11.16.2010

Tunis-vision

Aloha from a melancholy day here in the Maghreb (the North african countries of Algeria, Libya, Morocco, Mauritania & the disputed territory of Western Sahara collectively). I'm coming up on my 3 month anniversary here and wish to shed some of my thoughts & insights of living in a Muslim country. Where to begin... as I hear the adhan (call to prayer) wafting from the minaret atop the mosque in the distance on Avenue da La Libertade.

Cultural insights, yes this is a good place to start my story.  During the last week of English language classes before finals at the place where I work, my level 6 students were studying different cultural festivals & holidays of the world. As it was nearing Halloween in North America, my students were keen on understand the origins of All Hallows Eve, and Halloween, and St. Valentine's Day... St. Valentine's Day- they got it: just another commercialized day to generate spending among the masses that get duped into believing in this 'tradition'. Halloween was a lively discussion that included tidbits of All Saints Day, and further morphed into The Day of the Dead festivities. My Thanksgiving explanation was a little more difficult to keep my composure as I felt compelled to try to tell 'both sides of the story' w/the ensuing results  of how the indigenous American tribes fared by making 'alliances' with the pilgrims.

The interesting thing about all 3 stories, for me, though is how the concept of a 'religious rite' has all but been erased in these holidays in modern times. They kept asking me, "Yes, well these are religious holidays- right"? My answer to this was simply, "Well, in America there is less affiliation with religion attached to these holidays in current times as in the past- as with much of American society",at least the society I exposed myself to during my years in America. I mean, St. Valentine was, apparently, a historical figure who was imprisoned for spreading "the word" of his god; Halloween, in regards to Christians honoring the Saints back to the Pagans celebrating harvest & honoring their dead, had/has roots in religious beliefs; Thanksgiving- well this is traditionally rooted in Pilgrims reserving the day to thank 'God' for blessing people with plentiful crops & bountiful harvests.

I individually asked my students what their favorite holiday was & all said it was Eid Al-Adha- which is today. Their holidays are firmly rooted in religion up to this day. They were able to tell me the events as explained in the Koran (as it also is in the Bible with Abraham about to sacrifice his son Isaac). It was a beautiful moment in the classroom as they were explaining a tradition of theirs and their English usage was amazing. In terms of speaking and being enthusiastic about speaking, this was a major breakthrough. I realized at that moment that ESL books are really boring and dry for the students, and it is much more meaningful to have a meaningful discussion with students rather than follow along in an impersonal publication. Outside of grammar points, I don't think the books are of much use.

Fashion: Well, outside of the obvious in that many females opt to wear the hijab here, there is not a lot of difference in garb. I think it is a universal thing that all women like to be fashionable. I have seen so many amazing adaptations of traditional, and modern attire here and always smile when I look at a pair of converse hi-tops showing underneath an abaya as a female walks down the street.

I would have to say the biggest difference in grooming habits is with the men. Many males that I observe walking down the street have their hair 'done up' so elaborately and held in place with hair gel. I'm talking serious swaths of hair gelled sometimes in 4 different directions. I seriously think if I tried to run my hands through their hair, it would crack and fall off underneath the pressure & firm hold of the gel! I firmly believe it takes a Tunisian male a longer time to get dressed for a night out than a Tunisian female!!! Many times as I am walking through the Tunis medina I see an elaborate (if not precarious) stacking of hair gel that is of such  magnitude that I can't imagine it actually being used up in one's lifespan.

Regardless of coiffure, male or female, Tunisians are a beautiful people. They are tall and striking individuals living in an Africa that is firmly looking towards Europe, but also with a desire to hold fast to their traditions & cultural identity. Another recent observation was Sunday night. A group of us teachers walked to Medina to meet up with a friend of ours who lives in the Medina and is studying Arabic at the Bourghiba Institute in Lafayette. We all met outside the Port Du France (the large 'seagate' entrance to the old city).  The sun had set yet still held some sort of ethereal glow surrounding the Medina and a group of young boys playing futbol. I thought to myself, "What a life these kids have in the Medina". Walking these ancient paths carved in a narrow maze surrounding a central mosque that has been full of life with shopkeepers and households for centuries that exists today as a testimony to its people & heritage. Then I thought about the differences between these kids and the students at the school I teach at. There is a definite stratification, of course, as it costs a lot of money to attend English language school outside of their public and/or private schools they attend. What I really noticed was that the Medina kids were not shy to practice their English with us, whereas my students are shy to speak so as to not want to make a pronunciation or grammar mistake. I know this feeling as I have what I call "French anxiety". This is where I feel an inability to speak French because I cannot picture myself as French- not in the way that I could picture myself as being Brazilian when learning Portuguese while living in Brazil. It was just another keen observation that made me smile to think I am learning so much about my host culture, or at least continuing to have so many questions that may perhaps be answered one day, or perhaps just lead into more questions...

Concerning food, my diet has certainly been altered in a way as never before. There does not yet seem to be any access to organic produce, or health food stores. This has been the biggest adjustment for me. There is no way to grow a garden here as I am in an apartment. Trying to find 'healthy' food is a task indeed. Questions I have unanswered still: Where can I buy oats? Simple oats. Simple poor people's food? Certainly not here. Oats are SO expensive here. Granola... why is it so difficult to find granola? And when I find it, why is it so expensive? Soy milk, forget it. You cannot afford it here. Hazelnut milk- impossible to find so far. Plain yogurt with live acidophilus cultures- still cannot find it. Orange juice without added sugar- well I found it, and my wallet is thinner for it too.

