Note From Tunisia

Back in 2000, I spent a month in Tunisia, brushing up on my Arabic.  Since that country has been so much in the news lately, I thought I’d post these notes from my visit.



Mohamed, my Arabic instructor, was 61 and a devout Muslim. When I met him he was eagerly anticipating his next marriage – to a 28 year old woman.  Understandably, this impending marriage was one of his favorite topics of conversation.  He was almost as fond of reminding me that, when he lived in Libya, he had been Qaddafi’s best translator.


Professor Mohamed was convinced that the crowning achievement of his life would be to convert me to Islam.  The evidence of this inevitability was the revelation that my son’s name is Zachariah.  I tried several times to tell him that it’s Zachary, but he corrected me every time.  Mohamed was a nice guy who taught enthusiastically, which was his greatest deficiency.  When he got excited he either quoted long passages of the Koran (which he compelled me to write down) or he lapsed into French.  I’m not sure which was worse.


One day Mohamed and I were exploring how to make a statement negative in Arabic.  There are several ways of doing this, depending on verb tense and other factors.  I’d grown accustomed to professor Mohamed veering off in strange directions and he had just done so to discuss his impending marriage again.  I was well accustomed to this topic of conversation, but this time he varied the theme by including a disturbingly graphic description of the steps he’s taking to ensure that he’ll be physically capable of meeting the renewed demands of married life. Directly after this lengthy exploration of the upcoming nuptials he steered us abruptly back on task with the segue, “So, let us discuss for negation.” 


If you try saying “fornegation” aloud in a heavy Arabic accent, you’ll understand what a shock I sustained.


Of course, linguistic differences aren’t the greatest challenge you meet when you travel.  They’re just one of the easiest to talk about in polite company.  When it comes to visiting foreign places, what everyone secretly wonders about but hardly ever mentions is the question of where one goes to the bathroom.


To be fair, I should emphasize that Tunisia is way ahead of the rest of the Dark Continent when it comes to porcelain technology.  I was confronted with very few bombardier toilets, those awkward contrivances where you simply squat over a hole in the floor.  They say these are better for you than sit-on toilets; that squatting strengthens the “pelvic floor” (whatever that is) and is less likely to cause hemorrhoids.  I can’t say one way or the other.  All I know is that it’s an awkward way to conduct business, and it’s no place to enjoy a good book.  Thankfully, much of Tunisia seems to have evolved beyond that stage.


But Tunisians still have some work to do before they make it into the first world, or even the second world for that matter.  This is plain when you visit even the most elegant toilets in the country.  Whether they are in the finest homes or restaurants, they almost always lack that hallmark of the civilized society we call toilet paper.


In the bathrooms I’m talking about, there is not even a place to hang the paper.  Instead, you find protruding from a spigot next to the toilet a flexible length of tubing with a spray head.  I’ll not explain how this apparatus is used.  I will say only that the water is always cold, and even when clean, you are still wet when all is said and done.


I devised three ways to solve this problem.  First, I tried never to use the bathroom when away from home. 


My second approach was to use only the bathroom in the lobby of the Hotel Belvedere.  The Belvedere is a magical place.  People there smiled at me with hope shining in their eyes.  A cynic would say it’s because they were potential émigrés to Canada and they mistook me for an interviewer on break.  I, however, put it down to the fact that the red-uniformed minions of the hotel regularly clean the bathrooms in the lobby and stock them with good old-fashioned two-ply American ingenuity.  If I owned the hotel, I would trumpet this in my advertising.  I would erect billboards and hire spots in European travel magazines saying, “The Hotel Belvedere, Tunis, is the place to go.”


But as I ranged farther from the hotel, I needed to make other arrangements.  I resolved to always carry an emergency supply of paper.  (I actually found some for sale at the “Super Marché,” which is strange, because I can’t imagine who’s buying it.)  Of course, one’s noblest goals are not always guaranteed success, and I discovered one day while deep in a labyrinthine bazaar that I had seriously under-stocked.  The timing was unfortunate, as I was in a facility that had been built during the Ottoman Empire and did not seem to have been cleaned since. 


Once I learned how much toilet paper to carry my attention shifted to a different level in the hierarchy of needs.  Transportation became the issue.


Traffic in Tunisia is hellish.  Friends at the embassy insisted that I should not even consider driving.  If they could have been any more emphatic, they would have been so regarding driving at night.  This is when people with an underdeveloped sense of distance, mass, and impact are further impaired by the lack of streetlights, bright clothing, and sense of self preservation.  Dark-clothed Tunisians lurk in the shadows and launch themselves in front of cars like jackrabbits.  And that’s just the pedestrians. Drivers are bound by no laws of courtesy or reason.  I think the national motto is “make your own lane.” 


