Islamic Dialogues: 3 The Dinner of the Tunisian Politicians
Written by Lewis D. Eigen
2003. The Fleur de Lys restaurant in downtown Tunis. Dr. Ahmed bin Muhammed, an Assistant Minister of Health is expecting Dr. Yusef Al-Baladhuri, the Deputy Prime Minister for their monthly dinner. The former is a physician; the latter, an economist. Both the same age, the two had done their graduate work at Harvard University in Boston at the same time, and ever since their return to Tunisia, their monthly dinner had been a ritual.
“Ah Yusef, welcome” bin Muhammed said as he stood to greet his friend. After exchanging the ritual Arabic semi kiss on both sides, they sat at the table.
“I’m sorry I’m a little late. The Prime Minister is leaving for Riyadh tomorrow, and he had some things he wanted to do before he left.”
“No problem my friend. I’ve always got journal articles and reports to read.” As he said that he took the article he had been reading and placed it in the large briefcase at his feet. “And what will you do for the two days that you are in charge of the country?”
“The same thing I always do, deal with the problems that are insolvable.”
“I don’t think that I will ever get used to that,” Dr. Ahmed bin Muhammed told his friend. “You warned me when I took this job, but I am always surprised that I personally never really solve anything.”
“It is in the nature of a bureaucracy my friend. I learned that from my stint at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard. The only people who solve things in a bureaucracy are the lower and middle level staff. They are reasonably competent and solve what they can, and if they can’t, they refer it to the next level up.”
The physician smiled and continued the mantra. “And by the time it gets to us, everyone who knows something about it has either failed or knew better than to try.” The two men laughed.
Al-Baladhuri finished. “So we do the best we can with it, and if we are lucky, we ameliorate the problem somewhat so it isn’t quite as bad as it was when it was first brought to our attention. When we are not so lucky, we blame it on the opposition.”
The tuxedoed sommelier with his chained crest of authority on all wines came to their regular corner table. “Good evening Doctors. Tonight I have a wonderful Moulin à Vent from Beaujolais. In the French village of Moulin the soil is composed of pink granite sand with veins of manganese, which imprints unique character on its wines. And this is …”
“It sounds wonderful Robert. If you recommend it, we’ll have a bottle.” Robert sidled away to prepare the wine. Ahmed observed, “have you noticed that the best Tunisian restaurants all import French sommeliers to promote their wines.”
“It’s a status symbol,” his friend added. “After all these years of independence from the French, when it comes to the important things like fine wine, we have a bit of an inferiority complex. Besides, as modern Moslems as we are, what young Arab man wants to tell his family that he is a great wine expert and makes his living encouraging people to drink alcohol?”
The Prophet hath cursed ten persons on account of wine: one, the first extractor of the juice of the grape for others; the second, for himself; the third, the drinker of it; the fourth, the bearer of it; the fifth, the person to whom it is brought; the sixth, the waiter; the seventh, the seller of it; the eighth, the eater of its price; the ninth, the buyer of it; the tenth, that person who hath purchased it for another.
“To say nothing of his being railed at by the Imams who are always preaching that alcohol is a sin. Most of them can’t stand coming downtown and seeing the neon lighted signs of cocktail glasses in front of so many restaurants. They view it as a den of iniquity. Do the fundamentalists give the government much grief on the alcohol issue?”
“They do. But fortunately there are relatively few of them. What they really nail us on is that the Prophet, peace be unto him, condemned not only the drinking of alcohol, but the making, the selling, the serving, everything in the entire chain. Most here in Tunisia, thanks to Allah, are not the fundamentalist Wahabbis, but they still regard alcohol as bad for society and sinful. They want the government to control it.”
“How do you handle it?” Ahmed asked.
