Twenty-two years ago, while working with the Peace Corps, Shokan resident Sean Bigler built a demonstration house in Tunisia and secured it for a homeless family. This winter, he returned to North Africa to see the house, the family, and a remarkable man named Khaled Amami, who had tutored him in Arabic.
Sean and Khaled had completely lost touch, but a chance meeting at a café in Woodstock provided the link that brought them back together. A few months earlier, Sean had learned that Khaled’s son, Azyz, had been instrumental in the Tunisian uprising of 2011 that launched a series of Arab Spring revolutions in Muslim countries.
In 1993, Sean, 24, and Khaled, 42, met at a post office in El Mourouj, a suburb of Tunis, the Tunisian capital city. Sean’s Arabic was still minimal, and no one would help him in his effort to obtain a post office box. Finally one of the postal workers stepped forward. “Khaled is a quirky, intellectual fellow,” said Sean. “If he was an American, he’d be like a Ph.D. working a blue-collar job. He’s highly educated in philosophy and psychology, studied microbiology at the Pasteur Institute in Tunis, and had a socialist, activist bent. He helped me with the post office box, and then he became my tutor.”
Sean spent two or three days a week at Khaled’s house, eating meals cooked by his wife, Fatma, and getting to know the three children, Azza, Azyz, and Aziza. “Khaled had so much to say,” Sean recalled. “We had deep philosophical discussions, and he taught me all kinds of swear words in Arabic.” As a light-skinned foreigner in a then provincial place, Sean was often harassed on the street, and a salty vocabulary helped fend off catcalls and occasional rock-throwing.
As his Arabic became nearly fluent, he learned to explain why he was in Tunisia, which won people over and elicited great kindness and hospitality. When he finished the house he was building, he made a point of communicating with the governor of the region to find a homeless family to live in it. Like other Peace Corps builders, he didn’t want a building ministry to take over the house.
Three days before Sean’s departure from Tunisia, he and Khaled had a bitter argument. Khaled, upset by his friend’s leaving, started criticizing America. Sean was hurt, and they parted without reconciling. “I always pined about seeing him again,” Sean said. “Now I’m older and understand how the world works.” There was no contact between them for 22 years.
Sean and his wife, Bonnie Lykes, have two miniature schnauzers. One of the dogs is named Habib, meaning “love” in Arabic. As Sean and Bonnie were sitting at the outdoor tables at Yum Yum Café in Woodstock one evening last August, Habib snapped at a little girl. When Sean scolded him, the girl’s mother inquired about the source of the dog’s name. The woman was Emel Mathlouthi, a Tunisian singer-songwriter whose music was banned from her country’s radio before the revolution. She left for France in 2009 and has remained a symbol of Tunisian civil rights. And she knows Azyz, Khaled’s son. On the spot, she texted Azyz, who was overjoyed to hear from his father’s former student and friend. The stage was soon set for a visit to Tunisia.
Sean and Bonnie arrived in Tunis on December 26 and were met at the airport by Khaled. Sean’s Arabic had declined from lack of use, so Khaled found the car rental clerk and helped them pick up their car. He became their constant companion as they toured the sights of Tunis, including Carthage and other remnants of the ancient Phoenician empire that fought the Romans. They explored the stretch of seacoast where the country’s elite artists and writers hang out. Sean again discussed philosophy with Khaled, who had emerged in the post-revolution years as an important social activist, forming organizations and sponsoring causes promoting human rights in the “New Tunisia.”
Sean returned to El Mourouj for a reunion with Khaled’s wife and daughters. The young women speak English, as most people under 35 do today, since it’s taught in the schools. In the 1990s, Sean had seen few women wearing headscarves except for the elderly. Now many women cover their heads, a sign of the turn towards stricter religious rules under the current president, a religious moderate. At the same time, Tunis has become a more cosmopolitan city, partly due to the Internet, and Sean attracted less attention on the streets than in the past.
Bonnie noted Tunisia’s fascination with the West, as evidenced by billboards in Tunis featuring women’s Caucasian faces laden with cosmetics. “The women there love their computers,” she added. “The men go out to drink espresso and red wine, and some of the women are home all day, bored out of their minds.” Azza, one of those housebound women, has three children and is married to a math teacher. The younger sister, Aziza, also a stay-at-home mother, studied law but has been unable to find work since 2012. She cooked a sumptuous homecoming meal for the whole family.
El Mourouj has also changed, since rural people have flooded into the city for work. “Imagine if Woodstock had tripled in size and you hardly recognized the streets,” said Sean. “That’s what it was like trying to find the house I had built. Across the street, I remembered, were neighbors with four sassy daughters. I asked lots of people, looking for those neighbors. Every night I’d go to sleep with the sound of Arabic questions in my head.”
By day, as he searched the streets, each block packed with buildings, a crowd of children followed. “They thought he was Brad Pitt,” said Bonnie. “They were mesmerized.”
Finally, thanks to his rapidly improving Arabic, Sean found a man who nodded and called up to a window next door, “Come out and look at the guy who built your house!” The woman who greeted them was the same one who had moved into the house with her family 22 years before. The family had a tearful reunion with Sean and invited him and Bonnie back the next day for a huge meal.
Sean and Bonnie also drove out of Tunis to the ancient mountain city of El Kef, where they had dinner with Azyz. “He’s a hacker who’s been in prison a couple times and has been tortured,” said Sean. “He hates that everybody is moving to Tunis, the city of illusion. He’s one of those people who want to stockpile food, educate the people in rural areas, and separate from the government because they feel a collapse is coming.”
Azyz helped to create revolution starting in 2010, when he hacked into government websites to expose propaganda initiatives, watchlists, planned crackdowns, and other agendas. Although the president fled after the Arab Spring revolts and a new constitution was written, corruption and economic problems remain. Sean explained, “Tunisia is a third world country under economic colonialism, with massive debt, a limited economy, and a population problem. So not much has changed, except there is more freedom to say what you want.”
“El Kef reminded me of Woodstock,” said Bonnie, “with a focus on the arts. It’s percolating with creativity.” Azyz, still a computer programmer, is working with an arts organization to encourage a cultural and intellectual renaissance. In an effort to keep kids from being seduced by ISIS or doing nothing with their lives, Azyz has built a small cinema and is exposing young people to theater, creating cultural centers for millennials who don’t want to be tied to the agricultural past, since there are no wages in the countryside.
Because economic prospects are so limited, angry young men get caught up in pockets of ISIS, which gives them terrorist training and sends them to Europe. Soon after Sean and Bonnie’s arrival in Tunis, a bombing at a German airport was revealed to be the work of a Tunisian terrorist. “Ordinary Tunisians say, ‘That is not us,’” Sean reported. “And it’s killed their tourism.”
Returning home after two weeks in Tunisia, he said, “I was happy and so grateful to live here with so much space. But I also feel a longing to go back.”