September 20, 2005

Concluding Thoughts

Hey, I'm back in the states now, and want to post some very final reflections...

First, though, I want to point out that I got my film developed, and there are now new pictures on the entries that describe getting lost in the medina, traveling into the sahara, the desert oasis, our camel safari, getting caught in the sandstorm, and visiting the planet of Tatooine. I hope eventually also to have pictures from the French restaurant, Le Pirate.

If you've never visited this travelogue before, in addition to the stories mentioned above, the other entries I'd highlight as among the most interesting are my experiences with Arab hospitality, and Tunisian wedding customs (in two parts).

Although in my first month I had a few instances where I felt slightly uncomfortable about being American in Tunis, later I had more positive experiences. In fact, the last month that I was there, I can't think of a single instance where someone acted displeased when they found out I was American, and many were enthusiastic. Ultimately, it seems that popular opinion in Tunisia mirrors that in Latin America and Europe: they love Americans, they just don't care much for our foreign policy or our current president.

All in all, I had a good time in Tunisia. The first month was rough... I didn't speak the language, and I had massive culture shock. In fact, if you're thinking about going to Tunisia on your next vacation, I would really advise you not to, unless you speak French or Arabic pretty well. You can't really get past the culture shock and language gap and appreciate the country for what it is without those linguistic tools. That didn't click for me until the second month. I finally picked up enough Arabic to make friends and deal competently with the everyday challenges, and it was great. Still not a relaxing summer vacation, but definitely an adventure.

Thanks for reading my travelogue!

August 24, 2005


I'm pretty busy with classes this week... the final exam is Friday! So I might not post much. But I wanted to give you guys something new.

A friend who's back home in Turkey now sent some digital pictures, now included in my earlier post from when I first moved into the student dorm a few weeks back.

Also, this has nothing to do with Tunisia really, but you should check out the website of a college friend of mine who is a professional photojournalist now. His work is amazing, and he's got stuff from Pakistan, Iraq, Darfur, etc.

There's a permanent link to his online gallery to the right of this page.

August 22, 2005

Unwanted Attention, or, Being Female in Tunisia

First let me clarify that Tunisia is not Saudi Arabia; women have a lot of freedom here. They work outside the homes in similar numbers to Latin American countries, they choose who they marry, they drive cars in roughly equal numbers to men.

Still, as an American woman, I don’t quite feel comfortable here. And it’s hard to tell how much of the objectionable treatment from men is due to my being a foreigner, and how much of it is stuff every Tunisian woman puts up with.

The biggest thing is the unwanted attention on the streets. I can’t walk several blocks without random strange men commenting on my attractiveness. Back home, this would be considered very sketchy, and a violation of my personal space. But here, it is par for the course. With few ways to meet girls, young men call out to promising faces on the street. If she smiles or replies back, that’s an invitation for him to come talk to her. So, you just have to ignore it.

This was most disturbing back before I could understand what they were saying, and just noticed husky voices calling after me. Now that I understand more French and Arabic, they are mostly saying harmless things like “Hello, pretty” or “how are you?” It’s not exactly harassment, just, well… unwanted attention. And when it starts to pile up, it gets really annoying.

Also, some men are really disturbingly persistent. Over my two months here, I’ve had two or three come up to me, start speaking to me in French, and actually follow me when I turn and continue walking away. I turn, explain firmly in Arabic that I don’t speak French and don’t want to talk to them, and walk away. But they continue to follow and speak in French. At this point I turn around and yell at them in Arabic and make a scene, which usually makes them go away long enough for me to make my escape.

I really look forward to being home, where I can wear the clothing I’m comfortable in, and be treated in ways I’m comfortable with.

August 21, 2005

Personal Space

Arabs are very physically friendly. As an American, I often find this uncomfortable.

This morning, for instance, the cleaning lady stuck her head into my shower to ask how much longer I would be staying in the dorm. I stuttered to remember the days of the week in Arabic with her face a foot from mine.

In the U.S., we like to keep about two feet (a half meter) of space between us and the next person at all times. Only the people you are really close to… your mother, your lover, are welcome inside this space. Here, that rule just does not apply.

On the subways, I often see young men with their arms draped around a friend, sitting on each others laps, or just generally getting way closer than is acceptable for two adults not in a romantic relationship where I come from. It’s even common to see strangers touch each other in friendly ways (but always same-gender).

A week ago, I was trying to use an ATM machine, which was giving me problems. A Tunisian man stood very close, ostensibly trying to help me out. Now, either he stole my card, or the machine ate it, I’m not sure. (I cancelled it quickly and no money was stolen.) The point is, I couldn’t tell at the time whether his closeness was suspicious or not, because people commonly stand way closer than seems reasonable to me. Today I noticed several other people using ATM machines, with the next person waiting standing within a foot.

