My little volunteer activity in Tunisia

  New!!2005・10・1 Continuation 

by  Reiko Nakamura


Tunisia is one of the Maghreb (Arabic: ‘country where the sun sets’) countries, and, flanked by Morocco and Algeria, is situated at the northern end of the African continent.  Tunisia gained familiarity with the Japanese people when their soccer teams met in the 2002 World Cup.


The history of this ancient country goes far into the past, and Tunisia shows as an important page in Western history based on its role.  The Phoenician people migraged throughout the Mediterranean Sea area and established the city-state Carthage in around 814 BC.  After many cultural vicissitudes, including the Roman Empire, the Byzantines, the Arabs, the Ottoman Empire and finally France, I would say that present-day Tunisia is an Arabic country with a strong European flavor.


Dazzlingly white houses decorated with blue windows seen against the azure of the Mediterranean Sea…fascinating, beautiful streets!  The wheat fields in the west, known as Roman Grain Belts, are spread out across the barren land with salted soil standing below sea level.  This is the sebkha, expanding boundlessly towards the south along the pearl of Tunisia that the beautiful Mediterranean coast is, in the eastern region.   The northern part of the sebkha is covered in vineyards and south of it are olive orchards; both these were produced commercially there as early as the time of Carthage.  Beyond that begins the great Sahara.  Tunisia is bordered by Algeria to the West and by Libya to the southeast.  It is a small country and its land mass is approximately 40% of the land mass of Japan.  Both geographically and culturally it is very far from Japan.


It was nearly two years ago that I came to Tunisia, accompanying my husband, who is a senior volunteer, to start at his new two-year post as a fish biologist. I came here with a wish to do something in the way of contributing to this country while I am here for these two years with my husband.  Besides, I had already stated this wish of mine in my speech at the welcome party organized by the Japan International Cooperative Agency Tunisia; there were many Tunisians in attendance there, about fifty senior volunteers and their families, counterparts of SV in their work; and even individuals who had come from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.  I was unexpectedly applauded.


Two months after my arrival in Tunisia I had the opportunity to visit a facility for the handicapped.  There were about 100 people in the facility, where they were in rehabilitation, and great efforts were made to add to the level of independence in their lives by introducing them to training programs for dressmaking, metalwork, electrical engineering, computers, and leatherwork and other handicrafts.  Since it is a government facility, it was well-equipped in various aspects, though I am told that it is quite difficult to enroll.  There is great competition for acceptance and without powerful connections, I am told, it isn’t possible to enroll a student there.  I asked them what happens to the people who are not accepted at this facility.  The answer was that they either go to private facilities – or nowhere.


When I heard this, I began to find myself wondering about what – however small – I could do for these people.  I thought that there must be something that I can do.  As a matter of fact, for over 23 years I have been working with my husband in the research of fish biology, and here in Tunisia, I have been working voluntarily with him at the National Institution of Science and Technology of the Sea (INSTM) since arriving.


Because of the wonderful beneficial support in assisting us in the settling-in process, including intensive language studies, orientations in Tokyo and Tunis, and the care shown us by the JICA Tunisia staff following our arrival in Tunis, in contrast with our past experiences settling into life in a new country where we had to do everything ourselves, I was brimming with gratitude.  And it was quite an opportunity, to be able to live in a Muslim country.  Because of all this, I was really enjoying everyday life with an immeasureable appreciation for everything.


Tunisia’s primary industry is tourism.  According to statistics, in 2000 there were 5.05 million tourists, mainly from Europe, coming to this country whose population is 9.4 million.  Though nowadays Japanese food is very popular in many countries, there are neither Japanese restaurants nor Asian grocery stores in this country.  The only Asian cuisine we can taste here is found in just two restaurants – one Thai and one Chinese.  However, they are luxury restaurants situated in 5-star hotels and not everyone can go there easily.


