Wednesday, April 20, 2011

A Country United

(Written on 3/24/2011 from Tunis, Tunisia)
As soon as the plane touched down people were shuffling about the aisles, preparing to get off in Athens, Greece (while the flight attendants were yelling to sit).  Apparently the short jaunt from Cairo, Egypt left people anxious to exit the aircraft.  But after my final flight (of 4 during that long trip from Cape Town, South Africa to Tunis, Tunisia) I realized that that’s just the way it is in this part of the world.  Dorothy...we’re not in Kansas anymore.
This is my first time in an Arab country, and even with my short stay (one week) I’m certain I will learn and grow a lot.  I’m feeling very lucky to be in Tunisia at this time, shortly after their revolution.  The atmosphere is lively and liberated.  Citizens are excited for a new era of freedom and democracy as they shape the future of their beloved country.
I was invited to Tunisia by Sarra, who has been a gracious and welcoming hostess.  From day one she told me to prepare myself for fresh squeezed orange juice every morning.  I don’t know if there could have been any better opening statement.  Sarra is enthusiastically sharing with me about her culture, food, and traditions.
Although this part of the world has been recently “unstable” and there are many warnings from the U.S. and travel sites of “political unrest”, I feel completely safe.  Even though it’s not good for the country’s economy that tourism has declined due to these “threats,” I for one am pleased that I get to experience this country in all its authentic glory without the tainted view of loads of tourists.
On my first day in Tunisia I was able to sleep in (thankkkkk goodnesss) and as Sarra works from home, she joined me in the morning (okay, afternoon) for breakfast…tea, bread, cakes, fresh o.j. (of course!), jams, and spreads.  One of which was a sweet sesame took us writing down the word to actually realize that it was “sesame.”  Although it is spelled the same in French, it sounds completely me.

Tunisian dates
After work Sarra took me down to the Tunis City Center where we walked through the “door” of the city – where the Mediterranean Sea used to meet the city.  At that point there was a touching display of art created in memorandum for the martyrs of the recent revolution.  Sarra explained to me that “the straw that broke the camel’s back” was a young, educated man who couldn't find work.  So using his entrepreneurial spirit he started selling fruits and vegetables from a cart.  The corrupt police forbade him to continue selling, and in protest he lit himself on fire.  The community was outraged because of the inability to find work without having connections or money.  Regardless of your education or upbringing, if you weren’t born into a wealthy family it was difficult to find a job.
And thus the revolution began.  I found it interesting that Sarra explained during the 3 most intense days, people came together in the streets as their own police force.  Each city had citizens that created check points and enforced curfews.  The poorly trained army was helping citizens but with a lack of resources it was difficult to defend against the police which was trained and sided with the previous regime.
And now as Sarra looks back to that time (3 months ago), she says it feels like it's been years.  Even now, as we drive down the streets there are people gathered, discussing politics and voicing their opinions, which would never have happened before the revolution.  We talked a lot about the events that shape a country and their identity.  I related it to Apartheid in South Africa – and the unity and solidarity that a country feels when their citizens come together to overcome something they don’t believe in.  Sarra said it was an incredible feeling when both young and old, rich and poor, came together to fight the injustices of the previous regime.

People discussing politics in the streets
Tunisians supporting Libyans
Downtown Tunis
We went to the harbor for dinner and we indulged in some delicious seafood, and traditional Tunisian food like a carrot salsa, and some harissa (spicy Tunisian sauce).  The food was once again abundant, and definitely appreciated after a lingering airplane food taste in my mouth.

Before: pick your fish

My lovely hostess Sarra!

After: eat your fish
Today (my second day in Tunisia) we were invited to Sarra’s friends house where we ate a typical Tunisian dish.  It was traditionally for the poor people and fisherman because it was inexpensive and easy to make.  Call me a fisherman then because I quite enjoyed it!  There was bread that was ripped into chunks, and then they boiled garbanzo beans in water with salt and cow fat.  After placing the bread in a bowl they poured the soup over the bread until it was a soggy consistency.  They added a soft boiled egg, cumin, salt, oil, and harissa and then mashed it up.  Delish!

In addition to the meal, we did a sort of language exchange - French and Arabic lessons for me, and English lessons for the younger girls (18, 14, and 9).  It’s fascinating for me to learn these languages and see what I can pick up when listening to others.  Surprisingly, there are quite a few words I can understand because of the Spanish roots in Arabic. 
Although I’m not going to be fluent in Arabic before I leave, it’s great to attempt to learn their language.  I think much like Zulu culture, just trying shows an appreciation for their culture.  My thought for you today is the same...try putting a little effort into your appreciation and see what kind of a response you get.

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