Thursday, July 23, 2009

Speaking Their Language

What often goes unnoticed in our lives is the fact humanity shares a common language. It doesn't matter if we speak English, Arabic, Spanish, or sign language; if we are communicating with each other (or attempting to), we are doing something I think is quite magical: we are inviting another person into our life--our narrative, our story.

There's a whole genre of research and examination of this concept. Defined, a narrative is a linear explanation of a series of events. This makes our lives a narrative. We're born, we live, and then we die. Inbetween we have countless other narratives, each with their own beginnings and ends, and from those smaller narratives we reflect and think about what we learned or what we gained from being a part of those experiences.

These narratives are enriched by bringing people into them. They're even more enriched when we bring people that are completely different from ourselves into them. The more scared we are of differences and diversity, the more limited our narrative is--and, worse, the more limited we as individuals become. It is when we embrace the strange and leave our side of the spectrum that we better understand who we are.

Last weekend I became suddenly allergic to homework and found myself hopping on a train to Tunis, armed with a camera, a handful of dinars, and fellow procrastinating American students. Within the hour I was stepping on a wad of gum under the tree-lined Avenue Bourghiba, on a beeline straight for my beloved souks. I realized that I had come a long way since first entering the beehive-like part of Tunis; the honycomb passages and bustling storefronts and yelling shopkeepers that had once overwhelmed me were now like noisy relatives welcoming me back from an absence.

Little did I know that I might as well have been a relative. Once we made it passed the Olive Mosque (which signified the end of the tourist, overpriced section with the Tunisian, local one), the cobblestone streets were calmer and the shopkeepers now more amused at seeing foreigners than excited. Our first stop was in a trinket shop, run by kids our age, where they immediately proceeded to try and sell us tourist material. We responded with a lovely Aslemma, and Salemwahlehkum, which prompty turned the situation to our advantage. After a round of greetings, I grabbed a genie-lamp and began to bargain in Arabic. To his chagrin, the shopkeeper sold it to me for 18 dinar less than what he first offered (he wanted 20 for something you could get in a happy meal!).

We happily left for another round; this time, in a beautiful antique shop. Another wave of Arabic from the three of us put a grin on his face and convinced him to show us the "good stuff". He took us to the back, where there lined on the walls were a stunning collection of carpets. After joking that we weren't that good at bargaining (he started out at 12,000 dinar for the smallest one), we found our way to a collection of hookah pipes. Thirty minutes later he was wrapping up a magnificent, antique glass hookah for me, complete with ornate designs in real silver. What would've cost me upwards of $200 in the States I got for $22. As we shook hands and left the shopkeeper told me, "You bargain like a Sfaxian", which, I found out later, was a rueful half-insult you gave to someone who was stingy with money.

The girls I were with needed to get traditional dance-scarves for their concert the following week (we have "cultural clubs" in our program; I'm in calligraphy). We wandered into a fairly touristy store. I grabbed a dharbouka (a traditional Tunisian drum) and began to play a beat as the girls picked out dance-scarves. Instantly we drew a crowd of Tunisians, who grabbed more dharboukas and played along. The girls began to perform, and the Tunisians broke out into a traditional song. It was only when a grumpy-looking boss-man cast a disapproving glance at his shopkeepers that we stopped, clapping each other on the back and chatting in Arabic.

One of them sneaked us past his boss and said he wanted to show us something. We followed him up a flight of stairs to a breathtaking view of the Tunis skyline (see first picture). The man explained that his building, and the surrounding section of the souk, had once been a magnicent palace for the old kings of Tunisia. The ruins (second picture) stood marvelous against the blue sky, and hearing him tell us the story in half-English, half-Arabic made us marvel at the passage of time and these kind of mystical things. In a room below the rooftop he showed us a bed made of gold, where the king and his wives would sleep (third picture).

As me and my two American friends sat an hour later in a cafe, overlooking the 1000-year old entrance of the souks, something clicked. In the span of an afternoon, by simply talking, dancing, laughing and singing with Tunisians, we were learning far and beyond more than we ever could in a classroom. Whether it was wandering past the comfort zone of the tourist section, or following a stranger up a flight of stairs to discover relics of an ancient history, we were using language how it's supposed to be used--as a way to communicate.

