A few blocks from the American icon of the Empire State Building, foreign culture beckons.
The bright blue awning of the Tunisian Cultural Center, the color of Tunisian skies, ushers the curious into the building. Up a steep flight of stairs and around a sharp corner, a slice of Tunisian culture awaits.
Director Naima Remadi said she has had about fifty Tunisian immigrant visitors but she wants to cater to Americans who are interested in learning more about the culture.
Remadi, 56, is a petite woman with a voluble personality. Dressed in a black suit with a bright green scarf, the five-foot tall woman greets visitors with a firm handshake and a warm “Come in, come in, dear!”
The floor of the small center is peppered with handmade Tunisian rugs and wall-hangings. Photographs and mixed media artwork fill the walls and soft strains of music – Tunisian jazz, Remadi will tell you – fill the air.
Remadi, who grew up in Carthage, Tunisia, moved to New York City ten years ago and opened the center last July.
“I lobbied for this center for many years and I was so happy in 2004 when my president came to Washington … and the first lady took it to push it,” Remadi said. “She sponsored this project.”
Remadi said the center is financed by the Tunisian government, but she is hoping an American non-governmental organization will help finance the operation.
All proceeds of art sales go to the Basma foundation, a Tunisian organization founded to aid disabled people in Tunisia. Remadi said the center has sent $660 to the foundation so far.
Tunisia will be represented in New York City’s Immigrants Pride Parade this year for the first time, Remadi said.
Tunisia will also be represented at the international culture fair prior to the parade.
“It’s like a street fair with all the music, the food, the art, everything,” she said. “We have belly dancers come in from Tunis.”
This is just one of at least two or three events Remadi plans each month out of the cultural center to inform people about Tunisian culture. One other event she hosts is a monthly poetry forum.
“We bring poets and writers of different languages,” Remadi said. “Italian, French, English and Arabic – they all come here and unite.”
Remadi also directs interested travelers to travel agencies that organize Tunisian trips.
Yannes Moati, 33, is a sales manager for the Italy-based Europe at Cost travel company. He arranges trips to Tunisia as a side business and usually organizes trips for about fifteen people annually.
Moati started a Tunisia-only branch of his travel agency in September 2000, but had to close it soon afterwards.
“In the first year of business we had 500 passengers,” Moati said. “But then September 11 happened and everything went down the drain.”
Moati said he and one other tour organizer in the United States send a total of 30 to 40 American citizens to Tunisia each year.
Although Tunisia is not a popular American destination, Moati said Tunisia is a popular vacation destination for Europeans.
“It’s the Florida of the Europeans,” he said. “It has lots of coast and white, sandy beaches.”
Moati said Tunisia is also a popular destination for a branch of Jews.
“Tunisia has a dwindling but nevertheless very lively Jewish population. It is quite an exception for Muslim and Arabic countries nowadays to have such a lively group.”
A synagogue in southern Tunisia is rumored to have a page from the Torah dating to the destruction of Solomon’s temple when Jews fled to Carthage, Moati said, making the location a popular religious destination for members of a branch of Judaism that resides primarily in the Mediterranean region.
Tunisia, located on the southern coast of the Mediterranean Sea between Algeria and Libya, is slightly larger than the state of Georgia.
Remadi said Tunisia provides a unique intersection of culture for visitors.
“All these countries and people passing and civilizations passing left a lot of them inside us,” Remadi said. “We have blue eyes, blonde people, we have black people … it’s a melting pot, it’s a mosaic of colors.”