mardi 29 mai 2012

A Tunisian man in Helsinki

As I was thinking about a title for this article, the song “English Man in New York” came to my mind. Maybe because it sounds as if it conveys a story that is similar to mine; it is not exactly the same, but I guess you get the picture :)

I arrived to Helsinki on May 24th. I have visited several European capitals before: Paris, London, Brussels, Rome, Madrid, Prague, Amsterdam, Berlin... But Helsinki is different; Helsinki is something else. It felt like I was in both a large capital and a small town at the same time. It is hard to describe such overwhelming feeling.

What grabbed my attention as soon as I arrived was the Finnish way of shaking hands. You could feel the warmth of someone’s hand as they shake yours; it gives you a genuine feeling of comfort. A Finnish handshake would instantly eliminate all prejudice one might have about “cold” Northern Europeans.

At my first dinner, I tried a typical Finnish dish; (don’t ask me what it’s called Finnish names are too difficult for a Tunisian guy.) It looked like it was a tiny blue fish fried in butter, and you have to eat the entire fish including the head and the tail. It was... Delicious!

What confused me the most was the sun! The sun is still shining at 11pm, and it comes down for a few hours then comes back at 3 am. I found that fascinating! I’ve tried to sleep with the curtains open. I wouldn’t advise it if you’re in Finland. It was a mistake! The finish sun knows how to wake you up, and how to be sure that you will not be able to sleep again.

This is not a tourism or travel blog, I am usually more serious, so back to being serious.

I started my day with a lunch with the Finnish Minister of Foreign Affairs and other international guests. In fact I was invited to the Finish social-democrats party congress.
During lunch, I had a discussion with an Austrian social-democrat and a Finnish social-democrat. They shared the same problem: youngsters are no longer interested in social-democrat parties as they rather choose conservative or green parties instead. Both the Austrian and Finnish politicians agreed that a communication problem is behind such a choice.

I think that, in Tunisia, Finland or Austria, a youngster needs to trust a politician, and believe in their party’s abilities of making a change, in order to be interested in them.

I remember months before the Tunisian Revolution hearing something similar from a Tunisian 65 year old politician. He accused my generation of being uninterested in politics. Only a few months later, that very generation proved him wrong and showed the rest of the world that because we did not believe in him and his party’s ability of making a change chose not to follow him.

I think it’s the same thing for social-democrats across the richest countries in Europe. Social-democrats got almost everything they ever asked for. They had their age of glory. Thus today, being in a social-democrat party would not be a tool to change things, but a tool to replace a person with another, who will do the exact same thing. I believe that young people perceive politics the way it should be perceived: a way to change things, a tool not a goal. 

I’ve already met the Finnish Minister of Foreign Affairs, months ago in Tunis, and we had a very interesting meeting (from my point of view.) So I asked him during lunch how he sees things now.

He replied that he is concerned with the Salafists’ problem. His response came as a shock to me! I will not say why for now, there is a video explaining my point below. 

After lunch, I went to the congress, and I noticed that most of the attendees were above 45. I thought to myself that this could be a typical Tunisian party, but I was wrong. I was shocked again!

The head of the party is only 36 years old and she is a woman, and the candidates who were running for vice-president position, were 25 and 29 years old.

Another surprise was to see many 60 years old social-democrats asking delegates in public to vote for the 25 or 29 year old candidates. I thought that was amazing! I wish politicians in my country were there to see it. I’m sure they wouldn’t believe such thing. 

It seems like there is a psychological barrier that needs to be crossed, a huge one; in order to be able to do such things in public, to admit that maybe a younger person can have a greater potential than you. And not just do that for the media for the sake of looking like they’re encouraging youth, but for real.
I was glad to hear that both the 25 and 29 year old candidates were elected, especially when I saw the age average of the delegates. Nevertheless I believe it’s just a facelift, getting young new blood in chair board is an excellent thing, but without new ideas, the social-democrats will remain less appealing to the youngest.

After the congress, I went to the traditional market near Helsinki harbor, just being a tourist and taking some pictures.


I discovered something really funny: in Finland they do not sell strawberry in kilos nor pounds, but... in liters!
I took a picture if you can’t believe it (I admit, it is a little hard to believe.)

