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DISPATCH: Djerba Island, Tunisia
October 20, 2001

"Exaltation is the going of an inland soul to sea."
                                             - Emily Dickinson

A gorgeous quote, yet imperfectly suited to my Djerban odyssey, given that I was born on a beach, raised on a coral island and have lived my adult life in a place called the Bay Area. I've not an inland cell in my soul. Quotes from Ulysses' journey to the Land of the Lotus-Eaters were not at hand, however, and I thank Dunya for this associated tidbit - some hook on which to hang a beginning.

Djerba Island, my home for eleven days, was the location of the fabled 'honeyed' fruit that enchanted Odysseus and his men, delaying their return to Troy. The island of indolent forgetfulness: how I wish I had found some opiated anything, along with a commensurate dose of amnesia.

As it was, this is where I was most tuned-in to the goings on of the world, since the villa in which I was staying had a satellite dish the size of a small stadium. That said, the only English channel in its hyperbolic range was MSNBC, mostly stocks and world bourse activity reported in densely British accents, with Tom Brokaw's Nightly News appearing at 11:30 pm. I thought he was the voice of reason until I witnessed his theatrically emotional response to his assistant's anthrax case. The media is bent on creating paranoia and fear: who edits this stuff anyway? If the news is going to be so spun that it veers from one extreme suspect (lone psychotic) to another (Iraq) why don't they just get a psychologist to spin it right down the middle and save America the heartache? Because this is much more riveting, and drama sells - conjecture, rather than fact. Since the newsmedia is controlled by the same oil-based machine that runs the FBI, no wonder there is confusion in the air.

Old Emily's quote above could pertain to my contact here on the island, a close friend and business partner of Abdelhamid's, owner of the aforementioned villa. Abdelfettah is a very religiously conservative man in his forties, with a wife and three children. He said I would recognize him at the bus station because he had a beard. This turns out to be a unique feature in Tunisia, a country that has nearly banned the beard on men for fears of association with Islamic fundamentalists. Abdelfettah doesn't care; he wears one because in the Koran, Mohammed said that men were different from women and should express it by wearing a full beard. He became a welcome sea of English for my verbal soul since no one else on the island was conversant, Europeans being the bulk of the tourist trade. I stopped by his shop daily for animated discussions of the latest developments and to hear his reports from various Arabic news programs. Between the two of us, we developed a pretty well rounded idea of what might be occurring as the Americans began the bombing of Afghanistan. He assured me more than once that Tunisians, especially Djerbans, were astute observers of world politics, not taking action against others unless they really had to. He was a very articulate barometer of the general Arabic mood, and the one person, besides my sister, who jokingly advised me to 'be Canadian' for a while. I'm not a talented liar; American was all I could be.

Since shopping was part of my mission for this trip, persistent rumors had it that Djerba was where the treasures were, where my heaven would lie. There were treasures indeed: silver bracelets, textiles, and kilims that I would have purchased in a second. There just weren't any bargains. The German, French and Italian tourists who have frequented this hot haven for years have spoiled the local merchants with their free-spending ways. The price per gram of silver was four times what I'd found elsewhere in Tunisia, so I did lots of window-shopping and learning. It was hard work, and I journeyed every day from my country home, amid the only fruit-bearing olive trees on the island, to Houmt Souk. There I would inquire in shop after shop for faddah kadeem (silver, old) until I was feeling very kadeema myself. I didn't tell you this, but my nickname in Kairouan was 'Zena Kadeema' because I was so lazy about walking everywhere. I'd rather pay a buck than walk in cruel shoes through desert heat. Cruel, in this heat, equals shoes plus any horizontal movement. I thrive in the vertical realm.

In Djerba, the response to my smattering of Arabic was surprising and quite engaging. I learned what little I know on the streets of Egypt, mixed with a touch of classical Arabic (my summer intensive). The first question everyone asks after "Ca va?" is "Lubnania o Masria?" (Are you from Lebanon or Egypt?) I say "Nos Masria, nos Amerikia" (half and half), which approaches the truth. Apparently, my Arabic is so typically Egyptian, which they all know from popular songs and movies, that I am automatically pegged. That is, until they actually try to have a conversation with me, when I'm forced to admit, "Mish fahema" (I don't understand…) and they understand the Pacific shallows in which my Arabic swims. It's valuable in the realm of conviviality, though, and they treat me as more than mere tourist. Many of them ask what my work is here in Tunisia, I seem so, well, …local. This is part of what has contributed to my feelings of safety and acceptance: how can I be afraid with so many smiles and titters coming at me?

