Stranded in Tunisia, an American’s Odyssey in the Times of Coronavirus

Jeffrey Laurenti, an American writer who specializes on the United Nations and international affairs, got out of Italy but his journey had only begun as he headed to Africa.

by Barbara Crossette. Read more on PassBlue.

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Jeffrey Laurenti, an American writer who specializes on the United Nations and international affairs, is a contributor to PassBlue. He was in Italy in early March when a cascade of travel restrictions were enacted in Europe and the United States, in response to the rapidly worsening coronavirus outbreak. Trapped in Rome by flight cancellations, he then set out on an unexpected journey across Europe and ultimately to North Africa, where he was again marooned.

What follows are entries in his journal and posted, with his photos, to Facebook as of Sunday, March 22, 2020. As he described the eerie silence of the Rome airport and getting on a flight to Germany on March 14, he writes, “It felt like the last helicopter in Saigon 1975.” — BARBARA CROSSETTE

Fiumicino, Italy, March 10

“Roma, Città Aperta”: Roberto Rossellini’s landmark film about the Eternal City under Nazi lockdown — “Rome, Open City” — came to mind today as Italy struggles to prove an open, democratic society can confront and subdue an even more deadly and capricious invader, the coronavirus.

I’ve taken refuge in the coastal town of Fiumicino, just 4 km from Rome’s sprawling international airport. It’s dusk — just past 6 p.m. By the government’s draconian decree last night, restaurants and coffee-bars throughout all of Italy — including those facing the picturesque canal that cuts through Fiumicino and empties out into the Mediterranean Sea — are all closed, deserted. All over Italy, there will be no place to go for dinner, except in la cucina della Mamma, Mom’s kitchen.

As I did my sunset passeggiata, I saw a plane lifting off from the airport, visible above the marina. Sadly, when I arrived at the airport at noon, I found that my own onward flight out from Italy had been canceled, among many others. I’ve booked with another airline for the next flight two days from now. In the meantime, I am in forced solidarity with Italians in their Resistance to the unseen but potent invader.

Rome, March 12

Today’s report from the Italian front in the war against the coronavirus:

More countries are banning flights to and from Italy, including European partners. When I stopped at the airport to find a new onward booking, half the flights on the board were canceled. The wait to get to do a re-booking was nearly four hours. My ticket out will be through Germany — unless Germany throws up its wall tomorrow.

I did go into the historic center of Rome for a two-hour walk in late afternoon. (I touched no one and no thing!) I have never seen the city so beautiful, so uncrowded — and never felt it so subdued, or depressed. Rome’s famous sights that draw tourist hordes the way magnets draw iron filaments had nobody there. St. Peter’s Square was utterly empty. The Pantheon, the Piazza Navona . . . also empty. The restaurants and coffee-bars: empty and closing.

The Castel Sant’Angelo, originally the Roman emperor Hadrian’s mausoleum, is surmounted by a statue of Michael the Archangel, whom 7th century pope Gregory claimed to have seen wielding a sword to dispel an earlier pestilence. Rome needs Michael now.

Tunis, March 14

If anyone thought an unhinged chief executive would make me rush to get home ahead of his latest travel ban, a correction is in order. Yes, I got one of the last flights out of Rome before the airport’s shutdown. Yes, I disembarked in Frankfurt. But Frankfurt was not where I wanted to go — nor London.

Digression: I was spooked by my last minutes in Rome airport: the gauntlet of duty-free luxury shops the air traveler must pass through had become “the valley of the shadow of death”: every shop shuttered, a wall of closed blinds, and no human beings down the long corridor of departure gates except the fortunate few waiting to board the last plane for Germania. It felt like the last helicopter in Saigon 1975. The bustle in the airport shops in Frankfurt was even more jarring as a result.

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The fortress that dominates the port of Tabarka, viewed from Laurenti’s hotel room.

Anyway, within an hour I had boarded another plane to head right back south again, right back over Rome, until arriving at Tunis’s Carthage airport just past midnight. Tunis, of course, is where an Islamist suicide bomber attacked the U.S. embassy just last week. And some might see some historical irony in fleeing from Rome to Carthage.

