For Your Security

Tataouine, Tunisia
Jan 16, 2019

All along this trip in Tunisia I’ve been dredging my brains for long-forgotten Arabic. Some of it has come back but frustratingly slowly. Not about to let that stand in the way, I have been brandishing a horrendous mix of Arabic and English, with some English words given a French twang from time to time. It seems to work; more often than not, as a source of amusement.

Returning a greeting of “sbah al khir” started a conversation with a man in the souq today. Before I knew it, I had the services of a self-appointed guide, irrespective of my desires. Ahmed walked to all corners of the souq, pointing out goods and items, nonchalantly picking up a bit of this or a pinch of that and solicitously offering them to me to taste. The shop owners did not seem to mind and looked on indulgently. He kept up a constant chatter. In German. An Incomprehensible look on my face would initiate vigorous miming with the same words being repeated at a higher volume. I trailed after him, thoroughly enjoying myself. Every few steps Ahmed would stop to greet a friend – he seems to know everyone – and I was courteously introduced. We’d exchange greetings and stroll on.

One man said hello and greeted me by my name in English although I was sure I had not met him before.
“How do you know my name?” I asked.
“I know your passport number also” he replied, grinning broadly.
My face must have registered surprise because Ahmed chimed in with
“My friend is a policeman; this is his job.”

Enroute from Matmata to Toujane, when I was going to stay with Tarekh’s family, Hasan had got a call from the police and we had had to stop at the station. The men on duty wrote down details of Hasan’s family; they apparently already had mine. It was all done in a friendly manner but officially nonetheless.
“For your security” said the chief when I asked why.

I like to think I am anonymous, but my whereabouts are broadcast with a baffling speed. Leaving Toujane, when I was getting into a shared car for a ride to Medenine, I remember another car driving up. The driver simply confirmed my name and that I had stayed in Toujane the night before.
“You are going to Tatauine now?” he’d asked.
“I think so” I replied.
“You have a hotel reservation?”
My “no” elicited a sigh.
“Where will you go after?” he asked.
My “I don’t know yet” triggered a look of resignation and pain in equal part.

Curious, I had thought but hadn’t paid it much attention. Apparently, parts of southern Tunisia are in the “no-go” zone. I hadn’t known that but Khouda, the owner of the hotel told me so yesterday when we chatted. Not wanting any trouble with foreigners, the police are required to keep close tabs on foreigners. What a job they have!

Easy enough for the multitude who are on booked tours with itineraries cast in stone. Or others who restrict their wanderings to the north. But to have to keep track of one lone woman wandering at random must have come under the category of hardship duty. I feel sorry for the men.

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