But I Don’t Have Any Male Cousins!

This morning one of the Tunisian English teachers asked me, “as a father to his daughter,” about whether I think pre-marital dating is acceptable.  He was the second person to ask me that in these two weeks, though I should say that the first person who asked truly was curious about American culture and interested in my answer.  This teacher, however, interrupted me before I was done answering to say that really it is not good to have serious relationships before marriage, and absolutely unacceptable to have sexual relations outside of marriage.  This is a subject I thought a lot about even in the U.S. because a very close friend of mine at my university is from Pakistan and also does not believe in romantic relationships outside of marriage.  I don’t disagree that it’s not a good idea to date very casually, or to go through many relationships without being fully committed to them.  I do think it’s important to be serious in any relationship, romantic or not.  But what I have trouble explaining to people who don’t believe in dating is that in my culture, and in the culture of the majority of Americans, there simply is no way to get married if you do not date.  If I decided right now that I do not want to have any more relationships before marriage…well, I would never get married!  I have not yet found a way to diplomatically explain this cultural difference.

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When you do get married, don’t forget to purchase some honeymoon underwears!

I still feel as though I don’t entirely understand exactly how finding a spouse works outside of my own culture.  Several people in Tunisia have told me that they married a cousin, a childhood friend, a neighbor, or the son or daughter of a parent’s friend.  I have heard about arranged marriages set up by parents or marriage counselors.  One Tunisian man told me that he almost married a girl from the nearby city of Monastir, but she broke the engagement because she thought the culture in Sfax would be too foreign to her; he instead married his cousin.  I want to ask more people how this works; but first I’ll need to think of a better way to explain the American version of dating for when the question is turned back to me!

Reflections on Ramadan

As I wrote before, this is my second Ramadan living in a Muslim country.  Last year I was so excited about it, but this year I have mostly just been feeling cranky.  Instead of writing about Tunisia, I am posting what I wrote after Ramadan ended last year in Morocco.

Ramadan in Morocco

September 4th, 2012

About two weeks ago, Morocco, along with the rest of the Muslim world, celebrated a very important holiday.  Eid al-Fitr is a celebration that the month of Ramadan has just ended.  Ramadan lasted 30 days and was a month of fasting, when food and drink are not allowed during daylight hours, and people are encouraged to think of the poor and increase kind acts.  I fasted for only 18 days of the month, but I got quite a bit of insight into Moroccan culture and religion and learned about the meaning of the month.

The first days I fasted seemed to last a lifetime.  At school on Monday of the third day of Ramadan, I took a nap in the garden during our lunch break.  I had been joking with a friend who was also fasting that we should take a nap, but once we lay down on the grass in a nice patch of shade, it was no longer a joke.  But no need to be embarrassed, because we were definitely not the only ones.  And by the end of that week, my body had become so used to abstaining from food that I looked forward to the lunch break as a time to enjoy spending time with friends without the inconvenience of waiting in the lunch line.

Although I struggled at first, I had the feeling that fasting was worth the sacrifice of food and water during the day.  It was comforting to know that when I was tired and thirsty, so was nearly everyone else around me, along with the majority of people in the country, and millions of people across the world.  When I broke the fast at restaurants or with my host family, others would tell me that it is good to fast and several people explained to me that my stomach will be healthier in the future.  In the freedom of the evening, there were concerts and a carnival in Rabat and families walking around the city, enjoying the night.  I spent more time with my host family and got a better idea of their lifestyles; waking up at three in the morning to eat a meal was quite a bonding experience.  I was particularly thankful to be in Morocco for the whole month, because the entire country had a time change just for Ramadan so that sunset would come an hour earlier.

I realize that while I celebrated Ramadan on the surface, I missed out on a lot of the activities during the month.  Prayer is an important component, and more time is spent in the mosque since an extra prayer is added in the evenings.  I was not able to fully appreciate the spiritual element, and broke my fast for about a week when my mom came to visit; I thought it would be unkind of me to tell her that we could not eat breakfast during her vacation.  I celebrated Ramadan as an outsider, but have at least increased my understanding of the month.

