We just finished our third week of school and it has been one of the best organized start ups I’ve ever been part of. This is Allan’s third year as director and there is a thing about the third year at something. It’s when you reach cruising speed and really start to get payoff for the difficult work of the start up phase. All constituents of the school seem to be extremely happy and on board with the school’s direction.
When we cancelled school at noon last Friday because of a scheduled protest at the U.S. Embassy, across the street from the school, we hastily grabbed a few things and headed out to start the weekend a few hours early, giddy to enjoy what I call football weather: sunny and cool. We kept tabs on the embassy protest through the news agencies, never considering the embassy fortress with its maximum security walls and marines on duty could be penetrated. We were stunned to see that a protester got to the flag pole, took down the American flag and raised the black flag of the Salifist Islamic party. Hearts sank as a little later we heard that the recreation center area, which houses a pool facility and gym that we share with the embassy, was on fire.
But then the unthinkable happened. This angry mob that had now swelled to around 1,000 people headed toward our school. They breached our security fence and began what would be several hours of burning classrooms and looting them of every item of value. Computers, band instruments, running shoes, nothing of value was overlooked. Our school guards had to flee in fear of their lives and repeated, desperate pleas to the police and military to intervene produced no response for about three hours, enough time to finish off our campus. Young looters casually walked away their arms loaded with booty.
Facing the devastation of a place we have poured our hearts into is crushing. Lying awake a night wondering why the Tunisian government provided no support is haunting. What does that mean? Where do we stand?
Grief has these predictable stages. Denial is always first and we were certainly in that state all through the first night and then the acceptance set in and so did the mourning. Saturday, we faced reality either visiting school or scrolling through pictures on Facebook trying to figure out whose classroom the charred remains represented. There were constant phone calls and emails from friends in Tunisia and around the world to offer condolences and help to rebuild.
But anger is the next stage and I understand it. Some people have begun to refer to our Tunisian hosts as “these people”. Evidence of bad behavior from reckless driving to maids that finger items from their employers is lumped together with this event and drawn into a generalization . I don’t think so many people believe it was motivated by righteous indignation for Islam, but was more of a misdirection of attitudes toward America, founded or not, coupled with the opportunity to steal some stuff.
I’m not angry. I don’t know who to be angry at. Educated, thoughtful Tunisians like our coworkers and landlords have been expressing their own frustration and humiliation over the behavior of a non representative minority who have now set back economic development in this country at least another year or two. Who wants to come here and open a business if they can’t count on the government to help protect them and if there isn’t a good quality international school for their children to attend?
This morning my front gate bell rang. I wasn’t expecting anyone and when I asked who it was, a man answered timidly, in French, but I couldn’t understand him so we stood there for a full minute, quietly breathing on either side of the gate until my son came down and told me he was expecting a man bringing a bass bow for him to borrow. We opened the gate and there was a lovely man with a treasure for Anton. I said to him with a little French and a little English, “I’m sorry, we’re scared.”
He said back to me in his broken English, “We’re embarrassed.”
I’m looking in my heart, in my true feelings, and I’m not actually scared, not in a big sense. The government protection wasn’t there for us this time, but we have strong reasons to believe they are committed to our presence here and they will try to do much better. The looters were a bunch of bored young men who saw a chance to make a few dinars selling a trombone at the Frip, the public flee-market, on Sunday. The Salifists, the conservative Muslims who got this started, are difficult, but I think that going way too far this time may have forced our newly elected Islamist party to draw a line with them and begin to be less vague about how conservatively they intend to run this country. It may have forced a good conversation by setting a bad precedent.
It’s going to be a week of confronting ugliness. Kids will be out of school for at least a week while we roll up our sleeves, clean up what we can salvage, and determine what services we can offer. It is going to be physically and emotionally draining so I am taking today to tend to myself and our home. I want to go into the week in good health with love for the community and reserves to offer those who need them from me. As per my ritual, I went to my corner produce vendor this morning and filled my shopping bags with beautiful fruits and vegetables from the Tunisian countryside. Tunisia isn’t all broken, it’s really just our international community at the moment. We don’t need to live like we are hostages; we’re really not and in so many ways, nothing is different from the way it was last Friday morning. This cornucopia of beautiful produce is symbolic to me of all of the good things and people I so love here and it reminds me that I have the strength to start this all back up again.
Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things.
Philippians 4:8, NIV