Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Culture of Doors; Culture of Windows

Tunisia is known for its doors, but are they known for how they look, or what they represent?

Back to full health, I treated myself to a walk through Sidi Bou Said yesterday. In the winding maze of neighborhoods, elegant, beautiful doors adorns the entrance to each house. Rows of purple and pink and white flowers spill over the front walls of the house, their colors harmonizing nicely with each door. They range from a traditional blue that mirrors the nearby Mediterranean, to yellows and pinkish reds to polished mahogany-brown.

But these doors have a different story to tell. Knock on any one of them and you'll feel a good inch of solid wood--solid to the point of coldness. On second glance, these beautiful doors have become iron gates to a fortress; a description that is quite accurate, considering the layout of Tunisian homes. Right to the curb of the street comes the white-washed walls of the property, tall and thick, the flowers lining the top of the wall serving a second purpose as a deterrent to climbing. Once past the outer gates, the property has a courtyard surrounding the main house, like a moat around a castle. And the castle itself has of course another door, usually smaller in size but nonetheless protective and impenetrable.

Wandering the streets, then, becomes an interesting experience. There are people around you, but they are hidden by all their doors. True, you'll find doors in the suburbs of Lodi or the San Fernando Valley. But suburbia has its lawns and wide driveways and gardens and large windows: all means of expressing identity, and all public and open for anyone to see. In Tunisia, their one door is like a keyhole--you can peek into their lives, but without a key, you'll never see them as they truly are.

This culture of doors is what makes the Arab World so different than the West. It is a sacred thing here, to truly know a person, to truly know "their name". Take for example the 99 Names of God. In Islam, these 99 Names are known and recited in the Qur'an. But there is a 100th Name that God only knows Himself. Saying a person's name is not merely an address or salutation in Arab culture; it is more of a command, a great power; because their name is being said by someone other than them. Same with images of people, too. The Prophet Muhammad is never depicted. In mosques, the walls are bare except for tile and calligraphy. There are few photographs in families' houses, and when visiting Facebook pages of Tunisian friends there is a noticeable absence of pictures.

Another aspect of this culture of doors is the attitude towards the genders. Women are revered as the most sacred of God's creatures; it follows to believers, then, to protect women from the corrupting forces of the world. The home--the fortress--is where women belong, barricaded in their safe, private sphere. As one of my Tunisian friends put it, "The men live in public; the women in private". You can see it in the overwhelming majority of Tunisian youths sipping tea together in cafes, walking the streets, getting groceries and so on. When women leave their sphere, they dawn the headscarves and shapeless clothing to keep themselves as private as possible.

But with modernity, this culture of doors is taking a very direction from its traditions. One amusing way of looking at this transition was put by another Tunisian friend of mine. I had noticed that a good majority of young women (high school/college) dawn a headscarf, but have a low-cut T-shirt and a very liberal style of clothing. "Tunisian women do this," my friend explained with a wry grin, "to solicit themselves for marriage. The headscarf tells the world 'Don't mess with me, I'm religious and I'm keeping myself pure until marriage'; but the liberal way of dress says 'And whoever does marry me is going to have quite the prize'."

It is interesting to consider the Arab World in this perspective; and even more so, our world in the West. If they are a culture of doors, are we a culture of windows? in that so there are so many parts of our lives that we freely give to others? In our modern era, with so many aspects of private and public life crossing over, is it healthy to let others know so much about us so easily? Further: with all the information we give out, do we give it out genuinely and intentionally? or do we give ourselves out because it is popular, or because we think that, the more people know about us, the more worth we have in their eyes?

This weekend I'll be heading to the Tunisian South, where I'll find the Sahara, the Island of Jerba, and one of the oldest mosques in the world.

Sunday, June 21, 2009

Two and a Half Storms

Right now I feel engulfed in two and a half storms: my struggle here in Tunisia, my concern for the people of Iran, and the less figurative sandstorm that is actually happening outside my window right now.