In the taxi-ride home, despite having had a long day, we found the energy to strike up a conversation with our cab driver, who, like most cab drivers, were amazed to find Americans studying Arabic (let alone in Tunisia, where we almost never set foot). But this was said something that I will never forget; and might very well be the focal point of my experience here. As we paid our fare and said our farewells in Arabic, he smiled and put his hand over his heart and said in English, "I'm glad to have met someone like you who wants to learn about my world."

When I say humanity speaks a common language, I mean exactly what this cab driver was getting at. We speak a language of recognition. We can't live our lives without it. Our lives are miserable without other people in them, or when the people that are don't really care about us. Haven't you ever felt your best when the people you love most are around you? Haven't you ever had that moment of supreme confidence in yourself when a friend cheers you on? Doesn't it mean the world to you when after a bad day someone genuinely asks you how you are?

When we want to learn about other people's worlds, we are speaking this shared language of humanity. Think about what would happen if every person on this planet became fluent in this language.

Monday, July 13, 2009

The Song That Sings Continuously

There is an instrument in Tunisia, called the "quanun", that is wonderfully fascinating. It has 24 strings, spread over a decorative wooden table, and is played with picks attached to the end of the forefingers. To see someone play is like watching someone painting music; the forefingers pluck and glide over the strings, weaving a melody that is vibrant in tone and sound.

Last week I dwelled in a songless place. The challenges of this program had taken their toll on me, and I was getting wrapped up in their difficulty. I was losing my motivation, my energy, and my drive in a language that I convinced myself was impossible to conquer.

This weekend we traveled to the Tunisian North. In the roads winding through the golden hills, the sprawling green canopies of its forests, and the misty blue mountains watching the sea, I kept hearing a song. It was a song I found in the landscape and the people on my journey; a song that I remember hearing so much more vividly in Oxford, Germany, and Los Angeles; a song that sings continuously, but heard only by those who know it is there.


We left Tunis early Saturday morning, the dinghy skyline of the suburbs giving way to yellow and bright green farmland. The hills began to roll and the sky turned bluer and the clouds gained weight and cast pleasant shade on the hills and fields (see first picture). Our first stop were at the ruins of Douga, a spectacular and well-preserved site of a Roman temple, theater, town, and cemetary (see second through fifth pictures). With adequate supervision lacking we took to the ruins as if it were a giant playground; we were kids again, jumping across crumbling four-story buildings, exploring the dark mazes under the hill, and performing on the stage.

The hills gave way to mountains and forests and a smell so moist and vegetated that I thought I had crossed somehow through the center of the earth and emerged back in the Sierra Nevadas. The two hour difference between North Africa and California threw my mind in a strange, dislocated state, drugging my perception of where exactly I was in the world.

Night fell as we reached our hotel on the beach in front of the mountains (see sixth picture). I and my Tunisian teachers and fellow Americans sat in this strange ocean-forest place, smoking shisha (a traditional Middle Eastern sweet, light tobacco) and mused about things. In the morning we explored the area, coming upon a medieval harbor with an old fortress overlooking the sea (see seventh picture).

On the road back to Tunis we found ourselves in one of the poorest parts of Tunisia. The roads became dusty and the land, despite its beauty, was devoid of large-scale farming or large cities (see eighth picture). One of my Tunisian friends told me that NGOs had in recent years supported the fast-growing women's pottery industry here by bringing pottery back to Europe or the US. The beautiful craftmanship set the bar high and people paid high prices for them; the NGOs would give the proceeds back to the women and help the region's economy.

We stopped at a cluster of tables on the side of the road, our eyes grim as we looked at the poverty and heard them offering their masterpieces for less than five dollars (a high price for that area). Two younger girls took a liking to me, flirting in French and shoving their treasures into my arms--telling me "b'lesh flooz! b'lesh flooz! (free of charge!)"--and, despite trying to convince them I didn't have a phone in Tunisia, wrote their numbers on one of my purchases. One of them explained in patient Arabic that they were studying at the university in Tunis, and had returned for the summer to help their families. I convinced them to take at least some money, just as one of my guides rescued me graciously (see ninth picture).

As I collapsed on my bed when we returned to Tunis and closed my eyes, my ears picked up the usual sound of marriage music drifting through the streets. The experiences of this weekend came back to me not in images, but in sound. For the first time in six weeks, I found myself savoring my experiences in Tunisia. The souks of Tunis, the sands of the Sahara, and the smell of the mountains by the sea all became one memory, one song, that I, through some kind of grace, finally heard.

