Sunday, October 25, 2009

The cause and effect

With the first sight of snow in Europe means the cold weather is also migrating south.

We now have overcast skies and frigid temperatures.

With the lower temperature means more spicy food.

The spice is said to warm your body.

This drastic drop in temperature can also drop one’s immunity.

Yes, I have finally had my first common cold complete with all the symptoms individually packed.

First it’s the sore throat.

Then it’s the first coughs (oh no, not the coughs!)

Then comes the sneezing.



Runny nose.

In reaction to this, my mom asks me if I want tea.

“Do you want honey in your tea?”

I reply that it doesn’t matter because I can’t taste anything.

This makes her laugh.

So I sit in bed day after day.

Naturally I am nostalgic to be back home where I know what will make me better.

Oh the pain to be somewhere we cannot be.

We all have times when we travel somewhere new, wishing we were with people who understand us.

Or with people who want to get to know us.

Or sometimes we wish we were with people who speak our language.

Or know where we come from.

Sometimes we have that, but not always.

When we don’t it makes us uneasy and want to be back where we are understood.

Nasty nostalgia.

Coincidentally we had a lecture last Monday about nostalgia.

We first discussed, what is nostalgia?

Nostalgia is the longing for an idealized past, a past that never existed because we sugarcoat it so much and forget about all the ills of that moment.

It also means there is a strong dissatisfaction with our current life situation.

The present doesn’t hold our interests.

It doesn’t inspire us.

It doesn’t comfort us.

Part of the reason we experience nostalgia is because we are in the moment.

The moment maybe something we can’t see through when we don’t know where we are headed or know what we want.

Meanwhile the past has already happened and we can see it for what it was and how it changed us.

As an effect we are upset when we find that the present moment doesn’t offer us the same feeling.

So what is giving me nostalgia?

Most of my nostalgia stems from my sickness.

Some of it is hearing from friends and family back home who update me on in their lives.

Some of it is thinking about food that I cannot find here.

Another part is language and sometimes feeling at a loss for words.

Sometimes I feel misunderstood.

And sometimes I feel that I should be doing better and putting myself out there more.

And I hate to be hard on myself.

It’s hard to go to a country that speaks three languages.

All of which I do not know.

Sometimes people speak one and switch to another.

In class I mix up MS Arabic with Tunisie.

Oh the frustration!

I am not quite sure where I am headed with my current understanding of language.

I would love to understand it but am continually frustrated with it.

Language is an easy thing to get frustrated with.

It’s so much to think of.

So much.

You step into a new culture.

You hear people speaking, they look at you and expect that you understand them.

I commonly stare blankly back at them.

What I have come to understand is that language is just an agreement made between people as ways to say things.

There is an agreement for how to say something in English and an agreement made between other people for how to say something in Arabic.

And these agreements in words can be learned from one to the other.

I commonly hear people say, “I’m too old to learn another language.”

I used that excuse two weeks ago and I fell behind in class (which is hard to imagine when it’s just me and Max in class).

The beginning of that week was rough, as I was not feeling too clear. I needed to clean out my mind but never felt that I had the time.

During class, I got worked up, felt my shoulders tighten up and almost started crying.

I felt so stupid and out of place.

But I got through that class and sat with myself on the bed later that night and spent a little time reviewing over and over.

Then I wrote to my language professor, Nejla.

I told her that I was continually frustrated with Arabic and part of the frustration was me not knowing what was frustrating me.

Later that week, she sat me down telling me her story about learning English and how difficult it was.

She took one year in Tunis and lacked motivation, which prevented her from learning it and as a result was a weaker student in class.

Then the next year she had a different teacher that inspired her.

Her teacher made her want to learn English.

Part of the inspiration was her teacher telling Nejla that she could learn English.

Nejla said it became a thing where she had to sit herself down and tell herself that she could do it.

Little by little she listened, read, wrote and spoke English.

And look at her now, she’s fluent!

She told me that my frustration with Arabic was my head telling me that I couldn’t do it.

She said, “Well guess what, yes you can!”

Now it’s just up to me to say that I have it in me, which will ultimately lead me with patience and motivation through the years ahead.

I can’t force myself to learn something, but I can learn it with grace.

Last Friday, Geri, Alex and I rode down to Tunis and explored the medina.

I have come to find that walking through the medina is like walking through a corn maze.

There is the popular route most people take or there is an alternative, less traveled path.

There are several tall and narrow pathways that converge at different points.

The medina has street after street with buildings no more then nine feet apart with clothes hanging from up top.

We pass knock-off designer clothing shops, makeup stands, spices and perfume stores.

Cotton sheets hang above the shops to protect them from the weather.

People crowd around each shop.

I mix the manikins up with real people.


We passed some abandoned buildings with moss growing on the wall.

We found the art corner with drawings spreading from one wall to the next.

Then mid-day prayer began.

Hundreds of men crowd the street with their prayer rugs tucked under their arms.

The muezzin begins the call to prayer and the whole medina can hear it.

Then we made a realization.

As we had intended to discover the medina, we got lost in the medina.

Really lost.

I like to say that I am good with directions, but this time I was baffled.

Then it rained.

We huddled under Geri’s umbrella.

It poured for some time, and then stopped abruptly.

We hesitantly moved away from the umbrella, thinking the weather was playing tricks with our minds.

But it wasn’t.

We walk a little more.

Slipped a little on the cobblestone.

Splashed in some muddy puddles.

We passed some mattress, mirror and chandelier shops.

We saw our reflection in the shop windows.