The intensity in our classes is reaching an almost unsustainable level. This week, we had over 70 vocabulary words, five or six major grammar concepts, and only four days to study them before an exam. I say unsustainable not because of the amount of work, but the environment we have to do it in. As I mentioned in an earlier post, it's difficult to balance life here between a loving, welcoming host family that wants to be social, and then spending 12 necessary hours in class five days a week (and then saying that you're consolidating your learning effectively). It's a "you can't have your cake and eat it too" scenario; you can't dabble in either situation without something giving. It did when I came down with stomach flu and bronchitis this Wednesday.

I became sick, quite frankly, with Arabic too at this point. Thursday and Friday I slept all day and night, feeling even sicker when I thought about doing the mountains of homework I had to do. So I decided to procrastinate like a good student of the Middle East and preoccupy myself with the news coming from Iran.

As I read I found myself in an interesting situation. Here were hundreds of thousands of students, my age; adults, my parents' age; and elders, my grandparents' age; being beat up by underground police henchmen, tear-gassed by soldiers and bruised by batons...all for a cause that was bigger than themselves. Iran is not a regime you mess with on a whim. The people knew this, and they still went to the streets and protested, wearing their hearts on their sleeves knowing they could be pierced.

There was a particular column by Roger Cohen, an American journalist, that struck me. In his 50s, he is currently in Iran. Somehow he managed to escape the soldiers who are preventing the majority of foreign journalists in Iran from covering the protests. In his two latest columns, he writes about the extraordinary courage in very ordinary people--ordinary people, he says, who disappear the next night or are tear-gassed alongside him when the police descend.

I'm just as ordinary as these people. What made them extraordinary was not their circumstance, but how they reacted to it. Perhaps this is what we are called to do? Perhaps we are judged, when all is said and done, by how we reacted to the critical moments of our lives; the moments that shatter our worlds and command us to put it back together.

The sandstorm outside my window is fading into the Mediterranean-blue sky. I can gripe and complain about the storms of my life, or I can endure them, and see the sky again once they pass.

Our worlds, I think, are meant to be shattered, again and again, by these storms. There is so much extraordinary in humanity. Maybe this is why God wants us to be shattered; to show that we truly are more than just ordinary people.

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

A Tour of Sidi Bou Said

Not much time to update today; lots of studying to do (naq'ra barrsha)! I did manage to take a break and take some pictures of the area where we study, Sidi Bou Said, a picturesque hill that overlooks the Bay of Tunis on the Mediterranean.

Below (top to bottom): A view of the harbor, the Bay of Tunis, and mountains in the distance; a typical narrow, cobblestone street; one of hundreds of stray cats; a mother chiding her son to stop playing on the ground.

Monday, June 15, 2009

Goodbyes in a Beginning

The living room teemed with life. My host mother and her daughter, their hijab light and colorful, had just fed us a feast of couscous and meat, Tunisian soup, a sausage and potato dish, and freshly baked bread. My host father and brother were reclining on the room's spacious couch that covered every corner of the room, easily fitting all 12 of us, and cracked jokes in stilted English about an Owen Wilson movie playing on TV. Omee (Tunisian Arabic for mother) was playing with her 4-month old granddaughter in a beautiful, singsong Arabic, as two fellow American students watched on with glowing smiles. Upstairs my host sister's husband was murmuring his prayers towards Mecca, the gentle shif-shaf of his prayer rug accompanying his ancient-sounding voice.

This is my Tunisia.

Today marks the eighth day I've been with the Dhabbebis, my host family, and the twelfth day I've been in Tunisia. I'm exhausted. Last week was not only the first I spent in an entirely new culture, with an entirely new family; I also was learning Arabic. Eight days later, I can recite the alphabet, count to 50, read signs, tell taxis where to go, and hold a basic conversation in derja Tunsi (the Arabic dialect in Tunisia). But that was not without nights of four hours of sleep, no exercise (running/recreational exercise is alien to Tunisians), and not being able to find the courage to tell my host family I couldn't watch another four hours of old marriage videos.

