My first few days in Tunisia have been filled with a few surprises and even more met expectations. As an advanced Arabic learner and speaker and a history major focusing on the Middle East, my expectations of the North African desert nation were far more realistic, or at least made with a better understanding of context, than what some of my fellow Cadets were expecting. Having been exposed to Arabic and Islamic culture before, I felt comfortable when we first landed in the Tunis-Carthage Airport. Knowing the language, I quivered with anticipation of utilizing my Arabic in a natural context.
Our first day, admittedly, was used to recover from the over 36 hours of flying and waiting in airports that had taken my CULP group from Ft. Knox, Ky., to Tunis, Tunisia. The food provided at our residence was of no surprise to me; if anything, the offerings of fresh hummus, Arabic bread, olives, yogurt, and other traditional Arab foods made me feel at home. However, even on this first day filled with rest and relaxation, I started to notice an extensive infiltration of French language and culture in the country.
This only intensified the following day. As we drove into the city to meet the military personnel to whom we would teach English, the prevalence of French culture in Tunisia was obvious to me and my group. While we had been fully aware of the French influence in Tunisia, I think the exact extent of its importance and appearance was far more than we had ever imagined. As we spoke to our students, most could speak French as well as they could Arabic. This held true for the staff at out lodgings; most of the staff chose to speak French to us before Arabic, and some could only speak French.
As we explored the shopping centers of Tunis following our classes, the clothing, the food, the music, and the shops were almost entirely French in nature. For the first time since arriving in Tunisia, my Arabic did me no good. In order to order lunch, I had to rely on a fellow Cadet who could speak French. In fact, when I attempted to explain what I wanted to eat in Arabic, the cashier simply stared at me with a confused expression, ignored me, and went back to arguing with the French speaking Cadet.
Indeed, the extent of French cultural influence in Tunisia is staggering. While French is not recognized as an official language of Tunisia, it seemed that it was just as popular as Arabic. This came as a shock to me, which, I am happy to say, was quite exciting. I had come to Tunisia excited to practice my Arabic with native speakers, but there had been no sense of the unknown as I had foolishly assumed that I knew the people and the culture before I even met them.
Truly, this is perhaps the best way the CULP deployment could have started for me, as it shattered my expectations and showed me that sometimes it is quite alright to experience culture shock, even when you feel like you know the culture already. As our classes with our students continue and we get to explore more and more of this beautiful country, I look forward to whatever else may be waiting for us, ready to surprise, shock us, and open our minds a little more.