Friday, September 26, 2008

Ramadan is almost over, I have even more respect for the Tunisians of the desert, fasting 14 hours a day, often in 40 degree heat. That includes no water or cigarettes. I spend a few hours in the desert during the day and get a headache from lack of water...

And right at the end of Ramadan, Rustyn and Jesse arrive, I am so excited to be able to see them and to spend some special time with them... They will meet my friends, Lasfar, and see the sahara that I love so much...

Here are some more of my musings...

Glimpses of my day:
The head of a young camel hanging from the doorway of my butcher shop, seeming to be crying because of its short life… Sweat dripping profusely off the nose and chin of the butchers kind face as he attends to his many customers….Little girls holding hands and walking to school their uniforms crisp and pink, smiling shyly at me as they say bonjour.... A husband and wife pulling hay with their hands from the back of their donkey cart, the cart brimming over with green luscious grasses, their faces etched with the stories of their day-to-day toils, backs hunched, satisfied smiles… a very young boy, maybe four, walking down the street, clutching tightly to his handful of coins, his face proud and serious with his responsibility, minutes later seeing him return, head held high, carrying a loaf of bread to take home....a gaggle of silly goats prancing down the road in front of me as I ride my motorbike, their ears bouncing jauntily from their heads, seeming to be laughing to themselves, daring me to try to catch them… my neighbour who owns a gas station (a pump for motorbikes) cum small hay and parsley supplier, waving to me with a big smile as I walk by to get my daily supplies… Lasfar’s big brown long lashed eyes as he is watching me watch him, munching on an apple I gave him…Looking out into the desert, the waves of endless sand dunes…trying to decide which camel to watch next, there are so many, where do I start? The young fuzzy tan one intently watching me? The beautiful soft white one nearby? The goofy dark brown one? Eye candy… Hearing Mounir speak out directions to the camel drivers as another bus load of tourists prepare to head out…
riding my motorbike home from the camel station, tired, but happy after taking tourists out into the desert, passing groups of camels and drivers on their way home…my heart smiling, hearing the hypnotic sounds of the call to prayer as I type this…

I sat on my balcony tonight, the warm dry breeze playing with my hair, spinning and dancing with the sand on the road. The swaying palms moving together wistfully in mesmerizing rhythm. Most people at home, eating their meal after a day of fasting in the seemingly endless heat of the day. But out of the quiet night, I heard children’s laughter, giggling children. Looking up, I watched as a donkey and cart crossed the road, the adults sitting on the cart, tired and bent over, finally heading home after a hard day. But the children, like any children in the world, found game in even the most ordinary moment. Chasing the cart, taking turns touching it, giggling. Their voices were music. Pure joy. In the darkening night sky, I watched their faces, happy, well loved children. They could have been any child anywhere. Same child, different location. Different life, different world. Yet not so very different.

I sat on my balcony tonight and, amongst the cart toting donkeys I watched all the motorbikes go by, some carrying entire families, children riding often in front, the men driving carefully as the women sat behind. There is something so special about this custom. Even couples who have clearly been together a long time, have a special, caring look on their faces as they drive by, the women carrying a secret smile on their faces, knowing they are being taken care of by their man.

Four young men stood on the side of the road in the pitch dark night. They were not the only people on the road. There are always cheich topped old men walking by, disappearing into the night, their light coloured robes waving in whatever slight breeze there is. Women with scarves, some modern, tied around their heads in a fasionable way, other old women, wearing traditional long caftans, holding their large scarves with either their hands or teeth, if their hands are full.

As I sat, enjoying the night breeze and watching the oh-so different landscape than I am used to, a pick-up truck sped past, dusty sand blowing off the tires, carrying a half dozen men in the back, laughing and talking noisily, mostly standing, precariously hanging on as the truck swayed back and forth on the road as it sped by. A minute later a second pick up truck came by, stopping briefly, as the four young men waiting on the roadside hopped on to the back of the truck and joined the others, and off sped the truck, crammed full of testosterone laughing men, off to who knows where.

So I decided to make Kefta today, which are delicious middle eastern lamb meatballs. The only butcher shop I had been to in Douz was the one for poultry. Yes, I learned that butchers who sell poultry and eggs do not sell beef or lamb.

So I went in search of a butcher to buy ground beef and lamb. I walked into the first tiny shop, dark and with barely enough room for two people to stand. As I became accustomed to the dimness, I tried so hard not to look at the grayish white ball of something resembling a brain behind the glass cabinet. The smell of raw meat and guts in the warm air was overwhelming. It is something we aren’t accustomed to in the west, with our air conditioned shops, and everything refrigerated. Meat, organs and blood. Like the animal was just killed – which it likely was. I showed the man the piece of paper where I had written down in French the words ground beef and ground lamb. As he shook his head, no, I noticed another man taking a knife to the head of a goat. Black fur, its eyes and everything still intact, just severed at the neck. I checked with myself to see if I was going to faint. No, I think I’ll be okay. But I was glad to be leaving. Wow. Breathe.

