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Thursday, April 28, 2011

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Tohoku connection: Maher Azaiez, a Tunisian who once had a home-stay in Ishinomaki, Miyagi Prefecture, visits his hometown in the Kerkennah Islands, eastern Tunisia, last November with his Japanese wife, Toyoko, and their daughter, Linna, and son, Jamel. AZAIEZ FAMILY/KYODO

Crisis bolsters unlikely Miyagi port-Tunisia ties


It was a weekday but the Tunisian Embassy in Tokyo resorted to a temporary closure — something it said it could not have done without the freedom that came with the Jasmine Revolution — because its entire staff wanted to travel to the Tohoku region to deliver warm meals and aid supplies to people who lost their loved ones, homes, jobs and more.

The heartbreaking scenes of the March 11 tsunami have prompted countries throughout the world to extend help for the victims in the region's coastal communities, but the North African country had reasons to be especially sympathetic.

Tunisia and Ishinomaki, one of the hardest-hit towns in Miyagi Prefecture, have over the past two decades developed a strong bond, albeit an unusual one in being between a country and a small town. Ishinomaki has named three streets after Tunisia, and as one Japanese blogger put it, the relationship is like "true love between lovers hailing from different classes."

The relationship, described by both sides as being based on pure friendship with no economic interests involved, started in 1992 when a young Tunisian man had a home-stay in Ishinomaki.

The way that young man's experience grew and deepened into ties is still blossoming 20 years later at a time when both Tunisia and Ishinomaki are struggling to rebuild following the historic events each has faced, seems to provide lessons to countries struggling to resolve territorial disputes or strike free-trade accords.

Emiko Kuga, president of the Ishinomaki International Friendship Association, said the young Tunisian man, Maher Amira, was a student at Tohoku University in Sendai, when he was invited to stay in the house of the mayor of Monou, now part of Ishinomaki, on a local goodwill program for foreign students.

Touched by the kindness of people in Monou, Amira's brother, who was a diplomat at the Tunisian Embassy in Tokyo at the time, sent a letter saying he wanted to visit the town along with the ambassador to thank them directly.

The town of Monou was honored by this offer, and decided to name a street "Tunisian Street" in commemoration of the ambassador's visit, and one thing led to another.

In 1999, the Monou mayor and other town officials visited Tunisia, followed by a friendship tour to the country by a group of 29 Monou residents in 2000. Later in 2000, a state-run Tunisian folk dance troupe arrived in Japan and performed for the Tunisian fair held in Monou and Sendai.

"Carthage Street" was designated in 2000, and "Jasmine Street" in 2001. The town donated eight personal computers to a high school in Tunisia in 2003.

"The relations between Monou and Tunisia have been grassroots and based on hearts, very different from those for merely promoting exports and imports," Kuga said.

But Tunisia's Jasmine Revolution, which triggered a chain of antigovernment street demonstrations all over the Arab world, appeared to have thrown a bucket of cold water on the country's ties with the Japanese port town.

According to Kuga, she and other representatives of Ishinomaki were scheduled to make a weeklong visit to Tunisia in January this year to study a proposal for concluding a sister-city relationship between Ishinomaki and a Tunisian coastal town.

But the popular uprising that started in late 2010 escalated and claimed the lives of hundreds of demonstrators in clashes with police, and the trip was canceled with the sister-city proposal vanishing in smoke.

Kuga confessed she thought the 20-year-old friendship between Ishinomaki and Tunisia "had become history" before changing her mind when the Tunisian Embassy staff, headed by Charge d'Affaires ad interim Mohamed Trabelsi, visited the town on a chartered bus from Tokyo on April 15 and cooked traditional Tunisian dishes for some 700 local residents.

It was the first visit to Ishinomaki for Trabelsi, who came to Japan in 2010. "Ishinomaki is a small town but it was wonderful to see the name of my country there," he said, referring to the street.

The Islamic country on the northernmost tip of the African continent seems to have few things in common with the rural Japanese town suffering from depopulation and aging, but the diplomat said the two sides "actually have a lot of things in common."

For instance, he pointed out that both Tunisia and Ishinomaki have "cultures of the sea," with the country on the Mediterranean coast supplying tuna to Japan. Fishing is also a mainstay business of Ishinomaki.

Trabelsi said he sees his country and the Japanese town as having "very good cultural relations," which have been developed "slowly but surely over these 20 years" by getting to know each other "little by little."

His embassy is determined to do more for the relief of Ishinomaki and other areas devastated by the tsunami, and the next step will likely be organizing a charity concert in May in Tokyo, he said.

The last testimonies on the relationship came from the person closest to Maher Amira, the catalyst of the long-running friendship.

His wife, Toyoko Azaiez, is Japanese. She met the Tunisian student in Tokyo and they tied the knot in 1997 when she was 23 and Amira, who now uses the surname Azaiez, 34. The couple, who now live in Tunis, have two children, a 12-year-old girl and a 6-year-old boy. Maher Azaiez works as a civil engineer.

"For my husband, Monou is an unforgettable place and we were so worried when the earthquake and tsunami occurred, as we couldn't get in touch with local people for some time after that," Toyoko said in a telephone interview Tuesday.

Despite the aborted attempt by Ishinomaki and Tunisia to formalize their friendship into a sister-city pact, she was not worried about the failure possibly overshadowing the relationship. In fact, she seemed somewhat relieved, as the proposal called for coupling Ishinomaki and Hammam Sousse, the hometown of former President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, who was ousted in the revolution.

Toyoko smelled something "political" in the selection of the city, made by the Ben Ali regime, which she thought was unbecoming of how the Tunisia-Monou friendship had started.

"My husband and his brother just wanted to say 'thank you' to people in Monou who were so kind," she said.

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