Thursday, July 30, 2009

One test down, one to go

This last week has been tense and uneventful as far as material for blog entries goes. Monday was my Tunisian dialect oral proficiency test—I did pretty well, so I’m happy. I just finished my three-hour written Arabic final, which only leaves the 15-minute MSA oral interview tomorrow. I’m a little nervous about it because it’s with official Foreign Service testers (and I hate oral anything anyway) but I feel surprisingly proud of my Arabic regardless of how well I perform under pressure. Having the last few days to review everything we’ve done so far has really given me an appreciation for the range of my vocabulary and my ability to be inventive with the language. I have the basic tenses and grammar mostly down, and I’m able to talk in some detail about why I’m here and what I’m doing next year—pretty cool accomplishment in a language I couldn’t even read eight weeks ago.

Other things from the last week or so…

*I FINALLY hit up Tunisian bookstores. The books I got for my SMP last year had to be ordered from France at high cost, so tracking down a few hard-to-find Maghrebine novels has been on my to-do list since I got here. I picked up a few novels I’ve been wanting for a while, as well as a book of coming-of-age short stories by Tunisian writers, a book of the famous Tunisian poet Chebbi’s work (in Arabic!), and some bilingual French-Arabic children’s books that recount the adventures of “Petite Anne.” At the recommendation of my new friend the bookstore worker, I also got a book by Tahar Fazaa, who is apparently a very popular and hilarious local writer à la David Sedaris. Last but not least, I found a poster of Africa and the Middle East that featured the names of all of the countries in Arabic. Woohoo!
I was surprised to find out how expensive books were (not so bad when you translate the dinar into US$ or Euros, but relative to the cost of other items in Tunisia, pretty high) and I wonder how many typical Tunisians are actually able to afford books. I know that my host family has almost none, and none at all for their 5-year old daughter. There was a separate children’s section in both stores, but it seemed rather limited (and also very French-heavy…there were almost no children’s books in Arabic). I also found the Tunisian bookstores to be much smaller and less inviting than American bookstores. Without a couch to sit on while I browsed through books, I instead opted to crouch Indian-style on the floor, which seemed to surprise and amuse the bookstore employee I had been talking to. (Tunisians are really weird about the floor—sitting on it or putting anything on it earns you some weird looks, as does putting your feet up).

*I went to Hammamet (literally: the baths) with the group last weekend, which is pretty much a classier version of Ocean City, or, in my mind, a less-classy version of Nice. Definitely the most “touristical” (in the words of our adorable guide, Hatem) and less culture-rich of all the places we visited (complete with a theme park “Carthageland” which is basically a less-intimidating, non-bargaining version of a typical medina market…totally weird). It was good considering how burnt out we all were, though…I didn’t do much except lay around on the beach and enjoy my first wine in WEEKS. I’m glad I’m doing my graduate work in a wine-friendly country. I’m convinced this whole thing would be much less stressful if I were allowed to maintain my wine-and-whine working routine (which is much healthier than the tea and shisha routine here).

*After not doing laundry for more than two weeks, and not doing our whites for over a month, our host mother FINALLY did some yesterday. Granted, it was so shoved in the machine it probably hardly got clean and will have fun detergent spots all over it, AND I got scolded for my pink skirt bleeding on a white shirt (who washes bright pink with whites?) but at least it means that I might make it to Sunday without having to do any emergency sink washings, inch’allah

* We had our last pottery class this week. Overall, I kind of fail at pottery as an art form—especially on the wheel—but I liked the cool earthy feel and the metallic smell and the fact that it was pretty much the antithesis of studying Arabic (and I only thought about Ghost a teensy bit). I made some Tunisian-esque tiles, a bowl, and some failed pots that I probably won’t waste suitcase space on. Our teacher, a really cool Tunisian artist, gave us all a piece of his own work as a parting gift...I got a really cool crackle-glaze and gold bowl with a bird in the center that would probably go for a few hundred dinar if he chose to sell it.

*I’ve been taking the bus home lately and really enjoying it. Once I climb in and pay my 450 to the man in the back (a dinar is broken into 1000 cents here), I put on my iPod and enjoy the small amount of “alone time” I’m allowed in this program. The ride itself is somewhere between the crowded sweatiness of the Nice buses and the reckless downhill speeds and sharp turns of British buses (think the African version of the knight bus, all you HP fans). The Tunisians have some inherent ability to remain still, looking on nonchalantly as I stagger around with each turn.

*I have learned a lot about myself as a student and a person in this program. Conclusions: 1) I’m a very auditory learner, at least with languages, although I also do pretty well independently when it’s writing-related. Classroom reading and computer exercises do very little for me. 2) I have a strong need for alone time and the ability to dictate my own schedule to a small extent at least; not having either makes me cranky. 3) If I can be aware of being cranky, I can take conscious steps to be more positive. 4) And last: to make positive thinking successful, I need to surround myself with positive people. Fortunately, they have been in no short supply in this program.

Tomorrow night is our banquet, Saturday will be a Tunis day, and I fly out Sunday morning to Paris to apartment-hunt for two days before I meet Mom in Morocco! Yes, my life is awesome. I just need to get enough rest to appreciate that again.

