The Tidings of Tunis

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It’s amazing how a country you’ve never been to and people you’ve known for a very short period of time would leave such a footprint in your life. I don’t know if that’s a good intro for a post about the Third Arab Bloggers Conference in Tunis, which took place between 3-6 October 2011, but honestly I couldn’t find it in my heart to start any way else. There was a reason why the conference was held in Tunisia, we all know it, but after being there I can say I felt it too, and I’m pretty sure no one can talk about the conference without talking a whole lot about Tunisia, especially those of us who visited it for the first time.

I’m not going to talk about the conference and workshops session by session because I believe the bloggers and Tweeps had it covered frame by frame so it would be redundant. This is a personal blog, redundancy is only welcome in the form of rants and personal drama… and an occasional #reformJo post. So, let me talk about it as a personal experience. I know that could be boring to you to read but it’s fun for me to write!

So, coming to Tunis I didn’t know what to expect. I didn’t really know anyone from the people participating in the conference and it was my first Arab bloggers conference. What will I come out with? Will I get along with the others? I didn’t really know, but I tried to be optimistic and play it by ear. The first day of the conference when I went down to the lobby where everyone was gathered to take the bus to the conference venue, after a long night of sleep and a scare I choose not to elaborate on here.  I looked around and for some reason I walked up to a group of people standing together in a circle. I introduced myself and they turned out to be Egyptian bloggers, and I must say that meeting those people made me want to visit Egypt more than ever and showed me how beautiful the Egyptian people are, that’s the word actually: beautiful people from the inside out. For the next three days I would join them in discovering  some parts of the city, and I would hear their stories about the Egyptian revolution, their jokes that I understand and the ones I don’t, but I would laugh or smile anyway because the spirit they show and the vibes they send forth are just enough to make your day. Of course going around Tunis, using taxis, buses and even the train wasn’t any less important that the conference itself, and the things we learned there on the street  we may not have learned sitting around indoors or huddled over our laptops and smart phones.

It was also great to meet all the other Arab bloggers and to hear from them about their respective countries. Some talks showed hope in a better future for the Arab countries after the revolutions, while others cast a pall over the hall, especially when the question is posed: Where do we go from here? The technical side was very present to say the least as there were several sessions on privacy and how to protect yourself against Big Brother’s surveillance techniques. There was a number of non-Arab participants which was a bit strange since it’s an Arab bloggers conference but they have quite valuable inputs and some of them spoke Arabic. The good thing though is that for the most part the language used in the workshops was Arabic (when the speaker is an Arab) to be true to the name and purpose of the conference.

It was particularly refreshing to meet the bloggers who could make it from Palestine. There was Irene and Saed, but the other 11 Palestinian bloggers weren’t granted the visa by the Tunisian embassy, there for their names and pictures were printed out and hung on the first two rows of chairs in the meeting room as a tribute to them and a sign of protest to the shameful act of denying them entry to Tunisia. There was also another Palestinian I was thankful to meet and become friends with, a Palestinian Tunisian actually called Nawel. Nawel and Nesma from Egypt turned out to be more like soul sisters to me actually, and I can’t be thankful enough that I have gotten to know them.

Since the meeting started every day at around 10 and ended at around 5 or 6, it was necessary to try and keep your sleeping hours to a minimum if you wanted to see as much as possible of Tunis. I would get up as early as 6:30 am and meet the aforementioned group of Egyptian bloggers and then we’d head out to a different area each day. We managed to do that twice: one morning was spent in Sidi Bou Said, a city you can’t help but fall in love with, and another morning was spent touring the ruins of Carthage as well as getting up-close and personal to the sea for a brief moment in time. We would also go out in the evening, and one very memorable trip was to downtown Tunis, which ended up with a very amusing train ride. Actually we made a point of taking the train that we had to walk for almost half an hour to get to the station!

The night before I left Tunis was a night of utter ambivalence. I wanted to go back home but my heart was ripped by the idea of leaving Tunis. How did that happen so quickly? How could I form such a mystic emotional bond with a city in 5 days? I’ve been to other places before but I never felt like I was leaving a piece of my heart there like I felt when I left Tunis. In fact, I never missed any place I’ve been to so quickly like I missed Tunis.

I left Tunis on the 7th of October with so many memories and stories to take home, having made invaluable friendships, learned a lot and experienced even more. It was a great pleasure to be a part of the Arab Bloggers Conference that was coordinated with great efforts from Heinrich Boll organization, and Global Voices Online. The Arab World is changing indeed, and while some people may be a bit gloomy about the uncertain future of the region, seeing all those people who were in the conference coming together despite all their differences and diverse backgrounds, that should give you some hope, no matter how uncertain the future may be.

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