It’s been a while (I guess… 10 months?) since I’ve been in the Middle East or North Africa. Which is one of those awkward geographical categorizations that reminds us that we only really call things something like “middle east” because we’re looking at the world from an orientalist perspective anyway. People always ask me why I love this region so much. It’s been my favoite part of the world since before I came here. I studied it after all, long ago in that magical world of undergrad. While my reasons have changed a bit since those days just weeks after Operation Cast Lead when a woman named Hyatt Avi Aziz became the first college professor to win my respect by being willing to tell people they were idiots (“I don’t care about your chest. It’s IRaq , not I. Rack.”), the middle east still evokes a love in me that’s all its own. Latin America is a close second. South Asia is a third, though largely because of common elements between the cultures, but nothing compares. I’ve taken more risks for this region than for anywhere else, spent far more money on flights and given up my ability to enter the US very easily (Iraqi visa stamps will do that…) but the appeal is still there.
Herein we have the last 24 hours of my life. The first 24 hours I’ve spent in Tunisia. Well… 34 if you count the ferry. And trust me, you should. The Zeus Palace (which, somewhat contradictorily, travels from Italy to Tunisia directly) is not what one has in mind when they think of the cheapest passenger ferry plying this particular segment of the Europe/North Africa route, though it is. It has a swimming pool (albeit empty and roped off) a karaoke bar (fully functional) and, if all experiences are like mine, comes equipped with some of the most badass little kids who love Michael Jackson dances that I have ever met, or probably ever will. And who speak Italian. Which meant I could talk to them marginally better (read, more than not at all) than I can these Francophones in Tunis :-) ). Follow that with the obligatory concerned old matrons coming over to click their tounges (you’re coing to Tunis. ALONE. Why aren’t you married?! And you don’t speak FRENCH? ……Don’t pay more than 10 euros for a taxi. Don’t sleep in the street. Good luck.) and I was off. To haggle about Lonely Planet prices that are phenomenally incorrect (the most consistent thing about arriving in any country)
For a brief stretch I was overwhelmed. Sometimes I convince myself I speak rudimentary Arabic. I don’t. Plus, Arabic in Tunisia is notably different from that in the Levant and Egypt. So, there we go. Secondly, I don’t speak french and don’t claim to. Italian was somewhat useful at first, and still can be, until I found out that Italians are known throughout Tunisia as tending to be the seediest of seedy sex tourists (generally true from the few Italians I’ve met here). Then the hospitality set in.
I had dinner with a family from Benghazi who were visiting for medical treatment, generally very common since the quality of virtually all hire level education went down the drain during the Gaddafi years. Anyone who has spent time in this part of the world can picture the scene… I was trying to order a schwarma in a mix of terrible Arabic and worse french, and the 50 something year old matron in her black headscarf started to point and smile, before forcing her daughter, who was my age, to come over and talk to me in english. We then had a really nice dinner together, I was bombarded with gifts (fruits, nuts, yoghurt, and a coke) and was invited to Benghazi (“no, the border is open now, and things are quite safe!…” while I cannot attest to the saftey, the border remains quite tightly closed to indepent travel as of the latst information I can find). I came home to an Algerian guy who was determined to talk to me. I am not really sure about what. He showed me a bag of blue jeans, what must have been 50,000 euros in 100 euro notes, and told me he was going to Istanbul the next day. Over and over. In French. Which. You know. I don’t speak. But he was still very happy to talk to an American. The little bit I got was pretty funny: “Yes, you should come to Algeria! It is beautiful!… Do you believe in Allah? No… Hmm… Nevermind. It could be dangerous for you….” He might have been joking. But was awesome nonetheless.
And so it goes. There is a real magic to this region that is unmatched anywhere else in the world, besides, perhaps, for south Asia, which shares so many influences of Islamic society. And it’s great to be back. Even if it’s Summer and a million fucking degrees.