Last week, I thought the next three would be unbearable. Now, I find myself dreading to leave. For six weeks, my ears shut out the songs of Tunisia--all of my attention focused on trying to swim in sinking circumstances. I got so caught up in trying to conquer a language in 2 months that I failed to remind myself that those fluent in it had been speaking it their entire life. Now that I realize this, I feel the pressure of a blind man granted sight at the end of his life.

As you watch a qunan player, you feel overwhelmed by the intensity he has in weaving his music. It's as if he is caught up in his own work, so that, at times, it is impossible to tell what came first: the song or the musician. This mystical reality is the true beauty of his talent--a talent that was only achieved by endless practice, committed dedication, and a complete submission to the songs he plays.

I must learn how to continue, for the remainder of my time in Tunisia, to hear the song that sings continuously.

Saturday, July 4, 2009

American Patriotism is Dead

I had a conversation with my host father this morning about the state of America. He is a true Tunisian: he hates talking about politics, because, with the freedom of press and expression banned here, as long as the state keeps him and everyone else happy, it is a small price to pay. It was in this conversation that I realized something very important in my perspective of America.

The conversation shifted towards talking about the woes of America. I referenced the economic crisis, the homelessness problem, the hundreds of thousands of troops we have abroad, the downfall of social security. As I explained them, my host father shook his head every minute or so, his brow furrowed and his eyes sad. It was clear this was all news to him. "In Tunisia," he said softly, "People have homes. People retire with enough. There is bread for everyone. Our children don't go to war." I could see the unspoken question in his aghast expression: Was America great anymore?

To which my own expression answered: We're not.

America has a curious complex of convincing the world that they are the best, when they have just as many problems as everyone else. Thousands live homeless and in poverty.
Our education, health care, and retirement systems are shot. We have refugees in our own borders from Katrina and teenagers enslaved in sex trafficking and vicious gang life.

Did you know about these problems? If we were truly great, why haven't these issues been the main conversation in elections? Why was the main issue in 2008 Sarah Palin's shopping spree and not the estimated 2 million people living homeless in the States? Why was the main issue in 2004 Swift Boat Veterans and not the fact that my generation won't have social security? Why are Republicans saying our government should be more religious and Democrats saying we should be more green when teenage girls in San Francisco are being bought for prostitution and people with life-threatening health conditions are being dropped from insurance providers?

This is not patriotic. This is not greatness.

We are not patriotic because we are not having the right conversations. We are not great anymore because we elect people on issues that don't matter. You, me, the media, and politicians form a vicious circle: the media focuses more on Bristol Palin and Paris Hilton because it sells more than a story on Katrina refugees; the public pays more attention to these stories because that's all that's selling; and politicians think they can get elected by going to church more than the other guy instead of devoting his political career to reforming mental health in America or the prison system.

This cycle of misplaced attention is making us fat, lazy, and complacent. We have a built-in allergy to unpleasant or disturbing information. Our current culture is distracting, deluding, amusing, and insulating us.

Believe it or not, those last two sentences were said 60 years ago, by Edward R. Murrow, the famous television broadcaster influential in bringing down Joseph McCarthy.

Patriotism is a conversation about the problems of society and how to fix them. We need to revive this. The Founding Fathers weren't afraid of having this conversation. Two hundred and thirty-three years ago, they had this conversation, and 233 years later, I'm writing this blog in a country halfway across the world, telling you, fellow Americans, to reignite this conversation.

America's true potential is in its ability converse and its freedom of expression and ideas. When what we think is dependent on how everyone else thinks, and we lose the motivation to think new ideas and talk about them, this potential will die, and America--and patriotism--will cease to exist.

But in every tunnel, there is a light. We can revive this conversation.
All we need to do is have it. We don't need Obama or anyone else to inspire us to have it. America isn't great because of its leaders--it is great because of its people. We need to be the change we wish to see. We must have this conversation, not the New York Times or Congress or the Supreme Court. Our new anthem must be: Patriotism is being the change you wish to see.