“The usual way. Although we are an Islamic republic, we are a pluralistic society. We have citizens of other religions, and Tunis has always had a traditional role being on the Mediterranean so close to Europe. Even in Roman times we were an important international commercial center, and the non-believers have always preferred Tunis to most other Moslem nations. We have plenty of Moslems who drink, just as Israel has plenty of Jews who will eat pork. Even the Prophet, peace unto him, did not require Christians and Jews to give up their alcohol. If the truth be told, the early Moslems were worried about the health and welfare of the faithful, not the heathens. The non-believers could drink themselves to death for all anyone cared.”
“And this allows everyone to pretend that most of the drinking is done by non-believers?”
“It’s enough of a fig leaf for their theological philosophy—especially when we equate it to their stipends.” Yusef Al-Baladhuri continued. “We have a man in the tax department. He is very quiet and non-assuming and is a pious Moslem. He shows them how much the government spends paying the stipends to the Imams; how much for Mosque construction and repair; how much for the Islamic Academy; how much for the printing of the Koran and other religious books, and so on. Then he totals it all and compares it to the tax revenue from we get from alcohol. Alcohol pays for most of our religious activity. By taxing it heavily, we discourage the faithful from drinking and—this is what really appeals to the mullahs—the heathens and Moslem sinners who are paying for the propagation and the maintenance of the faith. This seems like Allah’s justice. And it pays their salaries.”
“Is it true that the Saudis say nothing about our openness on alcohol because they like to have a place where they can drink?”
“It is. They tell their own mullahs and people that no Arab government can interfere with the internal affairs of another. They preach against it at home, and then come here and drink like fish.”
“I’ve seen many of them in Europe and America also. They have plenty of money and they party to excess. Alcohol and pornography are their favorites—even members of the Royal Family.”
“With their penchant for plural marriage and their shunning birth control, sometimes I think that half of the Saudi Nation belongs to the Royal family…. Speaking of birth control, how is the population control program going in Sidi Bouzid?” Yusef asked his friend.
“Not well,” the physician replied. “The southern part of our nation might as well be another country. All our health programs down there are making small progress—very small. It’s like swimming through sand.”
“Tell me about it. We aren’t doing much better in our economic development down there either. I know that you were trying to get the population growth rate below that of Egypt.”
“Oh we’ve reached that objective easily. That’s such a low standard, we could have reached it with very little effort. Remember that the Egyptian population growth rate is 1.83 percent per year—it’s enormous. We’re down to 1.68 percent in Sidi Bouzid. But that’s a far cry from our national average of 1.01 percent. Our worst province is better than the Egyptian average. And that’s with the fact that our people live longer than the Egyptians, In Egypt, there are 2.95 children born for every woman compared to our 1.79. They have one-third of their entire population under the age of 14. The Egyptian population growth rate is far greater than either China or India.”
“I know it’s an economic and sociological time bomb waiting to go off,” concurred Yusef Al-Baladhuri. In another decade they will have another 25 million young people looking for work and most not finding much. You know, contrary to popular belief, the Egyptian economy is growing, but they suffer from what some American economists call the ‘Mexican Disease.’”
“Mexico actually has a very good economic growth rate. They are industrializing, developing their oil business, getting rid of much of the state control that stultified their economy. If we had their growth rate for a few years we would be a rich country, not just one that recently emerged from ‘third world’ status and slowly reaching the standard of living of an industrial democracy.”
“Why isn’t Mexico rich, then?” asked Ahmed.
“Every year the nation gets richer. But every year the population grows so fast, that when you divide the wealth by the population, each person’s share of the wealth is often going backward or at best increasing at a very slow rate. The increasing population literally eats up the increasing resources. Egypt doesn’t even have the rapid growth rate of Mexico but the economic picture looks worse every year.”
“Even with the $5 billion they get from the United States every year?”
“Yes, Egypt gets more American foreign aid than all the rest of the world does together excepting Israel.” Explained Yusef.
“We don’t get any more, do we?”
