Can Tunisia Remain a Tourist Haven After ISIL Attack?

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The Bardo National Museum. Photo by Alexandre Moreau.

I take the terrorist attack on tourists outside the Bardo Museum in Tunis personally. Very personally.

My husband, a Tunisian national, who has been an American citizen since 1999, happened to be in Tunisia, visiting his parents, when the gun-toting attackers started mowing down day-tourists as they exited their bus in front of the world-famous museum.

When I finally got through to my husband to find out where he was, in relation to the attack, he was shocked to hear the news. He knew nothing about it until I shared the information.

My sister-in-law Diane had called early in the morning, after watching CNN, to find out if my husband was safe. It was a frantic morning till I was able to get through to him.

Since tourism is the main component of Tunisia’s economy, ISIL, or whoever is responsible for the murderous attack, surely hit their mark. The tourist trade was finally coming back after the “revolution” that set Tunisia on the path to democracy, but created a lot of questions and challenges and slowed down tourism for several years.

My first trip to Tunisia was in 1995 with a delegation of twelve national leaders of American Jewish Congress. In fact, The Philadelphia Jewish Voice’s vice president, Ken Myers, his wife Susan and I represented the Pennsylvania region on that trip, which had us meeting with leadership in Tunisia, then Jordan, and finally in Israel.

I always have a distinct advantage in visiting Tunisia, the former French colony, as I speak French fluently. And although in recent years, English classes have been included in Tunisia’s education system, back in 1995, very few of the leaders, most of whom had attended university in France, spoke English. So I was usually the interpreter.

Who would ever have suspected that violence of this level, the attack on people simply getting out of a tourist bus and entering the Bardo to admire the world’s greatest collection of Greek and Roman mosaics? Oh, yes, the head of an opposition party had been gunned down in front of his home about a year ago, which was shocking enough. But 19 or 20 victims at one time? And dozens more wounded? Tourists from a dozen countries? Spreading fear across all of Europe — and America? This was some vicious act out of a “B” movie.

The Charlie Hebdo and Cacher Hyper Marche murders in Paris had just about faded when Tunis was moved to front and center of the international attention. Because things had settled down in Tunisia in the past couple of years, even with a revolving door of government officials, the security detail for the museum, which is next door to the Parliament building, was relaxed. There were still guards for the Parliament, but the museum was not seen as a “target.”

My visits to Tunisia subsequent to the AJC delegation included five more trips, two of them as a guest of the government’s tourism agency, designed for journalists. But I must confess that I have declined my husband’s invitations to accompany him to visit his parents, ever since the revolution in 2011. Yes, the Tunisian Arab Spring is referred to as the model for Muslim countries, throwing off dictatorships and opting for democracy. But you cannot just paste a layer of “democracy” over centuries of non-participation in government decisions.

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El Ghriba synagogue. Photo by Chapultepec.

The reaction of the president and prime minister of Tunisia was instant and strong, vowing to fight against terrorism and terrorists in their country and elsewhere. The U.S., England and France joined in their support for Tunisia’s official reaction to the horror.

Only about 1100 Jews are left in the Tunisia, but many of them, like some of our Tunisian friends, also own homes in Paris and spend half the year there. Others travel to the U.S., Israel, England and France on business. Basically, the Jews in Tunisia are located in two main areas: Tunis, the capital, and the island of Djerba, with one of the world’s oldest synagogues.

Djerban Jews are quite insular, and Orthodox, with schools for girls and schools for boys. I have visited these and admired them, although the girls are not encouraged to pursue higher education. Most of the Djerban Jews are shopkeepers, craftsmen, jewelers, and leather goods impresarios.

However, the dozens of wounded tourists from many countries, those who survived the Bardo assault, will probably serve as a warning to lots of others who wanted to go to Tunisia, either for a day-trip off their cruise ship, or for a week or two at a lovely, and very reasonable hotel, with everything included.

We have to wait and see what the ramifications are for the U.S. and European countries, now that ISIL has decided that killing sprees spread their message and attract new killers. But the instant demonstration by thousands of Tunisians who spilled into the streets of the capital to tell the world that they will not tolerate ISIL in their country, and will hunt them down and punish them, was a heartening scene. I hope to be able to return to Tunisia in the near future.

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