I was sitting on the train to Tunis this afternoon, hoping to witness some part of the non-violent protests that have been popping up in the city over the last few days in response to an anti-Islamic American film (admittedly, not my smartest move). I never quite made it, because when the train pulled into a stop close to the ancient city of Carthage, the man sitting across from me lunged at my neck.
He ripped the necklace off my body -- leaving me unharmed -- and quickly jumped out the door.
Other people in the train tried to catch him, but he was long gone by the time we realized what had happened.
I was frightened and a bit frazzled. I was sitting alone in a train filled predominantly by men (like most public spaces in Tunisia), none of whom spoke my language. I hate feeling scared and vulnerable, and I most certainly was.
My fellow travelers were kind to me, and many quickly asked in Arabic, French, and a smattering of English whether there was anything they could do for me and whether I had been hurt. It was heartening to immediately see a train full of Tunisians jump to my aid. Indeed, this quickly reminded me that in all my experiences in Tunisia thus far, I had been treated with the utmost generosity, kindness, and respect.
Luckily, I was fine (if a strange man is going to lunge at me in a train, losing a necklace is probably the best case scenario), but I was bothered by the symbolism of the act. My necklace was a khomsa pendant (shaped like a downturned hand), a symbol against the mythical evil eye that spans cultures and religions. It’s particularly important to Jews and North African Muslims, so Birthrighters in Tel Aviv end up buying the same kitschy necklaces as tourists in Tunis.
That has meant that even though my Jewish grandparents originally purchased the necklace several decades ago during their only visit to Jerusalem, I've worn it proudly in several Muslim countries without giving away any information about my “outsider” identity.
For me, the khomsa had always been a symbol of continuity and commonality between Muslim and Jewish communities, and it was fairly painful to have some criminal take away even that small bit of common ground. Especially as violent anti-American protests have been sweeping Islamic countries nearby, I needed to think that Muslims, Jews, Americans, and everyone else could share something, if only a superstitious good luck symbol.
I got off the train at the end of the line, and my co-passengers on the train quickly ushered me to a small police station. In broken Arabic, I told them what had happened. They apologized profusely, and told me that I needed to fill out a report, though I was quite ready to just leave and accept the loss as an unfortunate tourist tax. But the bureaucratic beast was hungry and needed its daily paper ration, and I let the young police officers lead me into their office and then onto a train to a larger station with greater authority.
Along the way, one of the three plainclothes policemen who accompanied me kept trying to chat me up. After showing me the military-style handcuffs he had in his pocket, he asked me to search for my Facebook account on his phone so we could be "friends." Luckily, perhaps, my language skills were poor enough that I could feign misunderstanding and (somewhat tactfully) avoid his request. It all seemed innocent enough, but the whole experience was a bit uncomfortable.
When we finally reached the right station (we stopped at two other ones first), the situation didn’t get any better. I gave my (very limited) description of the thief for the fifth or sixth time, explaining that I didn’t see the man’s face. The policeman promptly asked me to flip through a few dozen pictures of known "snatchers'" faces to find one that looked familiar. As I started protesting and trying to leave, a message rang out on one of the radios left on in the room. I could only make out a few words, but the few that I recognized were enough “Fire,” “Protests,” “Dead,” and “American Embassy.”
I spun around, asking what had happened.
“It’s classified, I’m sorry,” they said, and returned to their questions.
I told them I needed to leave, that if the American embassy was being attacked, I didn’t want to be alone in a strange neighborhood. They relented eventually, took down my number a few times, and tried to print out the half-finished report. Of course, the printer didn’t work at first, but eventually I made my way out of the building.
I flagged down the first cab I saw, and the driver asked if I was American after I started to speak. My accent is obvious enough that it wasn’t worth lying, so I took the risk and told him the truth.
“I’m sorry,” he said. “I’m sorry my country did this to yours.” He went on to explain everything that happened.
I apologized too. I apologized for a film that shouldn’t have been made, and for the fact that the violence being carried out in the name of his country and his religion.
I got out of the cab and walked into my home feeling frustrated, but still hopeful that this does not need to happen again.