I promised some collegues I’d write this review of the Bourguiba Institute for Modern Languages in Tunis.  But it’s not for them, per se. It’s for the record, and indeed  for anyone searching a place to study Arabic in Tunis; be warned.

I feel it’s my duty; I searched for a review before I chose ‘Bourguiba School’, or the Institut Bourguiba des Langues Vivantes, as a suitable place to study Modern Standard Arabic as a beginner. I didn’t find a good review with much detail. So I’ll give it a try now.

Tunis is not an ideal place to study Arabic. I came here as a journalist – and I did some great work (well, I would say that). But studying Arabic in a country where almost everyone speaks French is quite difficult, to say the least. If you’re like me – in that you speak basic French – it’s hard to force conversations into Arabic. Around half the time you are forced to battle someone who speaks better French than you speak Arabic – MSA that is, not ‘Tunsi’ – and who is keen to show their social status as a master of the French language.

Add to that the prevalence of French on shop signs, billboards, the media and more, and your poor eyes are always dragged to the Latin characters by instinct, thus delaying the onset of Arabic in one’s brain. Well, that’s one theory as to why I’ve learnt less Arabic than I hoped.

I also won’t go into detail about the difficulty of picking up Modern Standard Arabic when any conversation you are lucky enough to be part of – even on the side of someone else’s – is held in Tunisian, not MSA, with its dialectal and vocubalary differences. You’d have the same problem in any country if your goal is to learn to communicate in MSA.

I should have known something was up when struggling to communicate with the Institute from Australia, where I live. Responding to my emails was a rarity, and making phone calls (in French, of course) inevitably led to buck-passing and vague answers. When trying to find out whether or not I could live in student-halls type accommodation, it took some effort to confirm that unless it was during the summer term, the answer was no. Girls/women, on the other hand, can be put up at reasonable cost throughout the year. I found this out as they suggested the young girls dormitory as a place where I might want to stay, despite having been told that I was a man. Never mind.

On the first day, 16 or so keen students from around the world were crammed into the beginners’ class. It soon became clear that there was a huge variety in language skills, which immediately seemed unwise. We ranged from not knowing any basic greetings to near-fluency in Tunisian dialect (around half the class were ‘European’ Tunisians who perhaps couldn’t speak, or write, or both.)  It doesn’t take an expert to realise that this is going to be bad news for everyone. As someone in the middle (I’d learnt some Arabic on holiday and had taught myself the alphabet), I was constantly getting impatient at having to wait for those behind me, while being baffled at some tough sections of the lesson within the first fortnight, as the teachers strove to find a balance. There was a real need to split the class into two – 16 is far too many at any rate to gain any personal attention or help – but it never happened, and very soon the gaps were getting bigger.

Something I thought would be an advantage of the Bourguiba Institute was the fact that no languages other than Arabic are allowed in class. But it soon became clear that for beginners, hours are wasted because of this rule.

In practice, it meant several minutes of hand waiving – and occasional pitiful drawings on the whiteboard – to explain the most basic concepts or words. This was excruciating and time wasting. Worst of all, the teachers – who I do have some sympathy for due to sticking to the rigid school rules – frequently gave the meaning of the word – but in French! Now, this is no place to debate the role of the former colonial-power in a country which is having its own debate over identity.  But 5 or 6 people spoke no French (I’m not including myself in that, perhaps generously). If you’re getting twenty odd words a lesson where the meaning is given in French by the teacher, and its up to the goodwill of classmates to give you the meaning in English, for example, you’re going to fall behind. Well, it happened. Does this mean the answer should have been given in both French and English? Yes, I’d say so (at a push).

The teachers raced through the what I can only assume was supposed to be a structured curriculum, and if they felt like it they stopped to check you understood. If an explanation was taking too long, tough. We trudged on, sometimes angering the teacher in the process.  Once I pulled out a dictionary to find out the meaning of a word myself, when told we’d study it later. I was told to put it away, dictionaries are banned in class. Banned!

The books we did have were photocopied hunks of dry scenarios, sometimes with pictures, but seemingly lacking any structure, as the course did overall.  We would plough through grammar rules, but we would have to write the rules down, ourselves, in Arabic. This was the case from the second week on. We could barely write at speed  – we had done the alphabet in the first week, and, while this was successful for most, it was ludicrous to then move on this quickly – and were having to do this, before taking exercise at home which we were expected to know based on looking back at the rules which we had written down ourselves earlier, literally panic-writing before the teacher almost sadistically wiped the board clean.

