home. Possessing the aforementioned profile of middle-aged white man in Tunisia is altogether quite a different proposition to any Arab in the reverse situation. Unlike the UK government, Tunisian security forces aren’t quite so inclined to ship their valued guests off to a shipping container on a remote Indian Ocean island to listen to Ed Sheeran at ear-splitting volume between bouts of high voltage jolts to the genitals or waterboarding for a bit of light relief. This kind of hospitality is usually reserved only for fellow Arabs who have been holidaying in Syria.
It all started in the industrial, port town of Sfax, my ideal kind of holiday destination due to its limited touristic appeal. Even in the glory days of mass tourism the town wasn’t on most tourist’s itinerary and since various lunatics had decided that holiday makers were in need of a good dose of culling with AK47s and ISIS picked the country as an ideal picnic stop on the way to the neighbouring basket case that is Libya, foreigners have deserted Tunisia in droves, which seemingly left me as Europe’s sole representative in Sfax. It had somehow slipped my mind that the town had been, only a few days before, the venue for one of Mossad’s diplomatic foreign escapades, where they had decided that the body of a certain Mohammed Alzoari, a drone designer for Hamas, lacked sufficient lead content, which they generously rectified with a magazine from a Uzi 9mm. Without going into any troublesome ethical issues over the exact nature of Mr Alzoari’s work, its safe to say that having a foreign state execute one of your citizens on your home turf is unlikely to generate a lot of calm introspection, wherever in the world it occurs. While the Tunisian government, along with many other Arab states might be a bit lukewarm in their support for the Palestinian cause, the same cannot be said for the population, who were somewhat miffed about the whole thing and made a point of marching through the streets, making a lot of noise to convey their dissatisfaction. Consequently the police wisely decided for the sake of a bit of peace and quiet they had better look as though they were doing something about it. Thus with such provident timing I arrived in Sfax.
A Canadian traveler friend had put me in contact with a Tunisian friend of hers, Ahlem, who quite by chance was in Sfax at the same time on business with a friend. However, only ten minutes after having met at the market and having a chance to peruse its plethora of edible wonders we were called over by a dutiful policeman on the lookout for any of the suspicious foreigners who had carried out the nearby assassination. Israeli security services had wisely employed some European types to carry out the task as Middle Eastern looking folks with Israeli passports make a less convincing cover story of being harmless tourists. This was when I realised I had made the elementary traveler error of not carrying any ID with me (take note kids!).
In brutal dictatorships its easy to remember seemingly trivial niceties, as uniformed men with scowling faces and machine guns offer a gentle reminder of your duty to carry ID but with Tunisia being the only country in North Africa that can truly be called a democracy, it’s too easy to revert to the relaxed practices of home. Before anyone says, “what about Morocco? They have proper elections, freedom of speech and stuff”, they still have a king who holds ultimate power, so they lose out on a technicality for first place in the North African democracy charts.
So, off to the police station it was. Although I was confident that there wouldn’t be much call for any extreme measures to extract information from me it was fairly tortuous having to watch an officer grapple with the immense technical conundrum of a computer keyboard: with a scrunched up face of intense concentration he laboriously dabbed one finger at a time at the keys as he entered my details, and with only two such fingers sufficiently trained to operate the complex machinery it was clear that we were going to be there for a long time. A round of discussion was required simply to find an appropriate word to describe my occupation. In the Queen’s English the term, builder is widely understood to imply having a range of construction based skills but I have never found a suitable Arabic word to describe the same profession. As the officer questioning me explained, “we have professionals for each specific task in the construction process”. As a professional myself, it became necessary at this point for me to then question why they had clearly employed some rank amateurs to paint his office. Thankfully he opted to see the funny side of this, rather than as a wholesale slight on Arab workmanship.
At well over the hour mark, mostly spent sitting, waiting while they ascertained that I had arrived in the country when I said I did, it became clear that Ahlem was going to miss her next business appointment. I don’t think Tunisia is alone in it being culturally unacceptable to tell the police to get a move on as we’ve got better things to be doing. So we sat it out with all the good grace we could muster until it was eventually decided that on the balance of probabilities I was unlikely to have any links to Mossad or an inclination to shoot Tunisians and we were allowed to leave.
Despite the seriousness of the crime the police remained true to Tunisian hospitality and treated me most gentlemanly, although a cup of tea wouldn’t have gone amiss I didnt push my luck by mentioning it.