Feeling a bit shaky, but so proud of myself, I decided that maybe I had enough interesting Tunisian experiences for one day. Besides, the basket I was carrying was very heavy with the vegetables I had already bought at the market, and it was getting close to noon and hot.

As I was heading out of the market area towards home, I noticed legs of (goats??? Cows???) hanging from a shop entrance. OK Juanita, you can do this. This shop had a large door, and looked more modern inside (by more modern, I mean that the men working there had aprons, and a bigger counter top). But large slabs of meat, from ribs to legs were scattered on the counter top, large chunks of meat and carcasses hanging from hooks from the ceiling from ribs to legs to entire sides, several people in the shop choosing and buying meat. Flies freely buzzing and landing where they wished, no one paying them any attention.

I come from a place where meat is sold in supermarkets, hormone infused, but neatly labeled, dyed prettily red, no resemblance to the animal it once was. Even though behind the lovely packaging, many of those animals are tortured, often living their entire lives in small cages or pens, force fed, sometimes never seeing the light of day. Then the petrified animals are cruelly slaughtered en masse, maybe not being killed properly before being processed. All before we buy the nice neat packages, shiny with wrap in the spotless and faceless supermarket.

I showed the man my piece of paper, yes, he nodded as he grabbed a large section of lamb ribs and with a huge butcher knife chopped off a section. No, I said, and tried to describe ground meat. He looked confused. By now, everyone in the shop was paying attention and trying to understand me. Then I said the word Kefta, and everyone in the shop nodded and smiled.

While the butchers were hacking off chunks of beef and lamb to be ground, one customer, a young man gestured to my hand, looking for a ring on my finger, asking if I was married, while another man was saying something about Kefta. After things settled and the butcher was cleaning and disinfecting the grinding machine (YAY!), I stood back to wait and watch.

So much happening here, one man came in, dressed very well in modern western clothing, expensive shoes, and walking like someone from the city. He walked a bit like he owned the place, picked out a big juicy piece of beef, and unrolled a wad of bills from his pocket to pay, at the same time as a teenager came in and bought two legs of (cow?), their hoofs still intact, sticking out of the paper wrapping as he walked out of the shop. I almost expected the legs to start walking out on their own, or for the cow somewhere else in the shop to say – “hey, where are you going with my legs?"

As I waited, another man, an ancient black Bedouin man, wearing a worn and not so clean robe and cheich, came in carrying a large plastic and cloth sack, waiting expectantly, off to the side, patiently waiting for the owner of the shop to be free. After the customers left, the owner took the old man to the back of the shop, and I could see a plastic bucket mostly empty, but with some scraps of meat and bone in it, and he emptied the bucket into the old man’s sack. The old man bowed, thanked the owner, and left.

A few minutes later another ancient black Bedouin man came into the shop, accompanied by the teenager who had earlier purchased the legs of whatever they were. At first smiling at the owner, soon there was an animated argument, the old man obviously believing he had paid too much, his black eyes peering out of his deeply lined face, eyes still sharp despite is obvious old age. After a few minutes, another man in the shop became mediator, and talked to the old man, a few dinars were exchanged, and everyone was happy.

What different lives I am seeing here, in such a short period of time. What variety of life. I felt so rich, being part of this, witnessing this way of life. Rich, and humble.

I now also noticed the ‘cutting block’ where all the meat was being cut. Behind the counter in the middle of the floor, I don't know why I hadn't noticed it before. It was huge! An enormous tree trunk, about three feet in height and almost as wide. The top of it was bloodied, layered with chunks of meat ground and cut into it, rough and chopped up, the surface varied hugely in height, with waves and chunks of tree missing from all the hacking over time. Then I noticed blood, bits of bone and meat on the floor, flies in heaven, happily galivanting everywhere in bliss. The tiled walls were spotless and gleamed, so I imagine (maybe just hoped) the shop was cleaned daily. Regardless, this is now my home, and my new life.

By the way, my kefta were absolutely delicious.

Until next time,

Saturday, September 13, 2008

“There is a moment, too, when one is newly arrived in the East, when one is conscious of the world shrinking at one end and growing at the other till all the perspective of life is changed…” Letter from Gertrude Bell to her mother, Florence Bell, Jan 29, 1909

My ‘Robson Street” or “West Broadway” is – well, I don’t know if it has a name. It is one of the streets in the market, and instead of walking past designer shops, bistros and starbucks, I walk past and squeeze between motorcycles weaving in and out converging with people walking goats, donkey carts, trucks, men wearing cheich’s on their heads and ‘robes’, women with headscarfs, some wearing modern jeans, vendors off to the side selling everything from parsley and spices to plastic tables, to dish soap to henna, there is no order, all is chaos and all is full of life, vendors sometimes calling out, sometimes saying assalama, a hundred voices, donkeys braying, goats complaining loudly. I smile. I am home.

