Martinis, Carpets and Sacks of Gold: A U.S. Diplomat in French Tunisia
Tunisia achieved independence from France after almost 75 years as a protectorate. Life under French rule was pleasant for some, including foreign diplomats. The number of French colonists grew, ultimately occupying one-fifth of the arable land of Tunisia, and the French directed the building of roads, ports and railroads, and the development of mines. But resentment against the European colonizers became apparent soon after the turn of the twentieth century. By 1911, Tunisian nationalist sentiment led to civil disturbances within the universities, building to massive demonstrations and only subsiding with the imposition of martial law.
After World War I, Tunisians seeking self-rule established political parties, and following World War II, the nationalist struggle intensified with violent resistance. France granted independence to Tunisia on March 20, 1956, establishing a constitutional monarchy. The following year, Prime Minister Habib Bourguiba abolished the monarchy, took power, and would dominate the country for the next 31 years.
Joseph Walter Neubert shared some of the lighter aspects of his experience as an Economic Officer in Tunis between 1949-1952, prior to the Tunisia’s independence. He completed his memoir in 2007.
Please follow the links to learn more about independence movements, North Africa, and how Morocco achieved independence from the French.
“When the first French riot police with Tommy guns arrived, I stepped, with some trepidation, in front of the door”
Joseph Walter Neubert, Economic Officer, Tunis, Tunisia, 1949-1952
NEUBERT: These were still the days when the French controlled Tunisia — Bourguiba was “in a villa outside Paris” — and most of our work was with the French. It was only later when riots began and grenades were thrown that life became problematical.
We lived all the time in Tunisia in a French middle class enclave south of Tunis called Megrines Coteaux. Our neighbors were all French middle-class bureaucrats. The great virtue to our house was that it had been built by the Standard Oil manager before the war and had central (oil) heating…
Life in Tunisia — basically a lovely place — had a variety of interesting aspects. For one thing we were caught up in the rising Arab nationalism. On one occasion, I even received honorable mention in the New York Times when I “quelled a riot.” This was scarcely accurate.
One Saturday morning I was the duty officer in our offices across the square from the Residence Generale (of the French governor). Several hundred Arabs, men and women, emerged from the souks (market places) two blocks away and, in the square before the Residence Generale and our office, began to demonstrate in favor of Bourguiba and the Neo Destour (Constitutional Liberal) party. They were, predictably, set upon by the riot police and scattered.
All, I should say, of the women (some 200) fled to our second floor office. I let them in. Then, when the first French riot police with Tommy guns arrived, I stepped, with some trepidation, in front of the door and said (imitating Petain): “Ils ne passeront pas.” (“They will not enter.”) Well, they didn’t, although there was a lot of teeth gnashing.
Finally, I said, “Take me to your leader.” And while this question was being researched, I got back inside to try to persuade a couple of hundred agitated females that they could sit down and stop worrying. We even arranged coffee and tea for them.
When I went to see the Brigadier in charge of the troops, he readily agreed that he had no quarrel with the women and would permit me to escort them back to the Arab quarter. He then withdrew his troops and the ladies and I went to the Arab quarter, where I bade them a fond farewell.
“Ali and Fatima became entranced with that beastie and begged me to let them keep it”
Not all my contacts with the Arabs in Tunisia were as happy — and incidentally, I loved the French equally — but that is just life. For example, in the early summer of 1951, I bought a lovely 20 x 14 foot Kairouan carpet — all white. That fall, the U.S. Sixth Fleet paid a visit to Tunis — that is to say that Admiral Gardener and his carrier, the Coral Sea, anchored some miles off shore (the Tunisian port is shallow).
Anyway, at one point the Admiral and many of his colleagues ended up at my house — until about four A.M. — when the last was fished out of the pool and sent on his way. As you can imagine, many an hors d’oeuvre was ground into my Kairouan carpet.
When I finally staggered out of bed the next morning, Ali (what else?) my cook, said that someone had stolen the carpet. He had not wished to disturb me, but he had washed the carpet and hung it out to dry, and someone had rolled it up and fled with it on a bicycle. So — that was the last I ever saw of the Kairouan carpet. But I couldn’t really blame my Arab cook/housekeeper. Ali and his wife, Fatima (what else?), were delightful people and always determined to do their best.
Arabs, as a rule, had little use for pets — dogs, cats, whatever. One day a kitten appeared in the yard, terribly maltreated and near death. He (as it turned out) was spooked and I couldn’t get near him. But I asked Ali to leave milk and eventually I was able to touch him and treat his really terrible wounds. Well, he — Skookurn — turned out to be a wonderful friend. He became a big Persian tomcat, who would come when called, shake hands, and generally be sociable. (What he did at night, I never inquired into.)
