Friday, February 11, 2005

Street Vendors

That, but first just to let you know that it's still not working when I try to blog remotely... Not because you'll particularly care, but because it is yet another instance of computers being intrinsically evil. I thought Ruth and Lindz might appreciate to know that.

Now, back to the blog:

Everywhere you go around the downtown marketplace (just off a highlycommercial strip - avenue Bourguiba) you get accosted by people selling stuff in the streets. There are kids, dads, old men, younger men - all men, though... And most of them know each other or are family. One big happy and all.

Personally, I rather like the way they liven up the place. Sure they're loud, sure they're in your face - but hey, it's Tunisia and they're selling useful stuff cheap - like umbrellas, kleenex (seeTiara's blog about toilets...) and chocolate bars.

Seems the police aren't supposed to let them be, however, and every now and then an officer will make his way down one of the streets. They vanish - jump up, put things in boxes, rush through final transactions and run down the street about fifty feet. Then they setup anew and proceed with their energetic their sales-pitches.

What an odd little world.

Wednesday, February 09, 2005

All Things Arabi

Every possible food you can imagine comes in two different qualities, commercial and Arabi. It took me a while to figure out what that meant, Arabi. I knew from my Pimsleur language classes that Arabi meant Arabic (and that was about all they were good for as they were teaching me Syrian Arabic, not Tunisian). It was especially confusing to hear it said with such pride "This egg is Arabi!" when I had already learned that Tunisians are not exactly arabs. When our friends would point to harissa (hotpepper paste) in the market they would tell us, you know it's arabi because it has seeds in it, see? So I began to think that Arabi meant homemade. That's not quite right though, as eggs and vegetables can be arabe, and those are certainly not homemade.

Now I'm starting to think it means farm-fresh or farmer's market quality. In other words, that it means real and not mass produced. There are moments though when I'm still not sure, like today at lunch. The housekeeper, who usually cooks lunch for a small payment of 1.500 TND per day, was sick today and so no lunch was prepared. We all went out for fast food. Let me describe fast food Tunisian style. I order pizza. There is only one kind in the winter and that's neptune - fresh chopped tomatos and herbs with tuna, olives, capers and mozzerella cheese. It takes 10 minutes for the young man to roll the dough, chop the tomatos and add spices, toast the bread, add the fixings and cook it for about two minutes. Then he drops it in a box and passes it my way. "Wow," I say, "that's Arabi!" Everybody laughs. "That's not Arabi, that's fast food! Can't you tell the difference?" Apparently I can't, can you?

When it Rains...

Actually, this isn't about a terriffic run of luck or any such thing. Nope. It's about rain. Pure and simple.

I suppose that Aryn and Jack might be getting a little excited at this point, what with the West Coast being a bit of a nice looking destination and all... But I'm a little less excited.

The rain started last night a little before we went to bed. It's still going. Strong. Now I appreciate a good strong gale to keep me happy and all - of the Oh Look! Real rain, YAY! - variety. But this is ridiculous. First of all, there's lots of rain. And it's been raining a lot since we got here - I knew that's what I aught to expect from a Tunisian winter. I don't have to like it, though.

Let's describe a little, shall we? From the time we were heading to be last night, the house started slamming. Doors, windows, the wooden blinds on the outside of the windows. They're all firmly loosely locked in place, with just enough room to let us imagine that we were in bed with a pack of Japanese drummers who were letting loose on a little too much Sake. Yay for sleep.

Then there's the morning when we make the twenty-odd minute walk to the gym where we work out. You know we're dedicated when we make the treck in the rain and without umbrellas. Not that umbrellas would have made much of a difference. The wind was incredible. On my walk back home (Tiara had headed to work in a car... I got the extra walk. Bitter? Nah.) I saw a women vainly trying to flip her umbrella back around the right way. It was like a thing possessed. Also, umbrellas don't do much for feet and the puddles/rivers made sure that our feet got good and wet. Oh yeah, and with all that construction, the walk was pretty much all in mud. Yipee!

