The Dilemma of Cultural Integration

Making sense of each other


As I get used to living in Tunis, I find myself reflecting on the concept of cultural integration. I have always thought of it as a process in the making, which evolves hand in hand with your experience of the hosting culture. The “internal factor”, by which I mean your own interpretation of the given culture, has an enormous role to play in measuring your degree of integration. A given community or group can show compassion or, let’s say, a welcoming face. However, as the individual at the receiving hand, you are the one making sense of the hosting culture using the lenses of your own personal value system.


So far, I have tried to be a curious observer of Tunisian culture and the new reality I find myself living in. I identify many aspects of similarity with my own culture, but also prominent differences. In these early stages of my field experience, the fact of not having all the answers to explain and make sense of those differences has a direct impact on my ability to feel integrated. This reminds me of the interpretation of culture as an iceberg, where the portion of the culture which is visible above water is, in reality, only a small piece of a much larger whole. I think integration goes hand in hand with this concept. The deeper you go in understanding a culture, the more your sense of integration or belonging develops. Some other times instead, the deeper you go, the more you encounter the many contradictions of this given culture, thus hindering the integration process.


Right now, I feel I am somewhere in between. I am using my Tunisian colleagues as my little treasure. I am aware that I am relying on my own cultural framework to make sense of the Arab world, which is why my local colleagues provide a refreshing perspective. I want them to be able to challenge my way of thinking. What kind of image do they hold of developing agencies? What do they think of the aid community present in Tunisia? Do they see local ownership in the work foreign NGOs are implementing? These are just some of the many questions I ask myself when working in partnership with our local actors. To me, it is essential to know that we operate in the respect of local cultural norms, avoiding the creation of the usual us vs them aid dichotomy. It is refreshing to see that the development work of GVC Tunisia has a consultative and inclusive shape. Sometimes, however, the fast-pace reality of field work means project priorities translate quickly into technical execution, giving little room for true consultation.


I hope my reflections give you a sense of the many complexities and dilemmas I am experiencing at the moment. In my case, the debate around how foreigners are seen and perceived by the hosting community is very much linked to my own experience of integration. I believe the image foreign aid creates in the local eyes has a direct connection with their ability to show a welcoming side which, in turns, has a direct effect on positive integration.


In addition, the gender dimension, adds another layer of complexity to the integration process. As a gender specialist, I already feel I have many responsibilities in challenging the stereotyped idea of Western girls, which is rooted in the Tunisian public mind. At the moment, walking down the streets of central Tunis as a white European woman is posing many challenges. I am confronted with a very masculine culture, where a strong separation between the male and female spheres is not uncommon. Do I hold the same freedoms I used to have back in Europe? Why does the male gaze feel so uncomfortable at times? How must it feel like to be a woman in Tunisia? My ability to integrate in full will depend on some of these answers and, more specifically, on my experience as a Western woman in this context.


Making sense of each other requires willingness to appreciate and give value to each other’s differences. Time is an important “mitigating factor” in the integration process. So far, there is good premises for a fruitful interaction and dialogue with Tunisian culture. People are open to share their experiences and interested to debate their point of views. I remain hopeful that these are just the early days and I will carve my space of comfort in the Arab world!



Valentina Tartari, EU Aid Volunteer, Tunisia[:]