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.

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