A Francophone Odyssey

It is a few minutes before 2pm on Tuesday, 11 October. While the plaque on the door to the office is in Arabic, a small water damaged, pixellated print out down the hall tells us this is the département français. We are again in the French Department of Institut Bourguiba des Langues Vivantes. The French Department is a modest room on the third floor of the Bourguiba School, as it is nominally truncated by the locals, appointed with two desks, drowned in papers, a few glass cased bookshelves, and a small table with a single ashtray. The smell of myriad Tunisian tax certified or Algerian black market cigarettes lingers in the air and stains the wood and stacks of loose-leaf. The room is the most crowded it has been in our several trips back and forth over the last few days in our attempt to enroll. We have just come from the United States Embassy with papers to bypass the Carte de Sejour. Today is the last day to register.

Our present trip has been predicated by dead ends, bad information, missing documents, national holidays, cab rides, coffee and pessimism. Each time we have set foot in the Bourguiba school we have been greeted by different information and requirements. Each explanation has produced a new string of destinations, each one producing a new set of explanations that contradict their predecessors. Our first trip, on 28 September, was a foreshadowing of the nature of a task that seemed like it should have been a simple ordeal. After all, we just wanted to register for French lessons.

On Wednesday, 28 September, Brandon and I had set off from our flat with what hindsight would describe as unhealthy optimism. We wrote down the Institute’s address from their website and scratched a quick few notes from google maps into my notebook and headed off toward Rue Habib Bourguiba. We strolled along, stopping occasionally to ask for directions. We kept getting pointed further from the address we had taken the time to record. It has been my experience from China to Turkey that people are always eager to give directions to strangers; such is their hospitality that they refuse to let something as trivial as the fact that they don’t actually know the place you want to go get in the way of pointing you in that direction. Such is the welcoming zeal that I have often ended up acquainting myself with circles that I have traced in the concrete of foreign cities. This Wednesday it was no different. Still, after more than an hour, and blocks past google maps’ x-marked spot, we found the Bourguiba School, next to a large synagogue- wrapped in barbed wire and guarded on both sides- along Avenue de la Liberte. The school was effectively closed. We were given a sheet of paper that explained very little and told to come back another day.

Finding distractions in abundance we postponed our next visit for several days. We attended the 3rd Arab Bloggers Meeting. In that time some unknown cuisine had pulled me into a vertiginous stupor for several days and extended that lethargy that makes excuses more palatable. However, we eventually made our way back and met Mademoiselle Trabelsi, no relation to the former dictator’s wife. This was our first visit to the little office on the third floor.

A large jovial woman with minimal English, Mlle Trabelsi was happy to explain the protocol of registration. For this simple desire we would need: 2 passport photos, photocopies of our passport, a printed and signed version of the school’s code of conduct, the inscription (registration form), and a carte de sejour. She explained that the forms we needed were online. The carte de sejour (residence permit) could be procured from the local police station. We thanked her and headed home. Convinced that we could manage these requirements in a few days time, and easily make the first class a week later, as long as we got the rental contract we had already been waiting two weeks to receive.

A few days later, 10 October, after finally receiving our encoded-in-Arabic contract, we headed to the police station to inquire about the carte de sejour. We had been waiting for a short time in the lobby below, the same lobby we had visited the day before to no avail, when we were finally greeted and led upstairs. Past a young officer in uniform reclining with an automatic rifle on his lap, on the way, the plain-clothed officer assisting us noted that if we spoke better French it would be much easier to explain what was required for the carte de sejour. We noted that we needed the carte de sejour to study French. The obnoxious humor of the situation hadn’t translated well by the time we got to the musty office of étranger services. Here a moustached bureaucrat in a brown pin stripe suit informed us of the requirements for the carte de sejour: 2 copies of our passport, 2 copies of our contract, 4 passport photos, a special stamp that could be purchased for 10 dinar at the post office, a copy of our bank statement, our registration documents from the Bourguiba school and the proof of payment. If the irony has evaded you, we were told that to get the document that was required of us to register for the school we would need proof of registration at the school.

Following the episode at the police station we went back to the Mlle Trabelsi to explain the contradiction.

“The police told us that we need the Inscription before they can give us the cart de sejour.”

“No. That is incorrect.” She replied, “That is just the police being lazy. They don’t want to work. You need to tell them they are wrong. You need the carte de sejour before you can register.”

“Okay. Will you please just write that down so we can show them. It would be easier.”

“No. That is not my job. It is not my job to tell them how to do their work. That is their manager’s job.”

As the conversation continued in this fashion for another minute the women sitting at Trabelsi’s side noted something in Arabic. After some back and forth in Arabic we were brought back into the conversation with new information.

“Okay. If you get a letter from your embassy you don’t need the cart de sejour. Go to your embassy. Go downstairs and speak with Mr. Abdelhamed he will tell you.”

We went down to Mr. Abdelhamed’s spacious office on the first floor. He sat behind a mahogany colored desk, across from two attractive women in hijab, helping him sort through the scattered papers on the glass topped table across the room from his desk. He welcomed us to sit down across from him. We explained the situation quickly and he produced several letters as evidence of what we should bring. The letter just needed to explain what and why we were in Tunisia and that the embassy knew the what and why. He made a special point to note the official embassy heading on each of the examples, one from Libya, another from Yemen. “See, see.” He repeated several times. We told him that we understood and rushed outside to hail a cab.