And like a corn maze, it’s not so much of your directional intelligence that will get you out.

We were led by our intuition (and cooperation), which led us out of the medina, one street down from where we started.

We just took the long route.

Today is Sunday, the day before we leave to travel south for a week.

Today is also the presidential election.

Somehow I can only predict that Ben Ali will still stay in power.

Last election, several years ago, 99.6% Tunisians voted for him.

He has been president since 1987 and I assume he will for many more years ahead.

As for now, I am still recovering from my nasty cold.

I still have the coughs and am home alone.

Every time I cough, Bianco barks from downstairs.

Well, I’m not completely home alone.

Sunday, October 11, 2009

Shedding the shroud

Tis the season for celebration.

Cars pass by my window and beep.

Beep beep beep beeeeeep beeeep beepbeep beep beep.

And so on and so forth.

I eagerly look out my window hoping for some real drama.

-like the president and his ten black official cars with two police on motorcycles.

No, this is not an episode of a bad Tunisian soap opera.

Just weddings.

Wedding after wedding after wedding.

Which is strange considering the high divorce rate here.

I once heard a saying in Tunisie that translates to something like: summer in banquet hall (for wedding), autumn in the justice room (for divorce).

It sounds a lot better in Tunisie.

Despite that, people still fall in love and some choose to get married because of that.

Some others may get married for other reasons.

Some see their future and see it with someone, committed.

Some see their future and see it with someone, unsure where to tread with them in tow.

Some want tradition while others beg for modernization.

Some couples see that through time they change.

Some accept that fact and live with it.

Some are annoyed and leave for independence or something new.

Life is all about changing and unfolding oneself in order to find identity.

We long to belong to what we identify with.

If it is someone you feel you can identify with, good for you.

Keep it and nurture it.

Meanwhile, Mimi is perched by my window.

She still thinks the cars are beeping because they’re aggressive drivers.

On Monday we were given a lecture on mass media in the Arab world.

We sat in the lecture room with the lights turned off and the slide show pointing at the white wall.

Dr. Azzouz led us through the slides focusing only on a handful of countries: Egypt, Kuwait, Lebanon and Tunisia.

Through each country, we focused on the major sources of media (television, newspaper, movies, radio, magazines and internet) and how it is throughout each country.

Egypt is, by far, the leader of mass media throughout the Arab world with the largest publishing and broadcasting network.

In essence, Egypt is the center of the Arab world, complete with freedom of media, which is guaranteed by their constitution.

Egypt is also the most densely populated of any country in that region, housing 70 million, all of which are close to the Nile delta.

Egypt has eight daily newspapers, four FM stations and their own satellite.

Moving along to Kuwait.

Kuwait is the most developed country in the Arab world as it has the 5th largest oil reserve in the world.

It also is the most vocal and transparent media in the Arab world and is ranked second in freedom of press, after Israel.

They have 13 television stations and 17 newspaper companies.

Lebanon is not far behind.

Lebanon has 14 television channels, nine daily newspapers and many radio stations.

Lebanon is one of two media hubs in the Arab world.

And last but not least, Tunisia.

Tunisia has nine daily newspapers (four in French, five in Arabic)

They also have six radio stations, along with two private television stations.

So what is it about mass media that we discussed?


How free is the press and how willing will one go to express what they want to express?

In comparison to a more conservative country, Saudi Arabia for example, these countries are doing quite well with their freedom of press.

Tunisia blocked Youtube for political purposes.

But this begs us to question how free is their freedom of media?

Many of the radio and television stations are international.


So how does a country represent itself to a wider, international audience?

How do they represent Islam today?

Do they modernize Islam or Islamize modernization?

There are so many questions.

Despite the freedom of press, everything is censored when someone in the industry is thinking about who will read/hear/see what is said.

People have to please people with their words.

Words are never publicly free or freely expressed.

It’s just a rosy illusion.


On Wednesday I made a discovery about language.

Year after year I sat in a wooden desk in high school.

Shuffling my feet under my desk as I sat under bad lighting in German class.

I spent four years of high school learning German, which was spent slouching over a thick textbook.

I looked at each page, hoping to be motivated.

Never did.

Today is proof as the only thing I remember how to say is, “goodbye” and “bless you.”

That’ll get me far.

Then I learned Spanish for a semester in college.

I can’t say I retained a lot other than the two main “estar” and “ser” verbs.

Then I went to Peru and Ecuador for three months.

That experience was baffling and humbling at the same time.

The Spanish I learned through those months is still retained (I am so lucky!) as it dug itself deep into my brain. I remember it differently now though and I still have a long way to go to be comfortable with it.

I remembered things because I was put on the spot.

Objects became more personal as I had put emotion into the words describing the objects.

Ultimately feeling an emotion is finding identity within something.

(We are taught in psychology that when emotion is mixed with something we’re learning or living through, that we retain it in our memories far longer than without emotion.)

The reason that I was able to retain Spanish (unlike German) was because I could identify with it.

Because I was living there, I felt a part of it.

With a sense of belonging somewhere it is only natural to want to learn the language.

Now flashback to high school German.

I could have been highly motivated if some Germans called out from the textbook saying, “come on over here, we’ve been waiting for you!”

But they didn’t and I didn’t see myself if their culture or their language so I ceased in identifying with them which affected my motivation and drive to pursue it in college.

As for Arabic, our technique in class is to learn vocabulary.

Before we learn how to structure a sentence we learn words.

This is new to me, but I like it.

We use a program that gives us random words like “door,” “house” and “chicken” (chicken was the first word I remembered in Arabic because it sounds so beautiful).