Monday, July 20, 2009

A bizarre and blustery weekend

This past weekend was, in the words of one of my guilty pleasure chick flicks, “surreal but nice.” It was dotted with strange moments and bittersweet overall—not only our last free weekend left in Tunisia, but also the end of any promise of real relaxation until the plane ride. Our schedule is going to really…well…suck…for these last two weeks. Somehow we have to write, memorize and perform a 15 minute skit and take a written test for Tunisian dialect, cover several more chapters of Al-Kitaab for MSA, sit one more regular weekly quiz, a written final, AND an oral evaluation of our language progress (and then, of course, there will be the phone interview we have when we get back to evaluate our fluency based on the standard scale as a reflection on the program and to determine our eligibility for future programs…).

I woke up early Saturday to meet Akira and catch a Louage to Cap Bon. Unfortunately, when I went to leave my room I found that the handle that has been tricky to use the entire time I’ve been here had finally decided to stop working altogether; I was locked in my own room. I tried to use a credit card to slide the lock open, but since the bolt part here is a solid rectangle and not the sleek, easily-manipulated triangle shape we have in the States, there was little I could do. Hearing my cellphone ringing in the other room (Akira, wondering where I was), I knocked on the wall to awake my host dad and tried my best to explain my dilemma through drywall-muffled French. I figured he would rustle up a screwdriver and pop off the plate for the handle, but lo and behold, he opted to just break the door down. I sat as calmly as I could on my bed for several minutes while he used his pent-up mosquito rage to break down the door (whose frame now has a chunk of wood ripped out of the wall near the still-nonfunctional handle...I’m using my bookbag to prop it closed-ish at night). A bizarre start to the day, to be sure.

Akira and I got in a Louage full of elderly veiled women (I love Louages! A new adventure everytime!) heading to El Houaria—a small town that somehow managed to be in the middle of nowhere in spite of its relatively close proximity to some of the most popular tourist beach towns on the Cape. Its one claim to fame is an annual falconry festival that we missed by about a month—outside of that, it’s a pretty sleepy town with its high proportion of falcon regalia as the only thing setting it apart from anywhere else. As was the case with El Kef, though, we enjoyed the chance to go at our own pace and be among “real” Tunisians free from the shadow of the tourist hoard on our program trips. Once there, we got a hotel recommendation from a group of French backpackers—48 dinar for the night, which was more than we’re used to, but it was cute and still a bargain by American standards. The hotel deskman gave us a little tour of the town, walking us to a sandwich café for lunch. We then hiked up to some ancient punic caves on the outskirts of the city, which served as limestone mines for the materials used to build the colosseum at El Jem and the ruins at Dougga that we had seen on early trips. I gave Akira an hour or so to get his geologist fill of the rocks before we went up to explore the cliffs and algae-rick tidal pools left by the angry waves that were smashing against the shore. Continuing trip tradition, we ate a melon and tossed the remains from the cliff face.

Later, after getting my soda snatched by the town crazy woman (bizarre incident #2), we caught a “taxi” (read: sketchy olive-colored car driven by the man who seemed to be generally recognized as the town “taxi guy”—we asked several people and they all referred us to him as if it should be obvious) to the beach. The beach was all Tunisians and not crowded at all. The water was the clearest we’ve seen anywhere so far, allowing us a good view of the little fish right under our feet, although the getting in-and-out part was surprisingly chilly. We missed the part in the guidebook where it told us that “Houaria” means “windy” in Arabic, and on our walk back to the hotel later we were both regretting not having brought jeans and jackets (what a shame, really…it would have been the first opportunity I’ve had to use the several that I brought). (Side note: one big benefit to the wind is that the hilltop turbines provide most of the town’s power). I stopped at a little boutique to buy a scarf to warm up with, and after trying unsuccessfully to rip me off, the woman decided that we were best friends, threw in the free “gift” of a hideously high-waisted pair of lacy underwear and begged for my number (bizarre incident #3). We got back to the hotel at about 8 and planned to rest for a few minutes before heading back out to dinner, but after waking up zombie-like at 10:30 we opted just to munch on some macroo cookies (the original fig newtons!) from the kind front desk man and catch up on some much needed sleep.

Sunday: not much to tell. Had to wait a while for the Louage to fill to head back to Tunis…learned how to make real mint tea from a sketchy table by the Louage station, walked around downtown a bit to find a bookstore for me to scope out French books (failure) and got some tea and shisha before we caught the crowded sweaty Sunday train back to our houses in the ‘burbs.

Friday, July 17, 2009

On the homefront...

The homestay continues to be a challenge. There’s no getting around it: my family is just weird and unpleasant, but at least my interactions and conversations with other Tunisians have helped me realize that it’s just a personal thing and not a “Tunisian” or cultural disconnect. My roommate Kate and I played the “trying to look on the bright side” game last night and came up with this:

1) Food at our house is amazing. Our mom is a great cook, and takes a lot of pride in her “hospitality” of making a variety of authentic Tunisian meals for us, (although her begrudging and bitter attitude spoils my appetite a little). Our meals are much better than the harissa-and-tuna diet that a few of the other students seem to be on at their houses.
2) I can’t remember if I’ve said this before, but our host parents are obsessed with mosquitoes. This means that they blame us keeping windows open or lights on every time they find one, and killing one becomes an intense affair that puts a frighteningly murderous gleam in Mustafa’s eyes and often ends in a marital argument if he fails. The upshot: we wake up with far fewer mosquito bites than a lot of our classmates, who bug spray-up before bed to little avail.
3) Our bathroom is nice. It’s clean, we have toilet paper (even if we can’t flush it), and even though our shower is still the kneel-and-hold-the-shower-head sort, it’s spacious, clean, and has decent water pressure. Kate and I also have our own bathroom (the rest of the family uses it for bathing, but they have their own toilet/sink). After visiting other homestays with questionable bathrooms, I have grown to appreciate ours (especially in a climate that makes showering a daily necessity and with a diet that plays games with your stomach at times).