I don’t know what larger point this reveals about differences between Arab and Anglo-American culture. But it’s just one of those little things that contributes to the culture shock.

August 20, 2005

Receiving Mail in Tunis

Overall, it's been pretty easy to receive mail in Tunis. There's to-your-door delivery and mail takes about 10 days between Tunisia and the U.S., going either way.
You can buy stamps from many little newspaper stands all over.

However, being functionally illiterate in Tunisia, I did have some trouble figuring out how much postage I needed to put on my letters. For several weeks I was sticking 1.300TD, or about one dollar, on my letters. It turns out the real rate is about half this, .700TD. Letters cost the same.

Next I sent several postcards out with insufficient postage, due to a miscommunication. Someone had explained the price to me in French, which I don't really speak. It was something like "sette cent" which I thought meant 600. (In Arabic, the word for "six" is "sitta.") Today somebody explained it to me in both French and Arabic, and I realized my mistake.

Receiving packages is slightly more complicated. These are not delivered to your door, but held at the post office for your signature. You also have to present your passport. In the summer and the month of Ramadan the post offices keep reduced hours, open only from 7:30am to 1:30pm.

In my situation the process was complicated by the fact that by the time my package arrived in Carthage, I had moved to Tunis. Due to my class schedule, the only day I could make it out to Carthage before the post office closed was Saturday. Today I finally got my package, and am now off to the beach to read Harry Potter!

The Tunisian Blogosphere

I have to admit, when I started this travelogue, it never occurred to me that Tunisians would be interested in reading it. In fact, I was pretty certain that my only visitors would be family and friends from back home.

So, it's kind of cool to see the comments from Tunisian visitors which have popped up on the site in the past week, thanks to links from a couple of local bloggers (in French and English).

I think Karim2k pinned me pretty well with this description:
Those bloggers are posting everything around, as it seems strange and new for them : from their biggest joy to the worst dramatic events, I've appreciated their appetite for discovery, like babies, they are tryring to touch and taste everything around...

In fact, it makes perfect sense that Tunisians would find this stuff interesting, just as Americans still read the classic 1831 travelogue of Alexis de Tocqueville, a Frenchman visiting America.

I just wish I spoke French so I could read more of these local blogs!

August 19, 2005

Arabic Textbooks

I’ve written some other comments about the Bourguiba Institute in general, but I thought I would say a word or two about the textbooks in particular, for people interested in Arabic language instruction. I can’t comment on the texts used in the advanced courses, but I’m now familiar with the beginning- and intermediate-level books.

The beginner’s text is a workbook entitled “Al-Arabiyya Al-‘Aslat.” (That’s an imprecise transliteration of the actual title, which is in Arabic script.) I’m actually quite impressed with it. It’s a workbook of some 225 pages, which uses dialogues, exercises, and a lot of pictures to teach everyday vocabulary, basic grammar, and general conversational fluency. It’s completely in Arabic, using pictures, symbols, and context to communicate the meaning of the words introduced, rather than translations. This makes it ideal for the Institute’s classes, which are composed of students from all over the world with no other language in common. All the texts are voweled, and you learn to describe people and objects, talk about family and work relationships, describe daily activities and foods, explain your symptoms to a doctor, make travel plans, etc.

The ISBN number is 9973-17-177-2, and perhaps you can buy it from Amazon, or I imagine you could contact the Bourguiba Institute about ordering copies. It’s actually authored by Zahia Gafsi, who is the director of the Bourguiba Institute. The book assumes a basic knowledge of the Arabic alphabet. If you are looking to learn Arabic on your own, for conversational purposes or as a beginning to more advanced study, this might be a good book to use. However, it doesn’t come with tapes, so you would need to find a native speaker to help you with reading and pronounciation (and conversational practice).

The intermediate text begins with dialogues, but then moves into short texts, many of which deal with Tunisian history, sites, or cultural activities. As in the beginners’ workbook, each has accompanying exercises. The texts are mostly voweled, but not completely… the book seems to be weaning the students away from needing the vowels to be indicated, by not voweling familiar words, or endings which should be obvious according to grammatical rules. However, most of the vowels are indicated on the assumption that students might not immediately recognize the word and be familiar with its pronunciation. This book focuses less directly on teaching vocabulary. You will need quite a bit of vocab already under your belt, plus a teacher or a good dictionary to figure out the words which are new to you. I found the texts included in this book to be less than riveting, but considering the shortage of intermediate-level instructional materials available with voweled texts, this might be a useful tool for some teachers. Unfortunately, this coursebook does not have a ISBN number indicated.