I've decided to include a few excerpts from my new book (rough draft), but I think you will enjoy them...

Walking down my street at night, in the light of the streetlamp, it looks like there are snowdrifts up against the side of the street, and up against the buildings. It is actually the sahara, creeping into everything, inching its way, taking ownership of everything. Note to self; don’t buy white towels again when you live in the sahara. At least don’t forget them on the clothes line all night. By morning, they are coated in browny red sand.

Where else can you walk to the market, basket in hand, hearing the clip clop of donkeys with carts as they pass on the street? Where else can you go into a tiny shop that sells everything from bug spray, clothing, and brooms and buy fresh eggs that sit on the shelf and are carefully given to you loose in a bag, instead of labeled and overpackaged in a refrigerated section of a great faceless supermarket? So fresh, they are the eggs from chickens that may live right beside you, as you hear them clucking as you hang out your laundry on the line on the rooftop, overlooking the town of white cement houses, mosques and minarettes. Where else can you jay-walk right in front of the police station, just after saying Assalema to them? Where else can you walk to the weekly market, where sheep, chickens, goats and camels are for sale in the same market as olives, laundry soap and assorted clothing? Where else does everyone disappear in the summer months for the afternoon, the town becoming eerily quiet, only paper wrappers, plastic bags and onion skins blowing around in the hot sandy breeze after the crazy frenzied morning market?

Sitting alone in the café, while the men around me played cards, I was almost inconspicuous. Not really, not by a long shot.
Not only am I female, and not too many females come into the café, but I am also fair-haired, and as much as I don’t like it, clearly western. But the men in the cafe only glanced at me once in awhile, somewhat curious, but more interested in their card games. I sat close to a corner listening to the humming of the voices, watching the smoke creating a hazy oasis in the hot and bright white of the day. Four large ceiling fans whirled at full speed, creating an oh so slight dry warm breeze. Apparently this is where many men gather to play cards in the middle of the day, when shops are closed, and the sun is at its highest. Dozens of tables of men, their voices one big hum with the occasional burst of laughter or raised voice. I watched the expressions on their faces, a study in personalities. Some had stoic faces, their expressions not giving their hands of cards away. But most were unable to, being Arabs and passionate in nature, I think it is harder for them to keep their emotions hidden. However, even the men who clearly weren’t doing so well, played their cards with bravado, testosterone the common thread throughout the establishment.

Today I woke up to a fly trying to climb into one of my nostrils. It is not fly season yet, but I am getting a tiny taste of it, and already dreading it....
This morning I went into the kitchen, made myself a cup of Tunisian coffee on my ibrik. I was so proud that I am starting to use my kitchen. Then I walked over to my clean dish rack – and saw an army of tiny ants marching in double file from my wooden spoon (which I thought I had cleaned) to a crack in the wall. Oh boy. So, once again, out came the bug spray, spraying all my ‘clean’ dishes, which now had to be rewashed, wiped up the dead ants, wiped the bug spray off the counter before I washed it (poisonous). Then I had to boil water (no hot water during the summer), rewash the dishes, and then take the plastic dishwashing bin to the bathroom to dump it down the toilet (there is a leak in the drain pipe under my kitchen sink that needs to be fixed). The simplest things are not simple here. Just when I thought I was done, I noticed a black spot on the floor – oh, no, I know what that means, a clump of ants having a party on a piece of onion or potato I must have dropped last night. Damn this country. Damn that I love this country so much.

I am back from my 'vacation' in Hammamet. I had forgotten how hot Douz was. It has been between 40 and 45 degrees in the shade in Douz. My friend Nadia wrote me about rain, and apple pie in Vancouver. A different world.

I wont talk much about Hammamet. The beaches were beautiful, and it was so nice to swim every day, and I spent half my days at the beach. Hammamet also has decent, but expensive food, and many people were very nice. HOWEVER, Hammamet also has a huge number of men who have only two goals in meeting you - money or sex. Period. At first it was flattering, then irritating, then depressing. I think the only reason their obvious and crude lines works on some women, is that the women who come to Hammamet are often interested in having a two day 'relationship'. Don't get me wrong, there are many nice people in Hammamet, but there is a huge culture of young men who, if you even say hello, or glance their way, will paste themselves to your side and it takes a crowbar to pry them loose. And they do not understand the meaning of NO (or "La"). This is not an exaggeration. It really was bad... My bag was also stolen on the beach, lost my really nice camera, prescription reading glasses, cell phone, drivers licence. Lucky my passport & visa was in hotel.
I did meet a new friend in Hammamet, a Russian girl who just started a small business. We had so much fun, laughing over dinner at our similar experiences, so that in itself was worth going to Hammamet.
I'd much rather talk about being back in Douz. In spite of the heat, I am glad to be back home. So, seeing as I dont have a camera right now, I will not include photos of Hammamet, but some other photos I took before I left, mostly of people from Douz or Glissia. Enjoy. Love Juanita