Fruit is pretty standard issue here- much like Hawai`i. Pomegranates are abundant though, which is a most welcome thing. Speaking of fruit, my 1st 'outrageous' purchase here was a French blender. Being used to a $400USD Vitamix for so many years, I could not conceive of not only not having a blender, but of having to buy one that says "Made in China". I was on a mission and ended up with a $100 TD Moliere (French) blender and am quite happy with. I do miss not having access to Brazilian Acai berries though as that was my main ingredient in smoothies for so many years... alas.

Meat: Yes, I am a meat-eater now. My diet consistently consists of rotisserie chicken w/rosemary (so good), chawarma (a wrap) with Lebanese bread, and sub-par pizza. My favorite restaurants so far: Eddouard- which is a cabaret-type place with traditional live Arabian music on the weekends, and plenty of eastern European prostitutes... but the food is amazing. Even if you walk in the place at midnight, you have to eat food as that is apparently the way these establishments work. It's funny but the few Tunisian people I have told I have been to this establishment kind of give me a weird look afterwards (from males), or a blushing giggle comes from the females. Not sure what to feel about this, but I also haven't been brave enough to ask either... Next up is a sweet little Italian restaurant on Rue du Palestine across the street from Le Counsul Hotel. The owner definitely has Italian blood, and the tiramisu is extraordinary. My newest find is Hotel... what's the name??? Damn. It's also on Rue du Palestine and is authentic Tunisian cuisine with charming ambiance: chandeliers, low lighting effects giving off plenty of shadows & reflected light off the walls, candles for lighting up at the small bar, and a man that plays the lute- it has to be like 12 strings. He is amazing and every time I step foot into that restaurant, I feel transported in time back to the days of the beys of Tunis during the height of the Ottoman Empire. I simply gaze into my glass of red wine and and enjoy the unfamiliar-ness of my surroundings and am just so thankful I am an inquisitive & curious individual.

The immediate highlights that come to mind: Cafe Liban, walking everywhere, Sunday ultimate frisbee at the beach at Sidi Bou Said, walking around "plastic alley" on Saturdays/Sundays and my flat. Cafe Liban is right around the corner from my place, as well as solo ojo's place. We always meet up here and chit chat about the day, as well as bring some of the other teachers there for coffee, mint tea, & shesha jirac. It is a cafe- meaning a men's establishment, but as long as I'm sitting outside it is OKAY. The owner & his son, as well as all the workers are used to be being there w/solo ojo and seem fine with it. Even the guys that are there every day too-well, they just don't pay attention to me anymore. It is nice as I really don't feel strange there. I have met a crazy cast of characters there as well, and it feels cozy- like a neighborhood joint should. So does the chicken place too, and the chawarma place. I am part of Lafayette neighborhood, and it's a nice feeling. Of course, I still get men following me into the supermarket and try to strike up conversations with me:
strange man (SM)      "Oh, do you live here"?
                     Me        "yes"
                     SM      "where"?
                     Me      "in the neighborhood"      (as I'm trying to walk away)
                     SM      "where exactly though"  (as he's looking through the brands of tea bags)
                     Me      "goodbye"
                     SM     "...but how will I find you again"  (as I am outta there)
Walking to work, and everywhere else. This has been extremely liberating for me. After so many years having/needing a car for work and play, this is fantastic. I see so much that I would not ordinarily see. As well, I'm too poor to take taxis, so this forces me to explore all over the city on foot. Some of my favorite moments are just that- moments of walking by a (traditional) building with a recessed archway that looks into a courtyard and seeing... a sheep, a bougainvillea bush climbing up the side of the house, a fountain w/Arabic inscription on it, a child eating a persimmon on a bench, etc.
Recently a group of teachers started up an ultimate frisbee gathering on Sunday afternoons at the beach. Some students show up as well and it is a great time to enjoy a familiarity of the US in another country. It's also fantastic exercise, and just good in general to get together with co-workers and not talk shop! "Plastic Alley", as I affectionately call it, is a weekend outdoor market extending from Lafayette down to the Medina practically uninterrupted. One can procure anything they possibly need there, and if you can haggle, at a very good price. Some of my prized possessions came from "Plastic Alley" such as that long lighter thing you use when lighting the (gas) stove, a vial of super glue, and some incense & charcoal. Lastly, my flat. It feels like home away from home. I love the feeling of hanging my laundry out on the lanai (patio) outside my bedroom and looking down onto the street and seeing the moving picture show of people going about their daily business. The living room also has an 'observation deck' and it's always a nice morning when I can drink my coffee from my balcony and look at the regal date palms that line Rue Du Egypte.
 
Unexpected highlights include walking to AMIDEAST every day and walking past a construction site (as a career archaeologist I can never resist looking into an active construction site) and seeing the progress- sans an archaeologist. I mean, it is a rather large parcel of private land, and there was some serious subsurface excavation- something like a 18' cut into the ground. I always lament about the information being lost daily at that site. It is close to Place Pasteur and, based on the present day surroundings, must of been a popular place in it's heyday as well. The workmen camp out there at night I notice so something must be worth protecting- it can't just be building materials... What story are those crumbling walls trying to tell me. Something there is vying for my attention... I suppose I'll never hear those whispering walls truths.

Another unexpected delight is when the local futbol club, Esperance, wins a match, and later in the night all the cars coming from the stadium cruise the street waving their clubs flags and sounds of male voices singing in camaraderie carry throughout the area.

I'll end by saying I was just interrupted from documenting my memoirs by a student of mine- Hedia. A lovely woman (a doctor) who took the time from a busy day no doubt with her family on this holiday to text me to say "Best wishes for Aid kebir". My working conditions might not be the most ideal, but the students really make it worth it.

signing off for now,
Hollyday