One 5-star hotel had been planning to renovate a cocktail lounge to open a sushi bar, but when they were preparing to hire a sushi chef last Spring, the attack on Iraq by America had begun.  Fearing a huge decrease in tourists to Tunisia, the hoteliers decided to scrap the plan of opening a sushi bar.  And consequently, indeed, there was a decrease in tourism to Tunisia due to the fear of SARS and due to the American-Iraqi War, the rumors of which reached me too.


Two months after we had settled in in Tunisia, I made a hurried personal trip to Paris, Japan, and Sydney.  What I could not get out of my mind was the popularity of sushi among the French and the Australians.  I also kept thinking about what I had seen at the facility for the handicapped back in Tunisia, and how there were so many who could not enroll in it.  Absentmindedly looking out the window of the aircraft I was on as we landed again at the Tunis/Carthage International Airport, I suddenly had an idea: to organize a sushi charity dinner!


I began to wonder about introducing sushi to Tunisia.  It is well-known around the world, loved in Western countries, and has a reputation for being a healthy food.  This would be a wonderful opportunity to introduce a facet of Japanese culture.  Besides, I would like to make an opportunity for various people to meet each other, through the sushi dinner.  The possibilities, both good and bad, started going round and round in my head.


Due to my work, I am very familiar with the anatomy of fish used as specimens and reared in a tank.  And because I have had many opportunities to live outside of Japan, any time we have wanted to eat fish, I have had to do all the cleaning, scaling, and filleting.  This familiarity is why I am good at identifying freshness, making filets, and cooking fish, but when it comes to Nigirizushi, though I had made some (rather deformed…) sushi before, I do not include it in my repertory of things I like to cook!  Especially Nigirizushi, which is usually only prepared by professional chefs in Japan.  Besides, there was the obvious difficulty of obtaining such essential ingredients for sushi as short-grained Japanese rice, rice vinegar, kelp, dried sheets of Nori (seaweed), Wasabi (Japanese horseradish), and Soy sauce.  However, with Paris just two hours and fifteen minutes away by airplane, it is easy to purchase such things there…or perhaps, there might be a way to make sushi using local wine vinegar. 


One day when I was telling one of the JICA staff about my desire to do a sushi party for charity, he cheered me up immediately by saying “I don’t think anyone will come to eat sushi, so your husband and I can come to eat it all and then pay you a great deal of money!”  What the heck, is that what would happen, I thought; and I began to repeat in my mind that someone would come.


In order to make my dream come true, I would have a high hurdle to cross: making tasty sushi out of local ingredients.  First I would have to start with making sure that there was a supply of short grain rice; then I would have to survey local fish markets to find fresh fish appropriate for sushi; then perform many experiments making sushi using wine vinegar; making the rectangular Tamago omelets using a round frying pan; making Natto (fermented soybeans) out of my soy bean stock brought from Japan; hand-forming the sushi using rice that is different from that found in Japan; and trying to find other local ingredients to use.  Solving these problems I finally succeeded in making my own sushi.  The rice cooker and five sharp knives (including the special ones for fish, and the stone sharpener) that I brought from Japan all did their work.  By the time I had come up with a sushi that my friends said tasted good, a month had passed.  By trial and error I would work evenings after coming back from work, cleaning fish and then having tasting parties on the weekends.  At least, the Nigirizushi made in Tunisia by an amateur cook received the endorsement of the chef to the Japanese Ambassador to Tunisia!


It seems that once long ago rice was a special food for Arabic people in North Africa.  Wheat now has the position of the main staple in the Tunisian diet due to changes in taste and to agricultural practices.  Although it is easy to buy long-grain rice in the local markets, it is not sticky and it is impossible to form rice balls for sushi from it.  However, the short-grained rice is only available in the Libyan souk, in certain area in Tunis.  I had heard that the rice sold there had come from China as a gift, and then was brought to Tunisia or Egypt where it was cultivated, and then brought back into Tunisia.  Later, I asked a scientist at the Institute where I work to read the Arabic writing on a bag or rice.  It was right.  No wonder it is so different than Japanese rice!

