In America, you can’t judge the country by one city, and Tunisia is no different. Tunis is a large, noisy metropolis that constantly assaults your senses with sights, sounds and smells. On one corner you may find a marketplace similar to grocery stores in America, yet on the next corner you will find a pile of trash three feet deep that has a stench that makes your eyes water. So today, we got to drive two hours into the Tunisian countryside. Me, my sister, her roommate, and the family that they serve piled into a rented van to make the trip. Before you get too excited, you must understand what a rented vehicle is in Tunisia. Ours was a Citroen Jumpy (no, I am not making the name of the vehicle up, I promise). It was a 9-passenger van shaped roughly like my grandmother’s old chest freezer. While it was clean and modern looking, it definitely had some design flaws, like the back seat that refused to fold down to let passengers in or out; or the sliding door that took a considerable amount of force to get it to budge. Otherwise, it was extremely effective for our purpose.
We traveled to the ancient ruins of the Roman city of Dougga. The trip was great and the kids were entertaining. We explored the city from the lower sections of residences all the way to the Temple on the crest of the hill. There was an amphitheater large enough to fit the church building where I work. There was even a wrong turn that lead us into the front yard of some shepherds who must of had a good laugh at the American tourists who in their search for temple ruins found sheep, donkeys and one temperamental dog. Add another chawarma stop on the way home and it was a great trip.
While in Dougga I was struck by the contradictions that appear in Tunisian culture. Everywhere you look, city and country, you see homes that are hastily built with no longevity in mind. Some scholars attribute this ramshackle method to an Arab ancestry that was largely nomadic in nature as shepherds traveled with their flocks to the freshest pastures. As a culture they haven’t learned to build with future generations in mind. Yet, in the midst of these poorly constructed homes and businesses are ruins that have stood for over two millennia. Another contradiction is the beauty of the countryside contrasted with the squalor of the towns and cities. I know I perceive the cities through a Westerner’s eyes, but the piles of rubbish, undomesticated cats that take up residence in any abandoned structure and the perpetual funk in the air cannot be considered good stewardship of the planet on any level. Don’t get me wrong, there are some beautiful parts of Tunis, but by and large those are the exception, not the norm. Yet, the countryside is filled with rolling hills, majestic views and a rustic beauty that you would be hard pressed to find anywhere else in the world. If only this culture could translate that beauty into their cities.
Of course there are many other contradictions that strike me. The dress of the people range from women dressed head to toe with their face covered by shawls to those who dress just as scantily as any Westerner. Cars are either banged up, broken down and rusted out or they are pristinely clean. There are hardly any in between. Children are thoroughly loved in this culture (multiple times the children my sister teaches have been given freebies, hugged by perfect strangers or they receive the few smiles you see in this culture) but adults are rough, abrasive, and if they are female, marginalized in the best of situations. At the medina I saw many devout Muslims selling Islamic goods, (one shop owner’s forehead was bruised from doing so many of the Islamic prayers) yet also prevalent were the ancient pagan symbols of some of the tribal religions. In one ear you will hear the chants of an Imam from the loudspeakers in the tower of the local mosque, in the other ear you will hear Michael Jackson blaring from a passing taxi. On one hand the nationals distrust Western culture, but on the other hand they love American music and American fashion.
Now you might be thinking that I am going to advocate that we need to ‘Westernize’ the Arab world. But that’s not what it’s going to take. Western culture has it’s own contradictions (just look at American politics). No, there is only on thing, one person really, that can unify such a schizophrenic culture, and His name is Jesus. Jesus unified a zealot (an anti-government radical) with a tax collector (a servant of Rome whose very profession supported big government) within His own apostles. Jesus used an ultra-conservative Jew (Paul) to reach Gentiles. Jesus was able to unify a monotheistic, legalistic culture like the Jews with a polytheistic, anything-goes mentality that was prominent in the Greco-Roman world into one body- His Church. Jesus is the only hope for North Africa. His bride, the Church, is the only source of unity that will work to reconcile all the contradictions, not only here in Africa, but everywhere.
Pray for the global church tonight. Pray that the bride of Christ marches ever onward, pointing the way to Jesus. Pray for the slaves of Jesus who labor to make Jesus famous in every city and every village and every hut in the entire world. These men and women are heroes as they go to the darkest places of the earth shining the light of the Gospel to those who need desperately to see. Pray and rejoice that God’s Church is prevailing over the enemy.