“No, we graduated from their AID program. The Americans consider us a success story. We have made great progress but could really use more capital investment. When Egypt signed their peace treaty with Israel, I thought they would have their big problems solved. What a deal! They could reduce their defense expenditures to almost nothing, they were getting $5 billion a year from the United States, and all they had to do was get control of their population. That was the tragedy of Anwar Sedat’s assassination. He pulled off the peace treaty; he got the $5 billion. He was going to control the birthrate.”
“But to control the birthrate, you have to control the fundamentalists,” Ahmed pointed out. In Islamic nations, birth control is Mullah control.”
“Right,” said the Deputy Prime Minister, “and it was the fundamentalists who killed Sedat. They may be a little crazy, but they are not stupid. They knew what was coming. That’s why they killed him. Egypt then had to keep much of their Army in order for the administration to stay in power, and they spend billions for their police state. Meanwhile, they don’t dare take on the orthodox mullahs on the birth control issue. Mubarek is no Sedat.”
The head waiter interrupted them by bringing the special of the day. The French occupation of Tunisia had one advantage for all. It fused fine French dining with North African cooking. The day’s special was Mergez with cous-cous and baby carrots. The waiter jumped right away into his patter to assure Moslem customers that the Mergez—Tunisian spicy sausages—contained no pork. Few of the contemporary Moslems ate pork even if they had no religious scruples. It was more form tradition.
Allah Taãla says in the Noble Qurãn: ‘Today I have made permissible for you pure things and the food of those who were given the Book [Jews] is also Halaal [religiously OK] for you’. (Qurãn 5:4). This verse should be understood in the light of another verse … ‘Do not eat unless Allah’s name has been taken and this (not taking Allah’s name) practice is transgression’ (Quran 6:121) … in the light of both these verses, it is understood [Kosher food] is permissible only if the name of Allah is taken at the time of slaughtering.
Mufti Ebrahim Desai
“Our sausages are absolutely all beef having come from the Jewish Kosher butcher store. Some Christian and Moslem establishments have carried imported foods, especially from France where patés and other pork products might have been cut on boards on which the beef products would later be prepared, thus contaminating them. But have no fear. In addition to the butcher following his dietary laws, a Rabbi inspects the whole process and swears to the propriety. And because much of the Jewish butcher’s clientele is Moslem, an Imam is always also present to say the words.” Thus assuring his customers, the waiter placed the North African wheat pasta surrounded by steaming sausages in front of the diners who had been appreciating the fine food at Fleur de Lys for years now. They filled their wine glasses and enjoyed their specials.
Ahmed bin Muhammed picked up the conversation. “When we got our independence from France, it was a lucky thing that we got control of the fundamentalists. We will always owe our first president, Bourguiba, gratitude even if he was a bit of a strong man.”
“One of the most unique in world history. Think of it, an authoritarian politician who disbanded his army. No question, that was the biggest thing. On our continent of Africa, many governments are spending more money for their military than everything else. Get rid of the military and you double the standard of living almost. Put the equivalent money into education, health, and economic development. That’s how we did it—that and increasing the productive workforce without increasing the number of people. That’s the big trick you know.”
“You mean the women?”
“Of course, the women,” exclaimed Yusef. “By educating them and moving them into the economy we were able to increase the productive work force without increasing the number of mouths to feed, the number of citizens to which we provide health care. If the American religious fundamentalists ever succeeded in getting American women out of the workforce and back into the home and nursery, the American economy would go into depression. There isn’t an industrial democracy in the world whose economy would not collapse if they could not use their women.”
“Well that comes back to the fundamentalists. They stood in the way of the emancipation of women, educating them and bringing them into the work force. Their stranglehold on the society had to be broken.”
“Culturally, it was very difficult for us even without the opposition of the fundamentalists,” recalled Yusef Al-Baladhuri. “That was where President Bourguiba was a genius. I remember when I was a little boy, people were debating whether or not offices and factories could even function with women in them. Would the workplace degenerate into an orgy? And what would happen when men ended up working for a woman. Tunisian men were Arabs and women were to be controlled. I remember my uncle would always quote an old Bedouin law, ‘Just as livestock is property, so women are property.’ So Bourguiba shocked the whole society into change within a week, and it didn’t cost more than $10,000.”