There is a picture, which describes the word being displayed on the slide and finally a woman pronounces it.

It all takes time and a lot of repetition.

So when you’re trying to think of one of the words in a sentence, the image of that word will come to mind and so will the word.


But when living here, there are the words and phrases you learn just from walking day to day.

Naturally you pick up on how to greet people or how to understand what they are saying based off of hearing it over and over and over.

I can walk down the street and figure out what to say in Tunisie to the boys who think that I am Italian or Eastern European.

Who knew I knew their language?

Yeah, who’s sweet-talking now?

Today I had lunch with my mom, sister and grandparents.

It was like Ramadan, but with the sun.

This time the TV wasn’t on, just the radio on top of the refrigerator.

The woman who’s singing keeps saying “Enti, enti, enti.”

Flies are buzzing around our heads.

We sit around the kitchen table and my mom hands me the forks and knives.

She pronounces “knife” with the k.

I can’t remember where to place the utensils so I put them both to the right of the plate.

Mimi corrects me: fork on left, knife on right.

Oh that’s right, I laugh.

We drink mint soda.

Eh, I think it is an acquired taste.

My mom dishes the food out on my plate, I feel like a five year old.

During the meal (like every meal), I never understand what is being said, so I patiently sit looking at my fish.

Everyone talks for a little while, about a variety of things.

I understand just a couple words.

They were saying something about the president and money.

Then my grandfather mutters something and the room goes quiet.

No one understands him.

My mom scoots his chair closer to the table and changes the subject.

“That is my favorite fish.”

I ask her what the name of the fish is.

She pronounces it.

I repeat what she says.

She says it again and adds that it sounds like….

She can’t think of the word in English.

Mimi makes the animal noise.

I still don’t know.

Everyone stares at each other around the table, wondering who will be the first to remember the word.

Out of nowhere, my grandfather says, “Wolf.”

He saves the day.

I wouldn’t say manners here are strict or that much different from the West.

During our excursion last week, professor taught us that you must ALWAYS fill the other person’s glass before yours.

If not, well, bad luck to you.

You may eat before someone else, but never pour your glass of water unless you have already filled someone else’s glass with water.

I hope my host family will forgive me for my lack of knowledge about that.

For now Mimi is calling me for dinner.

Her jacket squeaks as it is made from a weird material.

It looks like a puffed up leather jacket.

She looks like Michael Jackson.

I will never get over the fashion I sometimes see people wearing.

Countless boys and men wear shirts that are pink, blue, green and orange with black, bold print that says “Wild for the night.”

If only they knew what it meant.

Sunday, October 4, 2009

Another travelin’ song

After hours of sitting in a dusty Mercedes, we have returned from our first Tunisian excursion complete with myself, Alex, Max, Geri and Professor Mounir.

Strangely enough I am happy to be back home in Tunis.

It’s thundering and I am now realizing how it is the beginning of October.

Bring it on Fall, bring it.

I was excited for our first Tunisian excursion.

So excited that I woke up on Saturday morning, like I use to wake up on the last day of elementary school.

I jumped around and took forever to get ready.

Finally when I was ready and a little more mature, I skipped on over to school and met my crew.

We met under an overcast sky and loaded everything into our chariot.

Then we were off.

We drove west into the rocky cliffs off the Mediterranean, kissed the most northern tip of Africa and scooted into the Atlas Mountains.

Scoot scoot.

And we honked a lot, because who doesn’t like honking their horn.

Toot toot.

We passed goats, cows and some unsuspecting dogs.

We waved at little school children, sheepherders and some donkeys.

We listened to Julieta Venegas, Radiohead and Bach.

We rode with our windows down westward, letting the wind blow dry our hair.

We explored Roman ruins over and over and over.

Through that time out west, we visited the beach port of Bizerta then moved further west to the steep cliffs around Tabarka, finally we headed southwest to the ancient city of El Kef.

Before we knew it we were eastbound.

We toot tooted and scoot scooted some more.

We retraced our steps back into the Atlas Mountains.

We passed some more sheepherders and donkeys and people selling honey on the highway (which I believed was lemonade).

We didn’t wave this time.

We explored some more Roman ruins.

We drove with the windows up and the AC blasting cold air.

We arrived to finish our excursion with the tourist city of lights and discothèques, Hammamet.

Traveling has got to teach us something, right?

Here are some things I took note of about each place:


On Saturday we found ourselves on the sunny beach of Ghar el Melh before arriving at Bizerta.

For swimming?


Oh the disappointment.

We were going to hike up the steep sea cliff.

Professor Mounir claims this will take one hour up and one hour down.

Oh how he was wrong, so wrong.

We marched tenaciously through trees, bushes and wet sand.

We hiked and sweated and hiked a little more.

After following the path, we found ourselves at an old shrine with white washed walls and a green door.

Dogs barked viciously from the roof.

A woman came out to greet us.

She was very old and sick.

Professor felt bad so we kept the visit brief.

We entered her house, the shrine.

Complete with jade walls and red carpets.

It smelled on rotten fish and grapes, flies were everywhere.

The shrine has been around for generation after generation after generation.

It’s old, like the woman.

She lives there with her husband, who hikes down the cliff everyday to catch fish.

The shrine is always handed down to the oldest child to keep and look after it.

She unfortunately has no one to hand it down to since she has had no children (she claimed we were all her children).

So one day when she dies, her niece will take ownership.

She insisted we drink some tea and eat her grapes.

But we didn’t and we weren’t trying to be rude, we just didn’t want her to put effort into being a good, traditional hostess when it was obvious she was sick.

