I loved it there. Loved. It: temperate climate. Exotic architecture. No spoken English. I don’t speak Arabic and only the most pitiable self-taught survival French, but that didn’t matter.
It all began one Sunday afternoon while walking through Harvard Square. A pair of pointy-toed boots was keeping pace with me, whether I sped up or slowed down and pretended to admire a window display.
“May I pay you a compliment?” he asked.
“Why not?!” They’re few and far between, I thought.
“You have beautiful eyes.”
“Would you care to go for a cup of tea?”
I’d never been in Cafe Algiers before, although it was located in the same building as the Brattle Theatre, a landmark dating back to my childhood. With its giant copper tea urn, middle eastern background music, and harmony of languages, Cafe Algiers was soon my favorite place to meet with friends. The gentleman-of-great-compliments was Algerian, studying for his master’s degree in Boston. Through him I met other Algerian students, including a young woman whose sister lived and studied in Paris. I don’t know if it was the influence of these travelers or utter boredom with my job, but by November I’d resigned from my father’s company, renewed my passport, and bought a roundtrip ticket with an open-ended return date.
The woman’s sister welcomed me into her sixth-floor garret living quarters but made it perfectly clear that she had no interest in learning to speak a word of English. For two weeks we hobbled along quite happily with a combination of super-simple French emphasized with a hefty dose of sign language.
By the time my ex-disco dancing partner blew into town from Algiers wearing a linen suit and brown silk socks but with no luggage, (“Meet me at your mailing address,” his telegram demanded), I had learned how to order coffee and a Croque Monsieur at a cafe and to purchase fresh fruit at the market. Hamid assumed we would pick up where we had left off back in Boston, but after he’d been called back home, I’d learned that he was married. To his chagrin and fury, we were now on a friendship basis only. And I guess that is how and why I ended up in Tunisia.
The iron filigree work was mesmerizing. …
The manager of my hotel on the island of Djerba asked if I’d teach him English. After a lesson or two Taoufik invited me to his mother’s house for a meal. In spite of my advanced sign language skills while traveling in non-English speaking territories, I was slow to realize that I was being courted. When his mother presented me with an orange already peeled and ready to eat, I started to get the picture.
Taoufik was impressed with my sketches of jackets quilted in patterns that mirrored my window’s iron grill. He was enchanted with the possibilities that come with such close association with an American. He thought we should set up a manufacturing enterprise and produce my fashion ideas. Sitting in an open-air cafe with him, taking turns excitedly jotting projection numbers in my little notebook, a man’s voice chanting in Arabic through the outdoor speakers overhead, I was aware that I was the only woman, but didn’t give it much thought. I knew next to nothing about the Muslim religion but had the good sense to cover up and not flaunt my body like the German tourists who insisted on sunbathing topless.
Every day the weather was smooth and clear. One sunny day slid into the next. One language lesson flowed into another; my French improved. A parade of relatives, including an important uncle, marked another dinner with Taoufik’s family. While I photographed the sheep and chickens in the courtyard, Taoufik’s mother wept and wailed as she recounted stories I would never understand. A month had passed.
I don’t remember exactly how I got the news, but my departure was abrupt. My oldest childhood friend was getting married and I couldn’t imagine not being there. I made promises to return to Djerba. Taoufik and I cobbled together a communication plan that involved me telephoning the rug shop that was just down the street from his hotel; I’d have to call from the States at 4:00 a.m. And of course we could write.
What if I hadn’t left then? What if my friend hadn’t gotten married and I hadn’t found a reason to leave that little patch of paradise on earth? That’s what I’ve been thinking about over the past week, with the latest political news out of Tunisia. After I told Taoufik during one of those 4 a.m. phone calls that I wouldn’t be returning to Djerba to set up a factory and clothing business with him, he sent me a post card with the picture of a camel’s head. From what I could decipher in the message, the image was message. I think now how lucky it was that I had that wedding to attend.
Sorry for such a long post, but I’ve been itching to tell a bit of this story in light of recent world events. It seems that it is only now that I am considerably more settled that I can clearly see how adrift I was then. At the time I was simply following the allure of what felt exotic, living my life like a National Geographic assignment.
I realize that I never told you exactly how or why I landed in Tunisia, but I’ll save that for another chapter.