Tuesday, June 30, 2009

weekend excursion part one: Kairouan

I have just returned from one of the most surreal and epic travel excursions I have ever been on in such a short period of time. And that says a lot. I will break up the four day trip by cities/areas or days, depending on how much was done at each place. It was truly a month's traveling packed into four incredible days. It entailed myself and 36 other students along with our Arabic language instructors on a bus traveling all the way down and around southern Tunisia - to both the Algerian and Libyan borders - and back by plane.

Our adventure began Friday with our first stop in the city of Kairouan, the 4th holiest city in Islam after Mecca, Medina and Jerusalem due to the presence of the Great Mosque - the oldest in North Africa. From this, mosque Islam poured westward to Algeria, Morocco and Spain. The columns inside the Mosque were scavenged from Carthage and no two are alike.

Next we stopped at the impressive great cisterns - the massive water basins constructed in the 9th century to hold water carried from the hills 36km away. The two giant cisterns are 5m deep and 128m in diameter, and fed 15 smaller cisterns around Kairouan.

The fascinating thing to me - aside from the incredible architectural feat - is that this provision of water served to rapidly convert followers to Islam from Christianity: before the cisterns were built by the Muslims, water was owned by individuals, and those without means were left to die of thirst. With the creation of the cisterns, suddenly water was available to all people in Kairouan and in effect created a sort of "socialist" view of water-sharing much appreciated by the masses.

From here we stopped at the zaouia (mausoleum and mosque) of Abu Zama el-Belaoui, a companion of the Prophet known as "the barber" because he carried with him three hairs from the Prophet's beard (don't ask me why- maybe it was the true answer to curing baldness, lost forever...). The style was the exact same as that of the Alhambra I saw in southern Spain - stunning tile and carved stone.

As we entered the Mosque section, we noticed through the wrought-iron window a young boy lying on his back surrounded by three men. We were just in time to witness his circumcision by a doctor with his father and father's brother present (the mother waited as is custom outside the entrance). The boy appeared to be about 4 years old and never cried - whether he was in shock or slightly drugged I'm not sure. But afterward, with his poor penis wrapped in gauze until it was the width of a potato, he was led out by his proud papa, who made sure to lift the boys beautiful ceremonial circumcision dress to show us all the great occasion. We wished him "mabrouk" (congratulations).

We took a brief tour of the Medina (walled city) where we saw tons of rugs -
Kairouan is famous for making the best in Tunisia. We somehow managed to do all of this by 1:30pm (by which time it was extremely hot outside and we were starving. We had lunch at a gorgeous hotel built out of the old Kasbah (fort).

we finally climbed aboard the bus and drove another 3 hours to Tozeur, a famous oasis city near the Algerian border, where we spent the night at the Grand Hotel de l'oasis.

We spent the evening swimming in the gorgeous pool. It was so warm outside we lounged pool side in our swimsuits late into the night...hardly able to comprehend all we had seen in our first day. Needless to say, I slept quite well that night.

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

The true meaning of “intensive” or, “why I have been slacking on writing my blog.”

Let me just say that I really, really have been meaning to write on this blog the last few days. It feels like I’ve been here a month already. I have moved in with a lovely host family and have finished day three of my eight-week intensive Arabic language program. I have a million stories to tell.

Alas, I failed to anticipate the true meaning of the word “intensive.” Let me explain by providing a brief outline of my schedule today:
1) 6-8:30am: wake up, review homework, walk 1.5 miles to class
2) 8:30am-1pm: Class (Modern Standard Arabic- so far learning the alphabet and basic vocab)
3) 1-5pm: Snarf down a baguette sandwich or panini at a local shop, then study like mad and do homework; maybe sneak a peek at my email and the New York Times online
4) 5-6pm: Class (Tunisian Arabic dialect – vocab/grammer/expressions)
5) 6-8pm: “Language Socialization” (once a week we spend 2 hours with one of our Tunisian tutors, going around the city and practicing our Tunisian Arabic by engaging in everyday affairs; today we went to a stunning café on a cliff overlooking the Mediterranean and practiced ordering drinks and making small conversation in Tunisian dialect.
6) 8-8:30pm: walk home
7) 9-12am: Finish homework and prepare for tomorrow’s assignments. (and maybe even sneak in a blog post…?)
Three days a week or so we have evening activities. Besides the language socialization I had today, I am also in the “dance club” and will begin learning Oriental dance (belly dancing) starting tomorrow every Thursday. Should be fun and amusing. We also have “traditional breakfast” Friday mornings at 8am where we arrive to school early to have traditional breakfast (not sure yet what that entails) and practice conversational Arabic. Add into the mix weekly essays on “critical incidents” (personal essays on encounters or situations or revelations we have while here) and numerous other assignments (such as last night’s one which I actually really enjoyed – having our family explain to us the literal and metaphorical meaning of four well-known Tunisian proverbs) and you get the general idea. If you are tired from reading this then you may be able to forgive me for my lack of communication.
We will spend four of the weekends on planned excursions to different parts of Tunisia that will be incredible. The other four weekends will be free, but I’m guessing I will want to lie on the beach (ten minutes from our school but a million miles away with our schedule) like a log and not move a muscle, synapse or finger.
Okay, what else can I try and quickly explain (I’m feeling guilty already for writing this instead of memorizing vocab and the bizarre intricacies of the Arabic script)?

