One day I got an email from Naima, a lovely lady who represents her country out of a small office in New York. She heard that the Saudis controlled every second of my time when I stayed in Riyadh, the only Jew in their midst, and she wanted me to know that not all Arab countries are the same. “You must come to Tunisia; we LOVE our Jews.”
If you have been to the Arab world often, and fell in love with it as much as I did, you might understand why I didn’t resist her invitation. I would love to be in a place I like and where they like me as well. If this be Tunisia, I’ll take it. About a month later I board the plane and fly to Tunis. From there I drive out to al-Kantaoui, a beautiful Tunisian seaside resort that I choose from a brochure Naima gave me. The first thing that strikes me is the fact that everybody speaks German in this town. Even the local Arabs. But this is no Germany, mind you. Signs proclaiming “Our President, Ben Ali” are all over the place, and his picture adorns every public space. It doesn’t take long to realize that this is not a democracy and that somebody runs this place very tight. Somebody knows you are here, and somebody takes care of your steps. And when somebody, I have no idea who, whispers in the ears of the locals that I’m a journalist from Europe, the response is swift. A young man, working at the hotel I’m staying, asks for my time. He begs me, in perfect German, not to forget “my brothers in Palestine.” The Jews, he says, are “very bad,” and he wants me to go to Gaza Strip and report on what The Jews do. “You have to expose this truth,” he says, “and wake up the whole world to the truth, how The Jews kill my innocent brothers.” If I did that, he promises me, justice would prevail and “everybody everywhere will take a gun and kill every Jew in sight.” Two elder tourists sit next to us, both from Germany, and they nod in approval as the young Tunisian speaks. ”Klar,” they say: “Of course.” When I ask them to elaborate, they inform me that “America and the Israelis work together with al Qaida. It’s a big business!” Where they got this information from, being that both of them are long unemployed, beats me.
But who cares. Politics is soon forgotten and we’re invited to see “Beautiful Belly Dancers.” The Germans go. Gladly. Wish I could join them, but I can’t. The Tunisian government just informed me that they’d be glad to “drive you around and show you our Jews.“ When the Germans go to see young belly dancers, I’m taken to Tunis, the capital, to meet with an 82-year-old Jew. Ms. Malik, of the Tunisian External Commission Agency, arranges this for me. “I love him, a very smart Jew” she says, “I have his number on my cellphone.”
This Smart Jew turns out to be Roger J. Bismuth, President of the Jewish Community. Mr. Bismuth, or “Roger” to outsiders, is also a member of the Tunisian Senate, the only Jewish Senator in the Arab world. “Jews are smart, more clever than all,” Roger says to me. To my ears this statement rings racist, no different than any racist comment by the usual crop of anti-Semites the world over. But Roger is not a simple man; he’s much more complex than that. “I never employed Jews, even when there were 100,000 of them here,” he says a few minutes later. His wife, he does not neglect to inform me, is “not Jewish; she’s Danish.” I never asked, but he tells me anyway. “I’d hate to be anything but Jewish,” he then adds, but “I gladly help the Palestinians, whenever I can.”
During the Nazi occupation, Roger tells me, the Nazis “were nice to me.” Why? “Ask them.” It’s his charm, which he has in abundance. You can tell that this man could easily compete with anyone for public affection. He’s got what it takes. The other day a policeman stopped his car, a Mercedes. Roger started a conversation with him. “You, Tunisians, are in this land for the past 1,000 years. I, a Jew, am here for the past 3,000. What do you want from me?” The cop, overwhelmed, let him go.
First and foremost Roger is a businessman. His combined companies have a yearly turnover of fifty-million dollars, a huge sum in Tunisia. Roger’s ability to predict social behavior and to correctly read the political map helpped him make his millions. I want him to share his wisdom with me. I start by telling him of the hotel employee’s request of me and ask for his comment. “Ten years ago,” so Roger, “the mosques in Tunisia were empty; now they’re packed. Ten years ago, only a few women covered their heads; now most of them do. One of my employees, a beautiful lady, just came to me and said: ‘Mr. Bismuth: Would you mind if I covered my head?’ I said to her, ‘You can do whatever you want, but I’ll miss your beautiful face.’ I do miss it. This is the way the world goes at this moment in history. Everybody more extreme. The Muslims, the Christians, the Jews. Why? I don’t know. I see it. I can’t do anything about it. What I know, is what I feel and what I think. I love Tunisia, and I love Israel. That is what I know.”
I ask Roger what he would do if Tunisia and Israel went to war, which side would he choose. Roger says: “This will never happen.” I say: “Hypothetically, I ask you if the Israelis and the--” Roger stops me in mid sentence. “I can’t think ‘hypothetically,’ he says. I say, “Roger: You make a $50 million business in Tunisia, don’t tell me you can’t think in hypothetical terms.” It’s obvious that Roger didn’t expect this line of questioning. He looks me straight in the eye, then at my computer, and says, “If you shut off your computer and stop recording what I tell you I will answer you.” I shut off the computer and stick around with Roger for another two hours, all off the record.
From Roger I go to Ms. Malik. “What else can I do for you?” she asks. I type as I talk to her. “Is Tunisia turning more extreme? Are more women covering their heads?” Ms. Malik is no Senator, and she has no millions under her name, but still she knows the routine. “If you close your computer I’ll talk to you. Please.” The rest of this conversation is also off the record.
I go back to the limo. The driver takes me to the synagogue -- a huge building. The main hall is empty, serving only the occasional French tourists, while services are held in a small room. Thirteen worshippers showed up this evening, most of them older folks. “Bismuth told me about you,” one worshipper says to me. “We have to get rid of him,” he adds. “Why?” I ask. “He’s married to a gentile. Don’t you know?” I don’t feel like talking about Roger and soon make my way out. I go to the car and drive back to al-Kantaoui. The belly dancers are gone by now. I go to the market and start a conversation with a young Tunisian girl. I speak English to her, and she tries hard to answer me in same language. Naima calls. “How did you like our Jews?” she asks. I talk to her in Arabic. The young Tunisian girl looks at me in amazement. “You are an Arab! Where from?” “Palestine,” I say. She looks at me in wonder, as if to say: Something is wrong with this Palestinian. “You have blond hair and fair skin,” she says and fast concluded: “You must be a Jew. Are you?” She moves a few steps away, keeping a safe distance. Passersby look at us. I walk closer to the girl and start flirting with her, praising her rare beauty—which she definitely possesses. I let her know I’m no Jew and take her hands in mine. This is something no one here does. “You are no Jew,” she says, blushing. “No, you are not!” A Jew, don’t you know, cannot be affectionate. An Iranian woman, standing near, has tears coming down her face. “This is love,” she says, watching the two Arabs--the Tunisian and the Palestinian.