August 18, 2005

Wedding Customs, Part II

So, the last time I was at Moussa and Leila's home, they showed me the album and video from their wedding.

Today, when Cari and I went over, before we left for the hammam, they pulled out a DVD of a relative's wedding done in the more traditional style. This wedding took place in the South of Tunisia, in their families' hometown near Tatooine.

The bride wore a traditional dress, of brightly colored red robes, sonewhat similar to the one in the picture to the right, but more ornate and glittery, and a ton of gold jewelry. In fact, all the female family members there, including Leila, wore these fabulous colorful traditional outfits and were bedecked in gold.

There was a lot of dancing, and a traditional band playing on drums and a eerie-sounding wind instrument that looks somewhat like a recorder, except with an oboe-style reed.

Also, this part is really cool, they had a dancing horse! A beautiful black hissan, trained to prance around with its tail high in the air, and decorated with beautiful bright robes and ribbons.

The entire town is invited to the celebration, and you could see mountains of couscous being served, prepared under a traditional Berber-style tent like the one we slept under when we went camping on the camel trip. The family goes dancing through the streets to celebrate their happiness, and let everyone know about the wedding and the feast.

Pretty cool.

Turkish Bathouse

So, the last time I visited Moussa and Leila, I had mentioned the adventure that Cari and I had the last time we tried to go to the hammam, only to realize once we got there that we had no idea what to do and completely wimp out! Leila was quite amused, and promised to take us sometime and show us the ropes.

Today we went, and it was fantastic. The place itself reminds me of a cross between a German-style schwimmbad and a high school locker room. You strip down to your underwear in a communal entry-room, then pass through some doorways to a steamy open tiled space which huge marble-tiled benches, warmed by subterranean heating. You put all your things (soap, shampoo, etc.) into a bucket, and grab a bunch of other buckets and a dipper and claim a spot. You fill your buckets with a combination of hot water (from a trough) and cold water (from a tap), and start getting wet and sweaty.

The main focus of the hammam process is the scrubbing. This is accomplished with a small, rough glove called a kursee, or something close to that. This feels almost like sandpaper, much rougher than anything sold in the U.S. In the wet heat, I imagined that it feels something like a camel tongue might, but Leila told me that traditionally birch bark was used for this purpose. You scrub all the dead skin off you body, asking a friend to get your back. Then you soap up, shampoo, and scrub again, all the while rinsing off with buckets full of hot and cold water. When you're clean and thoroughly relaxed from the steam, you wrap yourself up in a warm dry towel, and go back to hang out in the entryway until you dry off and your body adjusts back to normal temperature.

The travel guides describe the hammam as an "exotic, sensual experience." And that's definitely true. The sensation of splashing hot water, then cold water, then hot water, than cold is fantastic. Plus, although I would never have guessed it, the rough scrub-down produces the same intense physical pleasure as the guilty rush you get when you scratch a mosquito bite, except all over your body! But, you have to have a sort of Girl Scout-camp appreciation of the sensual. The concrete floor is dotted with hairballs, there's mold growing in the cracks between the wall tiles, and people spit their toothpaste (and phlegm) right on the floor. But if you're not prissy, it feels fantastic.

After weeks of feeling self-conscious about my body from so much unwanted male attention on the streets, it was really relaxing and nice to get casually naked in an all-female environment. The hammam is intended to be a social experience... you go there with friends and joke around and splash each other, or a big party will go with a bride the day of her wedding. In fact, it can even be a family outing. While we were there, three generations of one family came in: the mother, the grandmother, and four little girls between about three and eight years old, who seemed to think the two American girls were quite interesting.

A word of warning though... I'm not sure if this an Arab universal or specific to Tunisia because of the French influence, but local standards for the cuteness of lingerie are much higher than in the U.S. Everyone at the hammamm, from the teenagers to the old ladies, was wearing black lace or at least silk. So break out something nicer than your standard cotton undies if you don't want to be underdressed!

August 17, 2005

Part V: Tatooine

Tatooine is more famous as the home planet of Annakin and Luke Skywalker. And although the Star Wars planet's similarity to the Arizona desert has been noted by other travellers, its real inspiration is the village and surrounding countryside of Tatooine, Tunisia.

This area is in the remote, mountainous southern region of Tunisia. In terms of isolation, low population density, and rugged lifestyle, it's a close cousin to the Wild West of the U.S., or perhaps the Australian Outback.

