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!