YSWF: Living in an Arab World
Tunisia is steeped in Islam. It is everywhere, in the language, food, daily practice. It is the very fabric of life. Because it is such a dominant force, it cannot be ignored. For the outsider, particularly if the outsider is female, understanding the nature of this force can be a lengthy, arduous process. Men and women in this country are born of a religion—a way of life—that systematically segregates them: separate duties, separate expectations, separate schools, separate rules. There is so much underlying tension about what men and women should or should not be doing, it is no wonder that the mere presence of an outsider is a big snag in the social fabric.
No amount of cross-cultural training could have prepared me for day-to-day life in Tunisia. It is often said by Tunisia’s corps of Volunteers, “It is not the physical challenge of living here that is difficult; it is the mental and emotional challenge.” I was unprepared to graciously absorb the daily onslaught of propositions I received. In the beginning, I was not sure I would be able to withstand the comments. Depending on my mood, I was tremendously vocal or exceedingly demure. My glow-in-the-dark white skin, my green eyes, my clothing—though archconservative—were indeed Western. My mere presence on the streets invited attention from males of all ages.
I was assigned to the capital, Tunis, a city more crowded than any I have ever known. With 1.6 million residents, Tunis’s streets are a teeming mass of people. At first I did not have the nerve to venture outside and explore my neighborhood. I would lie on my bed and stare at the cracked ceiling or the tree I had painted on my wall. I would stay motionless, listening to mopeds whir through the crowded streets of the medina (the traditional walled city) and the constant hammering of the brass smiths outside my window. Cocooned, safe from every possible intrusion, I tried to ignore my obvious lack of courage.
When I walked to the Bourguiba Institute where I taught English, a thirty-minute commute, I wore my Walkman for protection. I found listening to the B-52s humorous because the nonsensical music screened out the predictable barrage and put a smile on my face at the same time. Eventually, I abandoned the radio because I began to feel that perhaps it was culturally insensitive. Instead, I counted the number of times I was approached during that thirty-minute trek.
After about six months, something magical happened. I started to feel as if Tunis was my home. Somehow, somewhere along the way, I began to win the war of stares and stopped letting the comments chip away at my personality. I stopped feeling as though every incident was a personal attack in a war waged solely against me. I discovered it was pointless to let these occurrences bother me. A Western woman is fair game and rules don’t apply. These exceedingly annoying and overconfident flirtations were just attempts to capture my attention, and my interest. They were also completely harmless. In fact, I was far safer in Tunis than I was in Detroit.
I also enjoyed a powerful tool. I had learned Arabic. Not only was I able to understand the solicitations, but I could respond in the most creative ways! “Now that’s not very polite, is it?” Or my favorite, “Rude bellick, Allah bish yhizz lsaanik.” (Be careful or God’s gonna seize your tongue.) Believe it or not, that comment exacted shock and laughter followed by profuse apologies. In training, our instructors had counseled, “Learn the language, learn the language, learn the language.” Arabic not only met my basic communication needs, but was my first line of defense.
Once the language barrier started to dissipate, I began to see past my own comfort zone and my eyes opened to a culture much bigger and far more fascinating than I. I began to put things in perspective. I relaxed and found Tunisia to be infinitely complicated and fascinating. I became absorbed in the culture. In Beyond the Veil, Fatima Merniss writes:
“The Islamic Veil originated in 18th century Samaria. It was worn by Samarian women to symbolize a woman’s freedom—that she should not be assaulted because she is shielded by the veil. Without the veil, she is tempting the man to think about sex. With the veil she saves him from the opportunity to have bad thoughts.”
In Tunisia, married women typically wear the saf-sari (veil) covering from head to toe. Unmarried women can choose to conform to this code or not. It is often viewed as being submissive not only to God but also to men. What most Western women fail to understand is the freedom offered by a veil. Donning the shapeless sheet does not convey that women are not equal. A woman who chooses to veil is a woman who is convinced by Allah’s word as it is written in the Koran, the holy book of Islam. It extends the idea of protection by secluding her in the holy world of Islam. She is not to be bothered. She is not fair game. She has made a conscious decision. Younger women in Tunisia are veiling. This, for the most part, is political in support of fundamentalism.
There are some, though, who feel early the pangs of Islam. I had a Tunisian family who “adopted” me. There were three sisters. Besma was my closest friend. She was free-spirited and rejected the veil. Her sisters, ages fifteen and twenty-two, were very devoted to Islam—and very veiled. They even refused to let me see their hair (though they boasted that it was far more beautiful than mine) because I was not a Muslim.