“What did he do? I hardly remember that time in the 1960’s.”
“One morning during the rush hour in Tunis, all of a sudden there appeared on all the traffic control stands—you know those white pedestals that the police stand on and direct traffic—a new set of police officers. Police officers in skirts. No announcement, no warning. Just there they were and they started directing traffic as they had been trained, What were the drivers to do? If they ignored the signals they could easily get killed or get a ticket from the male officers in the car standing by. If they followed the instructions—and the drivers were virtually all male in those days—they were following the orders of a woman. A man, in the most masculine symbol he could think of short of a horse, rifle and sword, his car, was being controlled by women. I understand, that the President went out of his way to have young women directing the traffic. Young, pretty girls controlling big, strong, strapping, mature men.”
“That was pretty clever,” Ahmed bin Muhammed agreed. “By the end of the day I guess, every male driver in Tunis had taken several orders from young girls and obeyed them. After that I guess is was easy.”
“In Tunis it was, and the other cities. But down in the South—in Sidi Bouzid there were no traffic jams that had to be controlled. There was hardly any traffic.”
“From what I have seen,” added bin Muhammed, “there are hardly any people. Just sheep. There must be dozens of sheep for every person.”
“That’s true,” agreed Yusef. “But the people there live much like their ancestors did when the Muslim armies first came to Tunisia. Before the people accepted Islam, most were Christians. They changed religions but not much else.”
“You know,” said Ahmed, “We have Christians here in Tunis but I can’t remember meeting any Christians in Sidi Bouzid.”
“Even the Christian Bishop of that area has abandoned it.”
“We have been working there for three years and I didn’t know that they even had a Christian Bishop. He might have been helpful in trying to change many of the health practices down there.”
“I doubt it. You know the South is the Bishopric of Hippo,”
“Hippo?” Ahmed asked. Wasn’t that the area that Saint Augustine was the Bishop of?”
“It was, and still is. Hippo was and is the Southern part of Tunisia. In Augustine’s day there were more people there than there are today. And most were Christian. Today there are more sheep than people and no more Christians.”
“But you said there is a Bishop.”
“Yes there is. The Roman Catholics are interesting that way. They have a bishop for every, land that they are in, were ever in, or want to be in. The Bishop of Hippo set up an office in Paris and operated his bishopric on the Internet, He’s influential with many, thousands of Catholics but none of them here in Tunisia.”
“Then I guess that he can’t help. We’ve got to find some way to influence the mullahs there. They act as if medicine stopped learning new things 1400 years ago.”
“You know our fundamentalist Moslems, Ahmed. For them everything stopped 1400 years ago when Muhammed, blessings on him, taught man how to live. It could be worse. The Christian fundamentalists live by the reality of 2000 years ago. And the fundamentalist Jews live by the word of prophets over a thousand years before that.”
“Yes but somehow our fundamentalists want to run everything and everyone. I don’t think that they are any worse than the Christian or Jewish fundamentalists. We complain that they want to go back to Sharia Law and stone adulterers, but I when I was at Harvard they showed me the writings of a Christian fundamentalist by the name of Rousas John Rushdoony. I couldn’t believe it. He wanted the same thing—the death penalty for heresy or blaspheming God. And the orthodox Jews did not even support the Zionists in 1949 when the Zionists got their foothold in the Middle Ease. They couldn’t take a secular government.”
“That’s true enough but our fundamentalists seem to have so much more influence and control. There is absolutely no way that I can get any support from them on the birth control issue in Sidi Bouzid. I didn’t expect that, but I also didn’t expect so many of the people to listen to them.”
“What did you expect?” Ahmed.
“You know, the Prophet was very health conscious. In the Hadith, he is reported to have said, ‘Health is the most excellent of God’s blessings upon a person after unshakable faith.’ So I would expect the Mullahs to be more concerned about health.”