She was a good hostess without the tea and grapes.

She sweet-talked to us, as she was luring us to stay longer than we intended. The girls and I cooed at everything she said. But we had to leave before the sun was setting, and it was setting.

So we left her and professor led us down the same path we took up.

Or so we thought.

We got lost.

We bushwhacked our way through the green mess.

For every few steps, Mounir would lead on to say, “Oops, dead end.”

Then he would quote Wordsworth, telling us the need for a little optimism.

Never, ever give up.

Optimism indeed is what got us through the pinesap and pricks from cacti.

After diving into all the bushes for so long, my first instinct was “I hope there are no ticks in Tunisia.”

After growing up in Northern Minnesota, I am all too familiar with deer ticks sticking to you when you walk through the forest.

I hate ticks.

I ignored the thought only to be reminded hours later of one crawling through the car while we were crossing a bridge.

I say to professor, “Are there ticks in Tunisia?”


“Well what’s that?”

“A tick.”

Thanks professor, real profound.

We arrived at Bizerta as the sun was setting and settled into our hotel for the night.

Hours later we dined on meat and Magon and finally passed out.

The next morning professor dropped us off at the medina.

We were there to distinguish the difference between the medina in Tunis versus the medina in Bizerta.

The difference that we noted was the lack of tourist zeal throughout each local shop.

No one was selling goods like they do in Tunis.

This is not a tourist spot, so no one living in Bizerta’s medina expects foreigners to knock on their door demanding their local goods.

It’s nice though, local people see you but they don’t annoy you by asking you to buy this and buy that.


Later on during the day, we drove on a dirt road to park next to a rural house.

Professor called someone on his cell phone and a pack of sheep crossed the street behind us.

Then we got out of the car and walked into the rural house.

We met a family who made their own pottery and has done so for years and years.

They collect the terra cotta colored clay from a mountain they hike to.

They then mold it into bowls, vases and some random animals.

They heat it in their old oven and dry it.

Then they paint it.

They sell it close the road for a cheap, cheap price.

It intrigued me to wonder why the family would sell their pottery right by the road for a cheap price, when they could walk to a close town and sell it and make more money.

They are very aware of this scenario as well.

They are not interested in that, money isn’t important in that respect.

Sometimes when we do what we have a passion for, making a money profit is not necessary in order to feel the rewards. Doing what we love to do daily gives us a satisfying sensation, which is the ultimate profit.

Later we arrived in Tabarka to explore an ancient fort.

We saw the gymnasium (warriors have to keep in shape), bakery (because they love their bread) and the places where the warriors use to live back in the day. We also saw the battleground, naturally.

We had a 360-degree view of the Mediterranean with the wind knocking us over.

Later back at the hotel, we changed clothes and dined on some pasta and more Magon.

The compelling conversations that come up during dinner every night always fascinated me to think about how ready I am for the world.

Sometime I feel like a little insect in the world, about to be squashed. At other times I feel like Atlas.

It’s just the five of us sitting around a rectangular table with a tablecloth covered in breadcrumbs and wine stains. Professor always sits at the head of the table leading conversation.

Hours later we find ourselves stuffed and ready for bed.

On Monday we left to arrive in El Kef. We stayed there for two days.

This town was much different from the other towns we had visited and had driven through, as we were in the rural country away from the sea.

We were given a tour of the whole town and it’s complete history through a local guide.

There were Judaic, Christian, and Islamic buildings in between narrow streets.

We came across Berber, Roman and Pagan ruins.

As well as cats that nimbly crossed the streets and little children who poked their heads out of windows, whispering to one another.

Then the sun set and we had more pasta and Magon as well as more conversation and debriefing of our days on the trip so far.

A stray cat would linger around our legs under the table, waiting for us to finish our meals so it could pounce on the rejected meat.

It stared at me and I pet it. I felt rebellious to touch a feral cat.


I wanted to take it but professor insisted that I couldn’t keep it.

My childhood dreams of owning a pet resurfaced and my heart broke once again.

Before we knew it we were in Hammamet on a Wednesday afternoon.

It was muggy and I could sense the presence of foreigners.

I’ve finally found my US, Canadian and UK tourists; they’re here in Hammamet.

Hammamet is the destination for Tunisian and European tourists during the summer months as it has many, many clubs.

During the peak season, as much as 90% of the people in the town are tourists.

Now that it is fall, I would say 40% of the people living there are tourists.

That’s still a lot.

We theorized the effects of tourism and discussed the difference between authenticity and tacky look-alikes.

We were able to witness this by going into the resort part of the town and were baffled to see a “New Medina.”


How is a medina new and how has it been formed so quickly (Medina’s are the oldest part of a city and only form when one culture fills in another culture and polishes itself off through time to become truly authentic)?

How can a wealthy person envision building a medina as a resort to lure tourists into believing this is what Tunisia is?

I felt like I was in the Middle East section of Disneyland.

Plaster, plastic and prissiness all boxed up and tied shut with a red ribbon.

It was so fake and cheap.

Men were aggressively asking us to buy this and that.

I’m sure everything they were trying to sell us was imported from China.

Oh the irony.

What we came to discuss later was why exactly do tourists want these products that the shopkeepers were trying to sell us?

Is this the image tourists have of an exotic area in North Africa, because last time I checked, there were no camels this far up north as well as black servants.

How terrible!

Where do they get this idea?



As much as we would like to think that luxury and bounty do exist in the Meghrib, we also need to consider where we get these images.

We need to challenge these images we have of far and distant lands by actually traveling to these places.