On the negative side…it is unbearably hot, stuffy and muggy in the house—ALWAYS…even when it’s nice outside! It’s particularly terrible now that the daytime temperature is up above 100; I’m pondering secretly migrating to the couch tonight because it’s much cooler in the living room and I kept waking up last night drenched in sweat. Also: Lubna ranks up there with the most passive aggressive people I’ve ever known. We had pretty crappy towels from the beginning relative to theirs, and as we continued to shower daily our towels began to disappear. For a while, we had to tromp down to the laundry line outside to retrieve them in the morning if we wanted to shower. At some point last week, they disappeared altogether. I finally got into a cupboard and stole a new towel for myself—a bigger one, this time. I’m also in a constant fight over territory in my own room, which is full of Lina’s stuff. I’ll often come home to find my books/belongings shoved into a pile to make way for stuffed animals or toys, or one day their was body glitter all over my bed and I was sparkly for three days afterwards. The most recent manifestation of this has been the epic Closet Wars. The wardrobe in my room started out half Lina’s clothes (why any 5-yr old has so many I can’t understand…they’re almost all pink, and she wears the SAME skirt everyday anyway…) and half space for me. As the summer has progressed, one new pair of little girl shoes and one new pink puffy winter coat per week (again—why so many near-identical coats? Does it even get that cold here?) have been illegally immigrating into my half of the closet. Before this past weekend’s trip, the coats were taking up about half of the space. When I came back, there was a coat that broke the Becca’s back: a girl version of the suit in Where the Wild Things Are, fuzzy, pink and long complete with ears, mittens and a tail. Irked, I took all of the coats out of the closet and hung them up on the little coat rack. I returned from school the next day to find them back in the closet. I moved them again last night. We’ll see what happens when I get home…if she has put them back I’m going to start dressing the unwelcome stuffed animals in puffy shades of pink.

Fortunately, when I step back from the situation I find it all kind of hilarious. Kate’s not quite as adept at detaching herself, but we help each other find the humor, and we generally stay away when we don’t have to be home. We had a great time last night, though, which is what inspired me to write this post…our host parents decided to go out to a café (for once!) and left us home alone. I immediately took the opportunity to soak my tevas in hot soapy dishwater in the kitchen (it really bothers me how stanky my feet are), and my underwear/bras in the bathroom (Lubna won’t wash our underwear, so we have to sort of secretly do it in the sink at night and let it dry in the window) while Kate sat in the corner of the house to mooch off of the neighbor’s wireless to Skype her parents. Then we dug out the bottle of wine Kate had stowed away and took to the balcony to drink it in the cool night air with some Simon and Garfunkel, laughing at how jumpy we were every time a car-that-might-be-them pulled onto the street.

Thursday, July 16, 2009

Music--the better "universal language" than math

This week’s “language socialization” took us to the ancient ruins of the amphitheater in Carthage for a joint performance by the Tunisian and Moroccan orchestras. The atmosphere was perfect—a cool night with a slight breeze that jostled through the blue- and purple-lit foliage of the trees on either side of the stage, seemingly to the beat. We opted to skip the VIP chairs in the front that the program had paid for in favor of the stone “bleachers,” which provided a better view of the orchestra as well as an authentic ancient feel that complimented the subject of the Tunisian symphony: “Hannibal Barka.” I found the symphony itself to be surprisingly Western. There were brief interludes of more Tunisian-inspired percussion (which elicited cheers from the audience every time), but other than that, the music sounded pretty similar to other classical music I’ve heard. Even though I didn’t understand more than a few words, I enjoyed the Arabic storytelling narration at the beginning of the show, which set the stage for an epic battle that the later march-like tempo and dramatic score of the second movement followed up on.

We had an interesting moment of cultural contact with a snack vendor before the show. Jonesing for something sweet, I called him over to buy some candied peanuts. I was digging for change in my pocket when he suddenly said “Aiiee!” and grabbed his finger, which had just been bitten by two huge wasps. Trying to help him, David came over, only to begin flailing as the wasps changed their focus to him and left him with a matching red welt. The Tunisian women next to us laughed at David, and a few people took pictures as the vendor and him commiserated over the stings…an odd moment, but I suppose shared pain is as good a way as any to break the ice.