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After Ramadan ended, I was happy to eat lunch and drink water while walking around in the hot sun, but occasionally I miss the routine of the month.  I always knew at exactly what time I would be eating, and at least for the meal at sunset, I knew exactly which foods my host family, or any restaurant, would serve.  I got to look forward to having dates, orange juice, sugary chebakkia cookies, and hearty Moroccan soup along with a tall glass of water every evening.  Right after Ramadan ended, eating and drinking during the day seemed like a chore; once I knew it was possible to be free of material needs for so many hours it was hard to get back on a regular schedule.  Now that it has been a little longer, everything has gone back to normal (although hopefully my stomach is actually somehow healthier, as I was told it would be).  However, I will not forget the feeling of sitting down with friendly and open people who are willing to share everything they have with me and quenching our thirst by sharing our first long and satisfying sips of a glass of freshly squeezed orange juice.

Not Enough Hours in the Night

Today was the first day of Ramadan, and the beginning of the second Ramadan in which I am fasting (for the experience…I’m not Muslim!)  Thankfully I only worked in the morning and so was able to rest in the afternoon, so hopefully tomorrow when I have to work until 5:30pm I won’t be so tired.  As always, the feeling of my digestive system starting back up again after breaking the fast was wonderful, and each type of food I ate seemed like the most delicious thing I’ve ever tasted.

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My coworker and some of her family.  Maybe they’re not smiling because they just want to eat.

Last year I thought I would have trouble keeping myself from eating in the day, but Ramadan is like an alternate universe where food is not edible during daylight hours.  I found that it was actually harder to get myself to eat lunch again after the month ended, and I even missed the feeling of joy you get from breaking the fast each evening.  But happiness is fleeting, because I need to go to bed soon so that I can go to work tomorrow, but going to bed means that I have to start all over again!  The first day is the hardest though, so I think I’ll get used to this soon.  Tomorrow night I’ll stay later with my coworker so we can walk around and enjoy the freedom of nighttime.  But before then, another long day!  Ramadan kareem, and I hope everyone else who is fasting finds that there are enough hours in the night.

Islam and Nail Polish

Today my coworker painted my nails for me in alternating colors and with polka-dots.  We had to hide in a classroom to do it so the director wouldn’t see us decorating our nails on the job; we’re pretty rebellious.  It came out really well, I think:

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My coworker told me that she is so dedicated to nail polish that she will remove it to pray and then put it right back on afterward, since prayer in Islam requires having clean hands and feet.  But when she is menstruating, she says, she enjoys nail polish so much; women do not pray during menstruation because it is impossible to be clean enough, so the state of her fingernails is unimportant for one week each month.

Later today, the director of the school was asking me what kinds of things are forbidden by Christianity.  I don’t know that much about types of Christianity beyond Protestantism, which in my experience doesn’t really forbid most actions, except really serious sins like murder or theft.  But when it comes to the body, there are few requirements of what you consume or how you dress, at least as far as I know.  Back in Chicago, I sometimes went to Friday prayer services with a Muslim friend, and found it very confusing that I had to plan my outfit beforehand in order to have all of my skin and hair covered even while moving through the bowing and kneeling motions of Muslim prayer.  It’s harder than I would have thought!

Tomorrow is the first day of Ramadan (or, it might be, depending on the moon!) which means that eating, drinking, smoking, and sexual activity are forbidden during the day.  In Tunisia, Morocco, across the Muslim world, and across the globe, Muslims will be in the same physical state of fasting from dawn to dusk.  This will be my second year living in a Muslim country during Ramadan, and I intend to fast for the majority of it, as I did last year.  Hopefully I can improve my understanding of Islam and how it incorporates the body; even if I do keep my nail polish on!

Revolution!

This weekend I have been lucky enough to receive some invitations from my coworkers.  On Friday, I joined a Standard Arabic class, which was one of the best Arabic courses I’ve taken, particularly since the teacher spoke no English.  My main complaint about my university’s Arabic class was that the teacher was always telling us, in English, about silly things like how many Cinnabun stores there are in Cairo.  Even if I ever go to Cairo, I really do not have any interest in going to Cinnabun.  In Friday’s class, we talked about the Tunisian revolution of 1864, and then briefly discussed the 2011 revolution.  I learned how to say important words in Arabic and French, such as corruption, taxes, and unemployment, all of which seem as though they will come in handy here!

On Saturday, I tried some Tunisian food at a restaurant with a coworker after looking at perhaps hundreds of photos of her two-year-old daughter.  She told me a little bit about the ban on hijabs before the revolution, when Ben Ali was still in power.  She said that she had often been brought to the police station and sometimes even beaten up a little just for wearing hijab, because as she said, “some don’t fear God, they fear only Ben Ali.”