And once you visit the real Tatooine, you realize that it is really the inspiration for this strange desert planet. The film was shot there, rough-and-tumble frontier character is entirely authentic to the place itself.

The strange beasts of burden are modeled on a camel's bone structure. Even the alien architecture is actually just traditional below-ground Berber homes with slight modifications.

In fact, we spent the night at a place which was once a Berber residence, then used to shoot the scene of Luke Skywalker breakfasting with his uncle at their Tatooine home, and today is a hotel.

It's definitely a cool place to spend the night, but when the parade of Westerners traipses through your (shared) bathroom as you brush your teeth in the morning, you realize the downside of sleeping in a tourist attraction. And, perhaps, get a depressing sense of how the local Tunisians must feel.

My favorite part was that while showering, I could see in a corner crack the nest some small animal had made out of the hair people leave in the shower. All part of the experience of sleeping in a hotel that's a cave, I suppose!

The surrounding town itself is small, and although full of modern conveniences like cars and restaurants, also firmly reaches back to echo more timeless aspects of Middle Eastern civilization. From now on, when I picture biblical scenes, Matmata will be in my head.

(photos courtesy of Nora)

August 16, 2005

Part IV: Camel Safari

So, the biggest thing I wanted to do while we were in the South was make sure I rode a camel. We asked around, and ended up booking an overnight camel ride/camping trip out of a small town near Douz, I think its name is Zafhaz, for about 40TD ($25).

Our camels were led by this delightful old man named Aoud. At one point we stopped in the desert to stretch our legs and explore the dunes, and I got to talk to him a bit.

He told me he has seven kids, and has been guiding camels for fifteen years without an accident. He also seems to have an appreciation for music, and sang a few songs on the trip, and seemed very amused when we tried to return the favor with some Simon and Garfunkel classics.

Camels are really bizarre creatures. Their feet are really cool... two fleshy toes, and the whole foot kind of padded with fat so that it spreads out in the sand. Also, their back legs have five joints instead of four like a horse, which looks really weird (I think the beasts of Tattouine in Star Wars were modeled on this), especially when they are lying down and their back knees bend backwards. Plus, they have some interesting habits you might not know about from National Geographic... like when they lie down, they like to roll on their back and kick sand on themselves to knock away the bugs. A good thing to know if you're going to hang out near a camel!

You've probably never thought about how someone gets on a camel. They're too tall to get up on with stirrups (which in real life are used only on racing camels, so the jockey can stand up and not get completely thrown around). I remember being at a zoo as a child where they had camel rides (or was it an elephant?) where you climbed steps up to a platform at the same level as the animal's back. But obviously this would be impractical in the desert. The way it works is that the animals are trained to lie down on command, making them only about four feet high, and possible to climb on. However, a camel lumbering into standing position is quite an awkward seat, and you have to hold on tight!

The saddle design probably hasn't changed in a thousand years: blankets filled with sand to form some padding, strapped to the camel with rope. Some weird-shaped things (probably camel bones) are laced together at the front to form a combination saddle-horn (for grip) and hook for your baggage. Simple but effective technology. A camel is much wider than a horse, so your legs are spread more, and it's gait is much more awkward so you get tossed around quite a bit. But I can definitely see the magic of riding in the desert... it's quiet and peaceful, cooled by the free-blowing winds, and I think at night under the stars, being part of a camel caravan would be just about the coolest thing ever.

We rode about two hours out into the desert, toward a small greenish space where a permanent campsite (complete with showers and cooking facilities) is set up. Ironically, that was the most comfortable night's sleep I've had in almost two months. We had simple beds under an old-fashioned tent, and with the wind blowing over the desert landscape, it was the coolest I've been since coming to Tunis... at one point close to dawn, I actually pulled my thin wool blanket over me. Delicious.

Part III: Sandstorm

So, while we were in Touzer we thought it would be cool to get a ride out to the desert to watch the sunset from the sand dunes, something recommended by both The Rough Guide and The Lonely Planet.

Actually, I'm pretty sure they recommend you get a ride in a four-by-four. But we were operating on a budget and coordinated our ride through a guy who knew a guy with a Honda. For future reference, don't do this. Especially not in May-September, which is the season of sandstorms.

We followed the highway out almost to the Algerian border, and turned off on a rough road. At the time, I thought it was hard-packed sand. But in retrospect it was probably a paved road with a good amount of sand already blown over it.

As our little Honda rumbled out toward a little shanty in the distance surrounded by a bunch of camels, I joked to my traveling companions, "How often do you think a car like this just gets stuck in the desert?" At the time, we all had a good laugh.

