July 16, 2005

The Carthage Beach

It's just a hop, skip, and a jump from our apartment, but often when I go there it's been more annoying than relaxing. Lots of pestering from curious or amorous locals. And last week I got my digital camera stolen. I had wanted to take a picture of my "Tunisian bathing suit" --- full-length cotton skirt and shirt, like many of the more modest local women wear swimming. And even though we thought we had one person monitoring the camera at every second, someone found a moment of opportunity to make it disappear.

But, now, I think I may finally be getting the hang of the Carthage beach. The key seems to be fitting in by dressing appropriately. Bikinis are mostly not worn by adult women (though they're a common sight on girls, up to about age eleven). More important than the top, however, is the bottom. Women usually wear shorts, a skirt, or a wrap over their swimsuit... apparently the display of cheek flesh and bikini lines is appropriate only for little children. Now that I've figured this out, I'm able to go on my own and mostly avoid attracting attention.

And yesterday, for the first time since I've been in Tunisia, somebody treated me like just another person, rather than as a customer or a tourist. I was lying on the beach reading my book (Albert Camus'
The Plague) and two girls, about 14 years old, came over and asked me in Arabic to watch their stuff while they went swimming. I didn't understand her words, and reflexively protested that I didn't really speak Arabic. So she said it again in French. The meaning was clear from context, and I guess my face seemed honest, so she smiled, and ran off into the water leaving me in charge of her bundle of clothes, wrapped up in a sheet.

Maybe eventually I will more or less fit in here.

Outted at the Fromagerie

Today I was wandering around Salambo looking for something to eat, and noticed a cute little stand advertising cheese-wares, "Fromagerie El-Bakara."

My Arabic must be getting stronger because I managed to utter a complete, more or less intelligible sentence to the merchant without resorting to French or English. Which is why I was especially surprised when, after nodding to show he'd understood, the merchant followed up with, in Arabic, "You're American, right?"

This is the first time in Tunis that American has been anyone's first guess. What's more, my earlier post notwithstanding, this guy actually seemed pleased when I answered, "Yes."

After more conversation --- I make out the basic parts of "pleased to meet you," "welcome," etc. --- I select a firm yellow cheese with black peppercorns, and a couple eggs he explains are from "Arabic hens, fresh from the farm." These come in a pleasing variety of hues and shapes and for the first time it occurs to me to wonder how they get the eggs all the same size and color back home.

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.

July 13, 2005

The Old City, Part I

Today my roommate Cari and I decided we would go to the hammam, one of the Turkish bathhouses located in the old city. A little steam, a little massage, was exactly what we needed after our crazy first week. The guidebook we had promised an “exotic, sensual, and relaxing experience.”

We chose the one described as for women only (the others take women in the afternoons and men in the evenings), figured out how to get there from the school, and set out in the early afternoon. After hiking through most of the modern city, we got to the wall which encircles the old medinah, where the old-fashioned buildings, markets, and bathhouses are located.

This particular hammam was actually located on the exact opposite side of the medinah from where we approached. Friends had recommended we walk around outside of the old city to the gate closest to our destination, but we were in the mood for adventure and so we plunged right in.

It’s really hard to describe this place. There are no open spaces, just narrow walkways leading in all directions, or to dead ends, and you quickly lose your sense of where you are and where you came from and which way leads to your destination. It really is a labyrinth.

In fact, I have a new theory about that myth about the Minotaur inside the labyrinth that eats the Greek youths. I think it’s a Mediterranean version of Little Red Riding Hood, a cautionary tale told to little children so they don’t go wandering away from their parents in the forest. The labyrinth is the city, and little children are well-advised to keep close to their parents to avoid danger.

The things you see in the medinah are amazing. There are little shops that sell almonds, pine nuts, pepper flakes, cumin, and less identifiable things out of huge baskets, by the kilo or the gram. There are rows of flowing multi-colored tunics, piles of exotic embroidered shoes with pointy curled toes, elaborate silver trays, stacks of hukkah pipe tubes like colorful snakes, unidentifiable cheeses and other foodstuffs. At one point I looked to my right and there was a whole, very dead cow’s head hanging from a hook about five feet from my face.

As with any labyrinth, there are layers to the medinah. Near the gates are the most tourist-friendly areas: the souvenir shops, cobble-stone paved paths, polite shopkeepers. As you go further in you reach the paths lined with shops catering more to the locals: dry goods stores, clothing, herbs and meats and toys imported from China. And further back there are nondescript, semi-deserted streets where you feel like you really shouldn’t be.

