LOCATION: Western North Africa (the Maghrib)
POPULATION: 8 million
LANGUAGE: Arabic; French
RELIGION: Islam (Sunni Muslim)
Tunisia is one of the countries forming the Maghrib, the western part of North Africa. Tunisia is the most Westernized state in North Africa. It maintains strong ties with France, the colonizing power from 1881 to 1956.
The various nomadic peoples who first settled the area came to be called Berbers. Roman, Greek, Byzantine, and Arab conquerors all attempted to defeat or assimilate the Berbers into their cultures, with varying degrees of success. In 1574, Muslim troops loyal to the Ottoman Empire (based in present-day Turkey) finally established rule over Tunis, and maintained it for 300 years. The French seized control of Tunisia in 1881, establishing a protectorate in 1883.
More than 60,000 Tunisians joined the French army to fight in Europe in World War I (1914–18). They also supported France and its allies in World War II (1939–45). Tunisians hoped to be granted independence as a reward but were disappointed. By 1952, Tunisian resistance to French rule turned violent. Many civilians—European and Arab—were killed. By 1956, Tunisia was officially independent. However, France maintained military forces in Tunisia, along with a large civilian presence.
After independence, Tunisia became a one-party socialist state ruled by the Neo-Destour (the New Constitution) Party of Habib Bourguiba. By the 1970s, government oppression and the lack of political freedom led to a series of strikes and demonstrations by students and unions. Throughout the 1980s, the aging Bourguiba became increasingly authoritarian and unreliable in his behavior. In 1987 he was finally deposed by his prime minister, Zine al-Àbidine Ben Àli. Ben Àli was elected president in 1989.
Tunisia is located on the northern coast of the continent of Africa. It has an area of about 63,320 square miles (164,000 square kilometers). Northern Tunisia is relatively fertile and mountainous. The Dorsale mountain chain extends from the northeast to the southwest. The Mejerda River, which rises in Algeria, drains into the Gulf of Tunis. The far south includes part of the Sahara Desert.
Tunisia has a population of about 8 million people.
Arabic is the national language of Tunisia. Before the Arab conquests, Berber was the chief spoken language. Arabic is a Semitic language related to Hebrew and Aramaic. It is spoken almost universally in Tunisia. After independence, the Tunisian government reintroduced Arabic but maintained the use of French. French is still widely spoken in Tunisia and is used in the sciences, the military, international trade, and foreign diplomacy. Common women's names in Tunisia are Leila, Hayat, Wasila, and Mariam. Common men's names are Muhammad, Habib, Moncif, and Àli.
The Maghrib, including Tunisia, has many legends involving Muslim leaders called marabouts (holy men). Their burial sites are often sites of pilgrimage. Many people visit their graves to ask for aid.
Some Tunisians believe in evil spirits called jinn. These spirits are said to assume the guise of animals. To ward off jinn, Tunisians wear verses from the Koran (the sacred text of Islam) on an amulet, or charm. They also wear the "hand of Fatima," a charm in the shape of the right hand.
Most folklore in Muslim countries tells stories of important figures in religious history. One such story, which is commemorated annually throughout the Islamic world, is that of al-Isra wa al-Miraj. According to legend, the Prophet Muhammad traveled at night from Mecca to Jerusalem. From Jerusalem, he rode his wondrous horse, al-Burak, on a nocturnal visit to heaven.
The overwhelming majority of Tunisians are Muslim. Most Tunisians belong to the Sunni school of Islam.
The Islamic religion has five "pillars," or practices, that must be observed by all Muslims: (1) praying five times a day; (2) giving alms, or zakat, to the poor; (3) fasting during the month of Ramadan ; (4) making the pilgrimage, or hajj, to Mecca; and (5) reciting the shahada (ashhadu an la illah ila Allah wa ashhadu in Muhammadu rasul Allah ), which means "I witness that there is no god but Allah and that Muhammad is the prophet of Allah."