When we are there, away from the touristy areas, we find a new reality and grow an appreciation for the culture’s authenticity.

Because believe me, the reality of these “exotic” lands may not be what you had in mind, but there is a reward of seeing something you were not expecting to see.

Search for what locals think define themselves and their culture, not what they think you think defines them, because it doesn’t.

Men sell these tacky products because they know what sells but they also know what they are selling is foreign to them.

They’re selling things that don’t even define them, yet they are attempting to define what we all think defines them

There’s something troubling with this scenario, but yet it happens in every tourist city around the world.

Hours after exploring the New Medina, we headed back to Tunis to come back home and sleep some more.

After being on the road for so long I realized why I missed home life so much.

I love where I live and who I live with.

There’s just something about living with a mom and a sister, just us there.

It’s a very small house with an incredibly loving and caring atmosphere.

When Mimi was crying the other night (possibly because she missed her sister, who’s studying in France) all I could hear from my room was my mom talking to her with the clink of teacups.

It’s important to talk everything over with a warm belly of mint tea.

It makes you think clearly and heals the pain quicker.

My mom may have had two daughters but she still is young at heart.

One late evening as I was eating my potatoes and chicken my mom put the radio up.

I asked her how one dances to this music.

She took her jacket off and walked into the other room. I assumed she didn’t hear me.

She came back into the kitchen with a leopard print scarf, tied it around her waist and belly danced for Mimi and I.

She was so good.

I ask, “How did you get to be so good?”

She dances in front of her mirror, self-taught.

A natural.

She wants Mimi to dance with her but Mimi’s embarrassed, she would rather sing.

Then my mom encourages me to dance and I give it a go.

I got some potential, man.

I think the reason why I like my family so much is because we’re all so young or we act young together.

We find alternative ways to express ourselves when language is lacking.

We work in sync and we all recognize each other and what we need.

And these ladies like their academics.

My mom has been studying HIV and currently is looking at the H1N1 virus.

I know, right?

At this moment she is asking my sister and I about what to wear for her party tonight.

She is wearing a red dress with some shiny high heels.

I just gave her the thumbs up.

I want to ask her how she does her makeup.

Makeup and how it is applied to someone’s face can be an incredibly culturing experience.

As for Mimi, she’s got brains too.

She wants to study engineering when she is older.

She likes it when we sing when we walk Bianco.

The routine of walking the dog is so cultural as well.

Where we go, who we pass as well as various landmarks around the neighborhood, all mark a different conversation or song sung.

She got a new cell phone the other day and she downloaded some songs from my computer that she recognized.

We played them while we walk and sang along to “Piano Man” “Say My Name” and “ABC” among others on empty streets with just some cats as our audience.

We only needed a microphone and a spotlight to make it karaoke.

Sometimes we would hit a note and dogs would bark from houses.

Bianco would go crazy.

We’ve got free spirit, yes we do.

Friday, September 25, 2009

The times they are a-changin’

Now that Ramadan has ended, the structure of the day has changed once again.

Just when I got use to the old structure, it had to be replaced with a new one.

People have emerged from their homes and now eat and drink at cafés during the day.

A once empty street is now populated with hundreds of people.

People are no longer sleeping during the day.

Including myself.

Now I spend time in cafés drinking lots of coffee.

Bad habit.


The weather has cooled a bit.

It’s beginning to feel like Fall.

My windows are closed along with the shutters, taking away any light I once had coming into my room.

I have a big wool blanket covering my bed now.

A big wool blanket with a picture of two lions on it.

It has also been raining.

Raining, raining, raining.

As I walk to school I say to Allah, “Please don’t let me slip and drown in the gutters.”

He’s a good listener.

I pass a street sweeper who patiently waits under a tree until the rain stops.

Then the wind picks up.

I continue to wonder if this is what a hurricane feels like.

Yesterday it flooded in downtown Tunis when we got off the TGM.

My shoes got wet and I had soggy feet.

I looked dead.

My sister told me that seventeen people died from the floods in southern Tunisia on Wednesday.

It goes with the saying: when it rains, it pours.

This week has been quite sleepy.

Stories become less exciting when you study versus travel abroad.

Days become messy and blend into one clump.

Everything that was once new and exciting is now second nature.

Oh I live in such a beautiful neighborhood.

Yeah, it’s okay now.

Whitewashed walls, blue shutters, pink flowers.

I’m so spoiled.


On Thursday we went to downtown Tunis for the Tunisian national film festival, which began on the 23rd and lasts until the 26th.

We stood in a crowded street and waited outside the Hotel Afrika.

We were surrounded by the stereotypical French movie buffs.

Cigarette smoke passes between us and finally we’re in.

We went to see Amreeka.

An old man was sitting in front of me, blocking the French subtitles.

It was a good movie though, heart-warming.

A moment later and I was back home in bed by 10pm.


On Friday we were dropped off at a mall in La Marsa by our academic director.

The four of us were there to observe the gender roles.

What did professor mean by “gender roles” and how were we going to find it in a shopping mall with so many different types of people around?

I don’t know, but I was about to find out.

Now that school has begun, few young people were shopping.

From the people I did see, I grouped into certain categories:

Slimy men: the men on the streets who have nothing better to do than group together and catcall.

Traditional working women: the women who may or may not wear the hijab while in public places. They go from point A to point B without distraction. They are commonly running errands while on break from work.

Businessmen: the men who wear tailored business suits with gelled back hair and huge sunglasses. They’re always on their cell phone.

