Friday, June 10, 2005

Tunisian Metaphor

It's not so much where they stand
As how they stand
Two men on a weather-beaten slab of wood
Six floors up

The edges are packed with fabric
Like gauze in a wound
The edges are wrapped by thick nylon rope
No knots
Six floors up

A pregnant bucket rests still between them
Paint flies in drips and slashes
Two men
A chaotic dance
Six floors up

Paint cracks
Splinters off my building
It's old
Ten years is a long time
Six floors up

Freedom of Speech

Yesterday I participated in a round table brainstorming session at the
Cooperacion Espanol (pardon the lack of accents), a major donor
operating in Tunisia. It is about the Spanish equivalent of CIDA, the
Canadian International Development Agency. NGO's from all over
Tunisia were asked to participate in this session to help the CE
decide on future spending priorities within the country.

We were divided into four groups - and I was placed in the group
called "vulnerable populations" while my two enda colleagues were in
"rural development" and "gender issues". I spent the better part of a
day with seven people I had never met before hammering out what we
thought a "vulnerable population" was and what the CE should do about

Our group was a bit slanted in views. There were six people who
worked with the handicapped, including adults and children with mental
and physical disabilities. I work with the poor and economic
development, and the last person, a heavy-set young woman with
beautiful dark skin and eyes, worked in democracy and women's rights.

At one point, we were listing weaknesses in the development sector for
assisting vulnerable populations. All ideas were being collected and
listed on a large sheet of paper. The woman from the Women for
Democracy NGO stated that a lack of freedom of speech was a weakness
of the environment which effectively prevented her organization from
being able to achieve its goals (mainly communicating the injustice of
structural and physical violence committed against women and the
cover-ups that go with it). The group paused for a moment, and then
two of the members began to argue against it vehemently.

I didn't understand. This was a brainstorming session, and all ideas
were supposed to be included. Furthermore I agreed with her. If her
organization was being forced to publish their finding in Morocco
because the Tunisian government didn't want their population to know,
then freedom of speech is an issue. So I, very gently, said that if
she felt it was a barrier then it should probably be included. The
one other woman in my group agreed. That put the women against the
men, with one abstainer, Father Marcel, who seemed slightly amused by
the whole debate.

I caught on after a while, that the men's arguments were all logical,
but impotent, and the driver behind all the myriad excuses they could
find, was fear. The women, arguing heatedly with the men may have
seen it or not, but they argued to take apart their logic, not their
fear. I asked if anyone was uncomfortable with it, to which they
uncomfortably responded, not at all!

Finally the woman who had suggested it marked it anyway. And the men
became sulky, but settled on adjusting it to read: freedom of
speech??? (question marks included).

I hadn't realized how far this population had been pushed into fear;
fearing that even being part of a group that made this complaint,
would find them under surveillance. As one man later said - even
leaving that on the sheet implicates us.

Now imagine what the women from this democratic group are doing. They
illegally shelter women who have been beaten and abused or divorced
and left destitute. They publish their findings of sexual harassment
and abuse in all spheres of society. They call the government on any
activity that is discriminatory towards women regardless of their
level of poverty or influence. They are constantly under surveilance,
followed by "les flic" (police), have their letters opened, and a
number of them have probably been arrested. Other members of the
social sector get nervous when these women walk into the room, are
afraid to be seen with them. They are afraid of the calling down upon
their own heads a fraction of the persecution these women willingly
take on in the name of democracy and justice.

I was proud to sit next to her, and deeply sorry to regret that I
could not join her group. An act such as that would have me evicted
from this place in no time.

I hope that if ever my own country were to become like Tunisia, I
would have the outright guts to take in women who were abused and
neglected. I hope that I would have the strength.

Wednesday, June 08, 2005

Encourage Me!

I think it was about a week ago when it happened. I was passing by
the front desk, located at the side of the house with Meriem, who
gives me a ride home everyday. We both stopped to say hi to the
Secretary, who's very quiet and a real sweety. We chatted for a
moment, and then just as I was about to move on, and head back to
work, the sweet little secretary stopped me gently and, smiling, said
"Tiara, tu as grossi!"

