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Q&A with journalist Erin Brown

Brooklyn-based freelance journalist and media trainer Erin Brown, initially traveled to Tunisia in 2018 to research a narrated history podcast of the Arab Spring. After some time there, she shifted her project focus.

What brought you to Tunisia in the first place?
In the fall of 2018, my husband and I started research for what we thought would be a narrated history podcast of the Arab Spring. He’s a researcher who specializes in the Middle East and North Africa, and I’m a journalist who loves a good yarn, so we thought it would be an interesting project, especially since the world is still feeling the effects of the Arab Spring today (think: global migration policy).

As we progressed, we realized: telling a story from our historical research is great and all, but we wanted to hear from the people who enacted the revolution. What was it like to change the story of your country, and the world? So I convinced my husband to quit his full time job, and six weeks later we moved to Tunis not really knowing anyone, with the goal of telling the story of the revolution through the voices of people who lived it.

We spent a little over three months there, interviewing dozens of people who participated — or tried not to participate — in the revolution, and getting completely engrossed in their stories and lives. It was fantastic, fascinating and inspiring…and sometimes just straight up bonkers. We heard a revolutionary love story to rival that of Les Mis, talked to a young man who walked from Sidi Bouzid to the Kasbah protests in Tunis, and learned that Ben Ali used to have fresh berries flown in from Saint Tropez on his private jet because he preferred how they tasted. Now we are back in New York City producing the final result.

While I was in Tunis I had the great opportunity to work with the incredible team at Inkyfada, a non-profit news organization that focuses its work on deep investigations and public accountability. Part of my career is training other journalists on mobile-first storytelling — so things like telling a story specifically for Facebook or Instagram Stories — and I worked with the team at Inkyfada to up their already substantial skills.

What accomplishment with Inkyfada has made you feel most proud?
I always love seeing a team come together to make great things happen, and while I was there, we were able to start an investigation into Visa processing fraud through a callout on social media. The team worked so hard to make it all happen in our week together, and we got a ton of useful responses to kickstart the investigation as a result.

Tell us a little more about mobile-first storytelling?
Have you ever seen something pop up on Instagram, Facebook or Snapchat that you know wasn’t made to be there? Maybe it’s a widescreen video that is so small you can barely make out people’s faces, or an Insta Story that looks too slick? Companies — whether they’re a newspaper or a dressmaker — often think about traditional formats, like widescreen video, or horizontal photos, as the priority for producing things you see online. But more and more, people are watching and reading on their mobile phones. My work is designed to help journalists and media professionals harness the power of their smartphones to tell important, compelling stories that reach a broader audience because they’re meeting people where they spend their time — on their smartphones, and on the apps they already use every day.

Antonine Baths in Carthage

What is an unexpected discovery you made while living in Tunisia?
That in the time it takes to stand in line for the Colosseum in Rome, you can take a train to the Rome airport, fly to Tunis, and take a taxi to Carthage to see equally impressive ruins with absolutely no crowds. One of my favorite places in all of Tunisia is Dougga, which is the most complete Roman town in Africa. The last time I was there, I was the only visitor. It was incredible to explore the place all on my own.

Who is a Tunisian you admire?
Monia ben Hamadi, the editorial director at Inkyfada. She is such a fierce and dedicated journalist, but also a person with an openness to discovering new things, which can be a surprisingly hard combination to find in a journalist (we all are convinced we are always right!). She leads the journalists at Inkyfada with tenacity and enthusiasm, and I deeply admire that.

Where is your favorite place to vacation or visit within Tunisia?
We went to a lot of less glamorous places for our reporting, but took two gorgeous weekends out on Cap Bon. I loved staying at Dar el Gaied in Nabeul, which is a beautifully restored home right in the medina.

But my favorite spot in all of Tunisia is Ain el Atrous, in Korbus. It is a hot spring that comes right out of the mountain and into the sea out on Cap Bon. You can swim out into the sea and soak in the mix of hot and cold water with all the locals, and I love it. If you go around sunset it is the most magical place on earth to sit and spend an hour or so.

Roman ruins at Dougga

What is one thing every visitor to Tunisia should experience?
Drive out to Dougga and explore the ruins. The drive is spectacular and the whole place is magical. You can just walk around and imagine what the town would have been like.

What is one Tunisian dish you crave?
I think if there is one thing I crave, it is the oranges. So sweet and so juicy. I saw that so many dishes included a combination of what I call “the Tunisian Trifecta” — eggs, tuna and harissa. If you don’t like tuna…good luck!

What do you wish the world knew about Tunisia?
That it was the place where the defining themes of the 21st century truly began, when a young man set himself on fire and sparked a revolution that would reshape the world. Everyone in the US forgets about Tunisia’s revolution, but it was first and probably most important.

September 2019

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