“Mullahs are literal unfortunately. This is an abstract statement. The Mullah’s are very helpful I’m sure about washing and cleanliness.”
“That they are. The Koran tells every Moslem to be clean for his prayers so we get washing 5 times a day. This is good and the imams push this. But that is because it was specifically mentioned by the prophet. But his general urging of good health is never extrapolated to say immunization and inoculation.”
“That is because the Prophet never mentioned immunization.” Ahmed explained.
“It’s worse than that. In other religions, orthodox followers often do not preach new innovations with the same fervor as that which their scripture describes. But in Islam, most imams and muftis tell people that anything new is per se bad or at the very least, suspicious. Since Islam covers all aspects of life, any new change—even scientific or technological—potentially becomes a change in the religion and this an innovation. ‘Innovation’ is in most cultures a positive term or at least neutral. But in Islam, innovation is a sin—one punishable by death if one takes things literally. So what can you realistically expect of the Mullahs?”
“Something more like Italy, I guess. The Pope and the Christian clerics are absolute that birth control is a sin. They even threaten to excommunicate those who say differently. Almost all the Italians are Roman Catholics, but Italy has one of the lowest fertility rates in the world. Their population growth is actually negative. The Catholic Church rails, the priests condemn it, few argue with the clerics, but the people pay little attention to them when it comes down to what they do in their own bedrooms.”
“Give our people in the South a much higher educational level, a higher standard of living to protect, free modern communications so that they can see alternatives, and a few more rotten and corrupt Imams, and they too will cease to be influenced by the mullahs. It’s just going to take time.”
“I guess so,” replied Ahmed. But the problem goes far beyond issues like birth control. For example, the children of the South are not used to taking pills and tablets. So for the little ones we were using Erythromycin antibiotic orally. It’s in a tincture of synthetic alcohol and we add a little cherry syrup. One day one of the Mullahs shows up and demand that we stop polluting the children. Our man knew enough to quote a fatwa giving the religious ruling that synthetic alcohol can be taken with a medicine if another form is medically inappropriate. He found the fatwa on the Internet.”
“Didn’t that solve the problem?”
“No way, the mullahs down there claimed that the mullahs issuing the fatwa were Malikhites who are not orthodox enough and allow things to influence them other than the words of the Prophet, peace be unto him. They are Hanabalites down there, and they are convinced that the Malikhites are really like non-believers. Here’s another example. The Prophet, peace be unto him, in the Koran tells the people that water should be flowing in order to be safe to drink.”
“That seems like a pretty good test back in 622.”
“Not then and not now if flowing water is all you worry about. The odds are better if the water is running, but it does not assure clean and potable water. We have running springs with potentially clean water, but the people let the donkeys, camels, and goats piss and shit right next to the spring. The people too. The soil is very porous, and after years of this, the running water is polluted. Our doctors explain that to the mullahs who ask where in the Koran the prophet said that. The incredible thing is not that the mullahs slavishly hang on every word of the Koran, but that they reject any idea, discovery, solution, or anything else unless it appeared in the Koran, the Haddith or some other record of what the Prophet said. They wipe out all of science, medicine, economics, everything modern. They don’t even give any credence to the great Islamic scientists. They reject the golden age of Islamic science and medicine.”
“I know, that has always been puzzling to me. I would think that they would be proud of what the Islamic culture developed. We kept civilization alive when the Christians were in the dark ages. We even kept Christian science and philosophy alive. I personally tried to tell some mullahs of the first understandings of blood flow throughout the body was contributed by a Moslem physician, and from that we have developed whole new methods of treating people. Do you know that their response was?”
“I can guess,” Yusef Al-Baladhuri replied.
“They say, ‘Allah knows all. He gave His Messenger everything that man should be told. If Muhammed didn’t say it, there are only three possibilities: Either it isn’t true, or it isn’t important, or there is some good reason that Allah does not want man to know it.’ That’s what we have to contend with.”