As Murrow once said,

“I believed years ago
and I believe today...
that mature Americans can engage
in conversation and controversy...
the clash of ideas, with Communists
anywhere in the world...
without becoming
contaminated or converted.
I believe that our faith, our conviction, our determination
are stronger than theirs…
and that we can successfully compete,
not only in the area of bombs...
but in the area of ideas.”

I am a patriot. How about you?

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

A Vision Quest

This past weekend I was on a whirlwind of a trip through seven states, 400 miles, and three geographic regions of Tunisia. At one point I woke up with the sun rise in the Sahara and set in the Mediterranean; another day we were crossing a treacherous salt march right after basking in the sun of an oasis.

Friday morning we woke up early, said goodbye to our host families, and set off southward in a bus. We made our first stop in the city of Kairouan, a cultural capital of not only Tunisia but North Africa and Islam. There we found ourselves standing in awe of the 1300-year old grand mosque of Okba, a looming presence of brick and arches and golden prayer rooms (see first and second pictures below). The mosque, behind those in Mecca, Medina, and Jerusalem, is the fourth holiest mosque in Islam, notwithstanding the fact it was one of the earliest built, since Islam was founded in the early 600s.

Then we were off to the oases of the midlands of Tunisia. As the green lands of the North gave way to Kern County-like badlands, the landscape was dotted every twenty miles or so with green explosions of oases--fairly large areas that had dense vegetation and an ample supply of water. We stayed the night in Tozeur, one of the biggest oases in Tunisia, and enjoyed a round of hookah with our Tunisian teachers while gazing out into the palm-tree covered night. The next day we toured the oasis (see third picture), learning about the highly advanced ecological conservation ongoing in Tozeur and similiar oases. From an American perspective, it was incredibly fascinating to learn that a developing country was so committed to environmental sustainability.

We set off again, the driver ominously warning us that this would be the last oasis for awhile. Within the hour we found ourselves at a shrine on the outpost of the chott el Jerid--a massive salt marsh that stretched white and flat as far as we could see. At the shrine we explored it and the surrounding canyon (see fourth picture) and then we set out onto the solitary, two-lane highway that was the only safe place to cross for 70 miles (see fifth picture and see me walking out onto the salt marsh in my new title photograph at the top of this blog).

That night was the best part of the trip. We arrived at a camel herd, and, fulfilling my Lawrence of Arabia dreams, I rode the camel into the sunset over the dunes of the Sahara (see sixth picture) We rode our camels into a campsite which was a tad ridiculous (air-conditioned tents, modern bathrooms, and a bar?) but far enough in the sand dunes away from civilization that I managed to convince myself of its sense of legitimacy. They cooked us a spectacular dinner, had a troupe of traditional Tunisian singers and a belly dancer perform. That night I and a few others walked into the desert and gazed at a universe so vivid and bright that the dunes around us glowed. We slept in the felt-like sand and awoke to the sun--an experience that I wouldn't dream of ever trying to write about (see seventh picture).

That day, we said goodbye to our Hilton in the dunes and made straight for the Island of Jerba off the western coast of the Sahara. We made a stop in Matmata, where we saw the troglodyte dwellings (houses built in the ground) that were made famous in the first Star Wars film (see eighth picture). At Jerba we collapsed in our hotel and spent the evening relaxing in the Mediterranean. The next day, we made a few tourist stops on the island, all of which seemed overkill to a wiped-out group of students save the beautiful, 2,000-year old Ghriba synagogue (see ninth and tenth picture) which housed one of the first Torah scrolls ever written.

In the interest of hastening us home Monday night so that we could rest up for our Tuesday class, we flew back to Tunis, but not without an hour delay when the airline wasn't letting one of our group onto the plane. Thoroughly wiped, we returned home around 11:00pm.

Less than two hours away will mark the month anniversary of being on Tunisian soil, and, less than a week away, the longest I've ever spent away from home soil. While the last two years of my college career have seen me working as a garbage collector, an editor of a magazine, and a resident advisor, this trip has trumped all of them as the hardest, most challenging experience I've ever been through.

These four days illustrate the core element of this challenge. I may be having the time of my life, but doing what you love isn't relaxing. Thriving means sitting in a crowded bus for three hours over a salt marsh, braving the heat and lack of comfort on a camel trek, and forgoing sleep one night--all just to lay down in the Sahara and gaze up at a universe, in all its glory and vastness, beyond your temporary discomforts and your temporary existence.