Fellows' Reflections: Hannah Byrd

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A young boy on a bicycle rode alongside our car. “There are more that way!” he shouted through the open window, gesturing across the street. He lives in the Erriadh neighborhood in Djerba, a small island off the coast of Tunisia. This neighborhood was selected as the location of Djerbahood, an open air museum established in June 2014. Over one hundred artists representing thirty nationalities painted murals on walls throughout the neighborhood. The result is delightful. Diverse styles and cultures swirl over white and brick walls, greeting visitors at every turn.

I thought about what it meant for that young boy to grow up with these beautiful paintings decorating his world. In our brief interaction, I saw how he appointed himself as a guide. I imagined much of his summer break spent riding around on his bike under the intense Mediterranean sun, interacting with strangers from all over the world who have come to see his neighborhood.

I visited Djerba at the end of my fellowship year in Tunisia. After saying goodbye to my students at ClubAnglais, I piled in a car early on a Monday morning at the end of June with three of my closest friends in Tunisia. On the long car ride there, I alternated between sleeping and monitoring the playlist, trying to enjoy this time with my friends and ignoring my impending departure.

Djerbahood, however, demanded my attention and reflection. This neighborhood is a living testament to the beauty of cross-cultural exchange. Artistic styles from around the world each tell a different story, yet enrich the overall message of the project. When people from different backgrounds come together and share experiences and customs, a similar phenomenon happens: our perspective and empathy grows. Fortunately, cross-cultural exchange is not limited to living abroad, although it is a fantastic way to experience it. It happens in coffee shops, classrooms, over lunch: anywhere people from different backgrounds gather and share their stories. The simple act of listening and seeking to understand can create profound change.

Now that I am back in the United States, I hope to follow the example of the boy on the bike. I want to be hospitable and welcoming to newcomers and embrace encounters with those different from me. We have a lot to learn from one another, if we just take a moment to engage.

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Fellows' Reflections: Hannah Byrd

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I have been fortunate to have Tasnime work as my teaching assistant for the after school program I teach for ClubAnglais at the Canadian School of Tunis for four months. She graciously agreed to share her perspective on Tunisia for this blog.

Q: Thank you, Tasnime, for agreeing to share your perspective on Tunisia with us! Can you give a little background as to who you are?

A: My name is Tasnime Hamdi and I am 22 years old. I’m a medical student at the Medicine School of Tunis and I live in Tunis, the capital of Tunisia.

Q: How would you describe Tunisia to someone who had never visited before?

A: Cosmopolitan, traditional, and modern are the first three words to come to mind when I think of how to describe Tunisia to a foreigner.

Tunisia is cosmopolitan because Tunisians are ethnically diverse due to the rich history of Carthaginians, Romans, Turks, Spanish, and Arabs settling in Tunisia among the indigenous peoples called Amazigh. In addition to diverse physical appearances, Tunisia’s history manifests itself in our language. The Tunisian dialect is not just Arabic but includes terms from the languages of all the groups that have settled here. The result is a beautiful, mixed language with a North African spirit.

Tunisia is traditional because we continue to practice Tunisian customs in our daily life. This includes eating traditional Tunisian food, warmly greeting our friends and family with kisses, and using old proverbs in our speech. Tunisia is modern because our country has done a lot to advance women’s rights and expand women’s power in society. There are many laws that ensure equality between men and women and protect women from all types of violence and harassment. Tunisia is also the only Muslim-majority country that bans polygamy. Apart from legal protections, Tunisian women are leaders in many fields like medicine and politics. Tunisia actually has more female than male college graduates.

Q: Many people in the United States know Tunisia as the only country to successfully democratize after the Arab Spring. Are you optimistic for Tunisia’s future as a democracy? What challenges do you think Tunisia still faces to thrive as a democracy?

A: I am very optimistic for Tunisia's future as a democracy because there are many Tunisians devoted to this cause. Corruption and terrorism, however, threaten Tunisia’s future as a democracy. Corruption in all forms is a huge threat not only to democracy but also our economic and social prosperity. Our military forces have done a lot to control the threat of terrorism, but since terrorist attacks in the past were often in retaliation to elections or laws, the threat can slow political progress.

Q: In your opinion, what are Tunisia’s greatest strengths as a country?

A: I believe that Tunisia’s greatest strength is its youth. Tunisians under 30 years old account for more than 60% of all citizens. They are full of energy and potential. They are greatly equipped to make Tunisia a more advanced country. Added to that, Tunisia has an advantageous geographical location, rich history, fertile land, and brainpower. If employed properly, these strengths have the power to advance Tunisia.

Q: As a medical student, can you speak a little about Tunisia’s healthcare system? What are one or two reforms you would like to see?

A: The good thing about the healthcare system in Tunisia is that it's public and almost free for all citizens. However, many reforms are needed. The quality of medical care is insufficient due to the Ministry of Health’s limited budget. Doctors and medical staff work in poor conditions and lack proper equipment. They are overburdened with patients which affects their quality of care. Medical students and residents are also fighting for reforms in the education system.

Q: Just for fun, what is your favorite Tunisian food?

My favorite Tunisian food is definitely mlewi. It is is a Tunisian bread. I think that mlewi with harissa and tuna is the manifestation of heaven in food form.

Thank you, Tasnime!

Fellows' Reflections: Hannah Byrd

As my airplane descended into Tunis in late August, I looked out my window and saw a white sailboat skimming through bright blue water. This first sign of life in my new home sparked the realization that I would have to find my place here in a country with distinct customs and language. In the almost two months since I have lived here, every day has felt like a test of whether I am succeeding at this. Like most things in life, the path to belonging has not been linear. There are days when I walk home from work at sunset when the pink sky frames the white houses and I feel an enormous sense of contentment. I feel cared for by my neighbors when I buy bread from the bakery near my apartment and the women owners ask how I am. I feel the joy of sharing life with others during moments of laughter at lunches with my co-workers over something one of our students did that day.

That being said, there have also been times when I have felt lost living here. I speak Modern Standard Arabic, but the Tunisian dialect is different. The phrases “Mora okhra?” meaning “Can you repeat that?” or “La afHam” meaning “I do not understand” have left my lips too often to count. An incident with FedEx challenged my ability to live in a different context. A package my mom sent from the U.S. with prescription medication was detained at the shipping facility for a seemingly growing list of reasons.

When I consider these challenges, though, I see clearly how I have been helped over and over again. The taxi drivers and shop owners who I give my apologies to for not speaking the dialect are always kind and persistent to communicate with me. My American and Tunisian co-workers helped me solve my issues with FedEx, translating over speaker phone for me, finding medication to act as a substitute, and asking a doctor to write a prescription. The issue was finally resolved thanks to my mom’s call to the company’s customer service, after which my package was delivered in full with no questions or cost. This is an excellent reminder of the support from my family and friends at home for which I am grateful.

I think often of my favorite poem here, Wild Geese by Mary Oliver. It has been a source of comfort since high school, but my experiences in Tunisia bring it even closer to my heart. Nearing the end of the poem, Oliver reminds the reader that “the world offers itself to your imagination, calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting — over and over announcing your place in the family of things.” The immense challenges life can bring in a new country are no match for the capacity of human connection. The place I inhabit in Tunisia I owe largely to the myriad of people who have made it for me through their deeds and words. I trust these relationships will continue to create a sense of home as I grow more acquainted with Tunisia.