The latest “lecture” in our Monday series also had a music-theme. The guest speakers were a pair of academic musician sisters; the elder used to be a somewhat famous local musician but gave it up to study American literature with a focus on African American lit (this seems to be an interest I’m running into again and again among lit scholars over here…I wonder what the attraction is? Do they identify with the racial identity? Or as the ex-colonized, is it more of a sympathy for the marginalized group within a dominant culture?) The younger is a still-famous local singer, who shares the AA lit focus. The sisters brought along two male accompanists—one on the darbooka, or Tunisian ceramic drum, and the other on a Kanun: a stringed, hammer-dulcimer-looking instrument that is plucked with the fingers like a flat harp. They performed a range of beautiful Tunisian folk songs as we clapped and danced, and (much to my delight) talked a lot about the relationship between music, storytelling, and women. Apparently it is becoming much more P.C. for women to be musicians these days, but the transition is pretty recent—the eldest sister cited the disapproval of her father and the threat of scandal as her reasons for retiring her early music career in favor of the more reputable work of academia. Even today, she said, women who want to be musicians must have a respectable education or job on the side if they expect respect (although recent changes in the Tunisian public education system have made music study mandatory for all Tunisian children…which you could argue is better than the states, where arts and humanities are increasingly being cut from curricula when budgets get tight). This sister also published a book about Tunisian women as storytellers, for which she interviewed three old women, translated their stories and analyzed how the themes of their stories both overlap and reflect their individual lives. I stole a copy from the community bookshelf, so I’ll let you know what I think in a week or so…

Wednesday, July 15, 2009


And now, a list! Random things about Tunisia that I haven't yet mentioned:

1. For once in my life as a traveler, it’s fun to be an American. People here have so little experience with Americans that I become immediately rare and fascinating as soon as my nationality is announced (this is especially true outside of Tunis). The few Americans that do make it here are not the standout, overweight, white tennis shoe and fanny pack wearing, English-demanding type, so the only bad reputation I have to overcome is the slutty commercialism of pop culture. It’s also fun not being recognized—shopkeepers trying to lure me in usually guess French, German, Czech, Danish, Norwegian, etc…roughly following the order of tourist density. When I finally admit American, they usually repeat it back to me followed with the one or two things that immediately come to mind: “America…Obama!” being the most common, with “America….Las Vegas, Miami, New York!” (what can I say, they watch a lot of CSI here) as a close second, and “America! Ooohhh…Michael Jackson” accompanied by a sorrowful glance and “allah yarahamu” (God rest his soul) being a recent alternative.
2. There are several chickens and a rooster living in the empty lot next door. I never realized that roosters don’t wait until dawn to make noise. They kept me up for the first few nights but now I hardly notice any more. On the days where I happen to wake up in the wee hours, though, I hear our rooster answering the distant calls of neighboring roosters. The echoey effect is rather like a siren. Other night sounds: cat fights. (Cats sound creepily like crying children sometimes). Weddings. Darboukas (Tunisian drums) Mosquitoes buzzing around my ears.
3. We have a weekly lecture about some aspect of Tunisian culture, usually by academics that are accustomed to speaking/reading academic French but who lecture in English. It’s amusing for me to watch them make the same false cognate mistakes in English that I’ve been making for years in French…our lecturer yesterday kept saying that families in the Northwest drink milk from proper cows (propre in French= “[my] own”) and I’ve heard quite a few people talk about “popular” opinions or locales, when what they’re trying to refer to is not the popularity but the working-class that it’s associated with. Others include “actually” instead of “currently,” “history” instead of “story,” and “achieve” to mean “finish”—slight shades of meaning, to be sure, but still an esoteric moment for me when I make the connection between the French and English words in my head and realize why what they’re saying sounds a little off.
4. Even though I spend most of the day cooped up inside, I am turning the nice toasty brown of a better-take-it-off-the-bonfire-or-it’ll-combust marshmallow. My feet are particularly nice, with their Teva tan. The sun really is stronger here.
5. Tunisians handle medicine like the French—with frequent antibiotics and at least five different prescriptions for even the slightest ailment. Since the beginning of the program, my guess is that we’ve had at least 15 people see a doctor who has been brought in to school, for problems ranging from intense stomach issues to ringworm and lice.
6. I have eaten more melon since I’ve been here than during the rest of my life combined. Not only is it better here but they have a Lebanese kind that looks like a larger cantelope on the outside and a yellower honeydew on the inside that is absolutely delicious. Also: when you’re hot and sweaty, melon is the most delectable, re-hydrating dessert you can imagine.
7. Eating has its own interesting culture here. If you ever see a Tunisian eating, you will undoubtedly be asked to join, even if it is obvious to both parties that they don’t have enough to share. You often have to refuse three times before they will reluctantly leave you alone—which also holds true at dinner. Sometimes it’s insulting if you don’t accept at least a little bit—a date, perhaps, or a glass of lemonade. Even after a month and a half of insistent orders to “Kul, kul!” (eat, eat!) and insulted complaints that we’re not eating enough and are going to wither away, I’m still having a hard time accepting these as regular, friendly parts of the meal ceremony (which they are, but to an American they come off as overly aggressive!). Also, something I’ve learned the hard way: if you make the mistake of pronouncing something “benin” (delicious!) at the end of the meal instead of the beginning, you will immediately have your plate seized and re-filled with food, as this is interpreted as a polite request for more.
8. Tunisians have “dumb Libyan” jokes instead of dumb blonde jokes.
9. Black and green olives come from the same tree. And almonds grow Russian doll style inside a brown skin inside a fuzzy green shell. The actual almond itself is white before it oxidizes to become what Americans used to.
10. Jasmine grows everywhere here. I’m usually particularly sensitive to smells, but for some reason I’m not getting tired of its flower/honey scent—it almost seems, at times, that its aroma is just an inherent quality of the quivering summer air and not the result of a plant. For the rest of my life, the smell of Jasmine will always bring me back to this summer. I’m hoping to find some Jasmine perfume or soap before I leave to heighten that nostalgia…