When we got out to the shanty, we piled out of the car and were struck full-force with flying sand. The wind was up. We clamored into the shanty to wait out the gusts along with the guys who earn a living selling camel rides to tourists. We were assured the wind would die down in about ten minutes or so.

While we waited we practiced our Arabic with the camel guides, seated comfortably on stacks of camel feed, getting up close and personal with the dung beetles (from the camels). Even inside the shelter, a fine layer of sand was settling in the hair on our arms, the folds of our clothes, and in our eyes and mouths. (Note, the scarf is wrapped around my head to keep the sand out of my eyes and mouth, not for cultural reasons.)

As it turns out, the sunset was nothing special. With so much sand in the air, you basically see a fuzzy ball of light dip to about 15 degrees above the horizon, then become indistiguishingable. It's not yet dark, but the horizon is so obscured by sand that you can't see the sun there.

After an hour or so, the guide seemed eager to load us back up in the car and get back. So we piled in, and headed back in the direction of the highway.

By this time, the road was buried under a significantly deeper pile of sand. In fact, it was almost impossible to tell where the road was. Gradually, we could feel the car slowing down ominously, drifting a little bit as if on a wet road, and then, it just stopped moving. Our guides suggested the car would move better with a little less weight. So we piled out and stood in the sandstorm as they tried again. But the wheels spun in vain.

Next they tried to dig beneath the tires down to the road below, but about six inches down it became obvious that we weren't on the road. After digging in a few other places, we figured out that the road was about four feet to the car's left.

Fortunately, we were still close enough to the camel hut that they could see our distress. A 4-by-4 full of tourists who had paid for the proper mode of traveling in the desert came by to try to pull us out.

A length of nylon rope was produced and stretched between the cars. The 4-by-4 pulled, our driver laid on the gas, and.... the rope snapped. The process was attempted again with the same result. At this point it occurred to us that our guide's car might be permanently stuck in the desert.

As a last-ditch effort, the two American girls hitched up our skirts, and along with Nic and our guide, pushed with all our might as the 4-by-4 pulled with its last bit of rope. Miraculously, the car started to shift. Then, it started to roll a bit, and we managed to push/pull it back to the road, where the car was once again able to travel on its own power. Hooray!

August 15, 2005

Part II: The Garden of Eden

Somehow my image of an oasis is like a pond glimmering in the desert, surrounded by palm trees, waiting to be discovered by lost travelers. I think this came from Saturday morning cartoons as a kid.

There are a couple things wrong with this image. First, desert oases are not sitting around waiting to be discovered... if there's water somewhere in the middle of the desert, chances are the place has been inhabited by civilization for hundreds of years, if not thousands.

Second, the water is not sitting on the surface glittering in the sun. If there was surface water, it would be evaporated in two minutes flat. Rather, a place is considered an oasis if there is enough water beneath the surface of the land to support green vegetation (in contrast to the completely brown land around it.)

The oasis of Touzer has been around for a long time, a stopping point on desert trade routes as well as a flourishing city (however small) in its own right. And if you're there, you should definitely get a guided tour of some oasis gardens.

These are irrigated areas, marked off from the dry land around them with waist-high fences weaved from palm fronds, which serve both to mark property divisions within the garden, and to keep the sand from blowing into the garden and burying everything carefully nurtured there.

We met a guy who knew a guy with a car who agreed to drive us around the more touristy garden area of Touzer. (There are also horse-drawn carts that travel the path if you can get yourself to the entrance.) Inside, we visited a garden plot which is open to tourists.

The highest level is palm trees, which provide shade for the rest of the garden (and dates, harvested in the fall.) It's like a supermarket of greenery. You can walk around and pluck grapes from the vine, figs, pomegranates, and dates from the trees, at the lower level you can see roses, hot peppers, mint, and other herbs all thriving there.

It seems miraculous that such a lush setting should exist so close to the (by comparison) wasteland of the desert, and my appreciation for the story of Adam and Eve has been completely changed. Now I see what it really means to the cultures receiving this story to imagine banishment from a beautiful garden to the hostile lands around it, the harsh life that follows the transgression and the comparison to the easy bliss of inhabiting a oasis garden built for two.

...Totally lost on a kid used to green suburban lawns.

And, I think, on most of the great artists of the European tradition, who had never seen deserts. I think what is truly salient is the Garden of Eden imagery is the contrast between the ease of life in paradise being cared for by God, to having to toil, struggle and suffer in the bitter desert. But I have yet to find a painting of this scene that captures the quality of paradise as a place of cool shade and easy food.