Tunisia commemorates secular and Muslim religious holidays. One major holiday, Eid al-Fitr, comes at the end of the fast month of Ramadan. During Ramadan, Muslims refrain from eating, drinking, or sexual relations during the daytime. In Tunisia, however, the practice of fasting is quietly discouraged by the government. However, Eid al-Fitr is still celebrated for three days at the end of the month. The other major Muslim holiday is Eid al-Adha, which commemorates the willingness of the prophet Abraham to sacrifice his son to God. Religious holidays are celebrated by going to the mosque for group prayers. Afterwards, worshipers come home to large meals with family and visiting relatives. Part of the feast is normally given to relatives and to the poor.
Secular holidays include the socialist May Day (or Labor Day, May 1); Independence Day (June 1); and Martyrs' Day (April 9), which commemorates a French massacre of Tunisians during the colonial period. There is also a Women's Day (August 13).
The birth of a child in Tunisia is a much-celebrated event. New mothers are fed a creamy mixture of nuts, sesame seeds, honey, and butter known as zareer. On the seventh day after the birth, guests visiting the mother and baby are given the same sweet dessert. On the seventh day, it is also customary to slaughter a lamb and have a dinner party with friends and family.
Under Tunisian law, the minimum marriage age for women is seventeen; men must be at least twenty years old.
Death is considered a natural transition. Mourners are encouraged to bury a loved one as soon as possible after death. Condolences are given for three days after a death. It is understood that the mourning period is over after the third day.
Upon greeting, men shake hands with other men, and with women. Two men who have not seen each other for a long time may kiss on the cheeks. Women either shake hands with other women or kiss each other on the cheeks. Men and women, however, cannot kiss one another in public.
In formal situations, it is common to use titles, mainly French— Monsieur, Madame, Mademoiselle, Docteur, and Professeur. The Arabic word for "Mr." is sayyid. "Mrs." is sayyida, and "Miss" is anisa.
Male-female relations are governed by the Islamic code of modesty. Men and women avoid public displays of affection. There is little dating until a man and woman are ready for marriage.
As Muslims, Tunisians eat and shake hands with the right hand. Both men and women smoke, but women hesitate to do so in public.
Tunisian homes differ from region to region. However, most are built of stone, adobe, or concrete. Most homes have white walls and blue doors. In Tunis, the capital, it is common to find luxury homes and modern apartment buildings. In urban areas, the front doors of houses open directly onto the street. There are no front yards and very few windows. Most single-family homes are small. Many houses are two or three stories high to make up for the small size of the foundation. The flat rooftops are commonly used as outdoor living space.
In rural areas, many families live in gourbi. These are permanent tents set up for former herders who are now permanently settled. In southern Tunisia, Berber dwellings are carved out of rocks. In Matmata, homes are built more than 20 feet (6 meters) underground in enormous craters that have a central courtyard. These homes are built out of the mud and stones that are excavated for the construction. They tend to be cool in the summer and warm in the winter.
Before the French occupation, Tunisians lived with their extended families in tightly knit communities. Children were raised by the entire extended family. Marriages were conducted by negotiation between the families of the bride and the groom. French occupation and modern industrialization since independence have tended to break down traditional family structures. In the cities as well as rural areas, the nuclear family has begun to be the most common living arrangement.
The role of women has changed noticeably. Women had traditionally been segregated in public life. Their primary responsibilities were raising children and taking care of the home and the husband. Today, women are legally equal to men with regard to inheritance, property ownership, child custody, and divorce. Marriages must have the consent of both parties. Nearly 40 percent of all university students are women. However, traditional expectations of women as keepers of the home and family have continued. This has created unrealistic demands on women and has led to a divorce rate of nearly 50 percent.