The United States Embassy in Tunis is located past the airport, in Les Berges du Lac. A five dinar cab ride from Avenue de la Liberte later we were walking up to the embassy window. The guards had a quizzical expression on their faces. We spoke, stooping, through the slot in the bullet proof glass to explain our purpose. They responded, “It’s a national holiday today. The Embassy is closed.” “What holiday is it?” We exchanged the nonplussed words of expats in these situations before deciding, Columbus Day. With nothing else to do we headed home, stopping on the way for lablabi in an ornately blue and white tiled restaurant.

The morning of 11 October, we got up early and took a cab again to du Lac, to the embassy. During the cab ride I noticed a generalizable trend of Tunisian cabs. The headrest on the passenger seats are removed. As we sped along the highway toward the embassy I made a point to look into the passing cabs. They all shared this feature. Had the drivers removed these pieces for resale, a bit of added income out of unregulated auto safety perhaps?

We got out at the same traffic round-about in front of the embassy gate and made our way through the universal security precautions, x-ray and metal detector, reinforced doors, and separated complexes of US embassies. The feel was a scaled down version of the embassy in Beijing, the only other I have been inside. Not really knowing what we needed, more than a letter, but from whom, we were escorted into the main building. Standing in the hollow of the foyer, my vague explanation echoed and bounced back to reinforce my uncertainty and mild concern. We were led to the library and told to wait. I flipped the pages in an old issue of Foreign Affairs not really processing any of the words. Moments later we were repositioned to the consular section, in another building-past palm trees and ashtrays.

Passing the waiting room and bored expressions of Tunisians with number tickets and assigned places, around the corner, we stood at the window marked ‘US Citizens,’ pressed the buzzer and waited. We explained our purpose to the woman who emerged. She disappeared to speak with the consular. When she returned she explained that this is not a service that the embassy provides. I reiterated the situation. She offered we speak directly to the consular. We stated our appreciation. He emerged. He explained that the embassy does not issue student visas. We reiterated that we didn’t need a visa, just a letter. It seems no one had been in this position before. After some exchange, repetition and reiteration the consular finally noted that the best we could do is write the letter ourselves and he would notarize it, for 50 dollars.

Back to the library, to a computer without a word processor-only notepad, we drafted a short piece in our best bureaucratic vernacular, transferred it to google docs for formatting, printed it, signed it, and ran back outside, around the building, past the same palm trees and ashtrays, and to the ‘US Citizens’ window. After a quick inspection the consular agreed to notarize what we had drafted. But the cashier was at lunch and we would have to return an hour later to pay. It was already noon. We weren’t sure what time the classes began, either 2 or 4pm, but we knew we had to make the first class to be admitted. We left the embassy. We ate. We discussed. We returned. We paid. We collected our document. We hailed a cab. We returned to the Bourguiba school. We returned to Mlle Trabelsi feeling almost confident. “We have the letter from our embassy,” we blurted out in a tone of skeptical triumph. “Okay, and the other documents?” We had forgotten. What did we need?

“Write this down. It tires me every time I have to say this. You need the Inscription,the Reglement, 2 passport photos, 2 envelopes and 2 stamps, photocopies of three pages in your passports, a copy of the letter from your embassy, and the receipt that you have paid the 120 dinar course fee. My daughter…” gesturing to the woman processing the other applications, “…leaves at 2:30. You need to turn everything in at 2:30. Vite, vite, quick, quick.”

It is a few minutes before 2pm on Tuesday, 11 October. After revising our list we run downstairs, outside, around the corner and down a side street off Avenue de la Liberte. Here we find an internet cafe, a public phone, two photocopy and stationary stores and a restaurant that sells sandwiches and rotisserie chicken. I glance inside as I rush past, watching the relaxed patrons and taking in a waft of the fragrance. I am hungry. We have split up to speed the process.

Brandon, to the cyber cafe, Graham and I deal with the other items. The small storefront advertises in multicolored text its services. Briefly explaining what we need the young man with stilted English begins to make copies of our passports. There is a large clock at the back of the shop. On the right is an engraved image of the Kaaba in Mecca; on the left golden hands click forward in rhythm. It is 2:05 when he hands me the first copy of Brandon’s passport. He moves on to Graham’s and then mine.

With passport copies in hand I ask for the envelopes and stamps.

“What kind of envelope do you need?” Shit. Luckily the woman working at his side thinks to ask whether the envelopes are for the Bourguiba school. Yes. Ah, she hands us the precise size. Meanwhile the soft spoken youth begins to make copies of our embassy letter. Graham goes next door to see how Brandon is doing. When he returns, “Brandon is still at the counter. I don’t think he has done anything. He is just talking to the woman.” It is 2:10. I have what I can get from the copy shop. I ask about passport photos again and the young man leads me around the corner and points at a large red Tabac sign across the street. Underneath, he explains, is a photo shop.