Here's Michelangelo's from the Sistine Chapel...

Part I: Into the Sahara

Thursday right after class we trekked to the louage station and caught a van for the eight-hour ride south. A "louage" is the local term for a sort of small-scale inter-city public transport system: vans with room for about eight passengers run routes between the major towns, with fixed tariffs. Oh, and no air-conditioning.

My traveling companions are Cari (see the link to her travelogue to the right) and Nicolas, a good guy from the Maltese army whose job is to keep the two of us safe from harm, and do the talking when we run into sketchy men whom Cari and I would rather not interact with. This, actually, goes quite well over the course of the trip. (Moreover, I learned quite a lot about Malta, and in Nic's honor I will at some point in the future condense this into its own point.)

This is what it feels like to ride into the Sahara:

First, you're hot. Then you get hotter. Then your body starts to pour sweat. You reach for your water bottle to take a sip, and realize that it matches the temperature at which you normally prefer to take your morning tea.

Then you reach the point at which the desert is so hot, that you no longer feel hot. You think you have stopped sweating, but actually it is so hot and dry that the sweat is evaporating instantaneously, so all you notice is the smell and prickly feeling of the steadily accrueing salt and acid on your skin. I had actually read about this in geography textbooks as a child, and it was kind of neat to experience it first-hand.

At a rest stop I bought a bar of chocolate, but the last bit of it had to be drunk rather than eaten. Also, in the course of 12 hours, I drank about 7.5 liters (almost two gallons) of water, and only needed to make one pit stop. Eventually, however, my body did acclimatize, and I only drank about one gallon per day.

Our first day's journey brought us into Touzer, a good-sized town built around an oasis in the desert. The picture of me (above, left) was taken there. Oh, and the town's name means "scorpions" in Arabic. Fortunately, we did not meet any of the town's namesakes. Tomorrow I'll describe the oasis gardens, and getting our car stuck in a sandstorm.

Here's a picture of the city, courtesy of Nora...

The Tunisian Outback

Hey, I just got back from a whirlwind five-day tour of the Tunisian South: the Sahara, desert oases, camel riding, camping in the desert, Berber villages, some intense scenery, and Luke Skywalker's boyhood home.

Highlights of the excursion will appear in a series of installments over the next few days...

August 10, 2005

"Al-hamdu lil-Allah"

So, I did something really stupid today...

I have been using my Ipod Shuffle as a flash drive at the local internet cafes, to transport files (such as blog posts) back and forth. I was really paranoid that someday I might forget to unplug the thing when I was done and lose my music and all my important files, not to mention the $100 piece of hardware.

I have been known to lose things before... even big things, like cars. And, getting my digital camera stolen the first week I was here also made an impression.

Anyway, I thought I was being really conscientious and therefore safe, but today I left the Ipod in computer #8 at my favorite internet cafe in downtown Tunis. I realized it about five hours later, panicked briefly, and then caught the train back downtown to get to the internet cafe before it closed for the night.

I'm a regular there, they know me, they would recognize the "flash" as mine, maybe somebody noticed it and tucked it away for me, and there's some small chance that it's not actually gone forever. Slim, but worth a shot.

I got to the cafe, and told the woman in charge that "Indi mushkilah kabiirah." (Literally, "a big problem is upon me.") She said something in French, of which I caught the word "flash," and from her facial expression I could tell it had indeed been found and put aside for me. A wave of relief swept over me and I found that I did in fact, have the words in Arabic to express what I was feeling:

Al-hamdu li-Allah!

This phrase, "Thanks be to God," is used all the time in Tunisian culture, whenever something good happens or someone else tells you something good happened to them. In fact, it's a shortcut for saying that whatever you're talking about turned out well. "How's your health?" "Al-hamdu li-Allah."

Three-day Weekend

Well, the trip to the hammam which had been planned for today has been delayed until further notice. I promise to write in detail about it when it happens though!

Tomorrow is the last day of class this week. I'm taking advantage of the three-day weekend to travel to the South of Tunis, the desert region. It should be even more ridiculously hot than the weather in Tunis, but I am determined to ride a camel before I come home!

I'm traveling with Cari, two guys from the Maltese army, and some other kids from class. Expect a news black-out for the next few days, followed by a big update around Tuesday of next week.

August 08, 2005

Catching a Cold

So, I managed to catch quite a nasty cold a few days ago, and had to forgo the performance of the Cuban National Ballet I had bought tickets too. I'm still feeling quite under the weather, but getting better.

Anyway, what I think is interesting to write about relevant to my cold, is different cultural ideas of sickness and health...

