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Thursday, January 20, 2011

A year in Tunisia

A reader of the female persuasion sends us this remembrance:

Watching events in Tunisia has triggered a wave of memories that keeps surging and regressing, each time leaving new mementos thrown up from the depths lying under the still surface of my memory.

The first moment I recall from my year in Tunisia was of happiness, the first I had experienced after years of a difficult adolescence. I was sitting overlooking the view from the historic village of Sidi Bou Said, where the dreamy blue expanse of the sea and sky suffused my mood, turning it into a widening, quiet euphoria.

I was seventeen, postponing college in the US for a year, and on the advice of the Tunisian principal of my high school, had enrolled to study Arabic at the language school at the University of Tunis, which had the best program of its kind in the region and drew people from all over the world.

There is too much to say about that year, but some snippets stand out. Making spaghetti on an electric burner in the dorm room I shared for half the year with three Tunisian girls. I moved out to an apartment mid-year with my friend Raoudha. One dorm roomate, a girl named Souad, cried when I left. I couldn't understand then, but I do now. She was a girl from a remote village, and needed someone to talk to. Raoudha and I cooked and laughed and ate almonds and dates and oranges from her family's farm. When my English childhood friend Neil visited from London, we had to hide him in the closet when Rhaoudha's father dropped by unexpectedly. My Arabic professor was a virtuoso teacher, also sad; she took ill during the year. When I visited her at home, I got a glimpse of the husband she had whispered to me about, I saw the fear in her eyes, but a beautiful resilience shone there too. I had a Tunisian boyfriend; he was the sensitive artist type, a talented theater director, whose salary was so small it was practically insulting. More than twenty years after I left Tunisia, I saw his name in the credits of "The English Patient" as artistic director of the North African set, and I cried.

There was 60% unemployment. The dictator for life, Bourguiba, was in his 80's, and his photograph was literally everywhere. Every single night film footage came up on the television of him recounting his exploits against the Nazis and the French forty years prior. Despair and resignation lay heavily in the air. Sexual frustration bristled.

Leaving Tunisia was bittersweet for me. I would not miss the relentless sexual harassment I witnessed and experienced daily. One of my last days there I was walking down the street carrying groceries. Having developed a sixth sense, I spun around, swinging my bag as I turned, to avert being pinched by a male, who turned out to be about 10 or 12. As I turned to confront him as he crouched, his outstretched hand inches from my buttocks, he laughed and ran off the sidewalk and into the street, where he was hit by a car and thrown a ways into the air, falling hard to the ground. He lay motionless. The passengers quickly scooped him up and raced him off to the hospital. I stood rooted, staring, while a woman came up to me and demanded why I would do such I thing to a child, he was a little boy. People gathered around me, mostly adolescents; I tried to say something, nothing came out. Suddenly, water was being splashed in my face. An elderly man in traditional dress was soothing me, it's not your fault, he said. The people dispersed. One adolescent walked a ways with me, and kept asking me if I was OK.

Comments (1)

We as Americans need to be more culturally tolerant and forbearing. Just because their (Tunisian) satisfactions are not ours doesn't mean that the 'other' shouldn't be able to enjoy and pursue culturally appropriate conduct in America as well as in Tunisia.

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