I return to the computers. Brandon has made headway. He is filling out the first form with the assistance of the woman working at the cyber cafe. She is wearing a lime green hijab. I run out, across the street, into the photo shop, boldly assert my needs, am lead into a back room, sit down on a stool, take off my glasses, force a worried smile, brave the flash, put my glasses back on, wait for a minute while the photo prints, pay the 4 dinar, and run back across the street. I look at my phone as I dart through the halting traffic. It is 2:18.

Graham has started to fill out the forms. Brandon holds his. I send him across the way to make his photos. The cyber cafe is hot and stuffy. The woman in the lime green hijab keeps having to stop what she is doing with us to change the window to log someone out of their computer and accept their money. She hands them their change and returns to us. The time continues its linear progression and my sweat increases. Graham finishes and receives his form. He heads out of the publinet and goes in search of the photo shop. I step up to the computer, wait for a older man with a brown sweatshirt to pay. I hurry through my document. It is 2:25.

With my forms printed and in hand, with Brandon and Grahams’ forms in hand, we head back inside the school. Money. We split up again. I hurry upstairs and they are off to an ATM. I burst back into the third floor office. It is after 2:30.

She is still there. She looks irritated. I hand her the forms and photos. ‘Where are their photos,’ she asks. ‘They are on their way. They will be here now.’ ‘They need to be here now. I am leaving now.’ The words and sentences flow together and I lose track of what I am saying or who is speaking, the mother, the daughter, the student. There are three stacks of documents, envelopes, addresses, no photos. ‘I am leaving.’ Before she finishes, they walk in the door. The pictures are stapled to forms. The daughter hands the forms to the mother. The mother returns them to the students.

Mlle Trabelsi sends us downstairs to our congenial administrator friend Mr. Abdelhamed. He smiles when he greets us. Invites us to sit. We remain standing. He flips through our small packet of forms and halts, concerned, at the copied letter from the consular. “What is this? This will not do,” he explains. Quick, I pull out the original. The colored stamps, the signature, the punched Great Seal of the United States: Eagle, arrows and olive branch, “see, see. This is the original.” I plead. He scrutinizes the text, what we have written. He doesn’t speak English. Does he read English I wonder. “Okay.” He presses his stamp into a small green ink-tray and certifies the stack of documents. Twice more. We hurry back upstairs to Mlle Trabelsi who is waiting for us. She sends us to the caissier, to pay, and bring the final form.

At the end of the hall, in a tiny room, cooled by an oscillating fan, sits an odd little man with no hair. He invites us in, takes our forms, and removes a large carbon receipt book from within his desk. I sit next to the fan, cooling myself, and observing the odd collection of photos mounted under the glass of his desk. They are all images of Habib Bourguiba, the independence fighter and first president of Tunisia. Several pictures are Bourguiba with Kennedy. Several others are Bourguiba with Saddam Hussein. One is Bourguiba with Nixon. It is a strange assortment, a symbolic gesture to a past time, an interesting bit of history captured on film. We pay one by one in this office with Bourguiba, Kennedy, and Saddam. Moments later we return with everything to Mlle Trabelsi. It is 3pm.

“Thank you. See you at 4pm for the first lesson. Don’t be late.”

We drag ourselves and our surreal sense of accomplishment across the street for a coffee. To the sound of Arab MTV we sit down in a small cafe to decompress and caffeinate. The coffee is over-priced and not as good as in Bab Souika but it doesn’t matter. We have managed a herculean task.

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About michaelcaster
Michael Caster is a human rights advocate, researcher and consultant. He holds an MA in Law and Diplomacy from the Fletcher School at Tufts University and an MA in Conflict Studies and Human Rights from Utrecht University. He has worked in China, Thailand, Myanmar, Turkey, and Tunisia.

6 Responses to A Francophone Odyssey

  1. how do you say clusterfuck in french?

  2. Sharon Caster says:

    Amazing adventure. Just the reading about what you had to go through in order to sign up for your French classes totally exhausted me!

  3. Fiona says:

    I know this is from last year, but could I ask a favour?

    I am looking at studying at Institut Bourguiba, the intensive Arabic course, and have a few things i’m not sure about. I was wondering if maybe we could exchange a few e-mails so I could ask some questions? If possible?

    I don’t know if I can post my e-mail address here so I will wait for you to reply and go from there.

    Thanks =) If you don’t want to, that’s cool by the way. I’m just looking for any info from anywhere really.

    Fiona

  4. Marina says:

    I wanna thank u so much for posting this story online. my situation here now is just the same and uve helped me alot cos i used that idea of giving them a paper from my embassy and after shouting and fighting for half an hour they accepted it alhamdulillah. probably if i havent read ur article id never know what to do cos its quite confusing really. thanks alot)))
    Marina

    • Thanks. I am really glad that you enjoyed the piece and that it helped you in the end. The level of bureaucracy in Tunisia was quite surprising, after having lived in China for several years I didn’t think I would encounter somewhere more frustratingly bureaucratic. I mean, China is a place where you have to go through three different stamped receipts, several counters, and multiple attendants just to buy an electronic appliance in a store. Anyway, good luck in Tunisia.

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