It is widely believed in Meditteranean cultures, and in Latin America also, that you can catch a cold from being exposed to cold air, or from transitioning too quickly between a warm and a cool climate. Americans (and I think northern Europeans also) think this theory is quite ridiculous. Colds come from viruses, and dipping between saunas and snowbanks is excellent for your health.

I must admit, however, that I did come down with my cold the day after I had sat beneath the air conditioner in class. (Unlike the Spanish and Italian students around me, I did not put on anything warmer than the tank-top I was wearing.) The other students, and the Tunisian professor, are convinced this is to blame for my sickness. This theory has since been further endorsed up by friends from Malta, France, Turkey, and Honduras.

The people who believe in the air conditioning theory have all given me the same advice: avoid exposing myself to cold air until I get better, and at all costs, don't drink any cold water. My American friends think it silly, but I've decided to follow their advice. After all, maybe Mediterranean cultures know something about staying healthy in a Mediterranean climate.

August 07, 2005

Arab Hospitality

Today for the first time I was a guest inside a Tunisian home! I had been looking forward to this for days, and it turned out great. My Arabic has gotten much better, and I was able to keep up my end of the conversation for the entire four hours I was there!

Moussa, a waiter in a restaurant I frequent, had invited to visit him and his wife at their home for a late afternoon lunch. He's a very friendly guy with a sweet disposition, about 30, and his wife Leila is 24. I met Moussa at the restaurant in the late afternoon and he brought me to their house, which is in a four-story building close to downtown.

Moussa and Leila live in the ground floor flat, which is built with five rooms, plus the kitchen and bathroom, all opening into a central open-air courtyard. The stories above have balconies circling the courtyard, and are occupied by the families of Moussa’s brothers.

I had brought some little French cookies with me, having asked what sort of thing was appropriate for a guest to bring when they visit someone’s house. Of course, a bottle of wine doesn’t work here, but basically anything sweet is customary. I was made comfortable in the sitting room, and Leila brought me a strong, sweet coffee spiced with saffron, which was wonderful.

Moussa got out the photo album from their wedding, three years ago, as well as a video, so I could see the pictures, and they explained Tunisian marriage customs to me.

Later we had lunch, which was salat mechouia (a blended mixture of peppers, onions, tomatoes, and spices), tajwiin (a baked mixture of eggs, potatoes, and cheese, as pictured) and French bread, and drank orange juice out of fancy wine glasses. As the guest, my plate also included some roast lamb.

After eating, we talked about wedding customs in the United States, about American politics, and about our families. I shared some pictures I had brought with me of my parents, my grandmother and I in front of a Christmas tree, me in the snow by a log cabin, and my dog. We talked about religion for a while, and they explained to me the difference between Sunni and Shia Muslims, and the duties of Islam, and we talked about stories from the Old Testament which are common to both our religions, and I learned that Moussa means Moses.

I stayed several hours, and when I asked Leila what her favorite musicians were, she brought out her CDs and taught me to dance in the oriental style. I told them the story about how Cari and I had tried to go to the hammam, and she offered to take us there next Wednesday and show us how it works! Also before I left, they made a gift to me of some beautiful silver jewelry from Egypt. All in all, I’m definitely impressed by Arab hospitality! Now I’m wondering how I can return the favor of friendship.

The invitation also made me realize how useful the vocabulary that I’m learning in my new class is. If we hadn’t just studied the words for the days of the week, “guest,” and “lunch,” I would never have understood what he was trying to invite me to! But my conversational ability has improved a lot in the last week, and I was able to keep up my end of the conversation as the guest, and we had a very good time.

When I left, Moussa walked me back to the train station, gave me their phone number, and told me that I'm their friend now and if I ever have any problems in Tunis, I should call them. Good people.

Tunisian Wedding Customs

No, I didn't actually go to one. But my friends Leila and Moussa showed me the video and pictures from there, and explained stuff to me.

In the Islamic world, wedding ceremonies last six days. I got a bit confused when they were all being explained (in Arabic), but several of them seem to involve the bride going to the bathhouse with her friends to get beautiful and painted with henna.

And on the one of the days, the groom comes to her family’s house to sign the wedding contract and pay the bride price (a symbolic token of 20 dinar... about 10 Euro... these days). On this day, she doesn’t bathe, doesn’t comb her hair, and doesn’t put on any makeup. I guess the idea is that the groom needs to be willing to take her at her worst!

Once the families have signed the contract, that night she gets all dolled up in a beautiful dress and they have a party. And two days later, they have the real wedding party. The ceremony doesn’t happen in a mosque… rather the religious figure, a Mufti, comes to the house to approve the contract.