Many Tunisians dress in Western-style clothing. Traditional dress, however, remains common as well, especially in the villages and among the elderly. Tunisian men often wear a type of fez (headdress) called a chehia. It is made of brown or red felt, and is either rounded or flat on top. Traditional male clothing includes a jalabiyya (a long dresslike garment) and baggy pants. Women who dress traditionally wear a sifsari. This is a long outer garment with loose folds and a head covering. It is commonly worn over Western-style clothing. Rural women wear a mellia (a large, loose head covering) draped across the head and shoulders.
The most popular dish in Tunisia is couscous, which consists of semolina wheat sprinkled with oil and water and rolled into tiny grains. Couscous can be mixed with sauces and used in stews. Lamb cutlets, seafood, and shish kebabs are also common foods. Chakachoukaia a popular salad made of tomatoes, onions, peppers, and hardboiled eggs. Mechouia (literally, "the grilled") is a main course that combines grilled tomatoes, peppers, and onions with olive oil, tuna fish, sliced hard-boiled eggs, lemon juice, and capers. Tunisians cook a variety of stews called tajines. Spinach tajine consists of beans, beef, onions, tomato sauce, pepper, spinach, and egg. Other varieties of tajine make use of everything from chicken to prunes and honey. Tunisians commonly drink strong Turkish coffee and sweet mint tea. Pork and alcohol are forbidden by the Islamic religious code.
Tunisia has adopted the French educational system, which has three levels. First, there is a six-year primary-level program that all students must attend. They must pass a major test at the end of their sixth year in order to enter secondary school. After three years of general education, each student specializes during the final four years of high school. Students who do not go to the third level may enroll in three-year vocational programs. All schooling, even at the university level, is free. This includes books, school supplies, uniforms, and meals. Classes are taught in French and Arabic, with an increasing emphasis on Arabic.
Malouf, a uniquely Tunisian type of music, is played on lutes, guitars, violins, and drums. Players sing along with the highly rhythmic music. It is thought that malouf originated in North Africa and was exported to Spain in the eighth century. Later it was brought back to Tunisia when Jews and Muslims were expelled from Spain. Today's malouf is sad music. Members of the audience cry as they listen.
Almost half of Tunisia's population work in agriculture. Since independence, employment in industrial production has expanded. Many work in oil fields, and in electricity generation, cement production, and mining (especially phosphates). Occupations in the food industry include flour milling, sugar refining, vegetable canning, and water bottling, among others. Tourism is also a major employer. Students attend tourism schools and institutes of hotel management to train for these jobs.
Tunisia's national sport is soccer (known as "football"). It is a spectator sport and is also played in the streets and open fields. Other popular sports include horseback riding, hunting, and camel racing.
Tunisians enjoy bathing and socializing in hammams, or public bathhouses. There are separate hours for men and women. Cafes are popular hangouts for men in the evenings, where they smoke chichas (water pipes) and play cards. Tunisians flock to the beaches that line the coast of the Mediterranean Sea.
Tunisians hold festivals throughout the year. There are camel races at the Sahara festival in January and December, and parades at the Nefta festival in April. A falconry festival is held in the town of el-Hawaria in June.
Tunisian artisans make goods out of wood, copper, textiles, leather, wrought iron, glass, and ceramics. Rural weavers produce blankets, rugs, and grass mats. Knotted carpets follow traditional decorative designs. Berber rugs (mergoums) are brightly colored and have geometric designs.
Jewelry is also handmade in Tunisia. A very popular design is the shape of a hand, known as the khomsa, or the "Hand of Fatima." This is made of either gold or silver and is found on earrings and pendants.
Tunisia's greatest problems are economic difficulties and a lack of political freedom. The labor market is tight and it will be increasingly difficult to meet the job demands of the growing work force. In the past, many Tunisians have emigrated to France and Italy in search of work.
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Fox, M. Tunisia. Chicago: Children's Press, 1990.
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Perkins, Kenneth J. Tunisia: Crossroads of the Islamic and European Worlds. Nations of the Contemporary Middle East. Boulder, Colo.: Westview Press, 1986.