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DISPATCH: Kerkennah Islands
October 2, 2001

"So hope for a great sea-change
On the far side of revenge.
Believe that a farther shore
Is reachable from here.
Believe in miracles
And cures and healing wells."

            …Seamus Heaney, The Cure of Troy

When I found these words, I thought of America. I had hoped that our government would seek a creative solution to the problems in the world; instead, we have fallen from grace into the near quicksand of retribution; the farther shore has receded. Now, it's to the non-Taliban Muslims that the poem must speak - will they follow us down? I recently heard on TV that 87% of Americans support Bush's counter-attacks. The Taliban leaders have called for a jihad. Bin Laden says that there are sinners and there are believers, no one in between. I only hope that most Muslims can see through his polarizing rhetoric. He sounds like a madman to me, though a calm one, raising only one finger, brow placid as a saint's.

Bush, on the other hand, tries his best not to sound like a cowboy, even though that's the impression he gives to the local Muslims. Wanted: Bin Laden, Dead or Alive. They do not respect or admire America; in fact, more than a few have labeled our country the first terrorist regime, using and abusing other nations as we see fit for our best interests. The sanctions against Iraq and the resultant suffering gall them. It's been sobering to hear what people here think of America.

I must admit, however, that the seven year-old boy in me thrills to the B2s and B1s with their smart missiles and anti-anti-aircraft bombs. The scale models rotate on TV like spacecraft, intergalactic toys described with gleaming eyes by men whose mouths turn down. The retired general says that it makes the U.S. look really good to have this 'humanitarian aspect' going on; if some of the starving Afghanis actually find the food, so much the better. He's so transparent they're either going to have him muzzled or replaced. The strategies of war and the deployment of troops, the ships gathering at sea, the patriotic servicemen and women, all this is accompanied by a distinct hum of excitement. The real seven year-olds must be peeing in their pants.

I will leave this big political picture for just a minute, going back two weeks in time to my departure from Tunis. I was headed for the Kerkennah Islands to visit a friend of Monia's I had met on my first night. Even though Hilary had traveled south that next morning by train, I decided to go a week later by louage, a beautiful French word for 'shared taxi.' For me, now, it is a word that can send shivers up my spine; I will tell you why.

Mohammed (yes, another one), the driver of the louage station wagon, was 20 years of age. After an hour waiting for the car to fill with passengers, I was more than ready to leave this gritty corner of town with its gentle white rain. I was in the front seat, with two men seated behind us and two more behind them. Once we hit the highway, the flavor of the next three hours was revealed as I glanced, casually, at the speedometer. It wavered between 150 and 160. Now I knew these were kilometers, so I slid the Lonely Planet out of my purse and glanced, casually, at the table of equivalencies: 90 to 100 miles per hour. Oh dear. But wait: this was only the speed part; driving technique is all-important in the equation of fear that I could see developing. My fear, Mohammed's equation.

The most benign, though physically painful, factor on this trip is the car stereo. I have learned through various spiritual teachings that never, ever, should a woman touch a man's audio system. Not only does this do bizarre things to his ego - at 100 mph, it can do bizarre things to his equilibrium, to his carefully balanced choreography of distractions. Throw one of them out of whack (the cigarette, the dangling good luck CD/fish tail, the dirt on the windshield, the soaring decibel levels in the front seat) and you could cause an accident. So I deftly slid out of my purse an orange earplug, reasoning that one eardrum saved is worth the slight risk of detection. I turned toward Mohammed and smiled with admiration. Good man. Have and do whatever it takes for you to focus on your job. Forget about your frightened and/or jaded passengers; just get us to Sfax intact.

This he did, with gleeful pleasure. I reasoned that it must be a strategic thing, besides being vastly entertaining for the driver, to drive ON the white line that separates a two-lane highway purposefully into two sides. Passing was more efficient: you never had to peek at what might be coming at you, it was always right there, coming at you. Like my skydiver friend Splash says, "You can exercise options until impact." This is not meant to be a comforting statement. I did have another theory, but it proved too facile: the 'single person in the queen bed' theory - acquisition of space simply because it is available. I think this equation has more INTENT.

