Return To The Wire

On Kindness, Hospitality and Innovation

This is the third in a series of blog posts from Rebecca Christianson, an Associate Professor of Applied Physics at Olin College who is in Tunisia as a Fulbright Specialist. She is blogging about her experiences while she is away.

My host, Salah, observed to me that: “In America, things are 99% deterministic, 1% random.  In Tunisia, things are 99% random and 1% deterministic.”  I would not, perhaps, use those exact percentages, but the trends seem about right. While the general sketch of my interactions with the faculty and students of Esprit was set before I got here, there were many important and unanswered questions like “How long would my workshops be?” and “What would be the number, experience, and background of those in the audience?”  Yesterday, for my first full day in Tunisia, for instance, I knew I would be giving a workshop on interdisciplinary project-based learning, but I did not know how long it would be (4.5 hours), or that the audience of 20 would be primarily teachers of English as a foreign language! 

Considering that my work in interdisciplinary teaching is unabashedly technical in nature, integrating different technical disciplines, with only the occasional foray into the humanities, it required substantial last-minute improvisation to make this work. Improvisation seems to be a relatively normal and expected mode of operation in Tunisia, and it’s something the natives excel at. Thankfully, the teachers in attendance were very kind and patient with me, and very willing to energetically engage with all the activities as I attempted to reframe them for a non-technical audience.

Overall, the kindness and sense of welcome I have felt at Esprit has been overwhelming. Yesterday, many teachers went out of their way to spend time talking to me and making sure I knew my way around and had company for lunch. They answered my endless questions after the workshop, so I could better prepare for the next one. It really makes me feel that my stay here is welcomed and valued. 

This has been particularly true of Salah’s assistant, Asma, who has made it her personal quest to take care of me and show me the sights of Tunisia after hours. Last night, Asma and a friend took me out for dinner to a relatively new restaurant opened by a couple of Syrian refugees.  The food was amazing, and Asma and her friend were very good company, answering all my questions about Tunisia and making plans for our adventures for this coming weekend.   

The conversation about Tunisia’s current situation was particularly moving for me.  Tunisia is a country which prides itself on its hospitality, on being open and diverse, and modern and connected. The Arab Spring set Tunisia on a grand experiment in creating a new democratic government, but the new government is still trying to figure out how to make things work from the street lights to the health system and even the economy. Crime is a significant problem, with theft so common that my first-floor apartment has full metal barricades over all the windows to prevent breaking and entering. The presence of terrorists on the outskirts of the country, who in 2016 committed horrible attacks on visiting foreigners in and around Tunis, is something which the native Tunisians find insulting to their very identity.

They are determined to show the world the Tunisia they know, which is  a warm, welcoming, safe, open-minded place. The kind of country that embraces Syrian refugees, engineering students from Cameroon and even an engineering educator from America.   

Today, I taught the first half of a mini-version of an Olin class project on robotics to the members of the Esprit Robotics Club who are still on campus during this week, which is their spring break.  Many of the students spending their break on campus are students from sub-Saharan Africa, so I got to see first hand how well this mixture of cultures works together towards their common passion of robotics.  It was a wonderful experience working with them, and they made great progress with the project, working hard and well together and asking great questions and translating for each other as needed to bridge the language gap with me. It was a fantastic experience, and I look forward to continuing tomorrow!

I ended the day with a trip out again with Asma and her friend.  This time we enjoyed a fabulous juxtaposition.   First, a drive into the very old and beautiful city of Carthage to a gorgeous Arabic-style coffee house perched on a cliff overlooking the ocean where I was served tea in the Arabic style with almond milk, whole nuts and mint, which was shockingly delicious.  Second, we stopped off for dinner and had Italian pizza with Mexican toppings.  The adventuresome combination of foreign tastes welcomed in side-by-side with the traditional beauty of the Arabic world perfectly sums up the picture I am developing of Tunisia.