Come morning, I made my way past the ruins of ancient Utica to Tunisia’s one site of natural World Heritage, the Ishkul national park, where fully a quarter of all Europe’s summer waterfowl gather to spend their winters. The snowbirds have already left for their northern trek, but I was taken aback by storks that have set up camp in a nearby town. Some students from Tunis were at Ishkul too, and climbed the same mountain that had me wheezing. Lively conversation all around!

Far from the coronavirus (I think!), I’m parked within sight of the sea for a few days. (All the talk on Tunisian radio, however, is about the coronavirus.) Tunisia is where I was coming in the first place, and was derailed by successive cancellations of my connecting flights. But I’ve made it here now, and have a list of other World Heritage sites to discover. Updates to follow. . .

Tabarka, Tunisia, March 14

The fortress dominating the little port of Tabarka, in Tunisia, close to the Algerian border, was built by the Genoese in the 16th century. It’s the most outstanding landmark in the view from my hotel room balcony. I have been able to enjoy it throughout the day because the Tunisian authorities called the hotel, the Hôtel Les Mimosas, to let me know I should not leave the hotel and must be sure to notify them if I developed a cough or a fever. Let’s see how long it lasts.

Tabarka, March 16

My third morning waking to the views in my splendid place of confinement. As the lone guest (it is off-season after all) I have had the run of the place — though unable to walk no further than the gate. Everyone has been friendly — even the hotel cat, which I have spotted rummaging through my meal tray after I have eaten. He has even left tell-tale evidence of his thievery under the table.

Paradise lost, however: the hotel has this morning asked me to move on to my next destination. I guess that means (certainly as far as the hotel is concerned) that I am not under quarantine after all.

Tabarka, March 16

After 3 days on the hotel grounds in Tabarka, the gate swung out and I resumed my travel, pausing at the shoreline that I had heretofore only been able to see from on high, then driving up Tunisia’s coastal mountains to two remarkable archaeological sites, prosperous Roman-era cities that suffered under Vandal rule and then disappeared from history after the Arab invasion.

Bulla Regia stands out for its houses built below ground level. Dougga has earned UNESCO designation as a World Heritage site.

Altogether it was five hours of driving time to get to these sites on the way to Kairouan, the jewel of Islam in North Africa. And now, of course, I have to figure a way out of Tunis as soon as possible before the E.U. closes its airports to non-European travelers.

Kairouan, Tunisia, March 17

Exploring the old city (“medina”) of Kairouan today was sobering. Physically, the rabbit’s warren of tangled alleyways looks brighter, cleaner, literally whitewashed than when I was last here 32 years ago. But the air was somber, the souks (markets) had no customers, and all restaurants and cafés were shut by government order in a desperate effort to stop the spread of Covid-19.

Jeffrey Laurenti in Kairoun’s medina.

Even the Great Mosque, the first to be built in North Africa and the fourth holiest in Islam, has been shut down, lest congregants communicate the virus. One of its features, reproduced in buildings around the city, is its cannibalizing of columns from earlier Roman-era buildings in Carthage.

The noose is tightening.

Kairouan, March 18–19

March 19 at 10:24 AM Have been dismayed by an account of Americans visiting Morocco who have felt ignored by the US embassy after Morocco closed its airports, while the British and French embassies worked actively to get their nationals out. It doesn’t help that the current US ambassador in Casablanca is a Trump political appointee — a big-bucks contributor who seems to share the denialist inclinations of the appointing authority.

In Tunisia the travel situation is similar: all flights in and out of the country are shut down, so we’re all effectively stranded. The ferries to Italy and France are of course suspended too. Overland to the west, Algeria has closed the border to vehicles coming from Tunisia. To the east, Libya remains in an active civil war.

