How to Avoid Feeling Bad while Getting Scammed in Tunisia

By Chris Barfield | Apr 12 2013 Share on Linkedin Share on Facebook Share on Twitter Share on Google Share on pinterest Print

Tags: Business ,culture ,opinion ,opinion-featured ,tourism
Medina Tunis Tunisia

The Medina in Tunis. Image courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

I said I wouldn't let it happen to me. Not again. On my first day in Tunis I dropped my bags off at the hotel and eagerly went to explore the Medina. As I neared Bab Bhar, I was approached by a gentleman who suggested I visit the traditional flower festival in the souq. How fortunate that I had arrived on the last day of this historic event! He led me down rows of crowded shops and dark tunnels, winding deeper into the maze. On the way to the festival we decided to stop for mint tea. In order to avoid the high prices at the tourist cafes, he invited me instead to his uncle's perfume shop. I knew that I must be receiving this preferential treatment because I was smarter than the other tourists – I was dressed conservatively and I had learned some local phrases. I didn't bother to mention that I had no wish to buy anything, because I knew we were just spending time as friends learning about each others' countries. The lesson was a bargain at 50 dinars.

After tea, my new friend had to quickly leave for an appointment, but he gave me clear directions back to Avenue Habib Bourguiba.  I missed the festival, but it’s okay because it will not exist again next year. After two hours of being lost, I finally got good directions and walked back to the main thoroughfare. Tired and broke, I stopped at an ATM to get cash for dinner. As I dialed my secret code, a man got in line behind me. I completed by transaction and moved aside so he wouldn't have to wait as I fumbled awkwardly with a currency that didn't quite fit my wallet. But the line moved with me.

Hello, he said, do you like Tunisia?

I had just arrived, but I was sure the answer was yes already. I gave similarly positive answers to his queries about whether I liked Tunisian people and if I wanted to help them. That is exactly why I came – to help! Great!  Give me 20 dinars, he demanded. I was shocked, and although I couldn't fault his logic, I declined and started to walk away.

You are an ugly person! he shouted after me. Maybe I was.

I walked across the street with my head spinning. I just wanted some food and a beer to relax and process the day.

Over my shoulder, a young guy in a really cool leather jacket announced my passing by shouting Christopher Columbus! Lucky guess, but he got me all the same. Hey, welcome to Tunisia! Do you want to go drink something?

Why not, I thought, I was on my way to do the same, and he probably knows a better place than I will find on my own.” After spending a few hours with my new friends, I grudgingly accepted their request to treat them, and to loan them money for next month's rent.

To some degree, these experiences happen to all foreigners when they first come to Tunisia. It is frustrating to be lied to, to be taken advantage of, to have friendships created and betrayed in the span of an hour. It is exhausting to be looked at like an ATM machine and not a person; to walk down the street and feel like prey.

This is the onset of culture shock. Soon you learn to feel paranoid and distrustful. You overreact in normal situations and assume you are being cheated and followed. As a defense mechanism, expats often recoil and start spending more time with other expats – complaining about things that don't work and bemoaning the sick culture that leads people to act so awfully.

This is only natural, but it isn't healthy. I want to offer some thoughts that I hope will help you to come out the other side – a process which for me is in no way complete. Sometimes it is as simple as letting things go and not sweating the small stuff, but if you are living here for any serious period of time the small stuff will eventually pile up.

The first thing is obvious but important – there are bad people everywhere. In America and in Europe there are tourist touts, con artists, and taxi drivers who take advantage of hapless foreigners. The reason why we notice them here and not at home is because we are tourists and we don't have as much information about the local culture, laws, and prices and hence are susceptible to schemes that someone back home wouldn't bother trying to pull on us. Ever wonder why you get charged to use the bathroom but the attendant never asks a Tunisian? Not specifically because we are tourists, but because we happen to be the ones that don't know that this isn't normal.

Conversely, there are nice people everywhere. And just like anywhere else, nice, normal people in Tunisia don't walk up to strangers in the street and ask them strange questions. It's the same logic as not looking for a husband in a bar: don't expect to build lasting friendships with people whose job is to exploit tourists. No matter how much they like you, at the end of the day the choice is between getting a commission from the over-priced, made-in-China stuffed camel or not providing for their family. So, when you go shopping for souvenirs remember it is someone’s business, and look for friends in the wealth of professional and service organizations around Tunis.