Next, the problem is how to obtain very fresh fish such as squid, cuttlefish, octopus, shrimp, and so on.  There are not many places where I can buy fish quite the way there are in Japan, nor is there much of a selection compared to that in Japan.  Originally, because of the low biodiversity in the Mediterranean Sea, there are not many species compared to those in the waters around Japan – incidentally there are about six hundred species in the Mediterranean as compared to thirty-six hundred in Japan!  Moreover, because of over fishing in the Mediterranean Sea, there are hardly good sized fish in the market.  Additionally, the way fish are handled is quite rough, which greatly reduces the quality of the fish meat.  However, Drad Royal and Loup are available whole throughout the year by Aquaculture, and depending on the season Bluefin Tuna which migrates from the Atlantic Ocean to the coast of Tunisia is also available.  If you’re lucky you can even find Toro (the belly part of the Bluefin Tuna, a delicacy).  ‘Do not worry; I can make sushi!’ I told myself. 


One of the reasons I wanted to do this was to offer Japanese people who had come to this country as senior volunteers without their families the option of being able to eat Japanese food.  And there is also the opportunity for all the senior volunteers who came with us to meet all together.  With all these purposes in mind, I went ahead with the plans for the first sushi party, which was to be held at my home.


The first step was to send invitation emails in which I explain the aim of the sushi party (charity) and notify participants, and then to shop for and prepare fish.  These were the most difficult to do.  Beginning with whole fish, I had to slice the fish to make Nigirizushi, plus tend to the cooking of various vegetables and also Yakitori (grilled chicken on a skewer, Japanese style), etc.  It was not easy to make enough food for over twenty people at once!  This was very different from the preparation of Sushi as it would be in Japan.  The obtaining of the fish was different from the way it would be done in Japan.  The heaviest variable was to purchase very fresh fish that could be used for Sushi for each event.  I had to obtain all the ingredients on the previous day, since on the day of the party it would be far too late to buy the fish.  There were considerations of preserving the fish flesh with vinegar and salt, and much thought on how to keep the fish fresh.  This was the biggest thing to think about and was really the biggest issue each time.


Although Tunisia is a Muslim country, it was no problem to obtain and drink alcoholic beverages.  In my invitations I added for participants to bring their own beverages.  Cold beer would be sold, while Japanese tea and soft drinks would be provided for free.  It was quite easy to arrange, up to this point, but then there was the problem of how to deal with the participation fee.  I could not figure out quite what to do about this.  This would be the source of the money that would be given to charity.  I recalled what it was like in our first days in Tunisia shortly after arriving; I looked through my diary that I kept during our stay in the hotel at that time.  I was not happy to recall those days when we had to go to restaurants twice a day everyday, always eating the limited food of this country for us.  So I asked our colleagues at the institution how much people would average spending money on dinner out.


I pondered the time when Japanese food was so expensive that it was not affordable for most people in European countries, and considered that there are some ingredients which are not even available here, and I had no idea how much money I would actually be able to save for the charity foundation.  The first priority should be introducing sushi to this country.  So I set the price at 20 dinar (about US$18).  Hopefully that would be all right; and in any case it was to be ‘all you can eat’.  I did have to increase 25% later due to the shortage of rice since it was impossible to obtain Sushi rice in this country.  Just prior to doing the first event, I talked with friends about it.  Suddenly there were several friends who were willing to help out with the preparations; even people who had already paid to participate showed up to help.  I did not know how it would be possible to express my appreciation to them! 



 Continuation by  Reiko Nakamura

Well then, I shall name my house.  We do not know what kind of people will participate and what they are talking about each other.  I should have a good imagination to it as there was famous Salon in European countries, mainly in France at a time, women were having a party as a social activity at a salon of residence, where they discuss art, philosophy politics, education, study and so on.  As our house was located in the place called La Marsa, I names it The Salon La Marsa.  It is just ordinal house in this country, but the aim should be in high level, so that I can worth do the great effort to try to reach it.


