When I was 17 years old, I signed up for “AFS”, the “American Field Service” International exchange program. I thought it sounded like an absolutely wonderful way to visit England or Germany or maybe even Switzerland. There was a long application process and many interviews before two students from my High School were chosen to participate in this worthwhile program. It was the first time in my life that I had had to really think about myself; to think about what might make me a worthy candidate to receive this incredible opportunity.
It was an eye opening experience: I thought a lot about my beliefs, for the first time in a very young life. I thought about my hopes, my dreams and my place in the world. I must have done a creditable job of presenting myself, because, to my surprise, I was chosen to travel abroad for the summer of 1973.
My surprise (OK, my shock) was complete in late May of that year, when I learned that I would be spending 12 weeks with a Moslem family living in central Tunisia, just miles from the Northern edge of the Sahara Desert. What?!! What happened to England, or Germany, or (oh, so exotic…..) France? I panicked, I tried to find a way out, but ultimately, I went.
I spent the summer of 1973 in the company of people who were warm, charming, literate, thoughtful, gregarious, devout, funny, and very very loving. I learned to eat couscous, to wear a sefsari, to barter for goods in the marketplace. I learned some French and some Arabic and even a few folk songs. Most of all, I learned that people are people. Tunisian Dads sounded remarkably like American Dads where their teenaged daughters were concerned. Mothers made dinner and nagged about messy bedrooms. Kids argued and pouted, and eventually picked up the dirty clothes.
I learned that politics are always a touchy subject. And I learned that God is God, no matter what we call Him or where we worship. I learned that I am a citizen of the world, and that I am therefore connected to all people everywhere. It was a wonderful, exhilarating, empowering and life changing experience for this young woman. I have never forgotten my love of Tunisia; the beauty of the country, the crystal clear waters, the music, the rhythm of the Medina. Even so many years later, the smell of jasmine brings me right back to that summer, and my home in the “Lycee Des Jeunes Filles” in the ancient city of Kairouan.
Today I watch the news, and I see the events that are unfolding in Tunisia, and Egypt and Yemen. I watch as the everyday citizens of those countries, the teachers, shopkeepers, mechanics, doctors and students, march in the streets and stand up to the guns of the police. I watch them demand the right to choose their own leaders for the first time in their lives. I am awed by the courage and the strength that it takes to do what they are doing. I am humbled by the power of so many people, acting together in a movement that is sweeping a continent.
I teach fifth graders about the American Revolution. I teach them about the power of common people, working hand in hand, who can overturn the strongest dictator. As I read the news, or watch it on the BBC, I am reminded once again that people are people. I am aware, yet again, that we are all truly citizens of the world, more than we are citizens of our own little patches of that world. If the regime in Egypt falls, as its neighboring dictator did in Tunisia, the United States will be in difficult diplomatic and political straights. These popular revolutions run counter to American interests in the region.
Still, as a teacher of American History, as a young woman who came of age in the Moslem world, as a citizen of this world, I am excited, happy and filled with pride as I watch common people rising up against tyranny and despotism.
I feel myself, though distanced by many years and many miles, to be a part of the “Jasmine Revolution” that was brought to life in my beautiful Tunis.
I am part of history, as we all are. I have hope for the future.