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.