It was on a sweltering day on the U.S.-Mexico border, about an hour south of the manicured campus of the University of Arizona, that the three journalism students on an exchange program from Tunisia finally felt they had taught their American counterparts something.
There they were, oceans and continents away from their North African home, set down for a week with so much to learn about even the basics of their chosen craft. Recording on a smartphone? Lighting? Ambient noise? Drones?
For days they had been taking it all in – how modern journalistic techniques could help them spread truth back home – where a fragile democracy and press freedoms had taken hold only seven years ago. At times, they recalled, despite the kindness of their hosts, they felt they hardly knew anything.
But staring at the high, imposing fence separating striving migrants from the country of their dreams, the Tunisian journalists knew just what to do. Thrusting their recorders in the spaces between the vertical slats of the barrier, calling out in broken English and a bit of Spanish one of them knew, they did what reporters, even from countries without fancy equipment and advanced training, are born for. They asked questions. They were unafraid. They asked some more.
“We are accustomed in Tunisia to the idea that some people might want to shut down our voices, so I guess we feel we have to keep asking questions every chance we get,” said Manal Issa, at 23 the youngest student on the exchange program. “That scene at the border, it was quite sad. People want to come across so badly, some lose their lives. It is so hard. I just wanted to know what the people in Mexico think about the U.S. and about that border.”
That sense of inquiry is what made the eight-day visit such a success. They made the most of their whirlwind eight days in the Arizona heat. They filled notebooks and audio files with information, learned to operate video cameras, visited newspapers and radio stations and class after class on reporting. They asked questions. They were unafraid. They asked some more.
“The heart of the matter, they get right to it,” said April Lanuza, a graduate student in journalism and Latin American studies at the University of Arizona who spent days guiding the Tunisian students around. “It’s been an eye-opening experience for me in terms of what we have here, the resources … Here I work with huge, sophisticated cameras, professional equipment. They don’t have access to that. They need to learn to use what they have. They are full of questions. They are eager. They are curious. And they are picking up everything fast.”
In Tunisia, it must seem like the world is spinning particularly fast these days. It was only in 2011 that Tunisian protesters threw off generations of autocracy, toppled a dictator and sparked the Arab Spring. Since then Tunisia has managed to mostly escape the kind of violent after-shocks seen in Libya, Egypt and Yemen, countries that followed it in toppling long-standing leaders.
Its young democracy wrote a new constitution, forged a compromise between secular and Islamist parties and, despite sporadic terrorist attacks and a faltering economy, has held free elections and spawned a flourishing press culture. Journalists in Tunisia are by no means free of repression – they can still be prosecuted under pre-revolution legislation, or under new anti-terrorism laws – but they are largely free to debate political and social issues.
Developing into reporters in that new world are Issa, an English student and budding radio journalist, along with her colleagues on the exchange, freelance photojournalist Seyf M’Rabet, and Basheer Aldhorai, a Yemeni student getting a masters degree in Tunisia in journalism.
From their rooms at the Sahara Hotel, ironically named for the desert that crosses their country, the three students set off each day of their visit to explore a place so different and at the same time so similar to their home. They shared with their hosts fears about the future of journalism, threats to press freedom, the difficulties of seeking out information from their governments.
On a Facebook group established months before the exchange they posted photos, video and commentary of their experiences. They visited the newsroom of the Arizona Daily Star, went to a college basketball game, even interviewed students at a campus cafe. Even now, from home, the group is active with new posts.
“This is the real meaning of exchange,” M’Rabet said. “To share cultures and to see how the world is really so small. Back in Tunisia we need to develop our profession using that we have learned here. This exchange has already changed my life completely. It has made me see how to open my own world.”
At a farewell dinner at the end of their visit, the students gathered with their American counterparts in the apartment of a professor at the university. Over a meal of traditional Tunisian couscous, “We talked, we ate, we danced, we talked about the challenges in our countries and about their futures,” said Saoussen Ben Cheikh, Project Manager for Internews, who accompanied the Tunisian students.
“We brought into that apartment the stereotype that American people have of us and we changed it. We were just like any other students, cooking together, listening to music. Breaking barriers. Making this crazy world more peaceful, less ignorant. That’s what this project is all about.”
Supported by the Public Affairs Section of the US Embassy in Tunisia, Internews’ Al-Jisr exchange project aims to improve understanding of the role of journalism in a democracy among Tunisian and American students. A special thanks to the Journalism School at the University of Arizona in Tucson for their enthusiasm for and engagement with this project.
(Banner photo: Hall at the University of Arizona. Credit Seyf M’Rabet)