The elevator was slow and the hotel only had four floors, so it was always faster to take the stairs. Still, every morning I pushed the down button and waited. Once inside the elevator I pushed the first-floor button, then waited some more. When the elevator rolled its heavy metal doors aside to reveal the floor above the hotel lobby, I gave up and walked the last flight down, vowing the next morning I would remember to take the stairs, or would at least remember that the button for the lobby was the one marked “0.”
The stairs were better anyway. They were wide, made of marble, and were always drenched in light. The other guests used them all the time. Why couldn’t I remember to do the same? Why was I mindlessly riding the elevator every morning?
It wasn’t just the elevator. There were other simple things I kept forgetting, other ways I failed to adjust. My elevator difficulties made the best metaphor—every morning I took the wrong mode of transport to the wrong destination—but they were just one example of my disorientation, my near-constant feeling of being overwhelmed.
I was overwhelmed because Tunisia was bewildering to my unfamiliar eyes. It was beautiful, complex, and seemed a little dangerous in ways I couldn’t comprehend.
Take the Medina, for example, the ancient walled city in downtown Tunis. Its high, crenelated walls were enchanting and seemed to displace time. It was strange to see a centuries-old façade incorporated so seamlessly into contemporary life.
Late in my first week we drove down the coast. I saw revolutionary slogans spray-painted onto highway signs. The slogans proclaimed the revolution’s power (“NO FEAR”) but the graffiti itself suggested anarchy. Then again, all graffiti speaks through anarchy—that’s its power. Men on the roadside held out long sticks dangling objects tied to them with string. The dangling objects looked like giant fishing lures.
“Chameleons,” Zied said, when he noticed me staring. “They sell them by the roadside. The children like them because the colors change.”
We passed pickup trucks loaded down with camels, their legs tucked underneath them. They sniffed the wind like dogs poking their noses out of speeding cars. The highway, with its toll booths and full-service rest stops, was not unlike the Jersey Turnpike.
We saw wealthy Libyan refugees in BMWs, Mercedes, and luxury SUVs with oversized suitcases strapped into roof racks. The border was open and it was safe to cross, so they drove up the coast, checking into resort hotels and renting houses in Tunis. They wore the universal expression of the highway traveler—a distant gaze, a face drawn with boredom and fatigue.
At one rest stop, the gas tank in our rental car leaked when we filled it all the way. It spread a puddle of gasoline beyond the car’s four wheels. It was alarming, but the station attendant assured us that a lot of cars did this. He told us to move the car to the lot by the nearby convenience store. We pushed the car forward, away from the pool of gasoline, but more leaked out. When Zied slid into the driver’s seat, he kept his door open and one foot on the ground, and on the passenger side I did the same. I wondered if there would be a fire, and how quickly it would spread. Zied looked over, paused, then turned the key. After we parked, I knelt down and looked under the car. Sure enough, the gas tank wasn’t leaking anymore.
In Tunis, on foot, we were always weaving through traffic. Sometimes it didn’t feel safe. There were rolls of razor wire, tanks, and soldiers with machine guns on Avenue Borguiba, in Casbah Square, and at the entrance to the smashed-up headquarters of the RCD, which looked like a downtown office building that had been condemned.
In the evenings, after Zied had dropped me back at the hotel, I ventured down Avenue Borguiba in search of a gelato or a can of Coke. I wanted to take a stroll and try to navigate something simple on my own.
It should have been easy, but I didn’t speak Arabic, and my French was not the best, and everyone on the street, it seemed, wanted to chat me up. “What brings you to Tunisia?” they asked. They said I was welcome in their country. They told me what they thought of America (nice people, land of opportunity, they didn’t much care for the government). They lamented not having more opportunities to practice their English. One or two guys asked for money.
These were some of the sights that struck me as surreal and some of the risks that were difficult to gauge. Every day, it seemed, was full of them.
It would have been easy to see the unfamiliar culture of Tunisia as impenetrable, but that was not the case. There was a clear barrier to my understanding, that I bumped into every day: I didn’t speak the language.
But then language, I found, could also be a bridge. I knew enough French that if I listened carefully I could understand what people said. And when I listened closely, I not only heard what they said, I began to see them. Listening became a way of pushing aside the veil that otherwise obscured my view.
I met Diane in the stairwell of the hotel, on one of those mornings I was waiting for the elevator. We exchanged a pair of quick good mornings in English.
“You and I are practically cousins in this part of the world,” she said. She was headed to the lobby so I walked down with her.
Diane was from Montreal, worked for the Canadian government, and had come to Tunisia to give her tourist dollars to the revolution’s cause. In the lobby we continued our conversation at the reception desk.
“It’s a pity you don’t speak French,” she said, fishing in her wallet for one of her cards. “You can get inside the culture. It isn’t difficult at all. I’ve met the most amazing people.”
Diane was on her way to meet a painter who had organized an exhibit in a gallery in the Medina. He had collected works by Tunisian artists, all addressing the revolution in various forms and styles. She was meeting him at 11, on Rue Tribunal. She wrote it down. She asked if Zied and I would like to join her.
I explained it to Zied when he arrived, and with a phone call he put off our 11 a.m. interview for an hour. We made the 15 minute walk in the heat, asking directions when we got inside the Medina’s narrow lanes, which were crowded with shops and vendors displaying blankets, purses, jewelry, clothing, sunglasses, art work decorated with camels, dolphins, mosques, the hand of Fatma.
After zigging and zagging several times, we came to a quiet lane, which opened up into an empty street paved with smooth stones and walled in by elegant buildings with painted doors and bone-white walls.
We found Diane across the street from the gallery. She was seated at a table with a poet, Salha Jlassi, and a friend of hers, a clean-cut musician in his early 30s whose name I didn’t write down. They were playing a recording of a performance they were preparing for Ramadan. From the digital recorder, Salha recited her poetry in a smoky voice, like a stage actress in a dramatic scene.
Then a small, beautiful thing happened. Salha stopped the player, met my gaze, and recited her poetry to me directly. She spoke in French, in her smoky, stage actor’s voice. Zied and Diane answered with a contemporaneous translation, and I repeated each line again, occasionally taking a few poetic liberties of my own.
“He understands,” Salha said, after I’d repeated her first few lines. She smiled, as if to say she had somehow known that she had known me.
Here is the fragment of her poetry I recorded in my notebook:
When I dropped letters in the river of life,
The water wrote your name.
Happiness, how dare you ask for my hand?
The words have burned me.
And who are you, pearl of the spirit?
From beyond, you come to my heart.
Deep, from the sea, you came as a fire burning my love.
You were a god, and I was a volcano.
Between us, the words have burned
I made myself relax. I stopped and listened. Every day I felt more and more at home. Tunisia remained exotic, but it became more familiar. By the end of my second week, I was even remembering to take the stairs to the lobby of the hotel.