The Un-Tunisian Burning of the American Embassy

By Op-ed Contributor | Oct 23 2012 Share on Linkedin Share on Facebook Share on Twitter Share on Google Share on pinterest Print

Tags: American Collective School in Tunis ,American Embassy in Tunis ,Hillary Clinton ,marines ,Minister of the Interior ,

Protesters gather outside the U.S. embassy in Tunis on September 14 (Photo credit: Rabii Kalboussi)

By Fares Bouhadiba

While it is difficult to piece together what exactly happened on September 14th, there is no question that this day was a turning point in the history of our country.  What is known is that a party of Salafists left the Al Fath mosque in downtown Tunis and made their way on foot to the U.S. Embassy. Witnesses confirm that they were escorted by the police, who could have easily dispersed them along the way. Many in the crowd had backpacks, clearly preparing for something. In front of the embassy, in what seems to have been a well-orchestrated action, ladders came out of nowhere, the crowd swelled, and the attack began.

Curiously, the police made only weak attempts to cordon off the area and then appeared to give up entirely. The burning and looting of the nearby American primary school was well documented by Al Jazeera, which was broadcasting live to the whole world. Looters appeared to take advantage of the confusion to steal and pillage, and shameful pictures of thugs running away with children’s computers were promptly broadcast to the world, adding to the sick feeling of disgrace that gripped us Tunisians. For what seemed like an eternity, the entire country was fixated on the image of two bearded men climbing the flag post and removing the Stars and Stripes, the symbol of the world's super power.

And then armored cars of the army charged in, shooting in the air. The police seemed to take hold of the situation, and slowly the chaos subsided, leaving billows of thick black smoke in the air visible for kilometers.

Facebook went wild, and rumors reverberated throughout the country:

Helicopters full of Marines were on their way from Libyan waters. 16 of their colleagues had already secured the roof of the embassy to allow for a Saigon-style evacuation of the ambassador under siege. The marines had orders to clear the embassy compound at any cost.

Given the present climate, it is doubtful that we will ever know what really happened, nor who was responsible. Sadly, the damage is so deep that it no longer matters. For the first time in 3,000 years of history, our country violated diplomatic territory. Tunisia is now under a U.S. travel warning, meaning that visitors should stay away. Other countries on that list include Somalia, which is in and out of civil war, Syria, which is in the midst of rebellion, and Afghanistan, which is currently under occupation.

It is not clear what the real intention was of those who perpetrated these acts, but the horrified reaction of all Tunisians clearly points to a huge miscalculation. This incident could not be more un-Tunisian for 3 reasons.

First, Tunisians of all walks of life and condition simply do not see the US as an enemy. The friendship between the two countries goes back to the 18th century and is well-engrained in the Tunisian mentality. The first Arab embassy to open in the United States was Tunisia's, an event symbolic of the friendship between the two countries.  To attack the United States would be the same as attacking a close friend, something that is unthinkable in Tunisian culture and tradition.

Second, hospitality is part of every Tunisian's DNA. During the Libyan revolution, we welcomed refugees with open arms, and many Tunisians invited refugees into their homes. It was an unparalleled response to the influx of refugees that astounded the UN, which had never seen anything like it. We see ourselves as an open and hospitable people, who welcome foreigners in our own homes, treating them better than we treat ourselves. The incursion on the embassy grounds was seen as an attack against a guest in our own home and under our protection. There is no precedent in our history, and this outraged Tunisians. We simply do not attack guests in our country.

Lastly, for generations of Tunisians, education was seen as the only way out of poverty. The respect for education and degrees that parents inculcated to their children is unique in the world. Ben Ali, who was rumored to never have completed his high school education, was never respected by his citizens. They called him bac moins 5, meaning a barely educated individual. Burning a school, for us, is one of the worst possible crimes someone could commit. It is a place of learning that holds, in the eyes of Tunisians, the key out of poverty and into prosperity. Parents routinely tell their children to study so that they can have a better life. They say that no matter how hard the school work is, it will pay off in spades in the future. To burn a school down on a political agenda is an atrocious crime. It is something that provoked revulsion. Something no Tunisian can forgive.

The harm is now done and will take decades to cure. But there is still hope, as now we can see how different we are from these extremists, and how little they understand our deepest feelings. Their acts on the 14th of September conflicted with Tunisia's closest and most deeply ingrained values. You can’t win the hearts and minds of people if you don't even know them.

Fares Bouhadiba is a Tunisian student currently living in Dubai.

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