The Westerners: the easy-to-spot Europeans with their Italian and French fashion snobbery.

There was nothing major to pick up from the whole experience.

No huge differences in gender roles.

People would go to the mall to shop like they do everywhere in every culture.

-Many people would shop solo.

-Many people would shop in groups of two or more.

-Many people would buy things.

-Many would browse and leave with nothing.

There was nothing major that men did that women didn’t do and vise-versa.

This made me wonder, why would professor want us to examine gender roles when it didn’t seem like there was any major things separating men from women?

Back in the classroom I found the answer.

Professor asks, “You saw men grouped together, right.”


“Sitting around doing nothing, right?”


“What about women, do you see them in the mall sitting around doing nothing?”


I had an epiphany.

This has been an answer to a question I have had for years.

(Sometimes our most basic questions are so simple that we never think to explore them or to even make sense of them. Sometimes we’ve lived with our questions for so long that we don’t even see them as questions until we find the answers unexpectedly.)

Here, and everywhere else in the world (so it seems), public places are filled with men sitting around.

Where are the women?

They’re somewhere, they do exist.

This has to do with ownership and who owns what.

Do I hear tradition?

Women own the house. Men own everything outside the house.

After decades of gender role change, ownership of space is still similar to how it always seems to have been.

Around that same time a pen was placed to a piece of paper.

Public space:

Men feel they own it and that they belong to it. Women feel that public space is theirs to use temporarily.

Women go from point A to point B with things to do and people to see.

In between women commonly feel this public space is hostile and don’t make eye contact with anyone they are surrounded by.

But men continue to catcall and women continue to care less.

Private space:

Women feel that they run the household and do a majority of the chores that tradition has bestowed upon them. Men feel that they use this space temporarily.

Women make household rules and expect others to follow them.


As much as we believe that tradition is a thing of yesterday, we need to think again.

Tunisia is becoming more traditional and is looking for their own form of Islam.

When one culture in the world becomes more liberal, a culture somewhere else in the world is becoming more traditional.

Modernization does not necessarily mean liberalization.


As for today, the only thing that happened is that I got my finger stuck in the door.

It hurt and I cursed.

But no understood me.

Later, I saw my grandma when I came home and greeted her by asking how she was.

That’s as far as I got before she kept talking and I had no idea what she was saying.

It was then when I realized that I didn’t know how to say, “I don’t know.”

So I said “Shwaya shwaya.”

We smiled, then I realized I don’t know how to say goodbye.

So I smiled again and hesitantly walked away.

I’m so rude!

Oh the joys of language.


I like making my own things.

Such as my accent.

I speak English with an accent heard nowhere else in the world.

When I talk with my sister I wonder if she wonders where I am from.

My own world, I guess.


Sunday, September 20, 2009

No matter where you go there you are

This week marks the end of Ramadan.


Which means my family and I are now celebrating Aid El-Fitr.

This celebration lasts for three days (Sunday through Tuesday).

There is a morning prayer (which I slept through) followed by gift giving (in the form of food) to the poor and disadvantaged.

I celebrated by dancing to the radio in the the kitchen.

Families visit one another, distant family telephone one another.

The phone here has been ringing continuously.

Next thing I hear is my mom answer and say “y-ayshek, y-ayshek, y-ayshek”

Aid El-Fitr also marks my third week being here.

I am happy to say that my days now flow by and have a comfortable structure, I have settled in.

Language is another thing that has settled into my brain.

My neurons are now programmed to hear and lightly speak Tunisie as my external stimulus has changed and forced me to adjust in this foreign environment.

That’s one way to look at it.

In other words, it is becoming second nature to hear a language I barely understand and day by day, recognize words heard over and over.

As for Arabic:

What I have come to realize is that learning Arabic is like taking a calculus class in kindergarten.

For every new letter we learn, we also learn a word.

We write it over and over in the book.

It all seems like one long algorithm.

Then we write it on our notebooks and show our professor.

She checks it and if we do it well, she praises us.


We then say it over and over and over and over.

We animate it with our hands.

Just Max and I.

We look at one another and laugh.

He just yodeled while attempting to pronounce that last word.

It’s just too hard to take this class seriously.


Monday marks lecture day and we were given one by Dr. Largueche, who talked to us about minorities throughout Tunisia.

She spoke English with a heavy accent, but as beautiful as it was, it was incredibly difficult to understand and follow.

My notes were messy and scrambled.

What I did manage to read from my notes was who immigrated here back in the 19th and 20th century.

Tunis was a desired seaport to immigrate to for people who lived in Sicily/Italy, France, Malta, Greece, Turkey and even Russia (during the Bolshevik Revolution).

There were also the Jewish, who had their own spot in the medina.

The Jewish were grouped by their religion as compared to which country they came from.

Although Tunisia was a French protectorate in the 1920’s, there were more Italians than any other minority group.

Those Italians, how could they?!

But miraculously by 1931, the French exceeded the Italian population.

Only by several hundred more, though.

I can only image how they did that.

Dr. Largueche further discussed how the minorities (excluding the French) were often given lower salaries and only a choice of certain professions.


But now everyone is equal and happy.

That’s about all I can recall before my notes get sloppy.

Tuesday marks our field-study seminar day, where we had a reading and discussion with our academic director about the difference between culture and civilization.

Our conclusion as to the difference between culture and civilization was that you could have “less civilized” or “more civilized” civilizations.

But with culture, you either have it or you do not.

Somehow poetry was tied into this.

Professor will always find a way to tie Wordsworth into any conversation.

He discussed the difference between the soul and the spirit and how one can change the spirit but not the soul.