On that walk home I made sure to buy some shoe renewer and water-repeller.

There were a few neat moments, however. As we crested our first hill between Nasr 1 and Nasr 2 the wind was whipping through a construction site and the music created as the wind set up vibrations in steel supports for a new concrete roof was eery but beautiful. It helped that we were on top of a hill overlooking tunis and leaning into the wind that buffetted against our bodies. The world almost disappeared. It reminded me of the Wiwaxi Gap up in Yoho - only the wind was stronger.

Then there was discovering the bug in the shower room at the gym. It was hiding from the rain and wind too. Might have been a neat bonding moment if it hadn't been a cockroach.

Anyhow, hope all is well with the rest of you and that you're happy and dry!

Tuesday, February 08, 2005

The Rant About Toilets

So I told you it was coming and now that I'm ready to rant about it, the problem seems somewhat less anoying, as you'll discover presently. Today I'll tell you about the toilets. The mystery of the toilets began in our first night in Tunis in the Maison D'Orée Hotel. The bathroom was enormous with tiles covering the floors and walls. A huge bathtub a well designed sink a toilet and two (at the time) totally unidentifiable pieces of equipment, one that looked like a hose with a cold water valve and the other some kind of bidet with a plug, hot and cold water control but with water that pooled in the bottom of the thing. The former is for adding extra water and pressure to the toilet for big flushings and the latter is for washing feet, hands and limbs before meals and prayer. Now it's only the toilets that remain a mystery.

To begin with, we couldn't understand how we were supposed to flush the toilets, and it took us a good 10 minutes to realize that the odd round cap at the top of the toilet had to be pulled up and held up for a moment in order for the toilet to flush. Since then we have discovered that all toilets either have a pull flush or a push flush and that it's always located on the top of the tank.

Since being in the hotel I have discovered some unpleasant characteristics of toilets here. The first is that they are perpetually dirty. I mean really dirty. I don't know if people just don't wash them or wipe them or anything. They are mostly stained, chipped and sticky (try not to sit on or touch them if at all possible). The second is that they almost never have toilet paper. Now one or the other I might be able to handle, but the two together makes for a total nightmare of an experience. I would like to add that these characteristics apply to the toilets at work too! I do not go anywhere without a small package of tissues in every bag, pocket and purse that I own.

At this point I have it down to a system. Rip a tissue in two. Wet one half with water from the sink. Wipe the toilet seat. Try not to sit while going to the bathroom. Wipe with the other half and flush. If it won't go down use the little hose thing and try again.

I hate the toilets here.

Want to hear something funny? Sometimes the washrooms have everything exept the toilets. The toilets might be in another room altogether and you have to hunt and peek in all the corners of the place to find it. I was at an ENDA conference in one of the branches and I happened to walk into the wrong room. I didn't realize it wouldn't have a toilet. As I closed the doors, by some fluke, the water in all the appliances started going off. The bathtub and the shower, the prayer bowl, the sink, the hose thing, all of them spraying water. I yanked the door open as hard as I could, thinking that the door had something to do with the disaster before me. It wouldn't stop. Two men ran past me and turned off all the taps and appologised profusely for not having turned them off before turning on the water. Then they adamantly stated that I could wash my hands now. (It's a big deal to wash your hands after a meal, though not before.) So I was stuck there in the watery room, desperate to go pee and with no idea where to find a toilet. I washed my hands and left meekly. My friend Wifak almost burst laughing and when she recoverd, pointed me in the right direction.

Thank god for friends in foreign places. And damn tunisian toilets.

Monday, February 07, 2005

An Odd Culture of Touch

Well, to anybody who can read my mood at the moment, you will know that I'm a little wonky at the moment, so apologies in advance for all that will follow. How beautifully canadian of me.
So, here we are then, a blog-post about practices which involve the segregation of men and women, and further the nature of touch in this world as seen through the lens of a westerner, and a canadian to boot.