This was near impossible for many people, and we weren’t allowed to take a photo of the rules with our mobile phones. Secret attempts to gain better material – rules clearly written by an expert – were made, USB sticks passed around clandestinely at the back of the class. Thank god for these illegal activities which actually resulted in rules and structure – or I’m not sure I would have learned any MSA at all in Tunisia. I (used to?) pride myself on picking up languages fairly easy, and while Arabic is no walk-in-the-park AT ALL, I learnt f*ck all at the Bourguiba Institute.

Homework was an area where students could have put a bit more effort in themselves. I fail to see how adults would want to attend an Arabic course and be too lazy to do the set homework, nor turn up on time for that matter. But it happened. The teacher’s response was to wait, every morning, until enough people turned up to match her idea of how many she should be teaching. Often this was twenty minutes into the morning, which was often spent telling the people who had turned up how bad it was too be late. Well, duh; that’s why we’re here.

Yet the best part of five hours a day plus homework, and I would frequently realise I was unable to say basic things, at the expense of hours spent on grammar drills. And because I now did not have those grammar rules in easily accessible form (my own rushed Arabic scribbles not being good enough, clearly), I could not revise them and had thus wasted hours and hours.

I’m fluent in German after studying it for years, and know that the problem wasn’t me. I dropped out in week six of the three-month course, as did a friend who speaks four languages and was as keen on learning the language as I was – this was no case of not putting in effort. Last week, with several weeks to go until term’s end, former classmates told me the mood is low, and laughed when I asked who would pass the exam. Many are getting later and later and attending less and less – people, it should be pointed out, who were very keen at the start.

No doubt one of the teachers who used to chide the class for not yet being suitably proficient in Arabic will again say the class makes her ill at home. How encouraging!

It was pointed out to me by someone in a higher level of Arabic class that the teachers make a big difference. Some classes had similar issues as ours, but others (reportedly) were doing fine. It strikes me that the main problem lies with the beginner’s course and the approach to helping out total newbies; and it’s all I can talk about.

Yet sometimes it felt so 19th century it was unreal. Tunisia may have had a revolution, but it hasn’t reached the Bourguiba Institute. Everyone in Tunis knows the name of the place, yet they know of it based on a reputation which hasn’t been questioned for years. There aren’t any other language institutes of any size. I’m told by someone in the know that this is a matter of gaining the correct accreditation. Those running the Bourguiba Institute have it, while others aren’t permitted it.

Finally, drinks were not allowed inside the building. There was a tiresome man ensuring this was adhered to on the front door. Two floors up and smoking, however, was allowed in the corridors. But then I am from Australia….

I’ve informed the Institute of this review and if there’s a response, I’ll post it.

Enhanced by Zemanta

Here’s a recent blog post for SBS News on Tunisia’s Jewish community and the Ghriba festival of Djerba.

‘My son moved away to France, all of the young people did’, the lady showing me around Tunis’s huge Synagogue tells me.

‘How would they find someone to marry here?’

Amid the enormous art deco building heavily guarded day and night, it was a reminder of how the Jewish population of Tunisia has seen its population shrink in the twentieth century.

We sat in a small antechamber where today’s ceremonies are held; there are only a few hundred Jews left in Tunis; down from a national population of perhaps a hundred thousand at the time of the creation of Israel. Many have headed there, and to France.

I visit the Synagogue in the morning before heading down to the island of Djerba for the famed Jewish Ghriba pilgrimage.

Read this post at SBS News.

After seven weeks of trying, I finally interviewed Ennahda leader Rashid Ghannouchi, who will feature in one or two of the current affairs films I am producing on life in post-revolution Tunisia.

It was quite a privilege – he’s clearly one of the most important Islamists in the world, and perhaps the most important person in Tunisia right now. If it’s policy, he’s had a big say.

Here’s the section where I field a few questions on Ennahda’s stance on press freedom in Tunisia.
Some of these thoughts feature in a piece I wrote on press freedom which appeared in New Matilda.
If you’d like to know more about the films I am making on life for religious minorities in the wake of the revolution, as well as the huge economic and political challenges facing the new government, leave a comment or fire a tweet @billcode

UNESCO focused its 3 May World Press Freedom Day events in Tunis, a symbolic move celebrating the hard-won privileges of a year of Arab uprisings. From the plush presidential palace he now calls home, former human rights activist Moncef Marzouki indulged in a Google Plus hangout to extol the virtues of the coalition government in which his leftist party is a junior partner with the Islamists of Ennahda.

But most journalists were crowded around the front of a colonial era courthouse on the other side of town, waiting for the result of the “Persepolis affair”. The case was brought against Nessma TV for airing the animated French-Iranian film, due to the depiction of God in one short scene. The provocative broadcast had sparked violence from offended Salafists at the station’sHQ and the home of its owner.

