On Monday I moved from the pretty Bauhaus house in a more residential area, to a traditional home in nearer the heart of Tunis, in the medina. It is a beautiful home that attracts a steady stream of visitors, mostly writers, historians and artists, but I have also met two women farmers.
One of them arrived bearing honey, honey from bees fed on flowers. Most of the honey here is from bees fed sugar. This farmer also finds time to be an artist and was dressed in a chic Japanesque ensemble. She told me about a bleak post-revolution development in urban life. The new government in its vast wisdom recently decided to empty the jails, of all criminals, and so the country is awash in a crime wave. Apparently there are gangs organized to prey on farmers in very rural areas, stealing livestock and crops after they have been gathered at harvest. This crime is particularly mean at this time as the farmers are also suffering from labor shortages. Despite the steep unemployment rate, it is difficult to find workers who are willing or able to engage in the physical exertion of farming.
I have heard of increased crime in Tunis as well. Yesterday two young local women nearby were held up at knifepoint for their purses. I think I will assume the form of a fat woman when I am out with my camera.
Another farmer is an octogenarian woman. She and her husband are a very elegant couple who practice the Bahá’í faith. I had seen photos of her on a tractor from 50 years ago, so it was great fun when I met her to realize that I was dining next to the photogenic farmer.
On Tuesday evening I joined a new German acquaintance at her tennis club. The way there should be lined with beautifully trees dripping in wisteria-like blossoms, but that day the trees lining the avenue had been butchered. Perhaps in addition to saving money on prisons, the government found a cutrate gardening service.
That night I joined another American on the roof of the Hana Hotel, which has open terrace seating affording a wonderful semi-panoramic view of Tunis. In another country this place would be exclusive, but here they prefer to cater to beer drinkers. I wanted to hazard a glass of the local wine that they served, but was told that it was not available, even though they had bottles in plain site. Apparently the waiters have some bizarre aversion to serving wine. A nice local fellow attempted to explain why it would bother them if others saw me drinking wine and decided to order it also, but I remain mystified.
After Hana we repaired to what was billed as the official communist hangout of Tunis: JFK. It only served beer and smoke. Initially there were only 4 other women to 25 or so men, but as the night wore on the ratio moved closer to a balance, the majority of the women appeared to be foreign.
Before going home, we stopped for dinner at a highly flourescented Tunisienne restaurant, where one of my new local friend’s ate half of a sheep’s head Observing his enthusiasm for this rare treat was enough to keep all obvious comments in check. A !/2 sheep head is not an appetizing item to have on the table. I had to stifle a few grimaces and focus very hard on the vegetables in front of me.
I am off to the desert tomorrow where I expect to encounter all sorts of new and exciting taste treats.
Spent a day to evening in La Marsa and recorded some of the local action. Unfortunately my camera ran out of battery, so I missed some sweet scenes of pretty boxers exchanging kisses at the end of their bouts and boxers in hijab.
SUNDAY_A week without wine
Tunisia is a much more “dry” country than I expected, closer to Algeria than the Levant in terms of culture. In the past week I have sipped wine only once, at a lunch with a progressive crowd; and I drank a demi-cup of beer yesterday with a bunch of expatriots. Alcohol is amazingly expensive here, except for the local wine and beer. Campari is 125 dinars (about $85). Cheap scotch is 150 dinars.
Tunisia is probably good for my health on the alcohol front, but I worry about the quality of certain foods, like milk, which only seems to be available in those cartons that do not require refrigeration. It is nearly impossible to find eggs from properly raised hens. I have no idea what the meat production and vegetable production is like. The local bread is very nice, but most people seem to eat baguettes — very much not their culinary strength.
I am upset at the moment because I have just suffered the crowning blow of meanness to end two weeks of antagonism that I tried to dodge with the most heartfelt gestures. I would adore a glass of wine, but as I do not drink alone… I will drink herb tea from home and think about the many ways I dislike religion.
Lunch was tasty today. The cook is named Maybrouka.
Friday_Salon Nass Decameron, Maison de Culture Ibn Kaldoun
Strong men take order with them, so I frequently hear people note that the streets are dirty, police are scarce and signs of extreme Islamists are coming out of the stonework. It occurred to me the expectation of order from above may be a persistent mental orientation, too difficult for older generations to transcend, so I was fortunate enough to hear about a meeting of burgeoning Tunisian intellectuals. The topic was realism in the American novels of the Lost and Beat Generations. They kicked off with an insipid French documentary featuring a talking head fond of jazz clubs crowing tired cliches about the Beats. One bright young man recited from Kerouac in Arabic in precisely the cadence of Allen Ginsberg.
Probably they just wanted to warm up the camera, but someone from a local TV program asked to interview me. I hoped he was going to ask about the anachronism between references presented in “Sur la Route” and the images those references conjur today (the Bronx, for instance from middle class Jewish enclave to Fort Apache fame). They might also have queried, “do you find it amusing that the conversation about the Beats, a club of privileged white boys, is dominated by the fellows at the table.” Instead they asked me when will we see Arabs presented authentically in Hollywood films. I answered that I held no great expectations for fair depictions of Arabs during my lifetime, since Islam is the new communism, which was the organizing fear factor that contributed to the great conformity that probably helped rouse the Beats, and smart young people today should form a movement to counter the great consumerism that pacifies populations today – when even the fear of Islam can’t keep the masses contained – and is a disgusting force that could use a cool cultural movement to beat it down. Wonder what the movement these smart, young Arabs should create would be called. If any part of my answer ends up in their program, it will be a sound bite of me saying “I hate religion.”
Thursday_17 May 12_Visiting a Private Library
My return to the home of B near Bab Mennar found it quiet with only one young visitor, a university student who is the house photographer. She is assembling a book of all the lunchtime visitors to the library home and has over 400 photos from the past year and a half.
For hours I sorted through boxes of photos and books from Tunisia’s past. Some of the more fascinating subjects were prostitutes. These working ladies were in the tradition of geishas but the girth of sumos. All wore elaborate, complicated costumed and few were slim enough even to model for Dove. They were frequently portrayed with their black serving girls.
Photos of nude Bedouin women surprised me, so I wished their photos came with stories. Many of the prostitute photos were listed with names as these women were recognized for their cultural accomplishment. The most amazing prostitute portraits are gorgeous, slim, very young women who traveled on camel to serve men on oases. These girls apparently worked from age 14 (or so) until age 20, when they would return to their village to become respectable wives and give birth to the next generation of working girls.
I looked through a large body of photos of Tunisia’s first president, Habib Bourguiba. He allowed himself to photographed in all sorts of moods and activities, including various flirtations with young women. He comes across as an extremely confident and powerful man with some sense of humor. As I pored over his photos, I learned that he was so strenuously opposed to the Arabs engaging in a conflict with Israel in 1967 that he closed Tunisia to the Arab world and sought deeper alliances in Europe. I the happy hazy days of post dictator Ben Ali, Bourguiba seems to be enjoying a moment on a pedestal.