I’ve been in touch with US representative Bonnie Watson Coleman and her staff, including Jaimee Gilmartin, about the possibility of getting stranded Americans on a plane or boat at least to nearby Malta, where there is air service still available for us to make our way toward home. I have spoken with someone in the US Citizens Services section of the US embassy in Tunis to leave my name and contact coordinates, and was told that there’s nothing organized yet, but “we’re working on it.” The US ambassador in Tunisia is a career foreign service officer, so he may have experienced evacuations before. (He has served in Afghanistan, Iraq, Kuwait, and Jerusalem.) We’ll see if anything comes of it.

Global pandemic aside, Tunisia is a warm and welcoming place with lots of history and good facilities for the visitor. You just don’t want to get sick here.

Sidi Bou Saïd, Tunisia, March 19

I’ve relocated to a little bed-&-breakfast 15 km east of Tunis, in the whitewashed Mediterranean coastal town of Sidi Bou Saïd, waiting for either Tunis airport to open up or for the US embassy to organize an air- or boat-lift to a nearby country (maybe Malta?) that still has international flights so I can make my way home.

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A panoramic view from the Dar Fatma inn in Sidi Bou Saïd, where Laurenti is right now.

The State Department put out an advisory today declaring the whole world a “no-go” zone, and President Trump was pressed today about US citizens stuck in countries that have been cut off from air or ship service. The New York Times reports the general situation in which I find myself:

“Some tourists or American citizens without long-term living arrangements or support networks abroad have been trying to get back to the United States, but have found that difficult because of border closings or the cutting of flight routes and other transportation shutdowns.

“President Trump, asked during a briefing on Thursday about Americans stranded abroad and trying to re-enter the United States, said that the administration is working with the military to get them home.”

In the meantime, I am inspired by Sidi’s sea views and cobblestone streets, while using my ample waiting time to review old Arabic lessons, write postcards, and get started on an article.

The only downside to this wonderful B&B is that all it has are eggs, and with the restaurants closed (and a strictly enforced curfew from 6 pm to 6 am) having an omelet for every meal can get lame pretty quickly.

Carthage, Tunisia, March 20

It’s a short 5-km drive from sun-kissed Sidi Bou Saïd to the sun-baked ruins of ancient Carthage, another UNESCO World Heritage site. It’s a reminder of how belligerent great powers eventually come to a nasty end.

Carthage has a couple layers — the original Phoenician (Punic) city was completely razed by the Romans, and just a few remnants of it have been found — most eerily, the sanctuary of the Punic god Tophet, to whom hundreds of young children were sacrificed, tossed into the flames. Their bones were found here.

Most of today’s site is from the new city that flourished during the Roman period, when it became the go-to metropolis for rising young North Africans looking for a high-powered education, like the future Saint Augustine. (Augustine calls late 4C Carthage “a cauldron of illicit loves,” and as a student he acquired a mistress and begat a son there.) Not much of the city’s steamy side comes through in the ruins. Alas, the Carthage museum, which is supposed to have some more “adult” art, is closed for renovations.

Sidi Bou Saïd, March 21

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Back in Sidi Bou Saïd, I searched in vain for a restaurant that might be open for lunch. None was. I did peek past the open door of a beautifully maintained traditional house, but went back to my B&B hungry. This evening, the B&B’s “night crew,” two brothers from Ivory Coast, Chec Back and Ahmed, prepared yet another omelet for me, but added something special: a piece of chicken! I was in seventh heaven.

Sidi Bou Saïd, March 21

The viral noose still continues to tighten. My room in the Dar Fatma inn has bars are over the window to prevent break-ins, I suppose. But at the moment I think they hint at the feeling that many of us, everywhere, have of being “locked up” by this virus. As the only guest at the inn, I fortunately have free rein of the place — and a wonderful place it is!

I add a photo of lunch today — yes, an omelet again! This evening, however, the night staff — the young men from Ivory Coast — did me a great honor in scrounging different food from markets and trying their hand at cooking a more varied dinner. So life unfolds.

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Another omelet at the Inn: Life goes on.

Waiting for the heavens to open and a providential plane to land. . . .

Originally published at https://www.passblue.com on March 22, 2020.

Written by

Independent Coverage the United Nations. A project of The New School’s Studley Graduate Program in International Affairs, supported by the Carnegie Corporation.

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