August 01, 2005

The Turkish Kids

My first day in the dorm, I made friends with the Turkish kids. The Al-Manzah dormitory doesn't have a beautiful courtyard garden like the Al-Rashid dormitory which the school used last month, but it does have a central parking lot with a few spare tables, which operates as something of a social gathering space. Around 6pm, I was starving, and went over to ask this group of kids if they knew of a restaurant nearby. They invited me to sit with them, introduced themselves, gave me some juice and cookies, and invited me to join them in going out to eat a half hour later.

That moment of being so instantly and fully welcomed and made comfortable sort of put into relief the general social isolation I feel here. Making friends with Tunisians is hard because I speak no Tunisian, practically no French, and very little Standard Arabic. Plus, there's so many misunderstandings which crop up like pitfalls. Most people have certain ideas about Western women, and the customs for cross-gender relationships here are very different. When you don't have the linguistic fluency to clear these things up, things get complicated fast. (See Cari's post on Gender Relations in Tunis... I think it's not quite as bad as she says, but close... I will write something longer on this soon.)

Turkey is a pretty modern, very secular country, so these guys have much more in common with me culturally than with Tunisians. They're used to socializing in mixed-gender groups, for instance. Like me, they have felt a bit isolated here in Tunis, not being able to speak Arabic very well, and not speaking any French. Anyway, it was great to meet such a friendly group.

With the move into the dorm, talking to the Turks, and meeting my Tunisian RA (who lives in the dorm and helps us adjust and practice Arabic) I spoke a lot of Arabic yesterday. Plus I had a long conversation in German with one of the Turks. Great practice, but I did go to bed with a "language headache." It is located in a very specific part of the back of my head and always crops up when I'm trying too hard to understand a foreign language (or switch back and forth between multiple ones.)


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