Alice revisits Tunisia

 

Throughout the year that I spent in Tunisia, I called my host mother “mom”, not maman (French) or oumi (Tunisian).  One day, towards the end of my stay with my family, my host mom and I were spending time together, as usual.  She had noticed that I never used the French or Tunisian term to address her and she wanted to know why.  In her mind, using the English word kept me emotionally separate from her, as if I didn’t think of her as my mom.  Additionally, she didn’t (and still doesn’t) speak English.  So the English term really had no emotional meaning for her.  I explained to her that calling her maman or oumi had no meaning for me too.  It was like using some random word to address her.  I really felt (and still feel) that she is my second mother.  By my using the English word, I was conveying how I truly came to feel about her.  She quickly understood my perspective and started crying, with happiness.

Fast forward 26 years….As a 44 year old woman, I went to visit my Tunisian family for 2 1/2 weeks, for the first time in 24 years; I had visited for 8 days when I was a university student.  My family has moved to a different apartment; the new apartment is bigger than the small apartment I had lived in with them.  My two sisters live at home and my  brother is married, with two children, and lives overseas.

And how did it feel visiting after so many years?  It felt as if my seat at their dinner table was still warm.  I arrived at their home and immediately settled in, almost like I had never left.  It was quite a surreal feeling actually.  My host sisters speak perfect English, so it was not a problem communicating with them.  My host parents, on the other hand, do not speak any English.  They speak Arabic and French. So the first few days were not easy, as far as communicating is concerned.   Now, let me clarify some things here.  When I lived with my family as an exchange student, I arrived in the country with 4 years of high school French under my belt and I had never heard a word of Tunisian .  So, my French was not great but I could get by.  When I left the country to return to the United States, I was dreaming in Tunisian and French; I had come a long way in my language skills.  Again, fast forward 26 years, and I felt like I was back at ground zero in the language department.  However, the lack of language did not in any way impede in my feelings of being ‘home’.

While visiting in 2013, I shared my host sister’s bed.  When I got into bed with her, I felt as if I were 18 again.  It was like a teenage slumber party revisited.  We stayed up late, talking, laughing, and sharing.  The rest of the visit felt the same way.  I spent time hanging out with my host mom in the kitchen, cooking with her and learning how to make a few things.  Slowly, my Arabic brain came back to life and we began to talk about more and more things.  It felt so comforting being back in the kitchen with her. When I lived with my host family, I spent a lot of time helping my mom in the kitchen.  I do not love cooking, never have,  but the kitchen was where we formed a lot of our bond.  And my host father?  He was the same man; he was kind of behind the scenes in the family.  He is a quiet observer, never very outspoken.  When I visited, we didn’t have too many exchanges, but we shared space-eating or watching TV together.  However, as in the past, he noticed everything.  For example, I visited in the Winter, and I hadn’t brought a robe or slippers; my host father noticed right away and (in Tunisian, and I happily understood) told my host mother to get me a robe and slippers….always keeping an eye on his brood, including me.

In the summer of 2014, I had the pleasure of introducing my husband and daughter to Tunisia and my Tunisian family and friends.  We stayed in the Medina at an amazing guest house-Dar Ben Gacem.  We had an unforgettable 10 days.  We spent time wandering through the Medina.  We visited many cultural and historical sites-Sidi Bou Said, Carthage, El Bardo Museum, Hammamet, Kairouan, El Jem Coliseum.  Most importantly, we spent invaluable time with my Tunisian family and friends.  It felt as if Mom and Baba were finally getting to meet their son-in-law and granddaughter.

And my feelings being back in the country of Tunisia?  I felt as if I had come home.  I have been fortunate enough to travel to many different countries, but there is something very special about Tunisia.  The Tunisian people have an especially warm, comforting way about them.  Being tall, blonde, and blue eyed, I will never fit in in Tunisia; I will always look different.  At first glance, Tunisians generally make the assumption that I am a tourist and they want to try and get something from me (a sale or two).  However, once they realize that I am not a tourist and that I can speak (ok, maybe not that well) Tunisian, everything changes.  It is not what they can get from me anymore, but what they can give me or do for me.  It is the most amazing experience really.  Their language  and culture is so important to them.  Tunisians feel that their language is very very difficult.  As a result, anyone who takes the time to learn the language and culture is deemed a “daughter or son” of Tunisia.