In the capital, Tunis, a street with two lanes is an invitation to drive 5 abreast, and there is no restraint when it comes to passing.  It is a national law that you must pass everyone ahead of you at all costs.  Failure to pass is probably the only behavior for which you can receive a ticket. 


Despite their wild driving, no self-respecting Tunisian would ever wear a seatbelt.  I astounded all my friends by digging the belts out of the recesses of their car seats and buckling myself in.  My friend Khalil made a gesture of solidarity once by draping his lap belt across his arm, but his heart was not in it and he soon gave up.  This is to be expected from a man who has developed an extensive list of better places for his hands to be than the steering wheel of the car.


Among the better uses for his hands are brushing nonexistent crumbs from his lap, rubbing his eyes, (That’s the one that scares me the most.) stretching, scratching, and adjusting the radio. (Yes, it can be done with both hands.)  Sometimes Anisa, his wife, points out that he should touch the wheel occasionally (not to steer the car, but just as a ritual to placate the gods of traffic) to which he responds by gripping it with his knees.


The taxis here are built by the French.  Renaults, Citroens, and Peugeots fill the streets and this makes perfect sense.  Who else could design and build a vehicle to be driven in a completely irrational manner and that is likely to be driven just as fast in reverse as forward? 


I believe Tunisian cabbies are bus drivers who have fallen from grace.  Whereas bus drivers rule the road and, by virtue of the size of their vehicles and the number of souls contained therein, can intimidate any driver of any vehicle, Tunisian cabbies only think they can.  They beetle along at frightening speed (having created their own lane) in search of a vehicular obstruction, such as the bumper of a car that is waiting for the light to turn green.  They blaze up to the halted car with no apparent intention of stopping, flashing their high beams and honking their horn as if it were the Chinese New Year.  If a bus does this, things happen.  The irresistible force dislodges the immovable object and the driver at the red light launches himself into heavy traffic rather than being crushed by tons of bus and sweaty commuters.  This hardly ever works for taxi drivers though, and they resent it.  They fume behind the car in front of them and gesticulate wildly.  They abandon their lane and create a new one, sometimes in oncoming traffic. 


One cabby seemed an exception to this rule.  He was pleasant and easy going.  He seemed at peace with the traffic around us, and he kept our speed subsonic.  Everything was relaxed for the first few moments of our trip, but all this changed when I remembered to put on my seatbelt.  In Tunisia I always did this with an apologetic explanation.  “It’s not you, it’s me,” I would explain.  Or, “It’s just a bad habit of mine.  I have complete faith in you and all Tunisian drivers.”  If none of those worked I would say, “I wear this seatbelt because I am a weak person,” with a doleful expression and hands outspread, begging for understanding.  That usually soothed even the most ruffled cabby egos, but not this one.  My driver became visibly upset.  His swarthy complexion became mottled with rage, and he flogged the accelerator to demonstrate his displeasure.  Our flimsy Peugeot rocketed down the street slewing violently from side to side and passing traffic like it was going backwards.  I have a vivid memory of a face on a billboard – a Tunisian Natasha Kinski look-alike selling feminine hygiene products – stretched into that of a leering monster by the astronomical speed.  The cabby’s voice cracked with rage and despair as he shouted and grappled with me for the buckle of the seatbelt.  I contemplated hurling myself from the speeding car into a pile of newspaper and rotting vegetables, but by the time the idea had suggested itself, I was several light years beyond my intended landing spot.  I had no choice.  I allowed him to release the buckle.  The seatbelt slowly retracted into where it had rested since the car left the factory, taking with it most of my driver’s agitation.  What was left, he dealt with admirably by humming and occasionally pounding his fist on the outside of his door.


Buses weren’t much better.  I felt more endangered in cabs, but often took the risk to avoid being pressed into the malodorous masses of compacted commuters sweltering on every bus.  Besides, taxis seemed to run on a more predictable schedule.  I discovered this when meeting my Arabic tutor in downtown Tunis one morning.  I wanted to get there early, so I climbed aboard a bus a half-hour earlier than I would have normally.  The bus idled at the stop for thirty minutes while the driver and conductor talked, smoked, and cast dark glances at passing schoolgirls.


