Considering its strategic North African location, Tunisia is a country of a three-thousand-year history that has witnessed a never-ending line of the comings and goings of different civilizations and cultures, which have turned it into a tourist-rich country. 99% of Tunisians are Sunni people of the Maliki School and there are over 5 thousand mosques in Tunisia, the most famous of which is Uqba ibn Nafi. To obtain a better understanding of the rituals and traditions as well as the country’s culture and society, we held an interview with Rym Basly Ben Salah, the Tunisian Ambassador’s wife in Tehran, which comes next.
AVA Diplomatic’s Exclusive Interview with Rym Basly Ben Salah,
Wife of Tunisian Ambassador in Tehran
Would you please introduce yourself to us?
My name is Rym which means deer, and because of the extensive deserts in Tunisia, this name is very often used.
Are names consisted of two parts in Tunisia?
A married women’s names consist of three parts, because they take the surnames of their husbands.
So your full name is Rym Basly Ben Salah. Where were you born?
That is so. I was born in Sousse in 1966 which is a coastal city and a famous touristic spot.
Is the process of naming children in Tunisia adherent to any certain rule or tradition?
There is no specific ritual or tradition and when both parents come to an understanding, they name their children. Sometimes, however, either one of grandparents choose a name for the newborn.
In Latin America, they take the names of either maternal or paternal ancestors for their children. Does such a tradition exist in Tunisia?
There are times when grandparents choose names for their grandchildren.
Which female names are more popular in Tunisia?
Fatima and Zeinab, I could say. But Arousiya and Mabruka are specific to Tunisia and were also popular in the past.
Which types of names are more popular in Tunisia, religious or traditional?
Mohamed is very common and comes before most names in Tunisia, like Mohamed Karim.
What traditions are there in Tunisia when a child is born?
They sacrifice a lamb, the birthmother throws a party and invites her friends where she makes special desserts that are only for such occasions.
What was your father?
He was the principal of an elementary school.
Given that your father was a man of education, was any specific behavioral pattern selected as for you?
He was rather strict and the way he wanted us to behave somehow belonged to the old times, but he never gave us any corporal punishment.
How many siblings do you have?
I only have two sisters.
So your mother went through a tough time to raise you, didn’t she?
She did. Yes.
Tell us about a little your childhood or adulthood.
My peers and I were faced more restrictions and the freedom today’s girls have were not possible for us.
Did you have any particular entertainment or game?
We mostly used to play hide-and-seek, lagori and skipping rope.
Considering that you grew up in a coastal city, you must have had plenty of time to swim.
We were in the sea all the summer and as a result, our skin turned dark. I remember we were a couple of friends when we went to the beach and I was getting drowned in the water. That is what has stayed alive in my mind ever since.
What is Sousse’s most important handicrafts?
Tailoring and making wedding dresses are specific to Sousse and a wedding requires more than one dress, because a bride at her ceremony changes her dress three or four times.
Is mat weaving a handicrafts of Sousse?
Well, quilt and broidery on bed sheets are particular handicrafts of Sousse.
Did you migrate to the capital to continue your education?
Normally, when students finish their high school and receive their diploma in Tunisia, they continue their education at universities based on their final grades. But because I had an early marriage, I only managed to study up until my diploma and then kept studying fine arts for two years after that and later, our trips with my husband began. So I no longer could resume my studies.
Tell us about marital traditions in Tunisia. You said a bride changes her dress three times. Are those dresses for various occasions?
No, these 3 dresses are worn only at the wedding night. In the past, girls did not pursue their education much and instead, they used to do broidery and make their own wedding dresses. Making those dresses, of course, takes a long time and that is why they like to wear them so that everyone would see, but today, people mostly rent their wedding dresses.
How do Tunisian boys and girls get to know each other before marriage?
In the past, just as in any other Arab country, boys and girls used to not meet each other until the wedding night in Tunisia and that was why most marriages took place within families.
How are proposals carried out?
First, an initial arrangement is made and then, the groom’s parents go to ask the girl for marriage for him. They also give her a piece of jewelry, no matter how small. Afterwards, they set a date and choose a much bigger place where they offer some stuff such as clothes, shoes and gold to the bride and nearly one year from that, the wedding is held. Most of the weddings, of course, are held in the summer.
Does the bride bring dowry to her husband’s house?
The bride must get kitchen tools, electrical appliances, etc. The groom, however, only buys gold and curtains and rent their house. In the past, marriage portions used to cost a lot, but it is not so anymore.
How much is the marriage portion?
It is very perfunctory and is registered in a written statement, but even that little amount is not paid.
In some Arab countries, they offer lands as marriage portions. How is that in Tunisia?
The marriage portion in Tunisia is often a sum of money.
How is the wedding ceremony?
In the past, it used to take 7 days, while it is a maximum of 2 days to end.