Monday, July 13, 2009

A lit nerd in any language

The first stop on this past weekend’s trip to the Northwest was to Dougga, a roman town with what are probably Tunisia’s most impressive set of ruins (discounting the Colosseum we saw in El Jem, at least). The massive stone against the rolling country backdrop was impressive but HOT. Alhamdulillah I put on my 70spf sunscreen before we left the bus; I was one of the only non-lobsters by the time we left. We ended our time at Dougga with a talent show in the old roman amphitheater. I preformed a slow, chock-full of gestures poem that I wrote in Arabic entitled “Harissa, Ye Harissa” that ended up winning me first prize (Akira won 2nd for his Arabic rendition of “I’m a little teapot”). Here’s the English translation of what I wrote (it rhymed in Arabic…FYI: Harissa is a spicy chilli paste/garnish that they put in EVERYTHING here. It’s delicious, but it wreaks havoc on the bowels at times)

Harissa, O! Harissa:
I love you in the morning.
I want TWO sandwhiches
Because you’re so delicious.
I eat you every day
In this hot hot weather.

Harissa, O! Harissa:
I hate you in the evening
Too much spiciness in my stomach
I stay close to the bathroom.
Do I want more? No thank you!
Well…maybe tomorrow.

The poem isn't great, but I feel like it represents a milestone of sorts in my Arabic--an ability to play with the language, to make it my create! It was playing little games like this in French--translating songs to myself, making little linguistic jokes--that kept me interested and progressing in the language all these years, so hopefully that means that Arabic will soon become a little more natural and fun.

After Tabarka we proceeded to drive through the mountains to the coast. This was a gorgeous stretch of road that really gave me an appreciation for the diverse topography of Tunisia—the lush pine and cork forests that carpeted the hills and the cool mountain air was such a contrast from the hot, dry heat in the arid south and the central plains that it was hard to believe we were still in the same country. West coast people commented that it reminded them a lot of California—if that’s the case, I’m putting CA on my “places I want to live someday” list. We stopped in a little town called Ain-Draham to appreciate the sunset over the trees and goat-dotted hills and browse the locally produced handicrafts. I bought several items carved from olivewood, and Sonia bought me a cork souvenir as the prize for my poem. I can’t get over how light the cork is—I’ve seen corks a thousand times, of course, but it’s weird making the connection between the material and a tree. Tunisia’s one of the world’s top cork producers (although the credit for their cork, which is processed in Portugal, is often claimed by the Portuguese…Tunisia also produces a lot of olive oil that is processed through Italy and Libya, so to all my Rachel Ray obsessed friends: you never know when your EVO might be Tunisian!)

We spent the night in a beachside town called Tabarka, in a five star hotel that had hallways as confusing and long as Hogwarts, but huge, luxurious rooms a fantastic buffet, a huge pool with an island, belly-dancing lessons (yes, I did), and a beach with actual waves! They weren’t huge waves, of course, but enough to body surf on and produce a descent rip tide (I saw a flailing burkini-ed woman get rescued by about 10 Tunisian men…those things may be a stylish solution to beach modesty but they’re not real practical for swimming.

On the way back we stopped at some interesting coastal rock formations called the “Needles” and then had dinner in another coastal town called Bizerte/Banzart known as “The Venice of the Maghreb” for its picturesque cafes along its central canal. Somewhere along the way I bought a handmade bowl from one of many old woman on the side of the road in the middle of the road who make and fire pottery in their homes to sell along the road to earn a living. For the first time, I witnessed traditional Tunisian female dress—a coarse red robe gathered together with a moon-shaped pin over many other draping layers of orange and black. It looked beautiful, but hot. As always, I felt grateful to be from a culture where women are free to be unveiled (and men to be un-gelled!).

Friday, July 10, 2009

thoughts from a Tunisian wedding

On Sunday night, I went to what I believed to be the marriage of Amor, our neighbor and the host brother of another American in the program. Little did I suspect that marriages here are a week-long affair and that what I was to attend was only a bachelor’s party of sorts. Tunisian weddings apparently begin with an official civil ceremony that isn't widely attended but that produces the chains of honking cars I keep seeing/hearing. Then there are private parties for the groom and the bride, which include a wide circle of neighbors, family and friends. The final party, where the bride and groom are finally allowed to see each other, is huge, wild (or as much as it can be without alcohol or overly-overt sexuality, I suppose) and late. Weddings are almost like a community service here, or perhaps a public celebration of wealth and happiness, and they all take place during the summer months. There has almost literally been a wedding in our neighborhood every night I’ve been here (you can hear them through the open windows), so it was exciting to finally see what goes on firsthand.