1) My family: Wonderful. I have a father who is a retired TunisiaAir steward now managing a hotel in Tunis – he makes me a great café au lait every morning; a doting yet easy-going mother who is very relaxed on house rules (no curfew and I can actually buy wine and drink it in our house- [but she can’t touch the glasses or anything else the alcohol touches because of her Islamic faith], a sister named Mouna (Mona) who is 22 and half way through getting her pilot license; and another sister my age who is living in Paris and getting her Masters in virology. The family reminds me a lot of an average American one: they are Muslim, but very relaxed in their practice – I believe only my mother does the 5 daily prayers, and there is no sort of dress code my sister or I am to follow. All in all I consider myself extremely lucky to be part of this family. **A funny fact: The last student they hosted just so happens to be from Missoula, MT (I don’t know her so there) and we both gave them the same gift of huckleberry jam.

2) Learning Arabic: Difficult but very fun. It has been wonderful to force my brain to switch over from writing theses to learning the alphabet like a 4 year-old. Today we finished learning the alphabet, although tomorrow we still have to learn all the additional characters that affect the sounds and meaning of the primary characters. I think having already learned another foreign script (Korean hangul) has helped me not be so overwhelmed. However, we are going through a week’s worth of Arabic class PER DAY, which is exhausting. The 32 of us are split in to three classes. Our morning is broken up by a small break and we have two teachers for each section – all of our teachers are Tunisian and have lived in the States teaching Foreign Service Officers Arabic before they go on assignment. They are excellent. I’m struggling with getting back into the hang of memorizing, but I know it will come. We actually are covering so much in one day that it is impossible to become overwhelmed – rather, we just remain in “learning shock,” cramming our brains with as much Arabic as possible, and then adding more “crumbs” when we think we can’t feed our brain any more. It is wonderful, overwhelming, intense. One of the best parts is the variety of learning methods we are being exposed to, which is new this year. We have three different online programs including the great DVD’s that accompany or workbooks. Our day and homework is thus split between writing, listening and speaking. We also have a language program we’ve downloaded onto our I-pods so we can listen to it in the few seconds we have walking to and from lunch or our houses.

Okay, that's all I got for now, time to cram in a few more words before I sleep for an eternity.

Friday, June 5, 2009

America in Tunisia: Obama, Embassies and Ambassadors

Yesterday was our first full day in Tunisia. My roommate and I were out on the restaurant balcony and enjoying a cup of coffee by 7am, both exhausted. But the view down the central avenue of Tunis - Ave H. Bourguiba - was stunning with blue sky above, the clock tower on our end and the tower of the Medina's (old walled city) Mosque visible down at the other end. The birds above us were engaged in a feeding frenzy as they swallowed up the newly hatched gnats and mosquitoes.

The 32 of us found our way to the office where our orientation is being held, dragging our feet except for when attempting to cross the hectic main street. Our morning consisted of two tours that were an attempt to get us out and moving and to delay the inevitable feeling of jet lag. We went on a tour of the Medina (the old (walled) city) where approximately 60,000 Tunisians still reside today. We weaved in and out of the narrow alleys with our cultural guide as he took us through the various souks (markets): the red hat market where they make and export red felt hats to other Maghreb countries, the metals markets where only three of the original hundreds of metal shops are still in business today, the jewelry market, the carpet and fabric market, and of course the tourist (crap) market/. As our guide Hatim noted, it is sad to see how all of the incredible artisans souks (markets) have declined to almost nothing with the rise of industrialization, to be taken over by small sandwich and tourist shops.

We of course finished late, leaving us with only about 30 minutes back at the hotel to clean our selves up and throw together outfits for visiting the US Embassy and and attending a reception at the American Ambassador to Tunisia's (Robert Godec) residence.