Suddenly, there was a buzz of activity when news went around the sunny courtyard that the owner was to be fined 2400 Dinar (around AUD$1500) for showing the film, while a smaller fine went to those who dubbed it into Tunisian Arabic.

The ruling and subsequent message was clear. “Disturbing public order and threatening proper morals” — by offending Islam — was not going to be tolerated in post-revolution Tunisia. Prosecuting lawyers said they’d appeal the “lenient” sentence.

In this piece for New Matilda, I speak to renowned Tunisian journalist Fahem Boukadous, Reporters Sans Frontiere’s Olivia Gré, and Ennahda leader Rachid Ghannouchi. Continue reading.


This slideshow requires JavaScript.


1) Tunis medina street art – Vote! 2)Pro-niqab sticker at Manouba University. 3)25 sugars with your sweetened green tea? 4&5)It looks like KFC..the artwork is KFC..but it is not KFC; both a good and bad thing. 6)Arabic grammar. 7) Bourguiba Institute students react to Arabic grammar. 8)Breakfast. 9) Royal Dick hamburger, anyone? 10)Rotting hulk of magnificent French building, Tunis. 11)Large spray-painted mural – not quite graffiti – in Tunis medina. 12) Justin Bieber fans show their love in Djerba. I’m picturing the teenage girl (or was it?) who painted this one night. 13)Tethered sheep ponder their fate next to the BBQ, Kairouan.

Here’s an article I wrote for SBS News on the contentious issue of the niqab in Tunisian education. It seems to me, as an outsider, that universities should be places where people can where what they want, within reason. The powers that be at Manouba University don’t agree, however, and are keeping the niqab from class. It’s received plenty of media attention, so I headed out there to see for myself.

‘They said we could have a prayer room if we dropped our demand to let niqabs in the classroom’ Mohammed told me through an interpreter, stroking his long, patchy beard. ‘So we said no.’

Tunis’s Manouba University has, if the newspapers are to be believed, become the front line in a new national debate over the place of religion – and religious attire – in post-revolution Tunisia.

Mohammed, a young man with a friendly-enough demeanour and tinted glasses hiding an eye twitch, is the lead Salafist on campus.

At least that’s what I’m told – as tends to happen in Tunisia, where Tunisians themselves are still learning, he says he’s not a Salafist.

It certainly is something of a bogey word amongst the secular elite and sections of the media here and overseas, and it’s used to attack people like him, he says.

He has two main goals he is keen to push: a prayer room on campus, and giving girls the right to wear the niqab into class.


On the day I visit, the Tunisian flag is flying high above the entrance to the university. Last year, the university gained notoriety when ‘Salafists’ took the flag down and replaced it with their black-flag of choice, following the denial of entry to a female student in Niqab, and the tremendous he-said she-said which ensued.

The issue scandalised the Tunisian media and made world headlines. In a country which was still debating the role of Sharia in the constitution, the position of minorities in the country, and what it means to be a Tunisian, it has rallied supporters of different causes.

But while plenty of secular Tunisians spit venom when talking about growing hordes of ‘barbarians’ with the beards and niqabs, many students on campus think the university mishandled the matter.

Habib Karzdaghli, dean of the Arts and Humanities department, is keen on defending his handling of the ensuing hunger strike and the ongoing ban on the niqab in class. 

Read the rest of this article here.

A Tunisian court today handed down a handful of fines to a Tunisian TV station which had the temerity to broadcast the Franco-Iranian animated film Persepolis, and thus offend public sentiments due to its depiction of God in one admittedly brief scene.

Something of a test-case in Tunisia, the trial of the Nessma TV chief Nabil Karoui and his colleagues has been criticised by secular Tunisians and press freedom organisations, keen to see a fearless media flower in the post-revolution environment. As it happens, no one is really happy with today’s result of a fine instead of jail time; the prosecutors and conservative protesters outside the courthouse today wanted time served, and organisations such as Reporters Sans Frontieres say there should be no fine at all. As it stands, the prosecution looks set to appeal the decision not to award a taxpayer-funded holiday in the lock-up.

Balcony beep beep-BGAN, Sony Z1 and iPad autocue: France24’s David Thomson does his stand-up after my Anglophone take.


I reported on the happenings in front of the court and the reaction in Tunisia for France24 English, via a series of live crosses and phone interviews. Which is quite fitting, as in Tunisia everyone thinks that as a white journalist, you’re naturally working for France24 anyway. Thankfully, no Salafists turned up to the hearing to clobber me over the head for my (perceived) role in extending the hand of soft French power, as I was half expecting.

It’s an interesting operation, with both English and French BGAN’d from the balcony of Francophone correspondent David Thomson. Voila.

Enhanced by Zemanta