Festivities started at 7 (which in Tunisian time meant 9:30) with a dinner on the roof of their house. The roof was covered with tables and chairs, with the prime real estate sectioned off for the men and the rest left for women, families and Americans. A little tent in the corner housed three ancient, veiled women with huge platters of food that must have taken several days and kitchens to prepare. I got a plate of couscous topped with lamb and vegetables, salad mishweya, some quiche-like tajine, bread and watermelon. After I had finished I was quickly ushered out by Eshem, the groom’s brother, who was on dish detail and responsible for turning tables to assure that everyone was fed. We moved on to the space at the end of the street that I had seen them sweeping off earlier that day, which was now draped in Tunisian banners (and randomly, a superman banner?) and covered in rows of folding chairs in front of a traditional Tunisian “band”—six men wearing traditional white robes and red wool hats, whose chanting and drumming was amplified to an almost deafening level. Again, the genders were segregated—with woman (a high proportion of whom were veiled—I couldn’t figure out if the family just has an abnormally high number of “traditional” friends or if women who usually go without will don them for formal occasions) occupying the seats in the front, and men grouped standing in the back or sitting along the sides treets with tea and shisha. There was also a gender difference in clothing—while the women were all dressed very nicely, the men were much more casual, with the old men in regular house clothes and the young men in their typical “going out” attire of tight, dark jeans, fitted black tees and a full head full of gel.

At about midnight the band stopped and the crowd migrated back to the house to see Eshem and Amor (who, to my surprise, had been wandering around unshaven in a grungy white tank top and shorts tending to guests) emerge in traditional dress with the rest of the family. Eshem “carried” a very miserable-looking Amor down the stairs (not really—Eshem is short and spry, and Amor kind of chubs) at about the pace of a bridal march as the women you-youed. Once on the street, the whole family paused for pics (Amor still looking terribly unhappy) and ceremonious candle-lighting before the street side party resumed with dancing and throwing money at the groom-to-be. Everyone was joyous—the older people and especially the women (who often stay at home while husbands go to cafes) seemed to enjoy the chance to mingle with friends, while the younger crowd enjoyed the chance to mingle acceptably with the opposite sex. Young Tunisians actually have a pretty active and scandalous social scene, complete with dating and a little bit of drinking…it’s just kept on the down-low. Weddings are a rare socially acceptable and almost desirable time for overt courtship to take place, as the aggressive attention I was getting from a friend of Amor’s demonstrated. Exhausted from Le Kef and knowing I had class early the next morning, I ended up leaving shortly after midnight, although I heard the party continue late into the morning.

I learned later from Lubna that it is expected and respectable for the groom to be solemn (although not miserable) and for both parties to be kind of grungy-looking until the last day, to make the contrast all the more fabulous. The bride spends the morning of the wedding or the day before with a group of girlfriends at the hammam (more to come on my own bridal hammam adventure soon!) while the groom gets a shave and a haircut. If my own family and Amor’s is any judge, weddings are starting to change here (getting much later in life, with divorce a much more acceptable option, although homosexuality is still not even mentioned) but the ideal is still a marriage in the early twenties for a woman and the late twenties for a man that is a “good match” in terms of class and wealth. The man is expected to have a job and supply the money for a car, a house, and its furnishings, while the woman contributes a pillow; obviously a more symbolic than useful gesture. This is changing as women enter the workforce, but even if the marriage is more egalitarian they seem to at least keep up the appearance of a traditional bread-winner/housewife ideal.

On another note, if my conversation and observations over coffee with Amor and one of his flirtatious female students a few weeks ago is any judge, I read Amor’s expression right at the wedding—he’s not just solemn, he’s upset at losing his “freedom.” On that night, when the waiter gave his number to the student, Amor ripped it up immediately and swept her into a hug, saying “you don’t need that, you have me!” Alas for him, I don’t know how that’ll fly with a ring on his finger (or maybe it will just drive it underground…)

"Sometimes it's just like that" : Tunisia's take on "Hakuna Matata"

So in spite of the many hiccups in our plan, last weekend was oddly one of the best I’ve had. (Note: the Zanzabarbarians title of the last post was a reference to a line in Muppet's Treasure Island that I say a lot...sorry if I got anyone confused into thinking I was in Tanzania.) Unfortunately, it has been followed by a particularly harrowing week that started with a bad midterm score and being a little behind on the hw (thanks to said fun weekend) and was complicated by the antics of incompetent state department travel agents, who have made trying to meet my mom in Morocco after Tunisia near impossible. It’s looking now like I’m going to be pulling a series of redeye flights to get home at the end—I'm sure it'll be worth it, though. Anyway, the result has been a shameful lack of blogging, because every time I start composing a post I guilt myself into working or stressing instead. No more, say I.

After Friday’s midterm, we (me, Akira, David the Berkeley photographer, and Brittney, who is going to do humanitarian work in Niger after this) hightailed it over to Tunis after class to catch a louage (8-passenger “taxi” service using vans). This was our first experience with the sometimes elaborately carpeted/curtained/doilyed, often smelly, non-air-conditioned, hope-you-like-the-driver’s-taste-in-music means of transportation, but by the end of the weekend we were experts and admirers. Louages are super cheap and the 8 dinar taxi ride to get around Tunis to the Louage “station” (read: strip of street packed with louages and their drivers beckoning and making their sale) was almost as much as the 9.700 we paid for the 3.5 hrs to Le Kef.