  Thus, the charity Sushi party at The Salon La Marsa had started to have the first big step.  It was half year after our arrival to this country from far Japan. My hope to do something that I can contribute here for needed people, has gradually became real.


  In fact, I had been doing small charity events as my continuous volunteer activity for one of the purpose of internationalization in Japan, such as music concerts held at home with the professional musicians and herbal classes for cosmetics and medicine by herbalists from England with having lunch of herbal cooking.  Then I had donated the profit for Nepal to help establishment of  hospitals and schools, and refugee camps in Afghanistan for their education.  I have never thought to be able to do things like this in the new countries to settle.  But, this experience was very useful to start the similar activity here.  I did not think any prospective view at all then, and it is always play by year.  It is somewhat very strange, indeed.


 All senior volunteers who came to Tunis with us had participated to my first event.  They were cheered up by the Sushi on parade on the dining table: people coming back to the table many times, enjoying bluefin tuna which was luckily obtained, saying I can save up eating and could have eaten few more etc, etc.  It was Sushi that the people who are so far away from Japan, had come across.  While I was watching them so happy and smile, my unnecessary worries on using wine vinegar for rice instead of rice vinegar, etc had been disappeared.  Beside, I had forgotten my tiredness for working in kitchen since early morning. I could make sure that I am able to continue this event for raising fund.  In the midnight after finishing, I wrote the record of event and financial result as well. Great, I could make profit. It was echoing into my mind deeply in the dark mid-night.  I was sitting at PC to send thanks e-mails to all participants and informed the profit.  This should not be forgotten after each event. 


  Carrying this event out once a month was the most I can do as considering the collecting participants, shopping, cooking and being host with organization, beside my full time work at institution.  At the beginning, of this activity in collecting participants, of course considering the priority to Tunisian, then to various nationalities and occupations were not easy.


As the event goes one after another, persons who have participated came back again with their friends, then gradually the events at The Salon La Marsa has got around by word of mouth.  I also tried to introduce this to others as possible as I can.  Because I could not speak either French or Arabic, which are the languages spoken in this country, I had to carry the disadvantage for the communication all the time.  Even so, after I had taken an opportunity to introduce it at the annual meeting of International English Speaking Womens Association, the propaganda activity starts walking by itself.  Tunisian friends also come to help my activity.  The people from African Developing Bank and American Embassy requested me to reserve for them and so on. The situation had been  changed since then, how I dont accept applicants, rather than looking for the participants.  Since last autumn, seats for Japanese participants are decreased as people from Tunisia and other countries are applying quickly and positively for eating Sushi.  At the end of last year, several days after I had sent invitations by e-mail, it became easily to the maximum for 30 seats at every event.  Incidentally, the number of Nigirizushi that we make on the day is over 300.  The electric rice cooker for 5 cups size is working 4 times or 5 times each event from the early morning.


It was very fortunate and honored that Dr. Sarah Hannachi, the Tunisian ambassador to Japan, positively participated twice while he was returned to Tunisia on his holiday and heard about this event.  Moreover, we were able to listen to his wonderful talk on the relationship between Tunisia and Japan.  As it was in his speech, Japanese goods are possible to buy by money, but culture, he presented the high reputation to my activity.  Therefore, the Embassy of Tunisia to Japan would be supporting my activity as a cultural event that he had stated then.  It was far beyond my thoughts and I do not know how I could express my appreciation and the honor for that.  In fact, when my stock of rice has been used up at the end of last month, he kindly sent me rice to carry on more. I am very glad and appreciated his support for finishing my activity before our return to Japan at the end of our 2 years stay in Tunisia.


All my good friends in Japan helped my activity and sent me a lot of soy sauce, Wasabi and Nori. Beside, our friends visiting us in Tunisia from US, France and Japan brought me a lot of ingredients as well.  Thanks to them, with only once I have been to Paris for purchasing ingredients, I was possible to have more than enough ingredients in my Japanese food stock at home.