The soul is the innermost center of us that houses everything that defines us, no matter how our life situation changes. It is our nature.

Our spirit is our second nature, one that is learned based off our surrounding.

Professor discussed how a flower is not beautiful but that we bestow beauty on it from our spirits.

That’s why we find it beautiful, because we believe it is based off our surroundings (learning by witnessing people admire a flower).

Somehow that is tied into our initial discussion on civilization and culture.


On Wednesday I encountered something worth describing gently.

With my own two eyes I witnessed two circumcisions.

(long and dramatic pause)

I feel like a changed woman.

The procedure took place on the dinner table.

The same table where we eat dinner every single night.

That’s so incredibly appetizing.

The two boys were sons of the woman who cleans the house on the weekends.

It was a family event and relatives came from everywhere.

As I rush to put something on worth labeling “circumcision festivities attire,” I race down the stairs in time to catch the two doctors enter the house.

One man, one woman.

They neatly place sheets over the table, lay out their tools and gracefully put their official white jackets on.

The boys sit like princes in their seats, watching.

My mom wants a picture with the seated boys and I, standing awkwardly behind them.

She gives the camera to my old grandfather who’s slouching over his cane.

He struggles to get the right angle, momentarily pauses, squints a little and poof the flash goes off.

(I NEED to see this photo – just to feel this classic moment in history)

My grandma closes the doors and window shutters.

This was serious business, too much for me.

I walk outside.

Mimi and I sat on the swings with the kids running around.

She says, “Its okay, it’s much better outside.”

There’s plenty of kids here for this event.


Because someone has to entertain them, duh.

The kids jump up and down. Run left and right. Do some headstands. Play with my hair. They talk to me and I nod with hesitation. They concentrate for five second and are briefly distracted by a slug.

Distraction, distraction, distraction.

The dog barks from behind the house.

The two brave boys get to see the dog right before their special time, in their gold and white royal getup.

I hear my name in the window and peer in.

My grandmother is ushering me inside to partake in this ordeal.

I felt squeamish but a little adventurous.

The same incense I recognized from Catholic mass was fuming outside the window.

Walking inside, there was a gathered apprehension that could be felt with the twenty relatives in the room.

Women wailed and I watched.


The door opens and the first boy was up to bat.

As he was six, he had to be brave for his four-year old brother, who impatiently waits outside.

His bravery lasts for less than a minute.

As his screams get louder, so does the music.

There is mere terror in the four-year-old cries from outside.

The boys are communicating from inside, out.

Meanwhile I had the front seat.

Not by choice.

The male doctor is giving me step-by-step instructions on how to properly give a good circumcision.

Now I know everything!

My mother zooms around the room with a Kodax disposable camera taking up-close shots to make the moment last forever.

She’s quite the photographer.

After twenty minutes of injections, snips, stitches and finally bandages, boy number one is done.

Next is the little one.

He clutches to his father.

The female doctor has to tickle him to get him off his father.

Once on the table, his body is spread with his father grabbing his arms and his uncle clutching his legs.

His father buries his face onto the little boy’s to reassure him that everything will be okay.

The same steps are followed and the rest is history.

Well not to the disposable camera, anyway.

On Thursday it was Geri’s 21st birthday.

We celebrated by getting small cakes.

We were eventually disappointed with all them.

Now we know which bakery to avoid

Some observations I have made over the past weeks:

Tunisian radio plays club music daily and I find it odd where they play this music.

Such as in the grocery store.

Breezing through the store we come across rows of juice and soda.

We hear remixed songs of MGMT.

I didn’t know that was possible.

But one thing I can say: it really does make food shopping more exciting.

I wish the US would catch on to this.

Apparently there is some relation between the term “internet” and “toilet”.

Whenever I say the internet isn’t working, my sister always goes to flush the toilet.

She then comes back into the room to tell me that it is now working.

I’ve given up on the wireless internet and say, “Perfect, thank you.”

I should have mentioned this observation earlier, as it is an immediate observation one makes when they enter a country, but there is a lack of US, British and Canadian travelers/tourists here.

I have come across one and I think he was Australian now that I think about it.

Although they play old, bad music from the US, most influence is from Western Europe.

No fast-food globalization, just Coke.

I can live with that.

Monday, September 14, 2009

Shwaya shwaya

You have to love a culture who commonly uses a term that literally translates to “little by little.”

That must mean something right?

I am adapting little by little.


I was sick and I have returned back to health.

I am stronger and not easily swayed by food sickness anymore.

But that happens anywhere you travel internationally.

It has to get worse before it gets better.

I am on my way up.

Let me attempt to decipher some of the events from this past week:

On Monday my group and I had our first belly dancing class.

It is always a somewhat awkward experience having someone show you how they move their body and how your body has absolutely no idea how to mimic it.

A body has a mind of its own.

It chooses what it wants to do.

Observe then dance.

Dance while observing.

There was a lot of laughter.

It was taught in French, so I was out of the loop once again.

Might I mention that our teacher was a middle-aged man.

We also had our first lecture by one of the local professors at the University, Dr. Cherif.

She lectured us on the Tunisian family and how it has changed through the decades.

That’s when we learned about Habib Bourguiba, who was the first president after Tunisia won independence from France in 1956.

(Since independence there have been two presidents: Bourguiba as the first and now Ben Ali, who has been in power since 1987)

As Tunisia was young and fragile post independence, Bourguiba nursed it to strength and power through his 30 years in office.

After hearing many people, especially women, talk about him I find that he is well praised throughout political history.