We got into Le Kef around 10:30, which I was thinking would be late until I remembered that Tunisians all stay up until after midnight—especially during the summer when everyone has off. Their logic is that it’s too hot to work, so even those who must work only do so in the mornings, sleep or beach-it in the afternoon, then stay up late into the night for a 10pm or so dinner and subsequent chatting over mint tea with pine nuts and shisha at cafes. (This includes children, who, like European kids, are often treated as mini-adults…bedtimes and even discipline are often in short supply). Before bed, we explored the Kasbah (castle) on the hilltop by night, enjoying the view of the town from above and befriending our first of many families on the walk back down. We picked a hotel that cost us 10 dinar a night ($8) each for the four-person “chambre de famille”—which was a fabulous room with three-century old Andalusian ornate plaster ceilings and hand-painted tile walls. That was about all that was fabulous, though…the shared bathroom had the option of a “Turkish” standing toilet or a rather sketchy, permanently brown regular one, there were bugs galore and the other rooms may have actually been smaller and less lit than prison cells. The only other patron we saw was a guy who sold fiber optic light up things on the sidewalk for a living (and yes, we bought one for night photography).

We awoke the next morning not quite as well rested as we’d hoped to catch a louage to Kalaat es-Senan. Half way through the 1hr ride through arid countryside, I felt a familiar traveler’s twinge in my stomach. When the louage dropped us Americans off at the National Guard post without consulting us and continued on to drop the regular passengers in town, I only had the stamina to argue with them for a few minutes in French before I had to beg for the bathroom. I spent nearly an hour negotiating in French (with intermittent bathroom breaks) with the National Guard, who seemed very alarmed at the sudden arrival of non-passport bearing Americans in their off-the-beaten path little village 6km from the Algerian border. Our original plan had been to sleep atop Jugurtha’s Table, but that was out right away; they wanted us to return immediately to El Kef for our protection. Every time I asked what was so dangerous I got a shudder at the accusatory word (this held true later on with other Tunisians, too): “There’s no danger. It’s just not safe for you. Sometimes it’s like that.” I finally convinced them to let us stay the day and at least hike the mountain, and managed to get us the freedom to wander through town without an escort if we agreed to use their driver to get to and from the base of the hill. They kept our stuff as leverage, and off we went to buy a mountaintop picnic. En route, we met a man sitting in the most pres-riffic building we had ever seen (the current Tunisian president’s picture is plastered everywhere) who did voter registration for a living. There’s a presidential election this winter, but apparently this guy (like many Tunisians, I’m sure) isn’t even registered in spite of his job. When we pressed him to explain why and express his opinion of his president, and whether or not he is dissatisfied with the fact that the government is pretty non-transparent and although it’s a “democracy” it’s pretty much impossible for anyone else to win, he said “Sometimes things are just like that.” That soon became the refrain of the trip—used to shrug off the National guard’s weirdness in Kalaat, the president, the repeated pulling over of our return Louage to demand passports (and sometimes bribes)…

We tried to grab some tea at a café, but I had only had a few sips before I had to check out the café’s bathroom (a standing style port-a-pot) and opted instead to return to the National Guard poste with Brittney. The boys joined us a half hour and an Imodium later for our drive to the mountain, in a bumbling paddy-wagon whose vent looked to me like an American flag—which I took, along with my newfound appreciation for American democracy and individual rights—to be my fourth of July present from Tunisia. It was overcast and raining ever so slightly as we began our ascent, Alhamdulillah—it would have been dying hot otherwise. About halfway up the stairs that have been carved into the rock and worn down by centuries of roman soldiers, cave-dwelling Berbers and sheep/goat herders, we ran into two guides summoned by the National Guard (sigh) to accompany us around the mountain and assure we left it when we were supposed to. Luckily they were pretty chill—humble peasants from the “village” at the foot of the hill who pointed out medicinal herbs and poisonous snakes and spiders and explained the mountain’s history (including a myth that the Islamic equivalent of Noah’s ark landed atop the plateau—cool!) as I interpreted from French to English with surprising ease (who knew I could say poultice, or kidney stones). The top of the plateau was dotted with caves that Berber dwellers used to live in during the harsh, snowy winter, pools used to collect rainwater, a shrine, and about a hundred small white snail shells per square foot (apparently their main predator, wild boars, can’t make it up so high).

We stopped around 3 for a picnic lunch of fresh bread, cheese, wine, and watermelon. Between the four of us and the two guides we ate a whole melon. David and Akira carved a face into the other one and Sharpied on a love note to the National Guard that we all signed. We then very ceremoniously threw the melon from the top of the cliff to create our own 4th o’ July fireworks at the bottom, much to the bewildered amusement of the guides.

It was about 6pm when we finally made it back to the National Guard post—an hour later than we had been told to get back to catch the last louage, and it was clear that the officers weren’t pleased. They chartered a special louage for us to get us the hell out of their hair and back to Le Kef. We got a slightly cleaner hostel room that night, which was apparently unbearably hot, but after a month of sleeping in my sauna of a room at “home” I was immune. Again, we spent our evening meeting and talking to random Tunisians, who all invited us home for couscous (we politely refused) and who kept us out at cafes until the wee hours.

All-in-all, awesome weekend, and the first chance I’ve really had to talk at length to “real” Tunisians and practice my Arabic. I’ve got a few more entries to catch up on—my life outpaces this blog by quite a bit—so stay tuned.

Friday, July 3, 2009

"Off to Zanzabar, to meet the zanzabarbarians...!"