The celebration tonight was for Lindsay, the Dhabbebis' previous American homestay visitor. A native Montanan, she spent the last five months in Tunisia studying Arabic, and went to Palestine and Israel for three weeks in between. She's a wonderful character, and fits the "enchanted American" bill; she dresses in Palestinian and Tunisian dresses and is animatedly French (Tunisians have an air of French about them; they were a colony of France until 1954). I can't help but think of her standing next to Lawrence of Arabia in his white sheikh ensemble.

It is absolutely breathtaking, to be a stranger in a strange land, and watch as one of your kind says their goodbyes to people you barely know. Yet its wonderfully comforting, to know that you'll be getting the same goodbye. That is, comforting to know that you'll be missed; not comforting to know that soon I'll be in Lindsay's position; an enchanted American with two months of his life spent as a Tunisian; an Arab; a North African.

It is essential that people live this way; that people understand that life is best seen through more than one pair of eyes. Like soil, our minds can absorb so much; if we absorb the same thing over and over without something new and challenging, we will dry up. But if we rotate our minds and change our perspectives every once and a while, our harvest will be all the more bountiful.


Below (from top to bottom): The golden doors of Habib Bourghiba's tomb (first President of Tunisia); me on top of an old watch tower overlooking the bay of Monastir; me climbing (that's right; they let you climb on the ruins!) of the Roman Coliseum at El Jem; a Tunisian boy manning a boat in Mahdi; an alleyway in the medina at Sousse.

Sunday, June 14, 2009

The Tunisian Sahel

This weekend our program took us on a trip to the Sahel, the coastal plains of Tunisia that faces the Mediterranean. The trip included places such as the Roman Coliseum at El Jem (featured in the movie Gladiator, first two photos) and the coastal town Mahdia, where we found Tunisian kids jumping off old ruins (third photo). On the way there we passed by the agricultural belt, where we saw vineyards and olive orchards (final photo).

More to come; on our way back to Tunis this afternoon we'll stop in another town, Sousse, and hopefully tonight I'll have time to add some more photos.

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

The America I Want

Last week I had the unique opportunity to attend a special reception at the US Ambassador to Tunisia's home in Sidi Bou Said on the day of President Obama's speech in Cairo, Egypt. Attending the ceremony was the executive staff of the US Embassy, Department of State interns, Tunisian Fulbright Language Tutors, and myself and my CLS program--all people deeply invested on the subjects the President remarked on. In the conversations I had with these people, I arrived at an insight on the future of America--a future that I and the other young adults at the reception would soon oversee.

We are entering the Post-American World: a term coined by journalist Fareed Zakaria to explain the new era in which the US is no longer a hyperpower head-over-heels over everyone else. India, China, Brazil, and other rapidly developing nations will soon reach a level of close to even competition with our economy. While this may seem intimidating to Americans who have lived through close to 30 years on top of the world, it is in fact an opportunity. But it is an opportunity we must soon seize, for there is a time limit that, if passed, the Post-American World will not include the America that we truly desire.

What is that America? I hope I am not alone in thinking that in recent decades America has undergone an identity crisis. We no longer know who we are, and what we stand for as a nation. Once, we had the prestige of the world for three central aspects of our identity: First, for our freedoms of thought and tolerance of beliefs; second, for the tools we give to our citizens--all of us an immigrant--to climb the ladder of potential to our highest peaks; and finally, the strength and willful resolve to stand, as George Washington advised us to do, as a neutral nation that did only what it had to do, not what it should do.

These three aspects of our identity have faded into the fabric that once was America. Now we are a nation that values the will--or tyranny, as Jefferson once said--of the majority over individual freedoms such as marriage or wearing religious clothing like hijab. Now we are a nation that tries to deny its immigrant heritage by making immigration inhumane, near impossible, and most terribly, without regard to basic human dignity--a condition that made the British colonists immigrate to America over three hundred years ago. Now we are a nation that intervenes in the affairs of other countries as if we had total and complete jurisdiction--all in the name of doing "what we should be doing" like "spreading/keeping democracy safe" or other subjective banners that, as we see in the disastrous ideological wars of Vietnam and Iraq, end up making us look arrogant in the eyes of the world.

