Kimberley and Okhti in Tunisia. (Image courtesy of the author.)
Kimberley Davidson has a new appreciation for the importance of multi-culturalism after spending a year living in Tunisia through the European Voluntary Service, part of the British Council’s Youth in Action programme.
The West’s perception of Muslim countries is often based on media myths and stereotypes. When I informed people in Scotland that I was coming to live in Tunisia for a year, it was clear that many had little or no understanding of Islam or of the variety of cultures that exist within it. People assume that in Muslim countries as a Westerner you will be shunned and prevented from living your life in your own way. I can’t speak about every Muslim country–I can’t even speak about all of Tunisia–but in my experience, this couldn’t be further from the truth.
In Scotland, we take pride in our multi-cultural society and like to think of ourselves as welcoming and hospitable to people from all walks of life. However after just two months in Tunisia, I don’t feel as sure of this. Yes, in comparison to many countries Scottish society is very warm and friendly, but it is far from perfect.
From swift exchanges in the street, to working relationships, visiting family homes and travelling in a group, I have experienced the beauty of the Tunisian character in a variety of dynamics. If I can take even a pinch of this back to Scotland with me, I’ll have achieved what I want from my European Voluntary Service.
Each day I spend in Tunisia is like a short film about the beauty of kindness. In the opening scenes I am in a ‘louage’ (shared taxi) travelling to the youth centre. A young girl realises I speak a little Arabic and we talk about each other’s lives; she tells me about her studies, about her hopes for the future, and I share mine. We exchange numbers and I invite her to my cultural presentation in the youth centre.
Scene two. When I first arrived, I ventured to the medina to buy a gift for a friend’s birthday. Here I met Marwan, who after 10 minutes of charming bargaining banter reduced his original price for a ring by 90 percent. He invited me to sit in his small shop and we continued our chat, laughing and smiling, sometimes not really understanding each other’s words but our sentiments were clear. He brought me a mint tea from a nearby café and then we said our goodbyes.
Scene three. Weeks later, I passed his shop by chance and he called my name. I was so surprised that he remembered me and so happy to see him again. He gave me a beautiful pair of earrings, the traditional ‘Hand of Fatimah’, as a gift. He doesn’t know if I will return to his shop or expect anything from me, he just wanted to make me feel welcome.
I have been fortunate enough to be welcomed into many people’s homes. To spend time with a family when you are so far from your own is an emotional and happy experience. It isn’t formal like in Scotland; as soon as you enter the home it’s like a warm embrace from an old friend. Tunisian children are beautiful, well behaved and just completely delightful. Though in many respects our lives are far removed from one another and cultures so different, Tunisian people have a way of removing all the labels until you are just two human beings, with no preconceived ideas, just sincerity.
In the Youth Centre I am so fortunate to work with such wonderful people. The director has an open door policy which reflects the general ambience of the community of Darchabeb, Kalaa Kebira. If you need help or advice, there is always someone there to support you. In Tunisia it’s difficult to distinguish between a group and a family, because the relationships are so strong.
Yes, I know some people will read this and say I am still in my ‘honeymoon’ phase and they would be right, but that won’t change the impact these first months have made on me as a person. You see, my love story is about a people, not one person. The Tunisian people have swept me off my feet and my heart beats for them.
Kimberley is volunteering at AJMEC, a cultural exchange organisation. A version of this post was originally published on the author’s personal blog. The views represented are the author’s own and do not necessarily represent those of the British Council.