Another thing that always bothered me is the different prices for foreigners than for Tunisians. Even when it is small, it feels like there is some commentary on your intrinsic value as a person that it is acceptable to charge you a different rate. Once I broke down and angrily asked a friend whose family works in tourism how he could justify charging me more than a local for the same item. He responded simply: You can afford it.

While I didn't accept his answer at the time, it actually makes a lot of sense. Many people feel that graduated tax systems in the U.S. and Europe are a good idea. As Barack Obama puts it, to ask the rich to give back a little bit more is reasonable. How are relative prices for wealthier customers in the souq any different?

If you don't like the idea of graduated tax systems (or agreeing with Mr. Obama), then you probably are a big proponent of the free market. In a simplification of those economics, prices are set where the seller's maximum profit and the buyer's willingness to pay meet. By bargaining in the souq, this price is calculated in every transaction rather than on a grand scale by a corporation.

Which leads me to the heart of the problem. The reason why I think it is so much more painful to be overcharged or defrauded in Tunisia is because all business takes place on a very personal level. Stories are shared and tea is drunk before money exchanges hands. Thus, when a business deal doesn't turn out as expected, it has the added sting of betrayal. It also allows emotions of disappointment, obligation, and pity to enter an otherwise innocuous business transaction. I would wager that most of the time when you get duped in the market, it is not because you don’t know you are getting a bad deal; it is because you feel too awkward and guilty to decline. If we get cheated by an impersonal company or policy, however, it is just another day at the office.

Once I came to this realization I started to compare other things between the tourist industry back home and here and realized the Tunisian way actually gives more possibility for improvement. If you go to a museum in Washington, D.C., the vendors have a monopoly and are owned by a company that sets firm and exorbitant prices. No matter how hard you try, that can of Coke will still cost $3. But in Tunisia, if you know the real price of things, you can negotiate for a better deal. I feel like a taxi driver is trying to take advantage of me when he offers a fixed price from the airport rather than using the meter, but I accept the same treatment from a taxi driver in America because he works for a big taxi agency that printed the fixed rate on a sign. We buy insurance and pay incredible medical fees in the U.S., while the same products and services are available here at a fraction of the cost.

Decrying the annoyances of the informal Tunisian hospitality sector will not change anything, but altering how you perceive it may allow you to have a happier time. Once I realized that I'm getting screwed over just as much (or possibly less) than back home and that the personal nature of the transactions was the real reason causing me grief, I felt less attacked in my daily life.

Because flexible pricing and personal business relationships exist in the economy, you can be rewarded by knowing more pricing information, looking to what locals do in similar situations as guidance, and speaking some Tunisian Arabic. Don't take things personally, and, most importantly, don't let bad experiences make you jaded – sometimes that flower festival really does exist.

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    Awesome article.
    I’ve been to Tunisia only once and I’ve felt the exact same way.
    However I keep this coutnry in my heart and I will come back as soon as I can, because although I felt very bad by being looked at as business oportunity or as an ATM, like the author mentioned, most people are very kind and friendly.

    • The difference is back home the prices are upfront. in Tunisia they pretend to be your friend while setting you up that is a big difference. Yes things may be more expensive in the tourists own home but that is not an excuse for dishonesty, in any country. I am happy people are learning of these occurences becuase not everyone is out to part you from your money. They are also known for targetting vunerable women and through a series of good lines and outright lies the woman is slowly parted from more than just money, in some cases her life. The taxi drivers have to be watched for changing the tarrif when a tourist get in the taxi…..Agree the price before getting in.. Everyone, I know loves the country and visit many times, excusing the thieves and con men. Since the revolution these practices are much worse. However every visitor there makes a choice to go and the people who rely on tourist need to learn and remember this. I wish all tourist well and to the writer I like your article although the comparasons are weak. Tunisia should be known for the beaches, people, food etc….not for thieves

    • I plan to visit Jendouba, Tunisia does anyone know if it is safe to travel? I have searched online but I came across nothing as it is old information from 2012. This is my first time traveling to Tunisia. I plan on visiting in June 2013. Please advise. Thank You!

      • I am from tunisia! I advise you to visit tunisia ! there are many famous places to discover ! our country is safe. you are welcome.