At the middle level, we’re somewhat out of place, perhaps the only tourists around at that point, but not unwelcome or uncomfortable. At a store here I ask two boys minding their father’s store how much the men’s linen pants sell for. They tell me “ashara wa ashroun,” literally “ten and two tens.”

Now, I don’t know my Arabic numbers terrifically well, but I’m pretty sure this is not a number I’ve heard before, and I repeat it back to them to make sure I’ve heard it correctly, and try to figure out what it might mean. We have a bit of back and forth about ashara wa ashroun before I finally figure out it’s a colloquial way of saying “thirty.” By this point two adjacent shopkeepers have joined the conversation, which they think it’s hilarious. As we finally say thank you and continue on our way, calls of “ashara wa ashroun!” follow us down the route as the shopkeepers bounce the joke back and forth, putting me strangely in mind of Dorothy following the yellow brick road through Munchkinland.

At some point, the shops end, and the direction we think the bath house is in takes us through nondescript, dusty paths where there are more feral cats than locals, and no other tourists. We fall in line behind the only other woman we see and try to imitate her no-nonsense stride. But by this point we’re pretty much lost.

We duck into a doorway where we think we can consult our map without being seen, and as Cari has her back turned to the path, two boys who couldn’t have been older thirteen sidle up, and one of them expertly gropes her posterior, as they both set to giggling. This is an unexpected enough experience that it doesn’t immediately occur to her to knock the little brat upside his head. Encouraged, they follow us a little while longer, and try to talk to us despite our dirty looks. Spotting three men working on a truck, I go up to them to ask directions to the bath house, and the boys scamper off. The amateur mechanics direct us down the right path, and as we walk on we hear them speaking to each other about the strange experience they just had, encountering tourists in the middle of the medinah.

Besides the direction they pointed in, the one thing we understood of their directions was that we were looking for an “Arabic arch.” We understand this mostly because the Arabic word for arch is borrowed from the Latin. We walk down this narrow path, with blank, decrepit walls high on each side, past feral cats and the occasional sad wooden door leading to who-knows-what. Suddenly on the left we see a wide open arch in the wall, brightly painted. Inside is a tile entry way, and a door at the other end with a plastic shower curtain stretched across it. The hammam.

To be honest, I’m not sure exactly what we were expected. I think, kind of a big space, maybe a desk or counter where someone takes your money, hands you some stuff, and tells you which way to go. What we find on the other side of the curtain is a medium-sized open room, with ledges covered with fat naked Arab women on one side, and hooks holding their clothing, belongings, and black lacy underwear on the other. It instantly becomes clear to both of us that we have absolutely no idea what to do or how to behave in this situation. We stand in the doorway, stunned, for a moment, look at each other, and decide we’ve had enough adventure for that day, and really, how important is being clean anyway?

Feeling Overwhelmed

Tunisia is a roller-coaster experience of victories and frustrations. It seems like every day we all walk a fine line between feeling like we’re having an amazing awesome experience and being totally overwhelmed and frustrated.

As much time as I’ve spent overseas, I can only remember one time when I felt this feeling before. It was during the first few days that I was ever in the Third World. I was in Nicaragua, and spoke very little Spanish, and had gotten a mild case of diarrhea from drinking raw milk out of a dirty bucket, and was back at our hostel deeply wanting a bath and a comfortable bed but having to make due with standing in a plastic tub filled with water my hostess warmed on the stove and lying on a thin mattress covered with polyester sheets in 100-degree weather with no fan.

Normally, bathing in a two-foot-wide plastic bucket, washing my own clothing by hand, navigating a crazy public transportation system, and trying to order a bottle of water in a language I barely speak would be things I would see as an adventure. But there comes a point when you’ve had enough adventure and it’s just not fun anymore, when you deep-down just really want to be clean, and sleep in a comfortable, and have people understand you, and for just that moment, you feel like you would actually rather be at home than on this adventure. And that’s what I mean by overwhelming.

It seems like almost every day in Tunis is like that. There’s a lot of cool stuff, and it’s exciting and fun, and then at the drop of a hat you reach your breaking point, and you’ve just had enough.