One of the most in vogue Finnish products over the world, is “Angry birds”: you know the smartphone game.
You have to look at the birds in the Helsinki harbor, they are really angry, especially if you have an ice cream! You can easily risk an air ride. I think that game was inspired by it, and guess what? I can even predict the next Finnish game for smartphones: Angry Rabbits. It seemed like Finnish parks have a problem with rabbits nowadays :)

The harbor was on my way to the Green party, as I was invited there. The green party is dominated by young women. I think I have never seen that number of young women in another party, and believe me, I had seen too many parties, in North Africa and Europe.

We had a pleasant discussion about the goals and principles of the party, about the elections, the political money, what happened in Tunisia, how close the Finish Green Party is to the Pirate Party, and we even talked about Anonymous.

I want to greet Lilja Tamminen, I’m sure you will hear this name a lot in the future. One day she will become the Finnish president :) . I can bet on that!

That evening, the Trade Union invited me to a party on a boat! I’m glad they did. (J)

Back at the hotel, this time I closed the curtains before I went to sleep, to get ready for THE day!
May 25th was the first day of the world village festival!

What is the world village festival? It’s simply, an excellent idea. I was wondering why we don’t have something similar in Tunisia…

Let’s try to imagine what will be the Tunisian version of the world village festival : It all starts with a big, beautiful park, for example Nahli Park or “Temple des eaux de Zaghouan” Park, lot of sun (this will not be a problem in Tunisia I guess.) Then, political parties, NGOs (political, cultural, civil society, all kinds), would have tents where they can present themselves, what they do, what they want to achieve…
Add to all that, public debates with interesting panelists with different perspectives, some good music, a variety of food, souvenirs, flags, NGO’s, books from all over the world, a place where kids can have fun… And you get a world village festival.

For the Tunisian case, every region should have its own tent, presenting its food, clothes, and music. 

And don’t forget a touch of humor! A necessary condition for a world village festival.
Here are some pictures:

And more on my facebook page : (it’s easier to put pictures on Facebook)

I think it would be a great touristic, political and cultural event to achieve in Tunisia. But when it comes to suggestions coming from the “internet generation”, and I have experienced this: politicians would not even consider it, even if it’s good idea. They are afraid it would be an “internet victory.” They are afraid from “the internet generation” (in cases, not to make internet too powerful cause some internet guy might criticize them one day).

I have seen a lot of ambassadors, ministers of foreign affairs, and heads of NGOs this year. I can provide contacts and a lot of energy. So if there is a Tunisian politician/official reading this (it seems that they only read blogs when you criticize them), they can propose their idea, and claim that it’s his victory and not an internet victory, but just let’s do it!

One of my biggest surprises during the festival was that Tunisia was not represented in the Helsinki festival! I think that the festival was visited by 105.000 people (Helsinki only has 500.000 inhabitants). I saw Egypt, Morocco, Yemen, Southern Sahara, South Africa, India having their tents, but not Tunisia! Can you imagine for a few seconds a Tunisian tent, with some Tunisian food, folkloric dress, folkloric music, pictures of Hamamet, Tabarka, Tozeur, and revolution pictures and videos? I’m sure that it will bring 5000 tourist at least! I don’t know what our Minister of Tourism is doing, but to miss such an event is simply a huge mistake.

We keep paying for campaigns trying to bring French and Italian tourists: a huge amount of money, with nothing in return. The French and Italians already know about Tunisia, South Europe is getting poorer and they have the sun and the Mediterranean anyway! I think that it’s time to change tourism policies and try to attract new tourists from the Nordic countries. We have a lot to show to them, and they have a developed ecological sense, they will not treat our beaches like South-European tourists do!

I took part of the first public discussion, with the Finnish Minister of Foreign Affairs Mr Erkki Tuomioja and a European deputy (nationalist) Mr Sampo Terho


Personally, when I saw the reactions after the debate, I thought that I did well, and gave another angle to see things, but when I saw the video, I started having second thoughts about posting it online. For sure, I have a lot a lot of work to do, before getting ready to speak English in public.

Anyway, this is the video, the full debate, but before that I want to say that the Finnish Minister of Foreign Affairs gained a lot a lot of respect from me, more than I ever had for a politician, for these simple reasons:

·         Could you imagine the Tunisian or French ministers of Foreign Affairs, having a live public discussion with just a blogger? In your dreams, or maybe possible right before the elections!