Here, I can introduce my menu. For Nigirizushi, bluefin tuna, bonito, black tunny , amber jack, guitar fish, snapper, sardine, jack mackerel, smoked salmon, shrimp, octopus, cuttlefish, squid, Japanese omelet and then herring roe and Surimi from Paris.  For roll sushi, beef flakes, Kanpyo (gourd shaving), cucumber, pickled radish, canned tuna with mayonnaise, seafood, squid and sea urchin, spinach, and dried Tofu.  Instead of pickled ginger, pickled radish is served. Yakitori, seasonal vegetables in Japanese cooking and seasonal fruits for dessert were also served.  Even the chrysanthemum leaves picked at the field of Carthage is added to the menu. I become very happy to please participants.


I have added the tombola from 2nd event to have fun.  I began to offered tea, sweets, instant soup, and knickknacks which were all from Japan. First they buy tickets and after dinner, open the tickets, then give those prices to all.  This is an additional enjoyment rather than for the fund rising.  The thoughtful people are buying many tickets at once, which is highly appreciated.  The introducing tombola was very much pleased by participants unexpectedly.  For that reason, I have to prepare a lot of prizes such as scarves, T-shirts, Japanese handy crafts, books, plates, bags, caps, socks, Japanese rapping cloths, Happy coats, jewelries, calendars, handicrafts, soaps, eggs, mufflers, note books, beer, toilet paper, rice, towels, olive oil, west pochett, home made dried fish, wine server, garlic peer etc., etc. This made my shopping on the weekend bigger.  Many of handicrafts and Japanese goods were donated by my friends, which were all very much appreciated.


I made the event for so called Sushi lovers from Swiss and American Embassies. Once a while, I gave a talk on the history of Sushi as the Japanese cultural introduction.  The participants are mostly first time to see each other at The Salon La Marsa, so that I introduced Japanese self introduction to them to know well for everyone.  It was very interesting that people had fun to have many questions for each person that made laugh so much.  After that they sometimes exchange telephone numbers and seeing again sometimes and so on.  The Salon La Marsa starts showing its role by seeing their reaction..


When I was planning to have 10th events as a special one, our friends were visiting us from Japan. They brought Unagi no Kabayaki (grilled eel, delicacy in Japan) and joined us to help cooking too.  When I see the people are very happy in the event, I become so happy to please them more, and my energy flows more for the next events.


The fund rising which was started timidly, had become very successful by all who supported this. I am overwhelms with joy by the people who are interested in this activity and ask me on the phone or sent me e-mails for the detailes and the schedule:  When is the next event?  I hope you do every week. Please send me the invitation of every event.  How many people I can introduce this? Even the request comes like this, please open Sushi restaurant in Tunis !!  So far, I have organize up to 13th events with total 356 people (Non-Japanese 214, Japanese 142) participated with 25 Nationalities.  The contribution of Sushi for the internationalization is immeasurable, hopefully.


Our stay in Tunisia is becoming very short, however I would like to continue little more until The Salon La Marsa will be closed for the end.  I am very sad for not be able to find other persons to continue my activity. If ever we could come back to Tunisia, I am willing to keep continue my activity as my pleasure.


Although the charity fund is not reaching to the average annual income in this country, I have been contributing many things needed at one of the private facility for autistic and development disorder children based on their request. I am planning to contribute this fund to other two facilities at the end of Ramadan.  Now, I have new dream of bud started to grow in my mind to keep supporting them for my appreciation that we were comfortably accommodated in this country, even by my very thin thread from Japan.


At the end, I would like to extend my deepest appreciation to all who supported my activity, many participants, all your help in my kitchen and ones keep sending me ingredients from other countries, many donations, and the support and assist of my husband.  Finally for all staffs of JICA who provided me the great opportunity to live in Tunisia. And then, if my story here will give even a small hint to the readers who would like to create some charity activities, I shall be more than happy.    

 NEXT Part3

copyright 2003-2009,Reiko Nakamura


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