Tunisian Travels, Part IV

Recently Wanda Waterman spent several weeks in Tunisia, where she crossed half the country, visited several cities and villages, and stayed with a traditional Tunisian family. This travelogue series chronicles her adventures and experiences in the Maghreb. Read the rest of the series: Part I, Part II, and Part III.

Café Life

Nearly every street has at least one café, a place where mostly men gather to talk, play cards, smoke, eat, and drink coffee at all hours of the day and night. they’re usually so packed that sometimes chairs and tables will spill out onto the sidewalk and pedestrians will have to walk out into the road to get around them.

If you order chicha (a smokable, non-hallucinogenic herb), the waiter brings a large, ornate water pipe and sets it on the floor behind you. He then gives you a disposable mouthpiece, wrapped in plastic for sanitary purposes, and you place this at the end of the pipe’s hose. I tried some pear-flavoured chicha, which had a lovely aroma, but because I’m not a smoker it was rather wasted on me.

The café is a beloved social oasis, maintaining social ties, information networks, and the level of camaraderie needed for survival and well-being in an exacting environment. Conversations here carry a sense of ambivalence; there’s a natural desire to explode with personal opinion and at the same time the necessity of restraint, perhaps due to a lingering sense of inhibition left over from the rampant spying and repression of the Ben Ali regime.

Bourguiba’s Daughter

My host family tells a story from the life of the mother. When she was a little girl, Habib Bourguiba, the first president of Tunisia after independence from France, came on a visit to their town. The family loved Bourguiba because of his liberal stance on women’s rights and other reforms (which later made Tunisia into one of the most progressive among Middle Eastern countries). They put their daughter in a pretty dress and got flowers for her to offer the president’s wife.

The daughterless first lady was so struck by the little girl’s charm that she asked her father if she could take her home. The father agreed, and the woman put her in the car. When the little girl began crying, though, the president’s wife returned her to her dad. Now the family likes to joke about what might have happened to their mother had she been an adopted daughter of Bourguiba when Ben Ali was in power, knowing how paranoid Ben Ali had tended to be toward friends and family members of his predecessor.

Intergender Solidarity

It was a bit of a surprise to see women and girls holding hands with each other in the streets, but even more so to see straight male friends holding hands, kissing each other’s cheeks, embracing, and calling each other habibi (“my beloved”). In Tunisia, men frequently keep the same friends all their lives and quickly make new ones. This relaxed physical closeness is an especially beautiful thing to witness if you come from a society in which men carefully avoid displays of excessive warmth in their friendships.

Here also family members sprawl over each other like puppies, perfectly comfortable with physical intimacy. I feel a mild sense of shame when I think of how my own supposedly liberal culture frowns on such innocent expressions of love and tenderness.

Home Life

At home during the day, the women help out with housework and cooking, taking naps on the daybeds when they get tuckered out and sometimes relaxing by watching tennis or a beloved Turkish soap opera (a family saga in which nearly every scene involves reproaches and tears). Other family members visit and we sit on the veranda to talk. The children are quiet and polite, but I’m told they’ve been exhorted to behave well in front of the guest. These children aren’t smothered with toys or kept entertained the way children tend to be in the West; they do, however, receive a great deal more tenderness and positive attention.

A Poetic Turn of Mind

One thing that makes life among Arabs so delightful is their love of metaphor and their appreciation for a good turn of phrase. Speed bumps are called ?donkeys? backs.? A thin man in a djellaba says that he feels like ?a mouse drowning in a glass of milk.? Over and again I hear ideas and feelings explained in images. When I employ such expressions myself I am met with the exclamation, ?What beautiful words!? I begin to think I’ve been born into the wrong ethnicity.

Hard to Leave

By the end of my stay I’m thoroughly smitten with Tunisia. I love the elegant appearance of the Tunisians and the way they dress, the men donning a Western sporty look that flatters them and the women layered in flowing, jewel-toned fabrics. I love the climate, the lack of humidity, and the generous wind. I love the lush, green north and the arid, golden south. I love the way the people in public spaces are constantly moving and shouting. I love being greeted by acquaintances as if I were an old friend. I love the way the physically disabled are included in everything. I love the way the dancing women try to get me to swing my timid Canadian hips. I love the way Islam is expressed, applied with reason and forbearance to daily life and to relationships with a tender mindfulness.

But I’d better stop?the memories are just too sweet and the distance too great.

Wanda also penned the poems for the artist book They Tell My Tale to Children Now to Help Them to be Good, a collection of meditations on fairy tales, illustrated by artist Susan Malmstrom.