I guess I have become a daughter of Tunisia.  I am definitely a daughter to my host family.  It seems that time doesn’t change all things…..mom is still “mom” to me.

As for Alice in Wonderland, I can completely understand how she felt when asked, “Who ARE You?”  Her response, “I–I hardly know, sir, just at present– at least I know who I WAS when I got up this morning, but I think I must have been changed several times since then.”  My experience in Tunisia changed me;  the experience has had an immeasurable effect on my path in life and who I have become…..

Update: Since working on this blog post, my host father has sadly passed away.  I will always remember him as a very kind and loving man.

 

For a special experience in the Medina:

http://www.darbengacem.com

 

Alice has landed in Tunis: Part Two of the Wonderland Adventure

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On the plane to our Wonderland adventure

In August 1986, myself and 20 other students landed in Tunis.  We were a motley crew; there were 10 0f us from the United States, 1 Canadian,  9 Scandinavians and 1 French student-all between the ages of 16-18.  The group of students from the United States came together in New York and spent a few days at a pre-arrival orientation.  It was nice getting to know each other, before heading into what felt like no man’s land.  Looking back with my older eyes, we were quite an interesting, eclectic group of young people.

After one night together in Tunis, we were sent off to our prospective host families.  My host brother had just returned from the USA on a yearlong exchange so he knew the ropes.  He was waiting for me at the AFS office with a big, welcoming smile on his face.  Obviously, this was long before the advent of the internet, so we had made limited connections with each other pre-arrival.  I was given my host families information about a month before setting off for Tunisia.  I had pictures, occupation, and a bit of biographical information about each member of my new family.

So began my year….my brother, Issam, took me to his, I mean, my family’s home.  The rest of my family was waiting for me at the apartment.  My family lived in a two room apartment, in a suburb of Tunis-Hammam Lif.  My first impression was concerning the size of the apartment; it was very small.  But I quickly learned that the apartment was giant, in terms of the love found between the few walls.

A short description of my host family is needed here.  My host mom, Faouzia, was a beautiful, energetic, loving mother.  She was always ready to have fun.  Every day, my mom was busy cleaning, cooking, and taking care of her family.  Throughout her busy day, I would often find her with the radio blaring and her singing loudly along to the music and dancing her way through the apartment.  My host father, Othman, was a very quiet man.  He went to work at the local branch of the post office every morning.  As a typical Tunisian man, after work, he would spend his time at his favorite local cafe with his friends.  He was quietly aware of everything going on his family unit, but was more of an observer unless a decision had to be made concerning his clan.  The oldest child was Issam – 2 years older than me.  When I joined this family, Issam had just returned from an exchange year in Montana, so he understood me.  He was always ready with explanations, love, and guidance for me.  My sister Sara was the same age as me.  We had a good, sisterly relationship; she reminded me a lot of my sister here in the United States.  While I was living there, Sara was a dedicated student, studying all the time for the big end of the year exam.   And then, there was my little sister Sonia – 2 years younger than me.  Looking back, it feels as if Sonia and I were always together.  We did everything together; from going to the hammam, to having the same friends at school.  We shared our teenage secrets, life worries and lots of laughter…..In addition to the nuclear family, my host family consisted of a large, extended family; my grandmother (Oumi), many aunts and uncles, and numerous cousins.

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Sitting out on our balcony

Honestly, the first month was really rough for me.  My host family was so loving towards me, but I was overwhelmed by the changes.  And it was so hot.  A few memories of those first days are so clear to me still.  All the food was really hot, spicy hot-even the spaghetti.  It felt as if my lips were on fire at the end of every lunch and dinner; my host mom knew that everything was hot and tried to be accommodating to my virgin taste buds, but it was no use.  The mosques felt like they were constantly calling out for prayer time; for many weeks, I would wake up sometime between 4 and 5 a.m to the sound of the mosque, calling to the faithful.   There was no washer or dryer in our apartment; this was quite a new situation for my spoiled hands – I helped my mom and sisters wash everything by hand.  Catcalls, from young Tunisian men, were waiting for me from street corners, every time I left the sanctuary of my apartment.  This was particularly difficult for me because I didn’t know what to do with this attention or how to handle it; my Sony Walkman became my “go to” when going anywhere.  And there were the the public showers, or hammam, where we went to bathe.  We Americans are quite modest when it comes to our bodies; we aren’t used to the public shower tradition.  But like everything else on this small list (I could go on and on), I got used to and started to enjoy going to the hammam, usually with my little sister Sonia.  And the heat, did I mention the heat?

