A’salma a’slama, the classic Tunisian greeting, was all I heard as I walked off of the airplane at Tunis-Carthage International Airport this past winter break. I was starting a three week trip with Harvard's Center for Middle Eastern Studies (CMES) to Tunisia and, albeit tired and slightly jet lagged, I was beyond ecstatic to finally be there.
As I left the airport, I had two immediate impressions: incredibly friendly people and a truly beautiful country. I'd never been to Tunisia or North Africa before, so when I came across the CMES Winter Break excursion trip to Tunisia, I was immediately intrigued. The opportunity to visit cities and destinations across the entire country, learn about its rich history, and connect what we learned to the current situation was truly one of a kind.
The trip was an overwhelming success. Our group had thirteen Harvard graduate and undergraduate students from all over the world and a variety of academic backgrounds. Every member had at least one part of the trip that made their eyes light up, whether it was directly related to their field of study or it just sparked their interest. For me, talking to Tunisians about their experience and lifestyle was always a daily highlight.
During our first week, we visited Sidi Bou Said and Medina, walking between blue painted doors- ones you might imagine when you think of postcards of Tunisia but never thought could be the real deal! As we passed shops, cafes, and food carts, owners would stop us and ask about where we were from, excited to learn about why we chose to visit. Dessert shops would always give us a sample to try and souvenir shops would explain the significance of mementos and insist we keep it to remember them. During a walk in the old city, a shop owner shared family stories with me consistently referencing how proud he is to be Tunisian. His love for his homeland is the reason he always gives passing tourists a piece of his favorite dessert to try, because he wants to share that love with everyone. He said, “Nothing brings people together like a little sugar and Tunisia!”
One day, we went on a trip to Takrouna, a small village tucked between the hills, and it was easily one of my favorite destinations. From the sweetest family that greeted us as we climbed up a hill to watch the sunset, to the mesmerizing view, I was in awe of Tunisia's beauty. One of the people in Takrouna described that, to them, the location of the village symbolizes all of Tunisia. Although it’s small, when you climb up to see the view, you see the beauty and feel the power of the country - it gives a whole new meaning to the saying “small but mighty”.
As I boarded the plane back to Boston, I thought about how Tunisians described their country and what they wanted me, a first-time visitor, to leave with. They showed me their grace, pride, love, and passion for the place and the people. I learned from the woman in Takrouna and from the dessert shop owner that it is all about your perspective (with some sugar!) and the little things in life can make the greatest difference. I returned to experience a semester like never before, a month of excitement and adjustment followed by a global pandemic and a stage of uncertainty and change as 2020 progresses. I am beyond grateful that I was able to learn so much and experience Tunisia before life changed, because I am constantly reminded of the beauty of the blue doors and smiles people had as they waved a’slama when I left.