July 14, 2005

The Old City, Part II

We make it back through the sketchy abandoned streets and into the middle district in no time, ducking only once into a public telephone station to lose the two men who are quite obviously following us. We’re back into more-or-less safe territory, but quite clearly lost, when I notice a doorway on our left marked Biblioteque Nacional. I’m thinking, “Cool, let’s see the national library!” Cari’s thinking, “This looks like a safe place to stop and look at the map.” So we go in.

My philosophy about being lost is that it’s always better to ask someone than to look at a map. One, you get to talk to people, which is inherently positive, and especially if you’re trying to learn a foreign language. Two, it seems that if you try not to seek out attention or interact with people, you’re guaranteed to receive attention only from unpleasant people. Whereas if you seek people out and talk to them, they’re almost always nice to you.

In the entryway to the library there are two men talking, and I ask them in Arabic if they can show us where on the map we are, and how to get to the gate we came in from. In about fifteen seconds it becomes clear that they have no idea how to read a map, but they seem nice and we’re practicing our Arabic so we’re happy… all part of the adventure. “What is your nationality?” one of the gentlemen asks. I tell him we’re American, and he gives a shocked and reproachful look, and launches into a brief monologue about George Bush, repeating some unpleasant-sounding verb I don’t understand while making a chopping motion with his right hand.

We clarify that we don’t much care for George Bush either, and I make a mental note for the third time to look up the Arabic verb for “vote.” The guy nods a little, and follows up with more questions about America. He asks each of us what religion we are. This is actually vocabulary we learned in the first week of class here so we’re back on solid communication ground. Cari adds that her father is Turkish and Muslim. This prompts several clarification questions as the guy tries to get his head around the idea of a mixed-faith family.

Having smoothed over the American issue, we try to bring the conversation back around the question of which way is out. “Ah, yes,” our new friend says. With a big smile, he says to Cari in English, “Because your father is a Mussliman, I will show you!” He takes her graciously by the elbow, leads us out of the library and around a nearby corner, and points us ahead to the gate we were looking for. “Shukraan!”

By this point, we’re quite ready to be done with our adventure and home, while we can still say that nothing really bad has resulted from our series of mishaps. We make our way through the tourist-thronged paths, deflecting the entreaties of shopkeepers trying to shepherd us into their stores, duck into a rug store to lose a guy we think is following us, explain to the persistent rug salesman in Arabic that we’re just looking, and depart just as quickly as the young salesman tries to pull us into conversation in English.

Before we get out of the city I direct a firm “No!” to a man walking behind me trying to get my attention, then recognize him as someone I spoke to in an Internet café earlier in the day. I apologize but beat a hasty retreat anyway. Later it occurs to me that I mentioned that my friend and I were headed to the hammam, and he probably came to the medinah hoping to run into us. Definitely sketchy.

Out of the old city about twenty minutes past our peak adventure point, we are still not home. No longer in the mood to deal with walking down the main avenue and riding the metro, and also not entirely sure that we’d shaken the internet café guy, we decide to hail a cab. We negotiate the destination in Arabic, engage the taxi driver in conversation, and go through the “actually, we’re American” routine all over again. The cab driver takes us home the long way, ringing up the meter an extra thirty percent, but we lack the vocabulary to insist upon the highway route.

All in all, it was a good day. We saw some really new stuff, got plenty of language practice, and nothing too bad happened. But it was just a bit overwhelming… the constant stress of being on guard and taking precautions and changing plans to make sure that nothing bad happens, walking that fine line between interesting and dangerous. Ultimately, the old city is a metaphor for Tunisia as a whole: full of really cool stuff in the right places, but with sketchiness and possibly danger just a wrong turn away.


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