The first day is called “soap”, because in the past, it took years for a wedding dress to be made and for that reason, girls and women from a family got together carrying out a certain rite to wash that dress with an aromatic soap they had made themselves. Finally, they ironed the dress.
The second day was when the groom’s parents came and took the bride’s dowry to furnish their place. During this time, they also danced and cheered up.
On the third day, the bride threw a bridal shower with her friends. Came the fourth day, the henna ritual begins where they put henna on their fingers. The next day, they used to place henna drawings on hands. On the sixth day, it is time for the bachelorette party where all guests are present and the seventh day is the wedding day.
Wedding ceremonies today, of course, are very different. People wear expensive clothes and ceremonies are held at hotels and the whole ceremony, in general, has been modernized.
Was your wedding a modern one, too?
Our wedding simply took 2 days. The first day we wore our customary dresses and everything was held traditionally, while the second day, the ceremony went just the way it does today.
Along with such traditions, are any special gifts offered? In Iranian culture, for example, the bride’s family offer clothes to the family of the groom. Do you have any similar tradition?
While they are betrothed, the bride receives gifts on certain occasions.
In some cultures, proposed girls wear tattoos on their faces. How is that in Tunisia?
In the past, such a tradition used to exist in the north and south of Tunisia not because of their marriage, but just for the beauty of it. Yet they don’t exist nowadays anymore.
What other traditions are there in Tunisia?
On Eid al-Adha, they sacrifice lambs and cook kebab with it which we eat. We also help those in need. We keep the rest of the meat in salt and preserve for a few months.
So we can say that Eid al-Adha is one of the most important Tunisian eids.
Yes, it is. On this occasion this year, we called every Tunisian citizen in Iran from the embassy and asked them to come here so that we can give enough money if they cannot afford a lamb. If someone is poor in Tunisia, neighbors collect some money, buy a lamb and go to their house.
Interesting. What other traditions are commemorated on Eid al-Adha?
The day before the Day of Arafah, we chop up vegetables such as parsley and spinach and when the lamb is sacrificed, we stuff the tripe with foie gras, meat and vegetables and make a traditional meal.
Do visits also happen?
Yes, but to a lesser extent compared to Fetr.
What are your Fetr traditions?
When Ramadan comes to a half, we begin making necessary preparations. We bake cookies, clean our houses and buy new clothes for our children, just like what Iranians do for Nowrooz. Our visits mostly take 3 or 4 days. After the eid, we begin our prayers and visit the cemetery.
How is Fetr announced in Tunisia?
In the past years and before the revolution, it was set beforehand. But recently, the moon should be recorded first.
Over the past few years, who has been in charge of the moon-sight?
In the past, it was the responsibility of the Mufti, too. But the date was determined and people knew when eid was. While now, the Mufti takes part in a TV program and announces the moon is seen and tomorrow is eid.
Does that mean the Tunisian society has grown to be more religious?
Yes, but becoming more religious goes back to a decade ago. In the 70s and 80s, people had distanced from religion, but now it is different.
Doesn’t becoming religious contradict modernity in Tunisia?
No, in my opinion, these two concepts are not contrastive to one another, because one can be modern and religious at the same time. For instance, alongside with social activities and freedom, one can be pious, too.
Has the revolution affected the traditions and social activities of the Tunisian population?
No deep change of heart took place after the revolution. In my opinion, the society has become more religious. Two years after the revolution, the rate of tourism went down, but it is now growing once again. However, more importantly is the development of democracy in Tunisia.
Zine El Abidine Ben Ali ruled Tunisia until January, 2011. Undoubtedly, 23 years is a very long time and a period this long can lead to the formation of non-democratic beliefs and thoughts. What do you think?
Zine El Abidine Ben Ali was a dictator.
Were you in Tunisia in January, 2011?
Yes, I was present everywhere.
What memory do you carry from then?
That was the first time I had encountered such a great happening.
The news was much diversified in Iran about the Tunisian revolution. Was the immolation of a young fellow incentive to spark off a revolution?
That immolation was the last straw. The main problem in Ben Ali’s government was the staggering rate of unemployment; a decadence inflicted by poverty in the society. We did not feel that, though. We thought the financial status was good or above-average, but once he went away, we just found out how deep the problem was.
That guy who immolated himself used to sell vegetables on a cart as a result of unemployment. A (female) police officer had warned him that he could not trade without a permission. That was not the first time he was warned, however. They had disrupted his business a few times before, and because of that, he made an immoral gesture in front of her and she filed a complaint against him. That put a great lot of pressure on the guy and he set himself on fire.
Had the police officer slapped him?
No, she had not. She only pushed the cart and confiscated the scale telling him that he did not possess a permission.
Many people commit suicide because of complications and pressures, but we never see that leading to revolutions!
