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A bit of rough in Tunisia

A last-minute package bargain and last-minute shopping list: bikini, suncream, guidebook. But Tunisia: the Rough Guide had some worrying warnings for us: 'For women, the main problem will be harassment...You'll probably face a lot of minor hassles rather than anything seriously threatening, but it can be relentless and fairly persistent.'

Oh dear. This is the guidebook aimed at backpackers who fear nothing. We are only feeble tourists with impractical shoes. Does the Rough Guide suggest any defence against these scary Arab men? 'Wearing dark glasses which prevent eye contact, including accidental eye contact on your part, hiding your hair - especially if blonde - in a scarf, and covering yourself from top to toe.' And one of us was blonde...

But in the town of Monastir, we found 'relentless hassles' as rare as Yorkshire pudding. Coming out of their shops, men stood in our way, sometimes even touching our arms, to invite us to look at their stuffed camels. Learning we were English, they burst into choruses of 'lovely jubbly - cheaper than Asda!'. It was hard to be frightened of a Tunisian Del Boy. 'No thanks', we told them, ready to hit them and shout in Arabic if necessary. Shrugging, they sat back on their stools and awaited the next tourist.

We also encountered the genuine chat-up - 'What's your name?', 'Where are you from?' - lines that could have come from a sixth-form disco. Rejected, the young Tunisians withdrew with disappointed smiles. After a couple of days we were wandering about in shorts and chatting to the locals in our non-existent Arabic. Then...

'I can't stand it', a Liverpudlian woman told us. 'I won't leave the hotel. Men - you're just walking along and they hassle you.' We pressed her for details. Liverpool, like any British city, is subject every spring to various impolite vocalisations of male libido, triggered by the season's first exposure of female legs and shoulders. Surely she must have encountered something 10 times worse in Tunisia to refuse, as she did, to leave the hotel without a male (European) escort?

But the unbearable harassment she described was exactly what we had regarded as friendly banter on our trips into town. An informal survey of other female guests (in the bar) revealed that we were not unique in seeing this behaviour as harmless. In fact, the warnings given to us in England seemed only to provoke fear of pretty normal interactions with the local men.

One of the hotel 'redcoats', Lassaad, told us it was common knowledge in Tunisia that England was rife with scare stories about Tunisian men. 'You can tell from the way the English tourists behave when they arrive', he said sadly. 'It's a problem. Hopefully, when they come here they realise it's not true.' And we wondered where the hardened authors of the Rough Guide had spent their holidays.

Timandra Harkness and Rose Landthaller

Reproduced from LM issue 122, July/August 1999



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