There is a fourth aspect that perhaps will make or break our future. When the Founding Fathers sat amongst each other on Day 1 at the Constitutional Convention, the great experiment of America sitting on a blank piece of parchment, despite all of the knowledge and political philosophy each of them possessed, if they lacked one essential thing, we would not have America today. I am talking about the will; the desire, the want. They wanted peace. They wanted tolerance. They wanted representation instead of majority or one-man majority tyranny. They wanted people to come from all across the globe to participate in the great experiment. Above all, they wanted to succeed.

The three other aspects of identity, and, indeed, our very future, hinges on what we want America to be. How can we determine what we want? We must look at our heritage, and see what our Founders wanted. We must look at our mistakes in the past 240 years, and see if we want to continue making them without regard to their lessons. We must look at our present, and see our shortfalls before they become long-falls and lead our children down a road we do not want them to take.

I use the term "want" in a generational context. For my generation is a generation of "wants" instead of "needs", because we have everything and then some at our fingertips. In reality, we "need" to reshape our American identity. But this verb has no impact on a generation who finds motivation only in what we desire. If we had lived through a Depression, World Wars, or other tragic events that made us realize how interdependent we all really our to each other, things might be different.

We all know we must reshape our identity. But we lack the motivation. I will work as hard as I can to motivate my generation and others to want this. Ghandi may have said, "Be the change you wish to seek", but he left out the most important part: The change you seek will not happen, until you convince others to seek it too.

Monday, June 8, 2009

A Stranger (Feeling at Home) in a Strange Land

Yesterday I moved in with my host family, the Dhabbebi's, a charming and welcoming family in the suburbs of Marsa. The town is nestled between Gammarth and Sidi Bou Said, about thirty minutes by taxi to Tunis, and goes right up to the Mediterranean. The Dhabbebis' have made me feel so much at home that I no longer feel as if I am an observer; I have stepped beyond the boundaries of a tourist and have begun to feel what it is like to be a part of this beautiful Tunisian culture.

Arabic classes are difficult and demanding. We spend about five hours in class five days a week, and then about four practicing and doing homework. But I'm impressed by the flexibility of a stress-free mind; everything we learn is coming very easy to me. I will have a unique opportunity come the end of this year to see myself learning in three very different learning environments--Los Angeles, Tunisia, and London--and really understand how I shape my perspectives, engage in my environment, and realize how I best learn.

Below (from top to bottom): A view of Marsa from the roof of my home; clothes air-drying in the warm sun against the backdrop of the Cathedral of St. Vincent de Paul; homes on the Marsa hills right above a Mediterranean beach.

Saturday, June 6, 2009

A Word On Tunis

I'm ending my fifth day in Tunisia with the window open, the sound of Arabic music drifting across the streets that are teeming with excited Tunisians (they won a World Cup-qualifying match today). My roommate and I just finished half of our weekend homework for class, and we can't take another minute. It's tough, but rewarding. The last few days I've been able to greet and order food in Arabic, as well as get along quite well with a taxi driver and haggle my way to a cheap 8-dinar ($6.00) belt.

While there are plenty of stories from the last few days that I could tell, I'll stick with a word on Tunis, the capital city and where I'm staying until tomorrow morning.

Tunis is not for the faint of heart, but, like many cities, it has a unique way of being likeable despite its intimidating outer shell. It is a city of paradox--it is chaotic yet unhurried; towering modernistic hotels next to ancient mosques; crumbling Italian villas transformed into a clothing store; iPod headphones hidden under hijab. A 1300-year-old mosque sits in the epicenter of Tunis, beautiful and breathtaking in its ancientness and the sound of the imam calling the faithful to prayer from its commanding minaret. Nestled among modernity is the sprawling, labyrinth of the medina, the original hill where the city was founded. Here you plunge into its hive-like maze of narrow streets that from above look Biblical with its sun-parched walls and clotheslines and goats on the rooftops. In the hive itself are the souks (street shops), where wily shopkeepers shove made-in-China ceramics in passerby's faces yet become particularly moody when foreigners beat them at their own game and haggle to a fair price (a moodiness that is strangely cathartic to the victor).