        • Rim, shookran I will visit Tunisia sometime in 2014. I had to postpone my trip this summer. I want to visit Tabarka, Jendouba, and Sousse. Are there any public net/computers in those cities? Also which months are the best months to travel to Tunisia?

  1. Thanks for this great article!
    I am going to Tunisia in June, so it’s very nice to know about this things before I get there.
    Good thing is that I am from Brasil and the exact same shit happens here, so I think I’m ready :)
    I hope you keep writing more articles like this.

    • I just wanted to say that Tunisia for the most part is very safe for tourists. I am America, and lived in Tunisia for 2 years. Most people of Tunisia are kind and gentle. Yes there are those that try and take advantage, but some do because of the need to survive. If you are traveling as a single female, you may want to make friends with someone who can guide you. My husband and family is still in Tunisia, so if you need someone to help you out while you are there, I may be able to help you. Or I could just brush you up on some of the ways of Tunisia and some great places to visit. But, please, relax and enjoy your vacation to Tunisia. There are so many wonderful things to see and to discover.

  2. Chris, I am sorry for the couple of bad experiences you had. Really sorry. When I meet foreigners in Tunisia (tourists or others) I usually insist on paying for everybody whenever we’d go for a tea or food.

    I like the articles you write and I like your positive and open attitude. I also like your deductions.

    But, I may make an educated guess, I’d say you come from a little town in the US, maybe the Midwest or the South. I am still surprised that you fell for these crooks. But have you been to NY, SF, Chicago…have you ever been offered rolexes for $20, Lacoste t-shirts for the same amount. Did your grandma get phone calls that their cable TV isn’t working as it should be. Have you gone for a mortgage loan and were offered more than what you asked for, but at a different rate? Did a random person offer to carry your luggage while walking to your hotel, Have you tried to fix a flat tire at a mechanic to be shown a worse problem? Have you sen the same product 30% cheaper at Walmart than your neighborhood groceries shop?

    Of course you know all these, and you know that your local groceries greet you with arms length and flatter you with a huge smile calling you “buddy”. You might even get to meet the manager and read about how good of a customer you are. You also know that the owner of the groceries shop is driving an expensive car and lives in huge house…

    You might be familiar with these examples, and you are certainly more used to them. You notice them but they are a fact of life. You also learn to distinguish a crook, in the streets of NY, from a Samaritan. Facial features, posture, accents, do matter and you were trained in that in the US (even though those coming from small towns get easily scammed in bigger towns).

    In any case, I do think that you reached the right conclusions and thanks again for the wonderful articles. Give it a couple if more weeks, you’d be a champ in Tunisia and no one will bother you.

  3. Luanda you will be wellcomed by decent tunisian who will befriend you because you are from a different country and they will try to impress you. There are good and bad every were. Having read the long artical on tunisia l can imagined what sort of person who wrote that. When you go to a different country with different vews on life you should expect different results enjoye you holliday with an open mind.

  4. Well, I do not know if this will make you feel any better.
    But believe me, these stories you wrote about happen also to Tunisians living abroad -“our citizens overseas” as local Tunisians dryly call us – when we return home for the summer vacations. We get exactly the same treatment reserved for european or american tourists in the souks. But at least we speak the language and know the culture, so we take it with a stride and healthy smile.
    Welcome to Tunisia!!

  5. |’ve lived in Tunisia a year and now, if I see something I want to buy, I simply send a Tunisian friend to bargain for it. There’s no other way to get the correct/best price. A Westerner will always get taken advantage of. At the flea market, or fripe, if I want something and it’s one dinar over what I know it’s worth I throw it back and call them an “idiot.” It’s the only way to get it over that people treat all people like people. It will be 100 years before Tunisia changes in this regard, there are just too many poor people with no jobs.

  6. I must say, I feel a bit a shamed now .. Let us start by saying you are all more then welcome, and have a sense of ‘hatred’ against these kind of people just as much as you, tourists do !

    You are very welcome. :)


  7. Chris,

    This is ridiculous. It is like you thought they were going to sell you the Brooklyn Bridge, but you were duped.