Did you catch that, or should I translate?



I knew KNEW I was supposed to take it as a compliment. That's how it
was intended, but I couldn't. I think my face went bright red, and I
just about swallowed my tongue. I tried to smile - I'm not sure if
that's what it looked like. And then I gibbered a bit and then went
to my desk and sat there grumpy.

I have put on about five pounds since I arrived. Certainly not a lot,
but a bit. Here married women are all big. I'm still considered a
skinny thing, and a lot of people think I can't possibly be married
yet and that it's not befitting of my status as a wife to be so small.
So when I put on a bit of weight they're all determined to support me
by graciously noticing and encouraging me (picture the housekeeper
saying bersha-bersha, more-more, as I try to stop her from heaping
cous-cous onto my plate).

Can you imagine how devastating it would be if every time you put on a
couple of pounds your friends stopped to tell you that you're getting
fatter and to pinch your arms and cheeks where the fat accumulates?
It's like a perfect nightmare, everybody smiling as they point out
your big-ness and getting-bigger-ness to others so THEY can smilingly
tell you you're fat too. Until pretty soon you have a little ring of
Tunisian women all looking and smiling and pointing and you think
you're going to die right there.

I swear I am going to come home skinnier than I ever was.

I have now created a hit list of do not eats - and it includes almost
everything traditional Tunisian. What is considered traditional
Tunisian? Well if it has tomatoes and you DROWN it in oil (hear the
women saying "olive oil is so good for you it doesn't count" as they
pour a half cup over your grilled vegetable salad appetizer) then it's
most likely Tunisian.

I'm also writing down what I eat so I know if I'm putting on weight or
not. That way if they say LOOK YOU'RE GETTING FAT! with their happy
smiles and nodding heads, I will know if I really am or if they're
just "encouraging" me.

Monday, June 06, 2005

Australian's Don't Burn

Saturday was our first real trek to the local beaches. With Shelley
and Jodie in town we couldn't pass up the opportunity to go, and
although the best beaches are in Hammamet, about 1 hour south of Tunis
by car, we figured the local beaches would be a close substitute.

Loren called our good friend Slim and asked him where the local
beaches were. He told us that we could go to La Marsa, where most of
the locals went, and that we should be able to have a good time there,
and maybe eke out a bit of space for ourselves. Loren corrected him,
here, saying where was the best TOURIST beach we could find in town.
(You see, we girls get gawked at enough having light hair, light eyes
and pale skin. The last thing we wanted was to be half naked on a
local beach, with much more of our visible difference exposed.) We
were looking for pasty white tourist skin on the beach, where we would
fit in just fine.

We were directed to Gammarth, to a club there called Dar Nawar that
had an opening to the beach front and restaurants, etcetera, in case
we got peckish. We piled into two taxis (taxis won't take more than
three by law - you'd think it was restricted to the number of seat
belts, but those don't work anyway...) and were there 15 minutes and
7.5 dinars (each) later.

The beach was great - white sand, blue sea, blue sky, brown palm beach
umbrellas, overpriced beer, vendors selling all sorts of things too.

I had put on half a bottle of suntan lotion before heading out, and
it's a good thing I did too. I am pink, pink, pink and some places
are just a little uncomfortable.

Our two guest though, who in Jodie's words are white sub-smog worms,
didn't. I think that Jodie, who had purchased a special bottle of the
precious goo, just simply forgot. But Shelley didn't because, she
says, Australian's don't burn.

Oh, don't they?

We were in the sun for 6 hours. We all burnt.

Loren went a nice deep brown-red on his shoulders.
Tiara went rosy pink on her back, chest and left hip.
Jodie sort of burnt all over - worst on her calves and back.
And Shelley looked like the devil had turned the torches of hell on her.

She couldn't lay down on any side without hurting. Her back looked
like it would glow in the dark and put of enough heat to roast a small
chicken. She had some choice things to say about it when she got her
first good look at the damage in our only mirror in the bathroom. The
string of profanity in that perfect Australian accent was enough to
set the rest of us into fits of howling, that lasted all Saturday
night and Sunday morning.

And we were sure to remind her, whenever we had the chance, that
Australians don't burn.