One strange and wonderful thing about this island, all 25 square miles of it, is that besides 246 mosques, it is home to one of the oldest Torahs on the planet. I waited till the end of Sukkot to visit the El Ghriba Synagogue in a town called Erriadh, about a ten-minute bus ride from Houmt Souk. (You must know by now that in this life that I am not Jewish; maybe you don't: I was raised Catholic). I entered the synagogue and was immediately handed a scarf (we wore doilies), in which I could smell the somewhat rancid perfume from scores of other women. I took off my shoes (as requested - we never did this in church) before I walked to the inner room and read the welcoming introduction in five languages. I will let it speak for itself, in English:

"This sacred and antique place called El Ghriba (the Stranger) dated of the year 586 BC, i.e. since the destruction of the first temple (erected by Solomon) under the rule of King Nabuchodonosor of Babylon. It has been restored during the centuries and represents today the spiritual centre of the studies of the Tora and admiration of divinity; Brought of the life by venerable Rabbis whose time is dedicated to daily studies of the holy books. We hope, that the honorable visitor conduce to this religious place by their generous; destinated to the Rabbis and old lecturers. May god give yours desires his consent of fulfillment. Amen."

Ahmein. I appreciated these sentiments and so gave generously to the sprightly man standing watch. I took photos of the many silver plaques enclosed in glass, dedications and prayers made over time in commemoration of loved ones. The distinct patina of spirit and prayer created a peacefulness that could be felt; this was also where the mysterious and guarded Torah lived, though I couldn't really discern where, so few have been the synagogues in which I have stepped. There was one raised and gated dais that might have been its home, though I was expecting a fabulous closet of some sort.

I returned to the main hall, with its sky blue columns, ornate tiles and intricate woodwork. An overlarge Rabbi waddled in, his sad bulbous eyes meeting mine briefly. I recognized him from the many postcards and guidebooks I'd seen: the resident venerable Rabbi. He went to a small closet on the wall and rooted around for several books, which he removed, then sat heavily down to study. I walked over and asked if I could take his photograph; he assented with a slow and meaningful move of his eyes. After the click of the shutter he asked if I had a cigarette; 'no, I don't smoke.' Then he raised his hand and rolled the pads of his fingers in a gesture for a 'donation.' I gave him some change.

The older, bearded rabbi then walked in, took a book and sat by the window, sunlight pouring over him like a saint. I glanced at the younger one and pointed to my camera. He rolled his fingers; I assented with a nod and shot some photos. His fingers circled again, a bit impatiently; some earlier tourist must have walked out before paying up. I took 5 dinar out of my purse and walked over to the donation box. He jumped up faster than a big man should, intercepted my path and put the bill in his shirt pocket. Cigarette money, no doubt, or maybe for the purchase of indolent fruit. I was a little shocked at the mercenary aspect of this sacred place, but imagined that I, and all camera-wielding travelers who came before me, were the cause of his corruption. It sadly goes the way of most third-world tourist sites, holy or not.

On the emotional graph of a prolonged journey there are always two unforgettable days: a nadir and a zenith. It was here on Djerba that my nadir occurred, a collusion of three distinct physical conditions, all underlined by the irrational fear of war and sent into another magnitude of pain by the unreasonable heat. The first factor was my period, always a life-altering mini-event. The second was a bout with Circe's revenge, brought on by the innocent and delightful consumption of salad with fish the prior night. Condition number three was a dress rehearsal of my right hip for some future arthritic or rheumatic performance, set, I hope, in the far, far distant future. I was bedridden most of the day, sleeping off plague, revenge and rehearsal, staggering like a ninety year-old crone by sundown. I felt that my body was becoming unhinged by some horrific hormone dance I'd never heard of. I finally took a Darvocet when I realized that there was no position I could assume in the entire house where my hip would not screech for undivided attention. Fortunately, this was only a one-day nadir. (My zenith, al hamdulilah, arrived a week later in Sidi Bou Said, but that will wait for a future dispatch).

Two days later, I bid adieu to Djerba and traveled north towards the fruitful souk of Sfax. Arriving happily by bus, I stayed in a four-star hotel, had indulgent room service and wine in the bed, and made arrangements to meet my rug man, Zribi, in the lobby the next morning. I treat myself to these luxury accommodations whenever the pressure of third-world living reaches critical mass. Post-nadir, it had.



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