Because Besma refused to veil, they could neither comprehend their middle sibling nor tolerate her. Besma was not rejecting the presence of Allah in her life. She was expressing her desire to have an identity, not hide it. Long walks, arm in arm, through the crowded alleyways of our jam-packed neighborhood put the daily struggles of life in perspective for both of us and gave us respite from our more serious sisters.
Very late one evening, there was a knock at my door. It was rapid and continuous. I yelled, “Shkoon?” (Who is it?) “Besma,” came the reply. “Fsa, fsa.” (Hurry up.) I opened the door. “You must come over to my house right now, please.” “What’s wrong?” “My mother wants to see you and dinner is waiting.”
Although it was late, I was accustomed to these impromptu invitations to meals at the Tounsi household. I changed out of my shorts and T-shirt and into an ankle-length skirt and loose, flowing shirt. We walked hurriedly through the narrow streets, in and out of the complicated labyrinth of the medina to her neighborhood. We knocked on her door in the same manner and heard her mother say, “Shkoon?”
“Besma and Noora.” (Noora was my Tunisian name.) The door opened and I was flooded with kisses by Besma’s mother, Laila. She seemed especially excited to see me. She held my hand and escorted me through the courtyard into the family living area.
When I entered the tiny chamber that served as a dining room, recreation area, and bedroom, the roomful of waiting people stood up to welcome me. Each came up to me, one by one, and planted the customary four kisses—two per cheek—on my face. I recognized almost everyone in the room as family. The only person not to greet me was an older gentleman, who did not move from his seat but fixed his stare on me from the moment I came in the room. He seemed amused. Besma’s mother once again grabbed my hand and led me to the couch, never releasing my fingers from her tight grip. I was seated facing the stranger and the room became very quiet.
Then the stranger started to speak. In perfect English, with a strong Arabic accent, he introduced himself as Uncle Mohammed. He gave me an abbreviated life story. He told me he was educated and that he “took” a degree in dentistry. He was financially secure and could promise me frequent vacations in Europe and a yearly trip to America to see my family. He explained that he had seen a picture of me—one that I had given to Besma. He knew the moment he saw it that I should be his wife. And did I accept?
Dumbfounded, I looked around the room. Everyone was perched on the edges of their chairs. Except for Mohammed and me, no one in the room could understand English, so they were anxiously awaiting my reaction. I shot Besma a “what-have-you-done-to-me” look. When I turned to Laila, who had now deprived my fingers of blood flow for nearly ten minutes, she was frantically nodding her head yes, yes, yes! I looked back at Mohammed, who was waiting for my favorable reply. “How old are you?” I asked.
“Forty-six,” he replied. “Wow” was all I could say. “It’s a wonderful opportunity for you,” he said. “Really, the chance of a lifetime.” Then Laila chimed in. “You will be in our family. I am so happy.” She was already congratulating me.
“Besma, can I speak with you a moment?” I asked. Besma followed me into the courtyard.
“Really, Besma, he is only four years younger than my father. Too old for me, way too old. Could you marry someone twice your age?”
“No. I’m sorry. Everyone thinks it is such a perfect arrangement. You’re alone here. What was I going to say? Don’t worry. I thought you might not want to. Tell him it’s impossible.” Great. How was I going to gracefully decline without offending my Tunisian family? In their eyes, it was as though Mohammed had handed me the keys to a brand- new Ferrari and said, “Here, take it, it’s yours.” Who would say no to such an offer? We returned to the room. Everyone was prepared to jump right out of their chairs. I sat across from Mohammed.
“I am sorry I cannot accept your gracious offer. My family wants me to marry a man from my hometown, one I have known since childhood.” It was a blatant lie. “He is waiting for my return. I am here because there is so much yet to learn. I want to be ready for marriage and right now I am not. I am too young. But when I am ready, it will have to be him I marry.”
“I understand,” he replied. “Thank you.”
With that he got up and exited the room. Laila stared at me with puppy dog eyes and everyone in the room fell back into their chairs, defeated. Besma later explained my reasons. My Tunisian family seemed to accept them without question.
I feel very fortunate to have served in an Islamic country. Two years couldn’t possibly have afforded me the time needed to fully grasp the complexity of this rich and mysterious culture. It happened to me, and I watched it happen to my fellow Volunteers—curiosity caught us. We struggled not to escape but to reach an understanding. Through our work, our friendships, our mere presence, we forged an understanding of ourselves and our hosts.
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