Tomorrow morning I'll be leaving Tunis for Sidi Bou Said, a small town on the Mediterranean. There I'll have my Arabic classes (five days a week, six hours a day) and live with a host family for seven weeks. Already I've realized that immersing yourself is not as hard as it seems; all you need is a mind open and absorbant, ready to accept the contradictions and paradoxes of that culture and realize that your own culture is just as confusing. Culture, like language, is something you need to hear at all times in order for you to find out what it means.

Below (from top to bottom): A door in the medina; a narrow alleyway in the souks; an Italian villa, a remnant of the Sicilian farming community that lived in Tunis a hundred years ago; the Olive Mosque and its minaret.

Friday, June 5, 2009

Souks and a Small World

Yet another quick post...

Above is a picture of the souks, a labyrinth of shops and vendors nestled in the 800+ year old alleyways of the old city of Tunis. Just after this picture I experienced my first "haggling" (more on that later!)

Below: One of our Fulbright Language Tutors is a Tunisian named Ash. Seeing him wear this shirt made me really realize how small a world we really are in. For those of you who don't know, the University of the Pacific is not only in the same city I went to high school in, but my mom teaches there. Ash has never been to the US and he got it from a Goodwill store in Tunisia.

Wednesday, June 3, 2009

First Night in North Africa

First night/morning in North Africa! Tunisia is incredible. I've only got a few moments to update all of you so here are some initial pictures I've taken of the area around me.

Below: (from top to bottom) The courtyard of an old Italian villa; the Bab al-Bhar (Sea Gate), a gate over 1000 years old that serves as the entrance to the medina of Tunis.

Monday, June 1, 2009

Tunisian Prologue in DC

Today we had a full day of program orientation that was chock full of goodies. They spent about an hour and a half explaining what to expect in Tunisia, and I'm glad they did. The most exciting part was meeting some very, very interesting people.

To back up a day: Last night I met an Iraqi-American with an incredible background. Fluent in Arabic, specializing in five complex Iraq dialects, he's heading down to San Diego in a few days to teach Arabic with the State Department. This guy was totally unrelated to the CLS program (the program I going with to Tunisia, aka the Critical Languages Scholarship). For a good half-hour we chatted about his experience working in the State Department, which included a five-year stint working as a translator for the Iraqi army. He shared his stories of translating during the Battle of Fallujah and his perception of how Iraq is becoming a more secure state.

In exchange I answered his questions about California; he was particularly interested and very surprised to find out our state's dismal economic condition. He was excited about learning about the program I'm on, saying that the State Department needed a lot more translators. He encouraged me that the more I became an expert on Middle Eastern policy, the more invaluable I could be as a potential Department employee.

Back to today: This morning they had a diverse panel of Arabic/Middle-Eastern experts that, through three perspectives - one worked in the private sector as a consultant, one was a State Department bureau chief, and one headed a prominent NGO that helped international refugees - shed some light on employment opportunities. I asked both the NGO and State Department chief about how the two sectors interacted with each other, considering that in a lot of literature and media the evidence suggests they butt heads. They both had positive responses, however. When the NGO industry took off in the 1980s / 1990s, the government began to use them as a way of on-the-ground information gathering. During the Balkan crises in the mid-1990s, their coordination led to the biggest refugee resettlement in history.

During lunch I also got to talk with the director of the CLS program, who herself had been with the State Department before returning and deciding to spearhead the program. She reminded me of your friend's grandma that you'd love to have, yet you knew she gave your friend the hardest time. She told some entertaining stories of her experiences abroad and shed some insight on living in the Middle East.

The rest of the day we learned about Tunisian culture, what to do and not to, and learned some incredible news: we would be staying with a host family for the entirety of the program. I'm stoked: what better way could you learn a language?

It's midnight DC-time and I'm going to stock up on sleep tonight for tomorrow's seven-hour flight to Tunisia (with a layover in Paris). I'm not sure when I'll have internet access yet but I'll post as soon as possible.

Here are some photos I took today of some sightseeing we managed to squeeze in.

Photos of the day: The Capitol and the Washington Monument