Te Aroha to Tunis

Alistair Bone talks to a Waikato woman caught up in Middle Eastern turmoil.

ALISTAIR BONE
Last updated 08:11 06/10/2012
IN RUINS: The school library and 12 classrooms were gutted by fire in the attack on the American Cooperative School of Tunis, and the school looted.
IN RUINS: The school library and 12 classrooms were gutted by fire in the attack on the American Cooperative School of Tunis, and the school looted.
TUNIS
TUNIS

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Robyn Davey is a lot more interested in politics now than she was growing up in Te Aroha. That might be because of the two army tanks parked outside work or because of the time she had to hide in the bathroom because different factions in the police were having a gun battle outside. She lives in Tunisia, an interesting place at an interesting time. The international news is part of her day. The once abstract and far-away headlines, like “Mob Burns School in Embassy Attack” for instance, now change her life.

Most of her family are still in her hometown, but she has not lived there since her last year at Te Aroha High in 1998. There followed six years at Otago University, then she worked in the southern region. The infectious rolling R dialect is still there: "wirrked" she says. She came to Tunisia in 2010 with husband Craig. They had just spent two years teaching in Jakarta. "We thought we were heading to this Mediterranean paradise in Tunisia and, in some ways, it is. We were here six months when the Arab Spring started."

They found themselves among the biggest social change to happen in the Middle East in more than 60 years. Right in its cradle, in fact. Tunisia is credited with starting the process. The suicide by fire of a protester in December 2010 led by way of a series of violent clashes to free elections in October 2011. It inspired revolutions in Libya, Egypt and Yemen. More are still under way in Bahrain and Syria.

"It was quite positive for the country, but for us, it was quite terrifying. We were living near where some of the gun battles happened between the police and the president's police. For two or three days, it was a little bit hairy. It's been interesting to watch the progression towards democracy, but unfortunately it has had a bit of a hiccup."

The hiccup was on September 14. The pair, along with three other Kiwis, teach at the American Co-operative School of Tunis. The school has three strikes against it: it has the word "American" in the name, it teaches kids of expats and it's across the road from the United States Embassy. And that's where a mob gathered on September 14, to protest the existence of a film called The Innocence of Muslims.

The movie itself is an awful thing, with appalling acting and scripting. But the protest focused less on its crimes against art than its over-the-top attacks on the Prophet Muhammad and the Muslim faith. Many thousands rioted worldwide and several terrorist attacks were claimed to be in revenge. People had already died. In Tunisia, September 14, the school day began as normal but things quickly changed.

"Security at the school got wind that something was going to happen at the embassy. Everyone was sent home at lunchtime. We watched it unfold on our laptops."

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The protest at the embassy turned violent: four were reported killed and forty-six injured. At about 2.30pm, attention moved across the road.

"A group of Salafists [fundamentalist Muslims] went for the school. They attacked the security office. They blew out the cameras and set the office on fire."

The elementary school library and 12 classrooms were gutted.

A second wave followed. "That opened it up to the looters," says Davey. Thieves ransacked the middle and high schools on the site. She teaches PE and health. From her department, they stole the heart rate monitors and pedometers. From the rest of the school, they took most things not nailed down: musical instruments, science equipment and computers. "A couple of days later, there were $3000 Macs going for $20 in the markets."

She is sure the looters were opportunists, let in by a hard core of fundamentalist attackers. "I read somewhere that there is something like 10,000 Salafists within Tunisia - people who believe they should be living under Sharia law. And within that group, there were 500 to 1000 who were involved in the activities at the embassy and the school."

Ordinary Tunisians have been quick to distance themselves, approaching the blonde Davey in the street to offer apologies. "We have had a lot of written apologies. A woman came up to me in the supermarket and said, ‘I'm so sorry, this is not Tunisia'. People are very, very shocked and dismayed that this would happen. If there is a silver lining, it's that general Tunisians have had to stand up and say this is not what they want their country to be."

Security was ramped up, the tanks appeared outside the school.

"You got the idea from how lax the security forces were at the school that the government didn't want to use too much force, because they might displease one of the other groups. But I think that [the violence] forced them to understand that the majority of the country doesn't want this. It's forcing them to do their job rather than try to please too many people."

She says Tunisia, with its once-booming European tourist trade, is more liberal than other North African countries.

"I wouldn't go out in singlet top and tiny shorts, but I generally get around in longer shorts and a T-shirt."

They live in Tunis, the main city on the Mediterranean Coast. Farther south, as the country stretches into the desert, there are more restrictions. "You probably wouldn't be able to get alcohol and pork outside of a tourist resort."

She is trying to stay optimistic and help get the school back on its feet. It was shut for a week after the attack and is making do. There was a "riot clause" in its insurance policy, meaning there is a shortfall of about US$4 million (NZ$4.9m).

"There has been a range of emotions in the past two weeks. We have to trust that if something like that happened again, then the military and police are going to be there this time. We try to be positive that things are improving, but there is a long road to go to democracy as New Zealanders know it."

Donations to the school are being accepted through its website: acst.net

- © Fairfax NZ News

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