I am in a car, in Tunisia, on my way to do a hike, in which we will walk along a mountain pass with a beautiful view of the surrounding mountains and the lake below. For some reason, instead of stopping for lunch on the sunny flat trail with a view, the organizers will choose to hike into the brush and set up our picnic on sloping damp ground, where the canopy will drop foliage into our food, block the sun, and obscure the view. We will be sitting next to a (supposedly) dead grenade from the French war.
My friend, who has been in search of a natural purple dye for the past two weeks, will sit in fallen wild olives and find her pants stained purple — but in her grief over her damaged pants, she will not realize that this is exactly what she wanted. When she laments over the possibility that it will stain, I, not realizing that she had failed to appreciate the significance of the event, will say “I hope so,” and will look like a pretty big jerk until she realizes that if it does stain then the dye will function exactly as required (but the pants will certainly be ruined. Or, at least, purple).
Before these events will come to pass, however, we will stop and ask for directions on how to get to the view that we will not enjoy under the sun that will not shine on us. I am left alone in the car with a cute Tunisian girl who had, in the past, demonstrated (perhaps inexplicably) some romantic interest in me. After the last door closes, she turns to me and says. . .
She turns to me and she says:
“Did you bring your penis?”
(indeed, nothing that day went quite as expected)
I believe that my face remained expressionless while I processed what had just been said. I can’t be sure that I did not betray a brief flash of shock, disbelief, curiousity, excitement, or even fear. I was confused on several fronts. If I heard her correctly, did she mean right now? Or later on? Because those two guys were just over there asking for directions and could come back at any second.
‘Did you bring your penis’ Who says that? There are a number of responses I could choose from. None of them are quite as clever as they seem when you say them in your head. “Shit! I left it in my other pants. . AND I left the stove on. . .!” was one of the better ones, or “Are you sexually harassing me?” is always good for a country that loves South Park as much as Tunisia seems to. I went with a safe, tried and true response that has served me well over the years:
“. . . I’m sorry?”
“You peanuts. Did you bring them?”
Ahhhh! PeanuTs! Peanuts! You should know that this hike was organized by the same delightful folks that had us bushwack to the scalding hotsprings that met the chilling sea over sharp rocks under violent waves — where my harissa-roasted peanuts had made quite a stir. Peanuts. The all important ‘t’ lost in an arabic accent. Without the ‘t’ we would have rain instead of train, bow instead of boat, pans instead of pants, and, as it turns out, a penis instead of peanuts. A vital letter indeed (and not a vial leer at all).
When I came to Tunisia I had the vague intention of learning the language without learning the script, because I was interested in learning a language with a different part of my brain (interestingly, Tunisian Arabic is not among considered a written language, although I read that someone caused much uproar when he published a translation of “The Little Prince” in the ‘unwritable’ dialect). This ultimately didn’t happen, at least partially because so many people spoke English, and because my high school French* proved more ample than I would have expected. Since I was generally more interested in what these people had to say than in being able to reply in their native tongue, I didn’t overly concern myself with this small but significant failure. (It will have to await another day and perhaps a different language). And it’s not as if I didn’t pick up anything.
One interesting thing is the multitude of ‘h’s in the language which my ear is generally unable to distinguish. You may be interested to know that I was able to circumvent this problem by watching (and mimicking) people’s throats while they spoke, and so was eventually able to mimic the appropriate sounds even though I couldn’t really hear them — I imagine if I had spent more time on the matter I would have gained the auditory resolution required.
Another interesting thing you may not know is that my first name, in Arabic, is an expletive. When I found this out I was somewhat dismayed, because who knows how many old ladies I’d offended by that point. I thought I was being clever when I started introducing myself as “Nico” instead, until I found out that this was simply the plural form of the expletive in question. Amusing, some would say, that I had been saying this ‘new’ name with even more enthusiasm and confidence than before.
“And what’s your name, young man?”
“. . .”
No, that’s the kind of thing that gets you spat at. Or gets rocks thrown at you. Or gets your mattress taken from under you while you’re sleeping. Writing all this, for some reason, puts me in the mood for a donair.
I had intended to take the opportunity to choose a brand new name for myself, since the name my parents had spent days deliberating on was a profanity in this country. But my visa ended up expiring before I was able to decide on one.
When I was leaving Tunisia at about 4am on a sunday night/monday morning, the taxi I eventually found was being shaken down by the mafia. This man was not my enemy. We got stopped and interrogated 2 or 3 times on my way to the airport (funny that I can actually lose count after two. . . (or one)), and he was kind enough to turn off the meter while a cop repeatedly asked for my Tunisian identity card, even though he was holding my Canadian passport. It was somewhat surprising that it was not until I became more angry than concerned and introduced him to my sometimes harsh brand of english that he backed off, and practically apologized. Had I been being too polite to be a foreigner? Or was my vicious rhetoric actually more intimidating than his confidence in gun, pepperspray, and handcuffs?
Throughout the ordeal, the cabby seemed as worried as I had been, and he was very supportive throughout. (He later explained that the cop had been holding out for a bribe. I probably should have realized, but even if I had, I was certainly not in the mood to hand money over to an asshole. . . I wonder what Officer McCrindle would have done had Brad flashed a fifty. . .). Some of you may be shocked to learn that I tipped this taxi driver; I was surprised when he tried to refuse. There are good people hiding all over the place in this world, it would seem.
DISCLAIMER: This does not mean that I’m suddenly a friend to taxi drivers everywhere.
I have noticed, however, that the shared taxis (they drive around collecting people and dropping them off where they need to go, in the smaller Tunisian towns — more like lonely roving carpoolers than taxis) are a different breed of taxi driver which reinforces my contention that the more people that ride in a vehicle, the more amiable the driver, from asshole cabbies all the way up to friendly bus drivers. Collectivos hit a nice neutrality that really ties the theory together.
The other day, I was walking on a deserted highway, when a taxi driver stopped and told me he could give me a ride (free). He invited me to go rock climbing (I was unable to attend). In actual fact, the ride he supplied me with only served to disorient me, but it was a welcome gesture. Indeed: what a nice man. That does make two in a row. Perhaps the universe is trying to reconcile me with taxi drivers everywhere. We shall see. I will magnanimously accept a truce, at present, and see where this new relationship takes us.
Promoter of Peace