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.