Farah Ben Jemaa is the quiet, but always present French TA from Tunisia. Insightful, but cautious and alway curious, she tells her story about her life now and in Tunisia:
Farah Ben Jemaa: “I was born in Tunisia; I lived my whole life there. I was a very introvert kid, so it didn’t go well in school; it was a little bit better in high school, you grow up so you get more comfortable with yourself. Uh, so the defining thing; there are two defining things in my childhood. I wasn’t very out there so I spent my childhood reading books and not knowing people, and the other thing is that I went to a private school, so when I moved from mmm Junior high to High school, I had to go to a public school and it was like two completely different worlds and I had to and that was my first contact with reality and how my country is. I am so happy it happened that way. Basically, that is it. I don’t have a lot of memories of my childhood.”
William Ebert: How was high school a transformative experience?
FBJ: “Um, it is the difference between what I was used to my whole life and what I discovered, what I did not know existed and I discovered it in high school. When I moved to the high school, you had people coming from everywhere because it was downtown, and uh a very old high school, so very different people, and I started learning that you can have terrible grades in school and not be succeeding and be a good person, that was, oddly enough, a discovery for me! I had been brought up to believe that good people have good grades, nice people succeed in school and then I met really nice people who were repeating a year, most of my friends were repeating the year so they were older.
WE: What was it like growing up in Tunisia?
FBJ: Um so one problem in Tunisia is that there isn’t enough public spaces I mean the public space is not really friendly or kid friendly or teenager friendly, so we used to go to each others’ houses more, so we’d go to friends or family. It was very indoors, most of our activities were at each others’ houses, um, what else do we do in Tunisia when we are growing up? It is really family center education, your cousin are really, you share your daily life with your cousin, you share your daily life with your family, so when go to the beach, you go to an aunt’s house, so everything is, maybe it is my experience, everything is centered around the family. We used to go out to suburbs because the suburbs are by the sea, and just um I guess this is really boring hmm. I mean it is just a normal childhood, you hang out with people and you know. Our lives are really not so different.
WE: What did you do after high school?
FBJ: I went to college, I went to a college where, it is something that we inherited from the French, called prepa, basically a school where you go for two year, very selective, very intensive, very hard, and after that you sit for an exam, for many exams, to go to other schools, ok? So the point is that, after 5 years, between that school and the other ones, you are supposed to be able to sit for another exam to get into college. You’re faced with failure all the time because it is so hard, and professors are amazing so you, can’t help, I mean you can’t prevent yourself from comparing yourself to the professors and thinking you’ll never be worth anything and you work hard nonetheless. I also began to travel abroad and that’s something we really need. Not even the greater world, I think that if um, we would have a very different Middle East if the young people from the Middle East could go see each other, could just travel to other Middle Eastern countries. It’s, travel is one of the most difficult things to do for people of my region. Because it is very expensive and because of usually visas. So if we could if we had more travel opportunities, I think, I’m confident that the region would look much different if we could travel.
WE: What was your life like after college?
FBJ: It was really funny. So I told you after college you take 5 years and then an exam. Well in the 5th year I was at a different school and it just happened that, that was where I was recruited the following year, I mean in a two month period, I had a degree and started teaching at the same school I had just graduated from. It was so weird, I couldn’t, I didn’t even know how to address them because two months ago, I would call them Monsieur and Madame and now we’re colleagues so it made for really awkward situations. I also was really very young. I was 23 and it wasn’t a very large college, so lots of people were older than me, many of my students were older than me. There was this one time where this woman came up to me after there was an exam, and there is this expression in Tunisia ‘my dear daughter’ or ‘son’, that you use with someone that could be your daughter or you son. But this woman came up to me and she gave me back her paper and said ‘Madame, my dear daughter, don’t grade us too harshly’, but it was so funny the juxtaposition of Madame which is how you address your professors and my dear daughter. I couldn’t step into the teachers lounge for the first semester, it felt like I was being somewhere I shouldn’t be. And that was the first year I taught.
WE: How has been your experience in America?
FBJ: So something are exactly how I thought they would be, New York for example. When you live outside of America, you are so exposed to that imagery that when you get there, you feel like you’re inside, you feel like you’re still watching. I feel like I was still watching something and not there, but sometime I realized that I actually was there. And it feels very funny to feel like you’re inside a world of fiction. Um so yea, New York, really gave me that impression. But there is a crazy part to America, everything is so huge! And not just, I don’t mean in a bad way, but everything is oversized, enormous; everything, everything. There were a few things that struck me as strange like the fact that there were so many old people still working and that’s really not something you see in Europe or Tunisia. And here that really broke my heart when I arrived, to see very, very old people working jobs they had to take because they needed to.
WE: Do you think Tunisia is the same in some way to America?
FBJ: Tunisia has been through so much change in the past 5 years, it is progressing, but it’ll take some time. Tunisia is a very interesting country right now, it is ah, it shouldn’t be working, but it is, and I don’t know how! I think, lots of people feel the same about their country, how is it working? What I also like about Tunisia in the current context, so there was a revolution 5 years ago uh that’s what sprung the whole Arab Spring thing, and messed up the region and we are the only country that manage to not have a civil war and go back to a dictator, we got through it. So I like that Tunisia complicates that narrative. European media usually says ‘O so democracy cannot work with an Islamic country, well it does in Tunisia. So far we have been having democratic elections. They usually say that it is difficult to fight ISIS, because ISIS has the support of the population, it doesn’t in Tunisia, they tried to invade us and the army but mostly the population kick them out to Libya. Maybe I’m being chauvinistic and having misplaced pride, but I like that Tunisia doesn’t fit into the usual narrative about Arab countries. I like that.