Dispatch :: Tunis, Tunisia

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January 26, 2000

"Tunis is companionship for the heart and drunkenness for the senses."
                    …Old Tunisian saying

A more ideal combination I can't imagine, and this is surely what filled my too few days and nights in this Arab-Berber city of nine million people. The reason for my visit was to spend some time with a friend, Monia H., who was my Arabic professor at UC Berkeley two summers ago. A lively and beautiful woman with a voice like Fairouz and the shimmy of Sheherezade, I knew she would share a side of her hometown not accessible to many foreigners. I was not disappointed.

I woke up that first morning to view a landscape of rolling hills and white-washed buildings, every rooftop dotted with the disks of cable TV antennae straining skyward. My impression was of a civilized place, clean and tranquil. We were invited to the home of her sister, Layla, for lunch: delicious whole fish called loup, spicy rice, grilled peppers and a fennel salad, eaten with her husband and two charming daughters, baby Nousa and two year-old Miriam, who quickly adopted me as her long-lost favorite aunt. I discovered that Tunisians speak a curious mix of French and Arabic, freely switching from one to the other, sometimes word by word. They call this code-crossing and I had to wonder how the kids ever sort it out, but apparently they manage.

Since I also wanted to do some souk shopping, we then headed for the Medina, where we were soon in territory all too familiar from my days in Cairo's Khan Khalili. We scouted for several traditional Bedouin items: silver khamsa, a good luck pendent in the shape of the hand of Fatima; intricate bracelets in silver, gilt and old glass; fibulae, which are old sharply pointed silver pins used to fasten a scarf or a shawl; and textiles too various to mention. I returned twice more to do the actual buying and could have spent three times as much money, so vast was the selection. The good news is that another Tunisian trip is easily justified.

Every Friday evening Mounia gathers at the spacious home of a friend with several others for an Arabic music sing-along. I was thrilled to hear three oud, a keyboard and some percussion accompany us while we learned a new song and sang several from prior sessions. I find that I can follow along if I intently watch the shape of a singer's mouth; the songs are slow enough where I'm only a second behind and half a note away - the description sounds awful, but it works. Our teacher's day job is as head of the Music Department at the Ministry of Culture: he plays a mean oud and sings mellifluously. These people are called beldi, the upper class Tunisians who consider themselves to be the sweetest olive oil at the bottom of the jar in a neat cultural reversal of our creme de la crème. This was a nice change from my usual village folk, and even though certainly more formal and less raucous, they nonetheless burst into a rendition of Zena Sahara, a traditional Tunisian folksong, which charmed me into multi-lingual expressions of gratitude. Zena is a very handy name in Arabic countries: there are always several spontaneous outbursts from people ready to serenade me with some popular Zena song, a treat that never occurs in California.

Another never-in-California is the hammam, a Turkish bath, where we spent a memorable Sunday afternoon. After climbing up on a raised platform to strip to our panties, Mounia and I tiptoed nearly naked through progressively warmer rooms until we were in the bowels of the bath where hot-spring water bubbled up into a large black pool. How to describe the smell of wet tiles and women's bodies, all in various stages of cleanliness? Earthy, ripe and pungent are as far as I got before I switched my nose off and went into a visual appreciation of the exotica in the room. Brown bodies of all ages, shapes and sizes, loofahs in hands, pouring buckets of hot water over themselves, baggy wet panties clinging. A slightly different sight from the romantic ideal we've all seen on the big screen, but an unforgettable vision nonetheless.

The elderly wash woman I had seen in the changing room in an old towel now appeared before us in a plunging black lace negligee, wondering who wanted the first scrubbing. I was elected and so followed her into another room where she motioned for me to lie down on the wet tiles. I didn't want to know where she found the mitt she was using to grate over my skin; I just closed my eyes and turned into a mindless tingling lump of flesh. She broke my sweet escape with a husky "Regardez." I looked down and saw rolls of brown skin littering my reddened legs. She had a look of great satisfaction on her face; I was heartbroken to see my carefully tended tan lying scattered about in listless little bits. I gave her an amazed smile in celebration of her triumph and she resumed her two-fisted grating with fresh determination. Twenty minutes later, she inquired, "Tres bon?" "Aiowa, oui, yes," I stammered, as I gathered my burning extremities from the tiles to find Mounia. Her turn for the mitt.

I sat down in the hot room again to recover, steaming out any remaining impurities before my shower. When we left, my mascara was black under my eyes, my hair damply curled and my clothes a fairly wrinkled mess. Here is an old lyric, sung by a man: "I watch her come out of the bath, warm and sweet, like cookies from the oven. Please help me or I will fall." Regardez, indeed. I certainly wasn't in danger of slaying anyone.

The next day we took a drive to Hammamet, a coastal resort town that in summer crawls with European tourists. It was a pleasant sunny day for a long walk on the beach followed by lunch and a local beer, which was not horrible. If the name of this town sounds eerily like the word for Turkish bath, it's because there are many natural hot springs here that supply water for healing hammams. We perished the idea.

I volunteered to drive home that evening and had no problems negotiating the highway traffic. Approaching town, however, it got confusing, as the stoplights here are placed on the near side of an intersection instead of the far side. I ran my first red light thinking I would clear the intersection in time, but no; and yes, there was a police officer ready to ticket us. I pulled over and he walked up, as cute as they come, and smiling. My elementary Arabic worked wonders and once he found out I was an American, he wished us a friendly bon voyage and we were on our relieved way. Mounia was not surprised, as Tunisian police generally go out of their way to leave Americans with a good impression. Al hamdulilah (praise be to god).

A few highlights: the Bardo Museum, a former palace, chock full of Roman mosaics, some as finely detailed as paintings; a night out at a rock n' roll/jazz club with Mounia's young computer technician, smoke so thick I had to walk outside every twenty minutes to breathe; a drive around Sidi Bou Said, a white-stuccoed, blue-doored coastal town, homes of the rich and famous; and a workout at her local gym, where keeping the machines in balance was more of a workout than the weights themselves.

There is so much more of Tunisia to be seen, including the deserts of the south and a great deal in between, that I'm certain to return; besides, there is a souk on Jerba Island that I can hear calling my name. And I must resurrect my high school French for my code-crossing to be more effective at filling in my Arabic blanks. If the children can sort it out, so shall I, and then both my companionship and my drunkeness can be more fully appreciated. A full beginning this was.

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