In addition to the radical changes in my daily life in Tunisia, my paternal grandmother passed away 3 weeks after I arrived in Tunis.  As one could imagine, I was devastated and felt so alone.  However, this experience was the turning point in the beginning of my year, as far as the beginning of my bonding with my host family.  My host mother and I couldn’t communicate very well with each other.  She and my father spoke Tunisian and French; my French was limited and my Tunisian was nonexistent.  (My brother spoke perfect English and my sisters’ English skills were very good.)  My host mother, along with the rest of the family, was right there for me when I needed to feel loved and safe.  I remember her holding me while I cried and cried over the loss of my grandmother.

alice-in-wonderland-movie-poster-1951-1020198120And my year?  What did it look like?  How did it feel?  I can say that every day I felt as Alice did in Wonderland…..“Why, sometimes I’ve believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast.”

And with that, I will let my hands and your eyes rest.  Look for a post sometime in the future, for the rest of the story.

 

Alice in Wonderland goes to Tunisia: Part 1

I had a teacher in junior high and high school who groomed a few of us from a young age to go abroad at some point in our high school career. There were some who chose to go during high school, and others (me included) who chose to do a fifth year of high school in another country.   The program was called AFS (American Field Service); it has since morphed into AFS Intercultural Programs. In 1986, the AFS policy was such that students couldn’t choose the country to which they were sent. A student could list their top 3 choices, but there was no guarantee they were going anywhere near the countries of choice.  I remember my number one choice was Greece; my classmate and friend was sent to Greece.  The other choices-I have no recollection.  And Greece?  I have no idea why I chose Greece, other than the romantic notion of going to a country with such a storied history.  I guess I ended up somewhere similar; Tunisia is home to the ancient city of Carthage, no less, and the center of the Punic Wars.

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In April, 1986, I found out I was going to spend the next academic year in a country called ‘Tunisia’. As you can imagine, at the time, I was asking myself what I was getting in to?   And, more importantly, how did I find myself going to a country in North Africa?  I  happened to have had 4 years of high school French; French is the second language in Tunisia-that is how I found myself there.  At this time in my life, I honestly don’t think that I had ever heard of the country, let alone know anything about it!  In fact, when people asked me where I was going, I would tell them “Tunisia” and their response was “Indonesia, how exciting!”  (Another classmate went there.)  My friends had no idea either; they gave me a surprise going away party…..an African safari-themed party. I learned rather quickly that I was not going to ‘that’ Africa.

A little historical background is needed here to fully understand the utter surprise of Tunisia. I was notified in April 1986 that Tunisia was going to be the country of my placement. In the same month of the same year, the United States bombed Libya. For those of you not aware of the geography of North Africa-Tunisia and Libya share a border. Additionally, the Palestinian Liberation Organization’s headquarters was located in Tunisia at this time. In fact, the year before I arrived, the PLO headquarters was attacked by Israel; unbeknownst to me, the headquarters was located a few miles away from my Tunisian family’s house. So, the first words out of my American family’s mouth when hearing that I was going to Tunisia was “Sorry, but you aren’t going anywhere.”  After consulting with some people who were knowledgeable about the region, I was permitted to go.   We were told that Tunisia was considered to be the Switzerland of the Middle East, North Africa (MENA) area.  Off to Tunisia I went……like Alice going down the rabbit hole.alice-in-front-of-rabbit-hole

Upon arrival in this new land, I could immediately hear myself saying the words Alice said when she was in Wonderland – “It was much pleasanter at home,” thought poor Alice, “when one wasn’t always growing larger and smaller, and being ordered about by mice and rabbits. I almost wish I hadn’t gone down the rabbit-hole–and yet–and yet–…”.  I went.

What followed was a year full of difficulties, tears, laughter, surprises, lessons learned, and attachments made.