Off on a real adventure this weekend--fairly impromptu and largely unplanned, as they should be. Post midterm (phew!) I am running home to pack, training into Tunis to try and pick up a Louage (mini-van taxi) to El Kef, over about 40 km from the Algerian border. We'll get in about 10 pm, find a hotel, then get up tomorrow to explore the town, taxi to the next town and then make a two-hour hike to the plateau Jugurtha's Table which boasts roman ruins and small caves. We're planning to spend the night there--apparently a group of students last year was able to convince the shrine caretaker to let them sleep inside there--but if not, we have blankets, bug spray, and heart, and we'll make up for our air conditioned luxury tents in the desert by having a real night under the stars.

Love you all!


Thursday, July 2, 2009

The Epic South

So I got back “home” from our four-day trip South late Monday night, but I’ve been putting off writing this entry due to an overload of both things to say and work that prevents me from finding a way to say it. Bottom line: the trip was absolutely awesome. Yes, I did end up getting sick, but just a pretty minor cold, and I was so extremely optimistic and high on life the entire time that I think I forced myself into a quick recovery. Everyone around here has been spending a lot of time sick, due both to our close proximity in the school and the high stress level, but I think I’m really benefitting from my more laidback, I-just-graduated-so-screw-grades-I’m-not-going-to-kill-myself attitude—in terms of health, at least.

Anyway, back to the awesome trip. We left early on Friday morning and headed to Kairouan, a town in the middle of the country known as the “Mecca of the Maghreb” due to the springs it was founded around, which were discovered after a goblet said to be from Mecca was unearthed at the same spot, and which are said to be fed by the same holy source as the water there. Appropriately, we visited two of the town’s mosques. The first was a prominent sandstone structure, with high columns and vaulted ceilings and mats carpeting the floor to accommodate the praying men that were already starting to arrive for the afternoon’s service. The second was smaller but in my mind more beautiful, as it involved walking through a number of courtyards and passageways all covered in elaborately hand painted tiles that put the atrocities I’m creating in my ceramics class to shame. I also liked that I saw a few women in the second (although Tunisia is fairly progressive, its Islam still discourages women from coming to mosque, telling them to pray at home, and when they do come they’re usually relegated to a separate area). I had to cover my legs, arms and head to enter them both, which gave me a lot of sympathy for the women that do the same on a daily basis—I came out drenched and eager for the air-conditioned bus.

We spent the night in a town called Tozeur, which was really cute and fun to walk around. While walking around I tried traditional Tunisian cookies made of orange flowers, figs and pistachios and I tasted water drawn from a deep well by a camel. One of my biggest triumphs all weekend was interaction with local shopkeepers. With my more advanced level of Arabic (in comparison to the last trip) and my better sense of prices, Tunisian mannerisms/personal space and the bargaining process, I found my conversations with shopkeepers both rewarding and fun. It’s still a little intimidating at times, especially as a woman, but I have grown to enjoy the back and forth process (and I managed to score pottery, a scarf, and a shirt for what I consider to be great prices!).

The next day, we visited a museum and took a horse cart ride into the Tozeur oasis. Standing in an oasis, it’s easy to understand why Islamic visions of heaven always take this form—after the desert, the shady, sweet-scented haven of date palms, pomegranates, figs, and bananas was almost unbelievable. A date picker explained the process they use to fertilize the female trees with male pollen, then scrambled up to demonstrate the picking process (which we got to sample—delicious!).

En route to our camels, we stopped off at too many scenic overlooks to count: at an immense salt flats that looked like the surface of the moon; at mountain shrines; at crumbling sandy rocks; at arid, mountainside villages, where the squat stone houses blended into the dusty land dotted with black wells. By the evening we had reached the edge of the desert, where we were met with camels for our short sunset ride into our “camp” site in the Sahara. For those curious, yes, camels are a little bumpy (and my thighs were sore the next day) but you get used to it pretty quickly. The only unnerving part was the lurching up from the ground at the beginning and the drop back down at the end (they are some long-legged, gangly animals after all). The campsite was more along the lines of a hotel, with huge, air conditioned (!) tents and full kingsize beds, running water toilets, and a bar. We had a rotisserie cooked lamb, tajine and watermelon for our dinner before dancing to the music of the traditional Tunisian band. Then Akira and I followed David, the group’s unofficial photographer, out to play around with super-long exposures in the darkness of the desert, where we used a flash to freeze momentary images of ourselves that we then drew around with a flashlight. It was the most fun I’ve had with photography in a while, and we vowed to try and shoot some more before the end of the trip. I stayed up chatting and watching falling stars until about 2am, when the dunes suddenly turned cold and I crawled happily into my gritty bed.

I didn’t appreciate how sandy I was until the next day when I had to put my contacts back in. Ouch. The line of us blind people crying and cursing together at the sinks was admittedly pretty funny. I spent the day like PigPen in Peanuts, with a little cloud of dust forming around me every time I moved (the Saharan sand is surprisingly
fine and light—not like beach sand at all). We hitched a horse ride back to the bus, then continued east; stopping at a few sites where Star Wars scenes were filmed (surprisingly not as cool as I expected, but interesting fact: Tatouine is a real city in Tunisia), eating a traditional cous-cous lunch in a troglodyte (mountain cave) house, and finally ending up on the historic Jewish island of Jerba. After getting a long-awaited shower, we spent the rest of our time enjoying the beach, browsing the souks, and visiting a historic synagogue.