    Well, I am sorry this happened to you. But…..on another note, there is another festival in Mahdia. You will love this one. Jasmin is sold everywhere by beautiful girls (some have niquabs, I am afraid). Would you be interested in a first class seat for $200? The Fatimid building alone is worth the pictures. It is called the Borj and was built by our ancestors to fend off against the Spanish invasion hundreds of years ago. Let me know if you are interested. Oh…I am not like those scammers, for I accept only hard currency! And, since you are an American, a nice one anyhow, I, as a favor only to you, will also accept credit cards as long as it has cash advances. :-)

    I agree with the suggestion that the Tunisian self regulated tax service is not a bad one, taking that is so transparent in a land of lawlessness. Since President Obama just submitted his proposal for the overhaul of the U.S. tax code, he may find this method more attractive to the American tax-payer.

    Lesson: the advice of “it is too good to be true..” often repeated on the t.v. program “American Greed” applies at home and overseas where you meet some people that may appear to be feeble and meek but who turn out as Gulliver aptly called them “Houyhnhnms.”

    Tunisians by and large open, friendly, and tolerant as long as you do not hit on their religions and their wives. They will open their house to you so that they can share their food and traditions with you, which they feel is the best they have to offer. This is not the case in the western world as you and I know.
    Tunisians also appreciate long deep friendships and they silently do not want to be used simply as your free tour guides. If you treat them as tour guides, then you are expected to pay them.
    I would recommend that if “money” or “love” (synonyms for “scam” or “visa”) are mentioned, then it is time to run. This applies if you are also in Rome or any other part of the world. For some reason we forget our mothers’ advice “do not talk to strangers.”

    I hope that your next experience in Tunisia is a better one, especially if you take my offer on that festival I mentioned above.
    I hope you are smiling!
    Have a good day!

  8. Whoa — lots of defensive comments going on. I’m thinking that many readers misunderstood your article, Chris. Or maybe there has been just a little misinterpretation?

    I appreciated your thoughts on this subject. As an expat who has lived in Tunis for a year and a half, I can relate to these experiences and emotions.

    I am one of the expats you talked about — and still trying to get out on the other side of my unhealthy reactions to culture shock. In fact, while reading your article, I felt as though I were reading about my own life. Weird.

    I’m going to give your ideas a go and see if I can’t shake these feelings of mistrust and cynicism I’ve been harboring for so long. You made a lot of good points I hadn’t thought about.

    Oh, and I love the rhetorical statement you used to conclude. Nice tie-in!

  9. Thank you Chris for your self-depricating article about Tunisia’s welcoming stance toward foreigners. I enjoyed the humor. I don’t know if I was more disturbed by the constant and unremitting attempts at scamming me, both large and small, or that at some point they just. . . stopped. My personal high (or low) point was pulling the keys out of the ignition switch and threatening to see how far I could throw them if the taxi driver did not find some change RIGHT NOW. It appears that he was mistaken and REALLY did have some change in his pocket. He was right, I could afford it. But death by paper cut still leaves you dead. And yes, I still chuckle at the raving maniac I became on that day. But it did me good, and lately, people have been turning to me in public and speaking Tounsi and not French or German or English. For me, that means it’s time to go, with both fond memories and new skills.

  10. Great article Chris,
    in some points you actually made me laugh , because telling the truth in some part is funny , especially when you know Tunisians like I do , as I actually am half-Tunisian. I totally agree with you , and taking advantage of people is a very bad habit of some Tunisians , which should still not be considered as the majority behaviour of the country’s inhabitants. :)
    In fact you should pay attention to what kind of person you wanna go have a drink with .. :)
    I need to admit , that I actually go and visit my family living in Korba , which is in the Cap Bon , every summer and still I am perceived as THE TOURIST ( and that as a matter of fact is because my hair colour reveals my german nationality.. ) . Although I do understand and fluently speak arab , people would be treating me as the typical “blond-dumb-tourist-that-is-going-to-be-my-future-source-of-money” kind of person.
    But one should not forget the positive aspects of Tunisia, it is indeed a beautiful country with a lot of warm , polite and friendly people ,always willing to help and built up new friendships. The food is great ,delicious and the Tunisian mentality is hilarious , spending sometime with nice Tunisians will make you all notice that. They are warm-hearted people always having some smile on their faces.And come on , like seriously , if you lived in a 3rd world country, you’d probably also ask some tourist for money, if you’re in a real bad situation, right?? :)

    Go visit this country before judging it ,guys ! I’m sure it’ll surprise you!!