“We have our modernist Moslem clerics who do not take the Koran literally, who see it as metaphorical, and recognize the value of new learning and modern science. Not as many as the Christians and Jews proportionately, there more all the time. We have some wonderful, modern, Islamic minds.”
“Not in Sidi Bouzid we don’t. And it’s hard for our medical personnel to talk directly to the people also.”
“I knew that many of the people in the South are uneducated and do not speak French, but I assumed that the staff you sent down there—the nurses and the doctors, all speak Arabic.”
Ahmed replied,. “Yes they do but most of them are foreigners; they do not understand the culture.”
“You mean that they are not Tunisian?” Yusef Al-Baladhuri asked.
“No, it is almost impossible to get a Tunisian doctor or nurse to go down to the South. There is uninteresting food—everything is lamb, no fish, no drinking. There is no entertainment, and unless there is a romance between the staff, they have to lead a totally celibate life. Married staff won’t go down there because there are no decent schools for the children. Most of our staff are idealists from Europe and a few from the United States. They speak Arabic but often no French, but they don’t really know the culture, either our French Tunisian culture of the North or the desert culture of the South.”
“But we have a record number of doctors and nurses graduating from our preparatory schools. Some of the economists were worrying that we were producing more than we need. I was told there would be a surplus soon.”
“Whoever told you that, Yusef, told you wrong. They were right about the numbers, but they missed the economic and medical subtleties.”
Ahmed continued. The French left us with a lot more than a love of fine wine and food. It was their educational curriculum. Tonight, whatever arithmetic problems the 11 year-old students of Paris or Bordeaux will be doing for their homework assignment, those are the same homework problems that the students of Tunis will be assigned. Whatever examinations are required for university entrance in France, so the same examinations are used by us.”
“Well that I knew. It’s been a little controversial—subservience to our past colonial masters and all that, but we in Tunisia have never been that hung up about colonialism. If the truth be told, there were many benefits that went along with the indignity and domination. The education system is one of them.”
“But we took it all the way in the medical field. We use the exact textbooks, examination, laboratories, clinical experiences that France does. We even sit on French medical curriculum committees. The bottom line is that our standards are just as high as France, and the training is exactly the same—and in French also, not Arabic. A nurse will graduate from our university. She will collect her diploma, pack a suitcase, fly to Paris, take a taxi to one of the hospitals and be working on the night shift that evening. Similarly for our physicians. They have been trained to first world standards, with first world materials in a first world medical curriculum. They can go anywhere in the French speaking world and work there immediately. And when one has those kinds of credentials, virtually all the countries will amend their immigration and visa requirements to allow them to help with their medical delivery system.”
“And often the pay is a little better than ours.”
“Right. The experienced medical professionals are doing too well here in the North and the inexperienced ones can have better pay, more fun, not to say a better medical learning experience. So we use foreign idealists—even Christian medical missionaries now and then but we don’t advertise that here in Tunesia.”
“There are times where I envy the government officials in our fellow Arab nations like Syria and Sudan. They do not have the limitations of a relatively free society with which we are burdened. If they want doctors in the South, they have ways of persuading them to do their patriotic duty.”
“That takes a military government with a police state, Yusef. I’d much rather have our problems than theirs. Besides, aren’t we the only Arab country that is not rolling in oil but has a good standard of living and is not an underdeveloped country. If we keep up with your program of spending what otherwise would have been military money for education, health and development, we’re going to be an affluent country soon. Our health is already close to reaching first world standards. We’ll get there.”
“If we don’t get derailed along the way,” Yusef Al-Baladhuri told his friend in a very serious tone.”
“What could derail us, Yusef. Is there a new problem?
“No, Ahmed, it’s an old problem. We have been lucky as can be. We have survived and maintained our independence without an Army or Navy.”
“We both know that most of the third world armies and navies are not for defense against foreign enemies but to keep their own population under control. Our people are solidly behind our republic. They have not been forced into that view; they have come to it freely—albeit with some heavy-handed political leadership along the way. What do we have to worry about?”