Here's how it would go: a distant semi truck would suddenly and unnaturally increase in size until the hood of our car, on MY side, was nearly up under its back fender. Mo would then veer off into the lane of oncoming traffic, pass the truck and quickly slide back into the right hand lane. My eyes would search for diversion, for a safe place to exist. There was none. No one even thought of wearing a seat belt during this trip. The kind of accident Mo courted was not the kind you wanted any part of your anatomy to survive. There would be no flesh left, in any case, for he courted total annihilation - flaming, transcendent, cataclysmic. I never touched the dial; we made it to Sfax and the sferry to the islands.

The Kerkennah Islands are a pair of small, flat, palm-covered chips rising out of the Mediterranean Sea midway down Tunisia's east coast. Both the Romans and the Arabs populated these islands with infidels, exiles and ne'er do wells; nowadays, they are home to friendly, non-intrusive descendants, along with a few expats from Britain, Italy and elsewhere. Hilary Wise, a Virginia Wolfish willowy blond, first landed here 25 years ago, and for the price of two traveler's checks bought waterfront property. The following year, she had her two-bedroom home mit dome built, and has since been spending a month or two yearly in this glorious refuge from British weather.

To our mutual and pleasant surprise, we hit it off remarkably well, as she is a linguist specializing in Egyptian Arabic and French, a lifelong student of Arab world politics and very well traveled. Ten years my senior, she felt like an elder sister; our evenings were spent in long discussions of current and past history, from personal to global realms. I learned a great deal about the situation leading up to the present political difficulties and am very grateful for her energetic explanations. Hilary hasn't just read about Algeria and Lebanon and Egypt: she was there when it all happened. It was a fascinating tour du histoire.

A swim on Kerkennah usually means a strenuous walk in knee-high water, surrounded as it is by meters of shallow sea. Hilary, however, chose her spot because of a large deep pool that sits not far from her shore. We waded out for my inaugural swim, discovering that we had similar dog-paddling styles, spells of graceful frogstroke here and there. When I spotted the proverbial (and poetic) farther shore, I felt compelled to try for it - my wise friend declined. It ended up being over half an hour away, and I felt like Poseidon, thigh muscles bulging and rippling as I strode through the sea, claiming distant lands as my own (the inspired imperialism of meaningless exercise).

We were invited to go fishing the following dawn with a man Hilary has known since he was two years old; they procreate at such a young age, she has known three generations of islanders. Fishing is really the broadest term for what occurred that morning. The local technique is to lay out a few kilometers of net in the evening that hangs like a webbed wall in the shallow water. Every morning they draw it in, disentangling the hapless cuttlefish that swim into the nylon. This is not a job for the squeamish, desperate black ink spewing, mute little beaks pinching, all slimy and squirmy and stinky. Gad, it was all I could do to feign enjoyment at being awake at that ungodly hour on a rocking sailboat with all this fishing going on. Then we had to enjoy eating the things, barely cooked on gasoline-ignited coal, and for the piece de resistance (how I tried to resist), we each got two snails. I had to go back to bed after this adventure.

Most of our days were thankfully spent reading, sunning and swimming, with a few trips to the village and visits with various friends: a delightful week of rest and conviviality. No shopping, but the gain of a new friend, a scandalous tan, and a reading list of pertinent books more than compensated. Here is a list of Hilary's recommendations, if you're interested in a little background to what is happening now. I know I'll be reading them when I return.

The Arabs - Peter Mansfield

Between Memory and Desire - S. Humphreys

Orientalism - E. Said

The Fateful Triangle - Noam Chomsky

The Palestine Question - E. Said

Zionism and Aparteid - Uri Davies

I leave tomorrow once again for Sfax, this time from Djerba, where I have spent the last eleven days - and this time by bus.

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