The reason was that the unemployment rate had increasingly soared and that act became an incentive for all the unemployed to take action.
Which Tunisian cities are in a better condition financially?
The capital and northern cities.
How do the citizens of these cities make their livings?
Some of them own large hotels and some other are farmers.
So investing in tourism and agriculture can be a good choice in Tunisia, right?
Apart from tourism and agriculture, in what other fields can people invest in Tunisia?
In Tunisia we can offer many opportunities in addition to tourism and agriculture, we can invest in large malls in big cities, where we can find the most important and known foreign brands, but also in high technology and research, and especially in medicine and manufacturing.
What are most notable agricultural items of Tunisia?
Tunisia is the first olive oil producer in the world in 2015.
What other agricultural products are produced in Tunisia besides olive?
In northern cities we have orange, in coastal cities olive and in the south, there are palm trees and date, but also in center vegetables and soil fruits.
Where are the tourists in Tunisia mostly from?
They mostly come from Europe.
Considering that Tunisia used to be a French colony, how are the relations between Tunisia and France?
The relations are quiet normal. We respect each other regarding the 700 000 tunisians who are living in France.
Tunisia exited France’s colonialism in 1956. How has the long presence of France influenced the culture, architecture, traditions and rituals of Tunisia?
It has had a great effect, in fact. If you study our language, there is a French word per an Arabic word. Lots of French foods are cooked in Tunisia. During France’s presence in Tunisia, traditional marriages plummeted and couples only had to go to a notary office. Even their dressing style had become very similar to the French and they no longer used traditional suits at weddings, but today these come to an end.
So if someone goes to Tunisia, then they find a small France in Africa.
Maybe, but now, the environment has become more Arabic, while in the past, people look more like the French.
In your opinion, which Tunisian symbol, belief and tradition can attract tourists more?
In Tunisian cities, there are certain neighborhoods and districts that are totally traditional and you can gather whatever information about the traditions and ritual in those old areas. Those places have really picked up among Europeans.
In the south, men wear special clothes which look like skirts and place 6 or 7 vases on their heads and dance at the same time. In the winter, olive harvests are also very interesting.
So you have a celebration for gathering olives. When is it due?
Yes, it begins in October and goes until December.
Do you celebrate the New Year like Europe?
Yes, but not all Tunisians do.
Do you have New Year holidays, too?
January 1 is the only holiday.
Which occasions have longest holidays in Tunisia?
Eid al-Adha and Fetr each have 2 holidays and there is one holiday in celebration of the Independence Day of Tunisia.
Where does Tunisia stand in terms of industry and technology?
I cannot tell about that, but we can say that, we are putting ourselves to a good stand using our means.
What kind of fish?
Sardine, shrimp and various fish types.
How are Tunisia’s potentials in industry and technology?
As we do not have oil and gas, we have planned on agriculture and tourism. In addition, we also export leather clothes, but we try to increase our duties in high matters, research and manufacturing.
Where should people go if they intend to see the main architecture of Tunisia?
Tunis and Ariana. The world’s 8th beautiful wonder is in Sidi Bou Said, because it is a very lovely touristic spot. It is very famous for the widespread use of the color blue and white all over the city.
Which Sunni offshoot do Tunisians belong to?
Maliki, but more than 3000 people are Jewish, living in Jerba.
How big is the Jewish population?
It used to be bigger in the past.
Is there any synagogue in Tunisia, too?
There is the ancient El Ghriba Synagogue on Djerba Islan where Jewish people go and perform their special prayers, just like us when we go to Mecca, but in Tunis also and Sousse.
Can we say religious eids are overcoming national occasions in Tunisia?
That is a particular Tunisian quality that people have. They have their modern lives while pursuing their religion, and in fact, they experience both at the same time. For example, at our weddings, we have both women who wear hijab and who do not. Everybody likes to live the life their ways.
What musical instruments are there in Tunisia?
Malouf is Tunisia’s traditional music and all instruments are played.
Is that your first time in Iran?
Yes, it is the first time I have come to Iran.
How different is what you actually see in Iran from what you had in mind?
We did some search before coming to Iran and my husband’s cousin who was ambassador here in 2006 talked well of this place.
Was your image different about Iranians?
It is not just me, but everyone thinks Iran is a very religious country. True that women wear hijab outside of their houses, but they have parties and weddings with both men and women participating in them.
How different is a Tunisian’s interpretation of Iran from what it really is today?
My image has changed a lot, because I thought the society is very religious. In a way, I thought Iran equals religion and imagined life may be difficult in here.
What steps can be taken for ties between Iran and Tunisia to excel at various fields such as culture, politics and social areas?
The Friendship Association of Iran and Tunisia can take responsibility for that, but tourists can also be important elements in the development of bilateral ties.