“The PLO. I remember. They came from Lebanon and set up their headquarters here in Tunisia. I remember when President Bourguiba welcomed them himself. We were in Boston that year— in school.”
“Right, Ahmed. Why were they here?” He answered his own question without waiting. They had started a civil war in Lebanon. The PLO butchered thousands of Lebanese, and had to get out, not because both the Moslem and Christian factions wanted them out, which they did. The PLO had 20,000 heavily armed fighters and there is no way that the Lebanese could force them out, much as they would have liked to.”
“Why did they leave?—I wasn’t involved in politics in those days.”
“The Israelis were coming. The PLO was raiding Israel, and then would return to their bases in Lebanon and claim sanctuary in that country. The Israelis decided to retaliate and destroyed facilities in Lebanon. The Lebanese didn’t have the strength to kick the PLO out as the Jordanians did. But despite the PLO propaganda that they wanted an all-out battle with Israel, they ran like gazelles being chased by a pride of lions.”
“They were kicked out of Jordan too as I recall, said Doctor bin Muhammed.”
“That is putting it mildly. They were an army that was all but occupying Jordan. They never paid a dime of taxes but demanded services at the point of a gun—20,000 guns to be precise. But when they didn’t like the position that King Hussein and Jordan took on some United Nations matters, they started a revolution to overthrow the King. Half of Jordan were Palestinian refugees because Hussein was the only Arab leader who did something to help the Palestinians directly. Saudi Arabia sent money so long as they would not have to admit them as refugees or Allah forbid, citizens. Egypt claimed to be too crowded already which they really were. Syria, Lebanon all talked a good game, but Jordan admitted Palestinians who soon validated the other countries’ wisdom of keeping them out by joining with the PLO revolt.”
“I didn’t realize that it was that serious. I recall there was trouble, Yusef but not to that extent.”
“Oh, it could have been much worse but fortunately for the King, his Bedouin Army and population led by his British trained Arab Legion was available and loyal. They told the PLO to get out, and when they refused, the Arab Legion killed more Palestinian fighters in 48 hours than Israel has killed in the over 50 years of war. To this day neither Jordan nor the PLO have released the PLO casualty figures. Some say that the Arab Legion mowed down over 6,000 of the PLO but we have never been sure. Everyone was sure that the PLO literally ran for their lives to Lebanon. And then, when they had to leave Lebanon they decided to grace us with their presence. They announced that they would ‘move the struggle’ to Tunisia and dispatched a vanguard of 1100 heavily armed fighters with over 10,000 more still alive and ready to follow.”
“We were no match for that military force, I guess,”
“We didn’t have a single battalion. No army. And we had no navy to stop their ship. We could have turned out 4 or 5,000 police officers but they were hardly armed and were trained mostly to direct traffic. President Habib Bourguiba did the best that he could. Assistance of the International Community was mustered and the U. S. and Russia were both putting pressure on Arafat. Then our President made an offer that we would take the 1100 as the ‘Headquarters’ and welcome them, give them a facility, if the remainder of the force were ‘closer to the struggle’ where they could be of more help to the Palestinian people.”
“So that explains why President Bourguiba welcomed Arafat at the dock.”
“Right, and that’s how Tunisia got the headquarters detachment of the PLO.”
“I was here for the rest,” recalled bin Muhammed. “The PLO stupidly sent agents from our shores to Cypress and killed several Israelis. That was contrary to the deal whereby they would not attack anyone from Tunisian soil. In retaliation, the Israeli Air force pulled a military tour de force flying bombers over 1000 miles with mid-air refueling and wiped out the PLO Tunisian headquarters. No Tunisians were killed but it illustrated how vulnerable we were. Many thought that Israel would invade is. They had neutralized the PLO and there was no one else to even try and fight. Fortunately, they didn’t want all the Arab land as some had claimed. But it was now clear. If the PLO didn’t get out of Tunisia, the Israelis would be back until they did.”