In the evening, I was invited to another English teacher’s home for the evening.  The teacher reminded me of a University of Chicago professor; he liked to talk!   He did say several very interesting things though.  I told him a little bit about how I find Tunisia compared to Morocco, and he commented disdainfully on the fact the Moroccans are still happy with the monarchy.  In Morocco, people are very defensive of the king, often claiming that he is like family.  However, it is illegal in Morocco to criticize the Moroccan government and royal family, and breaking these rules can result in very serious consequences.  In Tunisia on the other hand, Ben Ali and the current temporary president Merzougi are both heavily criticized.  Before the 2011 revolution, even YouTube was banned, but now people have more freedom to express their opinions even if there are still some limitations.

Another thing that the teacher talked about that I found very interesting was his disdain for all things French.  He said that he teaches English in order to break the bonds of colonization, because young Tunisians who learn French often go to France for study or work, where they are treated with hostility.  I have never been to France, but I have heard many people say this same thing, and the bans on headscarves in France certainly reflect this problem.  The tension between France and its former colonies and protectorates still exists and perhaps creates a lot of problems, here and in France.

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Mmm, charcuterie.

I definitely wasn’t thinking of my job as an English teacher as a way of helping North Africa resist the lasting influences of colonization, but English definitely is the most global language.  Well, I’ve got at least two years to change the world, one English student at a time!

Why I Like Living in North Africa

I’ve been going a little crazy being cut off from the internet.  I can only get it at work, which is closed today, and the two times I used a computer there I was hurried off to meetings before I could properly respond to emails.  Today is Sunday and I had plenty of free time, so I set out to the souk to search for one of those internet flash drives that I have only heard about but have never actually seen.  The first person I asked was the man who sold me cucumbers.  I knew he would be friendly because he did not laugh at me for not understanding how Tunisian Dinars work.  However, I quickly realized that he did not speak French.  But no worries!  Within minutes, another man and a woman were also standing at my side, asking what I was looking for.  Describing the internet flash drive in French took quite a while, particularly because I don’t know what they’re really called in any language, and as I said, I’ve never seen one.  After a bit of searching, the woman understood what I wanted but said that the store I needed, Orange, was closed on Sundays.  However, it wasn’t a total failure; she gave me her phone number and told me to call her the next day so she could take me to the store and help me out.  I’m not sure who she was, what she does all day, or why she is apparently always at my service, but I’m happy to know that I live in a place where people are ready to help.  This definitely has a downside too; just as people are willing to help a stranger and give out a phone number, there are always men at the ready, waiting for a woman to call out to or to follow around for a few minutes.  Both of these situations would be very unlikely to happen in the U.S.  I could do without the catcalls (although I don’t think ‘how are you? French? English?’ or ‘ooh, spice girls!’ are particularly threatening catcalls) but the opportunity to speak to strangers and find people who are willing to help just out of their own generosity is a wonderful aspect of North African life.Image

A Little More Tea in my Sugar, Please

As a foreigner in North Africa, it has often struck me how strong traditions are.  For example, Moroccans are very fond of their sugary mint tea, and all of the Sfaxiens I have met married and had children at a young age without ever moving far from their families.  One of the Tunisian English teachers at the school where I work introduced himself to me by saying, “I am 47 years old and am married, of course.”  Family life is important, and family gatherings usually mean drinking sweetened tea or coffee, eating sweets and fruits, and having large meals with plenty of meat.  The men sit around and smoke their cigarettes all evening, and even the youngest children stay up until midnight.  These traditions seem to be strong in Morocco and Tunisia, and help hold families together.

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My family is perhaps the complete opposite in many ways.  First of all, we would never put so much sugar in our tea, and none of us smoke.  We eat a lot less and get plenty of exercise, and are generally much more focused on health.  Our family is very small and spread out across the U.S., and we rarely have gatherings of the entire family.  Our approach to family life involves less traditions, and perhaps focuses more on individual relationships than on the collective family.  I’d say it’s also probably better for dental hygiene and reducing the chances of diabetes.  I think I’ll keep my family’s style of bonding, but I’m definitely happy to enjoy sugary tea with another family when given the chance.