Maybe it’s the tenth stranger that day that calls out to you in French or Italian or English and tries to start a conversation while you’re just walking down the street minding your own business. Maybe it’s the third time you lapse into complete silence because you have no idea how to bridge the language gulf between you and the person you’re trying to communicate with. Maybe it’s having no clue what your professor has been talking for the last two hours of class and realizing you don’t even know how to say, “I have no idea what you’re talking about.” Maybe it’s the strange man who follows you for five blocks or the thirteen-year-old boy who gropes you on the street.

For a while you’re able to shrug it all off, and then at a certain point, it’s just too much. There’s a longer story behind this, but I’ll save it for tomorrow’s post.

I’m definitely experiencing serious culture shock. Somehow I had supposed my prior travels would make me immune.

July 12, 2005

Being openly American

If you speak to a Tunisian for more than ten seconds, the first question they will ask is where you’re from, your nationality. I think it’s something of a national pastime to play Guess Where the Tourist is From. It’s a practical question because they want to know what foreign language to try out on you, and ultimately, it’s the only thing that distinguishes us from each other.

Usually when I’m walking on the street, people call out to me in Italian or Spanish. Today while walking with my roommate Cari, a young shopkeeper called after us in strangely inflected but quite recognizable English: “Helloo… I am Canadiaaan!!!” It rarely occurs to people to guess that we’re American, since I suppose few of them make it out here, and perhaps, those that do cover as Canadian.

Being openly American in Tunis is like being openly gay at home… a conscious political choice. Passing is pretty easy, because almost nobody but another American can really tell the difference, and telling everyone you’re Spanish or Italian or Canadian would really make life a lot simpler. But, because in principle we’re proud to be who we are, and because in some sense we feel a duty to our fellow countrymen to represent, we always tell the truth.

It’s not a popular answer. The best response you can hope for right off the bat is, “Really? You seem so nice!” Among young people, this is often followed up by an explanation that they like American people, and think America is actually a great place, they just don’t like the government’s foreign policy. Others make an exaggerated show of being welcoming and nice to show how open-minded and hospitable but really you can tell they’re uncomfortable. Some are more open about their resentment over America’s role in the Middle East, although we haven’t encountered any real hostility yet.

Still, it wears on you after a while, the feeling of constantly needing to shoulder the burden of enduring people’s prejudiced responses in order to educate them, change their assumptions, and be an ambassador for your group. It’s a point of pride to always answer with the truth, but each day it's more and more tempting to simply give in. “Sí, sono italiana.”

July 10, 2005

Modern Standard Arabic

Today is the first day off from class since we got here, and it feels glorious to have finally caught up on sleep. I’m getting pretty good at guessing the time of day from the brightness and intensity of the sun. If I wake up at 6am, the sky is dimly light. The sun rays are just bending around the curvature of the Mediterranean horizon, lighting up the sky but not yet beating upon the earth. About 6:15am, things really light up, morning has begun. By about 10am the sun will be beating down, and hot. This continues until about 7pm, with a peak intensity around 2 or 3pm in the afternoon, and things start to cool down and soften until the dimness arrives again around 9pm.

I’m still trying to figure out this Arabic thing. I think it’s really good that I came here this summer, after my first year of Arabic study, because I’m beginning to get a sense for the language as a living working thing, rather than the bundle of abstract concepts it was before. Really I had been quite confused as to what my fus-hah skills would enable me to do. The Arabic we study in school is Modern Standard Arabic, based on classical Koranic grammar, with a lot of modern words added in. But it’s not spoken as a native language anywhere in the world, and I wasn’t sure to what extent it was going to actually enable me to talk to people.

As it turns out, it is fairly useful. Tunisians study MSA in school from the time they are kids up through high school. So, fluency in Modern Standard Arabic is a measure of how literate a person is. I can’t necessarily have a conversation with kids or people who completed less education, but I am able to speak fairly well with anyone who has had a high-school level education.

It is a second language to them, but it is a language which is more closely related to their native Tunisian dialect learned at home. Given the complexity of its grammar, I would not necessarily presume that Tunisian students find it easier to learn than French. But it’s an important language because it gives them access to materials in the Arabic heritage, and connects them to the rest of the Islamic world.

It’s somewhat frustrating to realize that I would be able to do the same thing in French, which would have been ten times easier to learn, but on the other hand, once I’m really able to do it in Arabic, I will be able to do it throughout the Islamic world. It’s enough to get around, take care of ordinary tasks, interact socially, and discuss politics with the ordinary citizen.