And had I driven myself, even assuming I could avoid a fiery crash, things would not have been much better.  My tutor, a very nice lady who sweats profusely and looks like a Muslim version of Andy Griffith’s Aunt Bea, was commonly forty minutes late for our sessions because she could never find a place to park.  On one occasion I stood on the corner and watched as she drove around the block again and again.  I shouted encouragement to her in Arabic, but it wasn’t much of a tutoring session.  When she finally found a spot (And she wasn’t driving a Lincoln Town Car, you know; it was one of those tiny Euro cars that she could’ve tucked under her arm and carried through the double doors of the Hotel Belvedere.) When she finally found a spot (on the sidewalk) I told her that she must sell her car and invest in a good donkey.  Gas is very expensive and cars are hard to park, but she could tie the donkey right in front of the Cuban embassy and it could eat the bougainvillea that hangs over the wall.  She listened very politely, but I could tell she wasn’t taking me seriously.  It’s the downside of being a foreigner here, I guess.


Now that I’m home it occurs to me that I should have just jumped into the car as she went by.  That way she could have tutored me while she drove.  It’s not like she was hanging onto the steering wheel anyway.


While in every country there are certain sights that no traveler should miss (the Pyramids at Giza, Egypt, and the ancient city of Petra, Jordan, for instance) I’m usually not very interested in tourist draws.  I’d much rather spend time with people and see what their lives are like.  Professor Mohamed would have none of this.  In addition to his other talents, he was also a certified tour guide, fully accredited by the government of Tunisia.  In view of this, he insisted on taking up as much of my free time as possible with tours of the officially recognized touristic sites, of which there are too many to recount here.  I will say only that these places, the Bardo, and National Museums among them, are stuffed floor to ceiling with wonderful and ancient artifacts.  They positively bulge with displays of mosaics, pottery shards, and statuary predating Hannibal, and each, without exception, left me with the same feeling of disorientation I experience in Walmart.  The rows seem to close in on me and everything on the shelves begins to look the same.  Within minutes I can’t tell whether I’m seeing something for the first time or have been wandering in circles for hours.


So I was relieved when, after only a half day in the ruins of Carthage, the professor begged my forgiveness and headed off to an appointment.  I immediately left the tourist site and headed down a shaded lane.  Taxis honked and flashed their lights, hoping I was a fare, but having just escaped tourism vertigo I was in no hurry to risk my life in traffic.  Tall trees overhung the widening street as it led me out of town.  Sheep and goats grazed on nearby hills.  Across the street from me a stone and metal wall enclosed an area I imagined to be an estate, but when I reached the gate I saw a sign that read, “North African American Cemetery And Memorial.”


I’d heard there was an American WWII cemetery near Carthage, but I hadn’t planned on visiting.  Seeing as I was already there though, I thought I’d take a look.  I was completely unprepared for what I found.  Stepping through the gate was like entering another world.  Gone was dusty, hectic, slapdash North Africa; replaced by 27 acres of ordered peace and tranquility.  A flight of stone steps led down to a flawless carpet of grass – the kind of grass that would be envied by the keeper of a golf course, except for the 2,840 white marble crosses and stars of David that rise from it in perfect rank and file. 


The sea of white markers draws you down those stairs and the perfect order of the rows compels you to wander the walkways between them.  And while you wander, you can’t help but read the names.


It was the names that got me.  The crosses and the stars, the perfect order – the hush, through which penetrated only the sound of the luffing flag, these all combined to form an atmosphere of reverence, but the names broke my heart.  Figures of stone remain just that, no matter how beautifully wrought, but names brought flesh to the bones beneath the grass.  Italian, Polish, Danish, Irish – names of every origin, but all American, and every one of them a story interrupted.  Each a father, son, brother, husband, or lover who would never again be held by those who loved them, never tell the story of the battle in which they died.


And when I tired of walking the rows (and to be truthful, it was less a question of fatigue than of my eyes being too full of tears to read more names) I found a wall covered with even more.  On this wall were carved the 3,724 names of the missing from battles since the Second World War until the first Gulf War, those for whom not even a cross or star marks the location of their remains, those whose story while also interrupted, even so, (more cruelly) continues.  For perhaps the only thing worse than knowing your loved one lies in a far-off grave is not knowing where they lie.


Some people will travel halfway round the world, and spend their whole time there seeking out people from their own country.  I’ve never understood that, always preferring to lose myself on the hillsides or alleys where I’m more likely to meet a local shepherd or mechanic than another American.  That has always, to my mind, made for more memorable trips.  Tunisia, though, will remain the exception to that rule.  The memories of my visit there and the friendships that I formed are forever eclipsed by the afternoon I spent in the company of more than two thousand of my countrymen.