Leila’s wedding dress was white, covered with sequins and beads, and in two pieces, showing off the midriff. Actually, it looks a lot like this picture I found on a Tunisian wedding gown website. Also, her hands were painted with henna in an elaborate design, like in this picture...

From the video, I could see that they had a band, with two drummers, a violinist, a keyboard player, and a singer (all men), which played Middle Eastern music.

The guests wore a diverse variety of clothing... some of the older women wore outfits which covered their entire arms, and headscarves tucked tightly around the face to cover their hair. But most women, and almost all of the men, wore modern clothing, in various shades of modesty. Most of the younger women were wearing outfits which could be seen at American proms.

Some of the guests danced, but usually in groups rather than couples. In fact, it was more common to see two men or two women dancing together than a man and a woman. Mostly the dancing looked similar to what Westerners would do to such music, but there were a few women who busted out the belly dancing moves!

August 02, 2005

Law and Human Rights in Tunisia

Besides the refreshing change of palate, the other exciting thing about dinner at the Pakistani restaurant was that I got to meet some Tunisian law students. They spoke wonderful English, and I got to ask a lot of questions about the Tunisian legal culture, and politics.

It turns out that Tunisia is a civil law country, rather than a common-law one, although these days students here study both systems so they can understand the international environment. So, the courts here don’t really adjudicate constitutional rights so much. In theory it’s the legislature’s job to protect rights, but in practice Tunisia has a very strongly presidential “democracy,” and whatever President-for-Life Ben Ali says goes.

Also, the criminal justice system does not involve trial by jury, but rather by a judge, with three levels of mandatory review to root out error or bias. The two students were divided on how this system compares to the American one of trial before a jury of your peers. Both agreed that there is a greater potential for abuse in politically-motivated prosecutions. However, one of the law students felt strongly that for the average criminal defendant without the resources to afford a great lawyer, the Tunisian system ends up being fairer. Because there is no jury, it is the judge’s responsibility to find out the truth. Whereas in the U.S. adversarial system of justice, the judge is supposed to sit back and let the advocates from each side to present their cases, and let the jury decide. Thus so much depends on how good your lawyer is. He cited O.J. Simpson as an example of how money can cheat the system, and the high rates of incarceration of people of color as what happens to people who can’t afford good lawyers. However, the other law student thought the idea of a jury of your peers was fairer, because there is a greater number of people reviewing your case, not just one judge or three judges.

I told them that I wanted to go into human rights law, and we talked about that for a while. They were familiar with Human Rights Watch and their work in Tunisia, and it sounds like they have a pretty good reputation.

Pakistani Food

Tonight some friends from the dorm and I went out to eat at a Pakistani restaurant, that the British kids I met at Noah’s party about two weeks ago recommended. (See map at the bottom of this post if you want to go there.) Anyway, the food was great, and totally satisfied my craving for something different which I failed to satisfy at the Turkish restaurant yesterday. The set up was all-you-can-eat, for 8 dinar apiece (currently about $6 US). That's a bit pricy by Tunisian standards, but well worth it.

As far as I can tell, Pakistani food is basically Indian food, but with beef added. There was jasmine rice cooked with saffron and clove, flat bread, and plenty of curry. It was so wonderful to eat something completely different from my staple Tunisian dishes! Also, true to form, the Brits manage to sneak alcohol into the restaurant… Pimms’ No. 2, a mixed drink tasting something like a weak Long Island Iced Tea, with slices of fresh fruit, in a large thermos. (As far as the restaurant owners know, it’s a “special tea.”)

I have to say, you don’t realize until you’ve lived in a Muslim country for a month how important alcohol consumption is to your own culture’s social customs. Any social event, whether sponsored by my university for visiting academics, or just friends hanging out to talk, is going to involve drinks. Maybe in fact it’s something specific to the normal stand-offishness of British culture (which we Americans have inherited to a certain extent) that we actually need some chemical assistance to be social. Certainly, when you’ve gotten used to kicking back a beer with friends when you feel like relaxing and enjoying yourself, you feel quite out of sorts when all of a sudden that’s just impossible.

It’s not that there is no alcohol available in Tunisia. At fancy restaurants you can order wine, and hotel cafés may serve wine or mixed drinks. Also, there is one Tunisian brand of beer which you can buy at some grocery stores. (But it’s pretty awful.) But there are no bars here. The closest equivalent is a sheesha café, where you can buy tea, coffee, and a hookah pipe of tobacco. But these are exclusively male hang-outs, so that option is kind of closed to me as well.