Being open to the world in Tunisia: 'L'idée du couch' as vernacular cosmopolitanism
(School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London)
Paper short abstract:
This paper explores issues of cosmopolitan aspirations and friendship in contemporary Tunisia. This will be approached by focussing on the example of online hospitality networks and their Tunisian members’ motivations to get involved and connect with Western tourists in the context of strong feelings of disquiet due to perceived ‘Islamophobia’.
Paper long abstract:
Online hospitality networks are organisations whose members offer free overnight stays for other participants at their homes. In the last decade, they have induced the fastest growing new form of tourism practice worldwide and have found an overarching moral claim in the promotion of cosmopolitan values and peace through free and universal hospitality. My research in Tunis focussed on one network, CouchSurfing, which has contributed to widen the range of people with whom Tunisian members can possibly connect. Today, hundreds of Tunisians aspire to seek friends elsewhere and use CouchSurfing to contact international tourists travelling to the country. Despite their limited access to international visa, they can still live out their cosmopolitan aspirations. Involving a perceived ethnic and cultural Other, the primary characteristic of their friendships with Western participants is that they stand outside of common forms of socialising among people in their usual surrounding. This paper explores the variety of Tunisian members' motivations to get involved. Despite a strong commitment to place and the self-perception as 'ambassadors' of Tunisia or Islam, members insist on the personal choice of identity. Through intimate relationships, they strive to challenge 'Islamophobia' and experience agency in the opportunity of immediate encounter and discussion. I draw on recent anthropological debates on friendship and empathy, which can be a fruitful approach to understanding cosmopolitan aspirations. In particular, I highlight the ways in which members promote or discourage understanding of themselves, in the context of strong feelings of disquiet due to perceived antipathies against Arabs or Muslims.
Vernacular cosmopolitanisms in an age of anxiety