Monday, 12 May 2014

A Muslim nation that offers an object lesson in tolerance

Warmth. That’s what I remember most from the week we spent in Tunisia the week before last.

Not just the physical kind, though there was that too: in the mid-twenties Celsius. It’s the perfect level, comfortably warm without being unbearably hot.

But the main thing was the human warmth. An awareness that others too had rights. A willingness to treat them as you’d want to be treated yourself.

The Tunis Souk.
Lively, bustling, diverse. Fun
There was an expectation that we would bargain over any price, so starting offers were always high. Once an agreement had been reached, however, that was the price. Neither side would change it. And what was to be delivered, would be delivered. Cars we ordered turned up on time (actually, ahead of time we generally found), and the price on a bill presented for payment was the price agreed.

But even that reassuring honesty wasn’t what mattered.

No, what really mattered was the tolerance, the willingness to live and let live. Tunisia is undoubtedly a Muslim country, and most restaurants and cafes we visited served no alcohol. However, it isn’t an Islamic nation, so there were plenty that did sell alcohol, and they served it to Tunisians as well as tourists.

What I found interesting is that those places had their conventions. I’ve cut down recently on the amount I drink (not just doctor’s orders, though I’ve had those too – well, actually, nurse’s orders: I’ve never yet managed to see a doctor at the Practice where I’m registered, instead always being palmed off on a nurse but, hey, they’ve been great so why should I complain?)

One evening I decided to stick to water with the dinner. After the meal, the restaurant offered us a liqueur on the house – but the waiter brought four to the five of us. Clearly the restaurant was used to mixed groups of guests, some of whom were drinking and others not, and tactfully offered no drink to those who weren’t.

I was impressed by the delicacy of the gesture.

Later on, the manager did still better, having one of the staff drive us back to our hotel through a torrential downpour. I’ve never known a restaurant anywhere else offer that kind of service.

As it happens, it was a bit like the courtesy drinks. There was only space for four, so I walked. I
m not sure whether that was related to not drinking alcohol – the one who was drinking only water might as well be the one who got wet, perhaps? 

My overall impression of the country was one of charm, generosity and above all a willingness to admit that there are many ways to live a life, and no-one needs to tell others what’s wrong with theirs.

Sadly, there are elections later this year, and many fear that the Islamists will make gains. I know the difference between Muslims and Islamists, and I’d much rather see the former continuing to live as they do than the latter taking their place. Insha’Allah, the present happy arrangement may continue.

If it does, well, Tunisia will have a lesson or two to teach other countries, not least the democracies of the West. A lesson in basic liberalism. And its most important component: tolerance.


Anonymous said...

Fascinating I grew up in Bagdad and certainly know the friction that goes on in Muslim society. Most of the Muslim societies I have visited have had underlying tension and huge unrest. Alchol is highly taxed but has a significant place on society, Raki being the preferred spirit and very popular with taxi drivers, a little concerning. Tolerant when it comes to cash laden tourists yes, behind ethe scenes I would say very troubled and far from calm, very far.

David Beeson said...

Sadly, the tensions are there in Tunisia too. And ready to burst to the surface, I fear, if the Islamists win the poll later this year.