  • ·         Have any of the European ministers of Foreign Affairs (even Arab ones) dared to say publically that the Arab spring starts with the Palestinian elections?
  • ·       Have any of European ministers of Foreign Affairs criticized in public the French policies toward North African countries? I remember the reaction of the Tunisian former minister of Foreign Affairs, trying to find excuses to Michele Aliot Marie, the former French minister of Foreign Affairs, after she proposed to send French troops to help Ben Ali during the Revolution.
  • ·      Has any government official, accepted to be criticized in public, by.. a blogger? During my last conference in NATO, where Tawakol Kurman was applauded when she asked NATO to “take its responsibility” in Syria, and I get a lot of hostility when I say that NATO doesn’t have a Bad image, NATO is bad, and any campaign or video will not be as eloquent as pictures of dead civilians (collateral damage in NATO’s words) , and there is no love bombs, or democracy artillery, there is just bombs and artillery, and that Syrian people deserve better luck than Iraqis and Afghans.. But this is not the topic; it’s a whole other story..

Very long introduction :) Here is the video of the debate:

After the debate, I had a few words with another minister, Ms Heidi Hautala, the minister for international development, it was not a formal conversation, and it seemed strange yet very pleasant to me that a minister asked me for a link to my blog, and then asked what “the 7 in the title stands for” trying to pronounce the Arabic sound for it and wrote me her personal email.

We mainly discussed what happened in Tunisia, and we talked about Persepolis, the Iranian movie, and I discovered that she was wrongly informed. I asked her, if a Finnish TV channel was able to broadcast a movie saying that the holocaust had never been? She said no! I asked if a TV channel did it, and got legally pursued for this, will it be a freedom of speech issue? I think that she got my point, and that every culture had its red lines and freedom of speech is not absolute, even in Finland.

She was surprised to learn that there was no imprisoned journalist like she heard, only the business man, the owner of the newspaper, and that it was not because of criticism or giving an opinion, but simply because he published a picture of a naked woman on the front page. We agreed that it’s not really a “Freedom of speech” issue.

I was really glad, how easy and smooth the discussion was, it felt like I was discussing with an old friend not with a minister! I hope that one day, our ministers will be as easy to reach and as open.

I had another public debate in the afternoon, with the head of the Oslo Center of Governance of the United Nations Development Program Ms Heba El-Kholy and Ms Annika Saarikko, a young Finnish deputy
The video sound quality was not that good, so I just chose to post pictures:

I was happy to hear that the United Nations is having new policies, focusing on recruiting young people, and having dialog not only with NGOs and parties, but also with youngsters. I think that they finally learned something from the Arab spring.

After the debate, I met some Tunisian illegal immigrants. They saw that a Tunisian was in the panel, and they thought that I was a government official, so they asked me to help them.
I didn’t see how I could help!

One of them told me: “You know my last name is also AYARI”, and this hurt me a lot, why did he think that if he is a AYARI (having the same family name that I have) I could be more willing to help? Why did he think that maybe Tunisian is not enough for me? Maybe it’s just a detail, but I’m sure it hides a lot of dictatorship aftermath. Dictatorship worked hard to remove the link between a citizen and their country, to kill the pride of being Tunisian. It seems that people with no national awareness are easier to rule!

That evening, I was invited by the Center party.

It starts with a discussion about the party principles and about Europe, Greece and the crisis.
And then,  “the” cultural shock!

They invited me to the sauna! Seems that the sauna is something of high importance for Finnish people, something sacred! Every house and every office has its own sauna. Challenge accepted.

And... For Sauna you have to be totally naked! Totally! It was a real surprise to me! So with 8 other naked men, in 5m², 100 degree C, having Finnish traditional drinks, talking about politics! What a great experience!
I made an effort not to be the first one to leave the sauna, it was not easy! Imagine 100 degree! I think that I did well, when I left, there was only 3 guys from 8. :)

On the way to the hotel, I tried another Finnish dish; it looked like an omelet but with salmon inside. It was excellent!

Sunday was the last day of the festival, I had a public debate with very interesting panelists. The sound is not clear, but I think that this one can be fixed, I will post pictures now, and the video later when I take care of the sound issue.

After the debate, I spoke with a lot of Finnish people and I’m sure that I managed to convince at least 20 future-tourists to visit Tunisia. I noticed that there is a huge communication problem. In fact, for Finish people, they follow the news about Libya and Egypt, and think that it’s the same in Tunisia. Tunisian Minister of Tourism should do something about this. I believe that if Europe gets a message that Tunisia is not Libya or Egypt, things would be different, I’m sure they will be more willing to come.

I was told that the Minister of Environment wanted to have a chat with me. I started looking for him, and guess what? He was wearing jeans, sitting on the grass, eating some fried fish, by himself, like any other casual citizen.


