Opinion

Anya Schiffrin

Tunisia’s spring

Anya Schiffrin
May 19, 2011 17:47 UTC

It turns out that starting a revolution in the age of social media is a full time occupation. After bringing down their government, launching dozens of new television and radio stations and about 70 new political parties and posting endless leaked documents on Facebook all the while working on rewriting their constitution, many Tunisians are now busy speaking at conferences, answering questions from journalists and politely agreeing to meet the endless flood of people coming to their country to learn more about the revolution.

Recent arrivals include Felipe Gonzalez, who led Spain in the tumultuous years after Franco died, and Lech Walesa, the trade union activist who went on a pro-democracy mission with a delegation from Poland’s foreign ministry to Tunisia in late April. They are excited to see someone else go through the transition they lived through in their own countries, and pass on some lessons they learned.

This week we were generously hosted by this nation that has been through an unimaginable upheaval and is still not at all sure where it will lead. The woman in the government who planned our visit was formerly a banker in New York. She is now working pro bono for the government. We met other Tunisians who dropped everything overseas and moved back home to do their part in building a new country.

It’s overwhelming. Conspiracy theories, anxiety, optimism, a million different explanations of what actually happened, a million different forecasts of how things will turn out. People can’t stop talking, explaining, describing, predicting.

Here is what we saw and heard in Tunis: a country engaged in an active debate about the meaning of democracy, good governance and how to achieve it. A flourishing press that journalists say is badly in need of training in how to handle a freer environment than they ever knew before. A thriving civil society. A country newly discovering problems that had been long hidden — pockets of poverty (still small by international standards — less than 4% at the absolute poverty standard) and a resolution to remove this blight, with the help of the World Bank and the African Development Bank, even as a new democracy is created.

from The Great Debate:

Does everyone have a price?

Anya Schiffrin
Apr 7, 2011 15:36 UTC

DUBAI/

On Monday I went to Bloomingdales, the Gap and Starbucks but passed on a visit to Magnolia Bakery. Instead I  stopped by the St. Moritz bakery where you can order hot chocolate and sit by a video of a cozy winter  fire that overlooks the indoor ski slope and is just around the corner from the largest candy store in the world, which happens to face an aquarium that occupies an entire wall on one side of the world’s largest shopping malls. This by the way is opposite of what claims to be the world’s largest candystore whose mission statement is to make every day “happier’. Earlier, while exploring the watery depths of the bright Pink Atlantis Hotel (one of the white elephants of the property crash of 2007) I knew it was really the last kingdom because the fish swam around two cracked thrones and other kitschy stone artifacts.

Dubai is utterly overwhelming, the kind of  dystopia that blogger Evgeny Morozov sees in Huxley, a consumeristic paradise where mind-numbing shopping replaces real thought. Most of the I had no idea where I was except that my passport had been stamped Dubai  and many of the mall-going women were shrouded in black. After a few hours I sank into a state of ennuie. Given boatloads of oil money in the 1970s and the chance to build a whole new city, who on earth would decide to build a series of shopping malls?

It’s not like the developers didn’t have ambition, what with the architecture that demands superlatives -- the gondolas, medieval stone houses and soaring illuminated sky scrapers and islands built in absurd never-before-seen configurations. But why not build a museum with, say, the most incredible collection in the world or a university with the finest research laboratories? With so much money why build this Disneyland? And what about the workers who make up most of the population?

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