It all starts, or so I'm told with an old arabic tribal culture where women were widely held as property and markedly inferior to men, and where intoxication, sexuality and brute strength were the lawmakers. Into this mess came a man who was very charismatic, and who had notions of universal rights and wrongs and who little upon little started to affect huge changes on the culture. He united the tribes,he settled old slights, he professed the importance of education and he managed to transfer considerable power to women. The Coles' notes version, to be sure and as wrong and lacking subtlety as a story of Moby Dick that summerized it as a guy who chased a whale and drowned.

Anyhow, born out of this culture, women and men were separated - this was as much to protect the women from the old notion of women as possession as it was a statement of difference. More so. But it has held, thus, for hundreds of years. And now, the world generally looks on the Arab world as one of intolerance towards women, and as one of backwards cultural practice... An interesting switch.

But this isn't about doctrine or history, this is about the culture of touch and its gendered relationship in Tunisia.

Here men and women are expected to remain separate while in public. Though the new generation gladly holds their loved one's hand or sneaks a hand 'round the crook of an elbow, it is widely frowned upon and can result in harsh arabic words and hard scows from within the numerous cafes.

But such a deficit of touch will find an outlet in any culture, as humans are touch sensitive and social by nature. So while it might not be to strange to see women walking the streets of Canada arm in arm, here it is standard. Or men, for that matter. A good friend may have his arm over the shoulders of his bud, or be hand in hand, or have his hand looped into the crook of his friend's arm.

To be separate is only for couples. To be together, physically, is for friends. It's a little odd, and certainly a little uncomfortable. Uncomfortable since I like to be close to Tiara, and also, because I miss the touch and we don't know anyone yet enough that we can wander about with that level of comfort.

And then there's the greeting-kiss. Here it may be man to woman, though could as easily be woman to woman or man to man - as indeed is more frequent given the work environments (Women and men typically work in different fields.).

Welcome to the world where "as innocent as two men kissing," is not a misnomer.

Strangers and Friends

It's funny how you hear about people exclaiming over how different everything is in other countries and regions of the world. Since coming here I think mostly I was surprised at how much is the same. The people, the fashions, the work environment, the meetings. There are some notable differences, but nothing that's so big that you can't adjust with a little bit of effort. I think I'm learning that the most difficult thing is being alone and different.

We were reading in Jeune Afrique Intelligent (the african political/economic weekly magazine) that Tunisia's foreign population accounts for only 0.3% of the total population. That's small, really small. There are not quite 10 million people in Tunisia and about 3 million in Tunis. Even if you assume that all the foreigners are in Tunis (and I'm sure they are not) that's still not even one percent of the city's population. It is really homogeneous here. And while Loren can be mistaken for Arab/Tunisian, I pretty well can't. That means when we go out to coffee shops or walk through the busy, non-tourist locations, everybody looks. They're fairly polite, but all the same, they're looking, and it gets anoying. You begin to feel very isolated. Je suis l'étranger.

This is exactly what happened when we went to a small Café Saturday night for crepes, panini, coffee, frappes, milkshakes and chocolate hazlenut crepe dessert (thanks for the dinner Bruce!). Everybody was about our age but all glam-ed up for the evening, and we felt pretty foreign. I was enjoying the food, but lamenting the fact that we were pretty alientated there, when this woman comes up to us and starts speaking French. She thought we were French and she was so happy to see someone else there that would be cheering for France in the World Handball Championships (we were cheering for France, Canada got squashed near the beginning, Tunisia creamed us!). We explained that we were from Canada just as her friend joined her, and they started chatting and asking questions. When they found out we were newly arrived they asked for our phone number and said they'd invite us for dinner, which sounded great. Shortly after they left, Loren and I decided we should wish for friends more often!

New friends are good, but still, we're missing all you Canadians (and Venezuelans and Brazillians too!).