He was one of many leaders during that time that was pro-Western, as he went to Paris to study politics. Many say he was the most Western of all Arabs.

One reason I think he was so successful at strengthening Tunisia was because he focused on women and their need for empowerment.

You can only understand a country by what they do for women.

They do a lot here, kudos.

He implemented women’s rights, family planning and free education for both genders.

You give a woman free education, they will want control of their bodies.

Abortion is legalized and there are several family planning places that every woman feels no guilt for visiting.

So in a sense women control their bodies and their sexuality.

Which means, families are smaller because more women want education and jobs outside the household.

Less kids (one or two) means that a woman can dedicate more time to her profession of choice.

As a result, Tunisia has kept a relatively low population growth since its independence, staying right around the 10 million mark.

That’s impressive.

As we all know, over population ultimately means an abuse of natural resources.

Less people means that there are more resources.

And more resources means wealth for the entire country.

So on and so forth.

Family is important and most Tunisians never leave where they were born.

Dr. Cherif even told us that, out of respect, she visits her parents at least two times a week.

She still does and will continue to.

In many instances, a newly married couple will build on top of their parent’s house to raise children. Their parents help them raise their children.

As mentioned before, the family is changing.

Women want to balance family life with a career.

Many women want the new way to raise a family but often times their husbands get nostalgic of traditional ways where women worked in the house and men outside.

Many times there are disagreements, which all too often lead to divorce.

The divorce rate is high here.

Dr. Cherif said that Tunisia has the highest rate throughout the Middle East and is fourth highest in the world.

I live with a single mom and she’s able to support her two daughters financially.

The evolution of the family.

On Tuesday we had our first field-study seminar, which means that the four of us rode the TGM to downtown Tunis to solve our academic director’s instructions.

To help prepare us for our final independent study project, we began researching Ibn Khaldoun, a famous Tunisian theorist from back in the 14th and 15th century.

I have a hard time imagining what life was like then.

Our academic director’s instructions were for us to summarize Khaldoun’s Theory of Culture.

Breezing through several of his essays in the CEMAT library, we came to find his theory on the rise and fall of all great civilizations.

Sweaty and hungry, as we were stuck in a stuffy and unconditioned room, we read on.

He claimed that the Berber lifestyle was more ideal as the basic needs were searched for on a daily basis. Movement and hunting/gathering were ideal living standards and human nature.

Khaldoun wrote on to discuss his opinion on the sedentary lifestyle.

Because basic needs were met easily from day to day in a sedentary setting, an individual spends their time focusing more on themselves and the luxuries they would hope to acquire.

Focusing more and more on luxuries, meanwhile never being personally fulfilled.

We continue on a path in life hoping to be fulfilled by our luxuries, only to find the joy and fulfillment wear away when we finally acquire these luxuries.

That’s why all great civilizations decay with added decadence.

On Friday we had another academic lecture, this time given by Ms. Boussedra on women and gender in Tunisia.

What we learned at this lecture was what type of Western transition Tunisia has been experiencing.

She told us that when she would travel to other parts of the Middle East, many people would say, “You think you’re from the Middle East? You’re from Africa.”

Meanwhile, I think people have their own image of Africa and I don’t think this is the image most people have.

So where does Tunisia, or North Africa for that matter, place themselves if they don’t belong to the continent they are on or to the region that brought Islam to them?

They have many influences from the North, West, East and South and from that, new, emerging identities form.

They’ve begun to celebrate Christmas and Valentines Day.

It seems to be it’s own region now.

Ms. Boussedra continued to discuss how women see themselves here.

Many women wear the hijab in the streets.

The common thought that many people have of a woman wearing a hijab is that she is loyal to her religion.

Many women wear them for different reasons, even non-religious wear this head covering.

Women may wear them to escape harassment, show respect or to show that she looking for a husband.

There is a clash between the traditional and modern ways of presenting oneself.

On Saturday I walked with Mimi to the American WWII cemetery, which is around four blocks away, lined by olive trees.

Inside the giant iron gates, everything was well manicured.

I didn’t think I was in Tunisia.

There were thousands and thousands of dead US soldiers with white gravestones.

I wonder if most soldiers had their family travel all the way here to see their grave.

Later on I went with my mom and sister to go shopping for clothes.

At one in the morning.

I was about to fall asleep as we walked from store to store.

Oh Ramadan, one more week.

Everyday I wake up at the break of dawn.

I walk twenty minutes through the narrow streets to get to class in a small, white building.

I use to walk with my head looking at the ground to discourage any communication between the people I pass and myself.

As my confidence in speaking Tunisie rises, so does my head from the ground.

I hate looking down. I would rather see where I am going.

At night, I have dinner with my mother and sister along with my grandparents.

We watch something on the TV that should be titled “honoring the sunset because now we can eat.”

There is a sequence of nature-like photos of the Middle East (mostly pictures of deserts and palm trees) as the Muezzin sings Qur’an verses.

Through dinner, we eat and eat and watch the TV from the dinner table.

I hate eggs, forever on.

Olive oil is the base of the food pyramid here.

After eating, Mimi and I walk the dog, Bianco, around the blocks of the neighborhood.

It’s amazing what conversations come up during the walks and how they are so often centered on Bianco and his need to claim territory every few steps.

We pass schools, a mosque and several cafes with men playing cards outside drinking mint tea.

Meanwhile hookah smoke passes by, smelling of apples.

Around every street corner there are cats scattered everywhere.

Last night we counted 40 cats.

She thinks I should bring some back to the US.

I think that’s a good idea.