“There are those who say to this day that President Bourguiba was, as the Americans say, ‘in cahoots’ with the Israelis. But we maintained our independence luckily. But what if Morocco should chose to invade us, or Algeria. We literally have no defense.”
“There must be some other countries like us—without a military, Ahmed asked Yusef.”
“Not many. Luxembourg has no military but they have a deal with France who runs their foreign policy and protects them militarily. I think they pay for it though. Costa Rica is the closest situation that I know of. They were really smart.”
“What did they do?”
“They made themselves extremely valuable to the United States. They installed a huge amount of telecommunications equipment connecting the telephones and computers of Central and South America with the United States and Canada. Then they let the CIA build a road across the country at its narrowest point. A ‘United Fruit Company’ modern automated containerized port was built in both the Atlantic and Pacific sides. If the U. S. access through the Panama Canal were interrupted, they could transship containerized ship cargoes across Costa Rica and load a ship on the other ocean cost in about the same time as it would take to transverse the canal.”
“And so they are under the protection of the United States. And they too use the money that they would have spent for a military on national needs. I knew that their health care system is terrific. Their life expectancy is the best in the hemisphere. American retirees live down in Costa Rica because it is one of the places in the world that they can get high quality medical care for chronic conditions at much less cost than the United States.”
“Their literacy rate is one of the highest in the hemisphere, but their economy is to be envied. They have an illegal alien problem. People from other Central American counties try and smuggle themselves into Costa Rica to get the higher paying jobs in a full employment economy where social security and health insurance is provided to all workers.”
“No religious fundamentalists, no military. That’s the equation. It’s almost as if we have discovered something new.”
“Not really new. After the American Revolution that was a big issue. To have an army or not. The Americans didn’t want what they called a standing army; they didn’t want to use their money for that purpose …”
“And the army itself potentially threatened democracy. Whoever controlled the Army controlled the nation. So they had local militias all reporting to local officials. After their democracy was mature and civilian control over the military was accepted by all, did the Americans have a permanent standing army. It was risky for them too. The White House itself was sacked by the British in the War of 1812 because there were no regular soldiers to defend it—only a few local militia.”
“There are risks without an army and risks with an army. For Islam I think the Army is the greater risk. In every Moslem country of the world except us, the army is the controlling power. Even in Turkey, the army is the highest power.”
“If we can last, we might be the example for all our brothers,”
“If we can last.”
In counties the world over, the military serves a role of national “machismo” whereby small countries have an ego where they are confident that as a people they are as tough and courageous as any and can “kick ass” with the rest. Tunisia doesn’t seem to have this need amongst their people. Perhaps, it is because the Tunisians had their turn as the most feared fighters in the world causing all Europe to fear them. They are the only nation that ever defeated the Roman Empire in battle in Italy when the Romans were at their peak. The Tunis area was known then as Carthage, and the Carthaginian General Hannibal, in one of the greatest feats of military daring, lead an invasion force, including war elephants, to Spain and across the Pyrenees Mountains and attacked Rome from the North. They literally destroyed the Roman Army and caused the Roman Empire to recall troops from all over just to defend their homeland. For years afterward the Roman Senate was totally pre-occupied with revenge. Delenda est Cartago was the constant senate cry for years: “Carthage is to be destroyed.” Two decades later Rome not only conquered Carthage, but to fulfill their promise of destructive vengeance the Romans actually rubbed salt into the earth so that nothing would grow there. To this day, the Carthage area, now a suburb of Tunis, will not support agriculture because of the salt content in the land. The Tunisians however, not to be stopped totally, built a modern housing project on the old land of Carthage, again replacing the results of militarism with social infrastructure. But the Tunisians do not have the historical military inferiority complex that most other nations have. When they wanted to be fighters, they were the best and most feared in the world.
Tunisia continues to develop and increase its standard of living thanks to a good population control program with the exception of the Fundamentalist South which has relatively few Tunisians. However, progress is painfully slow even with resources. The fundamentalist religious influence and the traditional desert culture are real impediments to modernization.
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