T

oday, I had lunch with Madame Christine Lagarde, the managing director of the International Monetary Fund, one of the most influential international organizations in the world. Immediately after lunch, I met Monsieur Mourad, the electrician and guard of the National Institution of Heritage in Tunis, one of the most beautiful historical houses in the country. Mme Lagarde, on a short visit, was keen on meeting people from the business and civil society sectors over lunch by the beach to learn more about the post-revolution challenges and ambitions. Her visit is a very important event. Mr. Mourad lives in Tunisia, he was interested in meeting me because I need to rent 100 chairs for a work-related event I am putting together. He took me to the places where you can find all what you need to make an event important.

The lunch was in a posh restaurant in La Marsa (a posh area in Tunis) called The Gulf (because almost everything posh is somehow related to the Gulf!). Ten women sat on the table. Most of them were bank directors, business women and university professors. I arrived few minutes late and felt quiet embarrassed. We were well-dressed and I was feeling a little uncomfortable in my high heels. As the waiter poured water into my glass and one of the professors was holding forth on macro-economic policies, I wondered why I was there and for how long, fearing I would be late for my other appointment with Mr. Mourad.

Mind you, my appointment with him was not set in La Marsa. We were supposed to meet in a popular downtown area of Tunis known as Bab El Khadhra, named after one of the original historical gates of the city.
I sat there quiet and attentive. The conversation on the table was… interesting, I suppose. At some point, I thought that it was not and that everyone was just pretending to be interested, or maybe that is just how I felt. The businesswomen and bankers were discussing micro-credits. They looked all bright, smart and carrying a lot of numbers in their heads. Just before we got dessert, I managed to introduce myself to everyone. When I mentioned that I write stories to children, a new identity popped out on the table and the invitees started to ask me about the books I write, and inquired about buying them for their children.
A Few seconds after that, we were talking about society, Islamism and human rights! The numbers in our heads became stories of individuals we met, those who are affected by decisions they cannot influence, those who do not understand the mechanisms of the system but reckon that there is something wrong with it, those who feel threatened by policies they do not know and they cannot change. I got a pen and wrote down some notes.

A little while later I found myself at my meeting with Mr. Mourad. “People here are conservative,” he told me. “This place is where the capital has its deepest roots. I was born here, and wherever I go, I feel that this is the safest place in the city. You know, you can come here at 11 p.m. and have dinner without worries.” Mourad was referring to veiled women in Bab El Khadhra when he was talking about “conservative locals”.
He said that women who wear veils are not necessarily religious, but simply conservative and respectful, people who know the value of manners. I was walking alongside him in the dirty tiny broken streets in Bab El Khadhra neighbourhood with my hair uncovered, wondering about my own social norms and education. How do we pack values into pieces of clothing?
I gave up trying to preserve the cleanliness of my fancy suit and shoes and hoped that people would not notice how unsuitable my clothes were. I would have gone home and changed before going to meet Mourad, but I did not want to be late again.

Mourad has a two-year old daughter, he told me. Christine has two sons, Wikipedia told me. They both shared a remarkable memory with me today. Christine was wearing a red beautiful dress and while we were drinking coffee by the sea, she told me that there should be new innovative ways to reach people whose voices are not heard, to bridge the gap between those who feel that wearing niqab is a right and those who see it as a threat to women’s rights, to facilitate the communication between people who hold key positions in institutions and those who are just guarding institutions. Madame Lagarde knew about Mourad, because I told her about him. But Mourad did not know her. When I asked him if he knows Christine Lagarde, he looked confused. We were at that moment searching for good places to rent microphones. He asked me who she was and I told him she is a famous French woman. He asked: “you mean… an artist?”

In the artistic imitation of life during lunch, we did not realize at first how many issues we were missing just because we wanted to talk about economic challenges, policies and solutions. It is when I put one of my children’s books on the table that social issues were brought to the table. I suggest that we always have children’s books on the tables of decision makers. That will remind us of the real needs and worries of the future generations.

Today, was inspiring. I had a good lunch in La Marsa with Madame Lagarde. I had a kind invitation for a dinner in Bab El Khadhra with Monsieur Mourad. One day, I will grow older and share a meal with inspiring people leading institutions and others guarding them… on the same table.

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