SIDI BOU SAID, Tunisia – The SIT Tunisia center in the picturesque village of Sidi Bou Said is a bustling place. At one end of the long suite, students sauté garlic and tomatoes in the kitchen, chatting in a mix of English, Arabic, and French. In the next room, other students lounge on comfy couches, their casual posture belying the intense focus of their test prep, while down the hall some of their peers bravely present their family stories — in Arabic — a language unknown to most of them just seven weeks before.
The center is like a big, welcoming home, really, thanks to a caring team led by Academic Director Mounir Khelifa and his staff. In this tangle of offices perched above a busy café, Student Services Coordinator Rahma Ben Mansour plans visits with NGOs and other partner organizations, Homestay Coordinator Amina Ben Braiek juggles countless tiny details while also teaching beginning Arabic, and Nesrine Bacara brings a fascination with neuro-linguistics to her instruction of mid-level and advanced Arabic.
But this team’s roles extend far beyond their job descriptions. A lot of cultural immersion and Arabic language learning go on in the kitchens, for example, where Khelifa’s love of cooking means students try their hands at traditional Tunisian dishes. Ben Mansour goes out of her way to find internship options that match students’ interests. Ben Braiek adds personal touches, like finding a special birthday cake, to make students feel at home. And Bacara spends an entire Saturday afternoon listening patiently to Arabic language presentations.
This semester, 17 students from institutions across the United States — Cornell, College of the Atlantic, George Washington, and Colorado State University among them — were wrapping up the first part of their program on Politics and Religious Integration in the Mediterranean. Khelifa says during the first six weeks of the program, students get an extraordinary front row seat to Tunisia’s peaceful transition to democracy, which is unfolding before them after the so-called Jasmine Revolution opened the way for a transition of power.
“This program delves into the only successful Arab Spring revolution. Tunisia today is building its democracy … through civil society, partisan politics, political Islam, and culture at large,” he says.
According to the Arab Center of Washington DC, Tunisia’s current climate of pluralism and free debate “has energized the role of local civil society in stimulating nonviolent shifts of power while capitalizing on public grievances.”
SIT’s Tunisia program includes visits with many civil society organizations throughout the country. The students were there in mid-October, when civil society groups were hailing the passage by Tunisia’s parliament of a historic measure outlawing racist speech, incitement to hatred, and discrimination. “It’s such an important law,” said Ben Mansour, whose background includes work with migrants.
Since their arrival in Tunis in late summer, the students have been able to get many perspectives on the changes as they traveled the length of this fascinating country. Jay Ivison, a senior at George Washington University majoring in international studies, was particularly impressed with the excursion to southern Tunisia, including Kairouan, a UNESCO World Heritage site, and the island of Djerba, home to Africa’s oldest synagogue. “I wouldn’t have been able to see or know about any of those things otherwise,” he says.
Back in Tunis, after Arabic tests and a farewell to their homestay families, the students would board a plane for three weeks in Sicily to begin the second part of their program focused on migration. Less than 100 miles away, Sicily has been the first point of entry to Europe for waves of immigrants making the perilous sea crossing from North Africa, and their influx has helped to fuel a populist backlash.
“On the excursion to Sicily they see how immigration and cultural ties with Tunisia are helping this democracy building,” says Khelifa.
When they return to Tunisia, students will take up the final part of their semester-long program, either with an Independent Study Project or an internship.
Annie Seipel, an arts major from Colorado State University, was preparing to intern with an organization that works with women and youth to revive traditional handicrafts and market them around the world. “I hope to learn about Tunisian crafts and craftspeople and to meet many of them,” she says, “and to also learn about how they market their art and help them make more contacts in America.”
Either way — internship or research project — the experience is a chance for them to put their new knowledge of Mediterranean politics, societies, and language to work.