I actually expected the process of getting into the US Embassy to take longer than it did; in Senegal this February every time we went to the USAID office it took at least 30 minutes to get through security. But we all made it inside quite promptly. Our panel included a briefing on our safety in Tunisia (virtually crime free), Bush's Middle East Partnership Initiative, and a Q&A with the newest foreign service officer. The panel was extremely excited as Obama had given his speech in Cairo mere hours before. They had copies of his speech already printed out for us. Wes pent a fair amount of time discussing the new set of principles and political direction Obama set out, and what it means for Middle East diplomacy. It was incredible to be here in Tunisia for such an event and hopefully I'll be able to hear a bit from Tunisians regarding their impressions - although politics is viewed as a very sensitive subject here.

From the embassy we continued on to our soon-to-be new home of Sidi bou Said, the gorgeous affluent suburb of Tunis where the Ambassador's house lies just a ten minute walk from where on Monday we will begin having our Arabic classes.

The areas is stunning: white-washed houses all with blue doors and windows, cats running around everywhere, a warm breeze and gorgeous flowering bushes ( my Mom would absolutely fall in love with the flora here). We spent an hour checking out our new classrooms before walking to the American Ambassador's house.

The view of the Mediterranean Sea from his yard was stunning, and I felt so privileged to be in Tunisia for this program. After shaking hands with the Ambassador, who is an ultra-marathon runner and looks the part (even in his suit), I grabbed a glass of white wine and began my shmoozing. Anyone who knows me well knows how much I enjoy this. I met some very impressive Foreign Service Officers, who have been learning Arabic from the same teachers as we will have for our language study. While the conversation was amusing if not interesting (the usual self-promotion shtick that one would assume would be present), I unfortunately cannot say the same for the appetizers: mini hot dogs smothered with ketchup, small pizza squares and meatballs. Ahhh, us poor Americans really need such traditional food when in North Africa.

AnyIexpectedcrabcakes, the day finished with a couple glasses of wine back at our hotel in Tunis. The day was surreal in it's longevity and made today an extremely painful one of fighting the "tireds." Nonetheless, I can tell I have embarked on an amazing experience, and I am excited to meet my host family on Sunday and begin Arabic classes in earnest on Monday

Wednesday, June 3, 2009

Traveling to Tunisia and Initial Impressions

I made it. Tunisia. Tunis. The Mediterranean. Incredible.

Our flight from D.C. to Paris and Paris to Tunis went smoothly, with the exception of being delayed 30 minutes at Washington Dulles due to "bad weather", which was in fact the clearing of all air traffic while President Obama and his team boarded a massive jumbo jet for Egypt to present his much-anticipated speech to the Muslim world. I actually had a perfect view out of my window onto his plane, and watched the helicopters land, various caterpillar lines of SUVs speed around the runway, and important-looking people in business suits stand on the hot tarmac waiting for his arrival.

Deboarding at Tunis I immediately took a deep inhale through my nose to see if the North African airport smell was similar to the one I loved to experience in Ghana and Senegal. It was in fact very different, which has proved to be my initial impression in the past four hours since we arrived. Here in Tunis, the airport smelled of layers of dust accumulating since the rise of Carthage, which I had the feeling simply swirled around the tile floors and walls of the impressively elegant Tunis-Carthage airport. In West Africa, the first smell (which I've come to love and find comforting) is a mix of old wood and earth, with an indescribable hint of herbs and vegetation.

In short, I can see why North Africa and sub-Saharan Africa are differentiated: they have a completely different look, smell and vibe. The main boulevard here in Tunis (Avenue Habib Bourguiba) on which our hotel is located reminds me neither of Europe nor West Africa. Instead, it is distinctly Arab with a strong European flare: cafe's all along the street, small patisseries selling paninis, gelato, crepes and sandwiches au jambon, tables of men hunched towards each other while smoking cigarettes, a mix of Arabic and French conversation, and an intriguing combination of traditional and modern dress. I suppose I could most closely compare Tunis with Cairo, but Tunis feels far more European and less chaotic.

We begin our four-day orientation this evening; tomorrow we have lunch at the US Embassy and then leave for the suburb of Sidi bou Said (where we will conduct our language study)to be introduced to our Arabic teachers and program staff before having a reception at the American Ambassador's residence. We will then return to Tunis.

Friday and Saturday we will have full days of orientation here in Tunis, and on Sunday we will leave for Sidi bou Said once again, this time to meet our new host families and prepare for classes, which begin Monday.

I am incredibly excited to begin my Arabic, and have found that my cohort consists of a very eclectic mix who all share the passion for learning languages, in particular Arabic. Many are still in college; of the 32 of us here, only 7 are working on or just finished a Masters or PhD. Everyone's degrees vary considerably and make for a wonderful mix of interests and experiences. It will be a great group to study Arabic and explore Tunisia with.