When I tell other westerners that I live in an Arab country, their imaginations often go wild, minds flooding with mirages of Aladdin desert scenes and genies in bottles. Common assumptions are that I have to wear a hijab, I can’t drink alcohol, and that I simply don’t have women’s rights. But as junior high taught us, “to assume” something makes an ass out of you and me.
Tunisia tops the northernmost part of Africa like a crown, its stunning and strategic Mediterranean coastline the object of fiercely competition since ancient times. The country may be independent now, but its countless exotic conquerors have each left traces of their culture behind, fashioning the diverse country it is today.
Perhaps it’s their history which makes them exceptionally tolerant, granting foreigners the right to practice their traditions despite the obvious clash between the West and Islam. But even though the cultural differences are good and plenty, my life as a westerner in this ‘Muslim country’ isn’t exactly what it’s perceived to be.
Let’s start with the theory of the hijab! Newsflash: here in Tunisia, it’s everyone’s personal decision whether or not they want to cover their bodies, heads, or even their whole face. I choose to dress somewhat modestly, not by pressure of any law, but only to limit attention and blend in with the average Joe. Harassment is generally low here compared to other North African countries, and the young, spitfire generation spreads “to-each-their-own” vibes.
One of my favorite aspects of living in this country is the religious freedom. The call to prayer is still heard five times a day (including at 3 A.M.), but a walk down the street can bring you by a mosque, church, or even a synagogue, with people in religious or secular dress walking side by side in respect for each other. Therefore, looking like a westerner doesn’t particularly offend anyone, and on the contrary, locals are usually thrilled that you are visiting or living in their country even if you don’t believe in the same God—although they may strike up the conversation of religion if they’re bold.
Another misconception about maintaining a Western lifestyle in a Muslim country like Tunisia is that there isn’t any alcohol here. To my surprise, not only can you buy alcohol at the grocery store, but you can find mixed-gender bars or even visit vineyards (thanks to the Romans and the French, of course). More conservative citizens still opt for coffee in a traditional café over a bar, but once again, the choice is yours, and no one demonizes you for drinking alcohol.
It’s vital to also recognize that my situation isn’t the same as that of a local. I’m not from here. I take some of my liberties (drinking alcohol, traveling or living alone, dating, or even working abroad) for granted, because they feel like normal customs I know I’m entitled to in the States. But in reality, these activities might be received less tolerantly if I wasn’t a westerner. They’re probably more acceptable when I do them, rather than someone who was raised here. So I’ll hold onto my American passport tightly and thank it for giving me freedom in more places than one.