It was not the “François Hollande” way when taking the train, it was real this time, there was no media or cameras or reporters, and it was not fake!
What a surprise!

I got used to the Finnish handshake already. We had a friendly discussion. I don’t know how old he was, but he doesn’t look older than me. He seemed really interested in what is happening in Tunisia.

Before leaving the festival, I tried “House of democracy” game, it’s an amazing attraction, really amazing, I will not talk about it here, and it deserves its own post.

I had my evening to be the tourist again, and I’m really thankful to Inka Venetvaara, she brought me to Suomenlinna, and put up with all my questions about the place, its history, she had to translate to me what was written in Finnish, and even helped me taking pictures! Thank you really Inka (Hope you read this post)

For my last day, I met a very interesting person, Erkki Peralaot, the creator of the Kallio-movement, we exchanged a lot of ideas and visions, and I was surprised that we have so close visions on a lot of subjects! We both agree, that the traditional way of doing politics is living it last decade, that to change things, you don’t have to be in a party or have a lot of money, just be creative, make a good use of internet, have big goals and honest communication.

We both agreed that, its new age politics, where the lead is done by actions and not by speeches or promises. The Kasbah and Occupy ideas are spreading :)

I visited also DEMOS (not DEMO, Demos) think tank, and I had a very interesting discussion, and I saw finally what that “mysterious” word: “Think Tank” means and how it works.

Two things got my attention in Finnish politics; the first is the strong relations between the trade union and social-democrats. One can hold the position of an executive member in both at the same time. It’s something that I cannot understand. I think mixing syndicalism and politics, harms syndicalism. The Trade union seems to be “the armed” (politically) branch of the social-democrat party especially when social-democrats are in the opposition. I guess worker join unions to defend their rights, and the union should not take political positions and using the political weight of subscribed number without asking all the subscribers if they agree first.

The second thing is that it’s possible to have several political responsibilities: being the chairman of a party, local deputy, parliament deputy, and minister! I don’t know how Finnish politicians can manage all those fulltime responsibilities at the same time!

During my 4 days in Helsinki, I gave some interviews to radios and newspapers, I gave my email to journalists, to get the link to the articles, but, I didn’t receive anything. I’m sure it’s my bad hand writing, it was a problem since I was a kid, one of my teachers told me once that I had to become a doctor, at least my handwriting is similar to theirs :)


Question: how I went to Finland, and who was paying my expenses, and why me?

Demo is a Finish NGO. the members are parties represented at the Finnish parliament, they try to promote democracy in many countries (real democracy, not the freedom house way [;)] )
We met 8 or 9 months ago in Tunis, we talked, I guess that they talked with very interesting people in Tunis, but they asked me to come, why me I don’t know, but I’m really grateful.

I want to thank Niklas Kaskeala, Johanna Poutanen, Lassi Harmala and Tiina Kukkamaa-Bah, from Demo ( ) I’ve been to many conferences and events before, but I never felt this welcomed, it felt like home! Interesting discussions, jokes all the time, “cultural shocks”, well organized event, and all done with a huge smile! Thank you, you definitely changed my idea about the Nordic people! And I Hope to see you in Tunis soon!
A last word about Helsinki, it’s definitely the second best place in the world, after Tunis of course (J)

Finally, I hope that I represented the Tunisian youth well. I did my best, but any feedback especially criticism, is more welcomed. I will try to manage negative feedback the Finnish way.

3 commentaires :

  1. I absolutely loved this article :)) I also liked the fact that it wasn't just about the serious stuff but that you also described your stay and shared with us some of the cultural aspects of Finland :)

    Thank you for your great work and I hope you really enjoyed this experience (seems like you did :D) and that it will open doors to some change or at least new creative ideas that will benefit our country :)

    Keep up the good work :))

  2. Thank You for your blog!

    I´m really happy that you enjoyed sauna in our office, it really could be an experience for muslim.

    And one more thank you goes to our discussion about population situation in Finland, was really funny part of evening and let me think a lot about points that you showed to us. And ofcause welcome back to Finland!

    With best regards

    Santalainen Alena

  3. Donc...pour la première fois que je peux t'écouter ou te lire plus de 5 minutes :) Tu vas certes me ruiner mon anglais qui n'est déja pas très fameux. Mais une lecture très agréable..on dirait un email privé d'un ami...ce qui prouve une générosité et une capacité de donner...esperons que ton energie sera tjs aussi bien canalisée! Sinon Finnlande a gagné une potentielle touriste, moi :)