Anyway, both Ali and Fatima became entranced with that beastie and begged me to let them keep it when we left. So we did (with reluctance; I’m still carting around one beloved old cat). Maybe there is something to cultural exchange, after all.)…
Upon one occasion in 1949, I went to the south with friends to visit an Arab potentate near the oasis of Tozeur, south of Gafsa. We had been invited by a friend from Mozambique and his wife. The friend had gone on ahead. His wife and I and my wife went together, in a big, bouncy Buick convertible.
About a hundred kilometers from Gafsa, we hit a rock and broke the gas tank. From there on, we raced for Gafsa against a declining fuel level, but eventually had to plug the leak with cork and tar. This ruined the carburetor and we staggered into Gafsa hours late.
The railroad people in Gafsa took over and fixed the tank and carburetor. In the meantime, we went by taxi to Tozeur and spent the night at a lovely tiny French hotel overlooking the oasis. What a delightful place. The oasis sank perhaps one hundred feet under the desert. Perhaps a mile in diameter, it held thousands of people and trees (date palms). That evening, we listened to total quiet.
The next morning we went down to total noise. And total flies. And total chaos. The question of total flies was the most important. The date palms were in sugar. And the flies were everywhere. They covered the faces of all- children and adults — and us. We brushed them off — the Arabs did not. And it didn’t do us much good. So we got away as fast as we could.
The incident makes totally believable the story that the British in 1943 were able to pick up German soldiers fleeing Tunisia in Arab caravans simply by observing which “Arabs” brushed off the flies.
“Stop fooling around, send the Tunisian on his way, and ship the gold to the Treasury”
During my time in Tunisia, it was necessary each year for the members of the Consular Corps to go to the Bey of Tunis’s in-town palace to kiss his hand on his birthday, and for all of the local Arabs, French, etc. to do likewise.
I remember well my first experience. I was standing, clad in a seersucker suit, in the courtyard as we inched our way forward under the unrelenting sun. Just in front of me was an English Consul, clad in those days in a toupee and British Consular uniform, complete with medals. I observed, eventually, that all the medals were the same — and there were several.
I was so gauche as to inquire why they all looked alike. He looked pityingly at me and responded, “That’s reasonable, old boy. They are all alike. But it wouldn’t be appropriate to wear only one, would it?”
I forgave him his view of this, when he advised me that it would be wise to seize the Bey’s hand and kiss my own thumb rather than a hand that had been slobbered over by so many thousands of other folk. So I did.
Some of the things that happen to you in the Foreign Service remain forever inexplicable. One evening, as I was preparing to leave the office at about seven p.m., I found I couldn’t close my safe, a four drawer cabinet. One drawer would not close.
After a good deal of sweating and swearing (it was, after all, martini time), I managed to get the drawer out and found it was being blocked by a small canvas bag. I took out the bag and the safe then worked properly. Satisfied on that point (among other things, I was the Security Officer), I turned to examine the bag.
Well! It contained $9,980 in twenty dollar gold pieces! After counting it, I tossed it in the safe and went home for my martini. The next morning, I reported my “find” to the Consul General and asked if this was something we knew about. He knew nothing of it, nor did our limited files cast any light on the subject. So we told the State Department about all this and asked for (what else?) instructions.
Some months later we were informed the State Department knew nothing of the matter, and it was suggested we forward the “trove” to the Treasury. We might have done so (and, indeed, eventually did), but at this point a Tunisian citizen showed up and told us that he had just been released from a French prison where he had been incarcerated since 1945 for selling gold on the black market in Tunis.
He further said he had been acting as an agent of the “American Military Mission” in Tunis and had been apprehended while selling two twe
nty dollar gold pieces out of $10,000 in gold pieces given him by the mission. He said he had been told the French had returned the other 498 gold pieces to the “Americans.”
What the Tunisian wanted was not the money, simply a statement that we (the U.S. government) had asked him to do what he did so that he could clear his name. Well! We went back to the State Department and asked for a check with Defense and CIA (the old OSS files) to see if some such statement could be made (we were convinced that this was indeed the explanation of where the gold had come from. After all, we had inherited our safe cabinets from the Military Mission).
More months passed. Finally, we were told that no one in Washington knew anything about the whole business. So would we please stop fooling around, send the Tunisian on his way, and ship the gold to the Treasury. So we did.