Reflections on Living in Tunisia (Part 1)

Hi friends and family,

I’m really sorry I’ve been bad at blogging. I want to say that I’ve had a cool excuse like being too busy doing deep undercover work among Tunisian gas smugglers coming in from Libya. Alas, I’ve just been working. Seems like real life follows you no matter where you go.

However, I figured, as I officially enter the “one month till I leave Tunisia for the foreseeable future” period, that I ought to write a few reflections.

So, after living in Tunisia for close to two years, here are some things I will and won’t miss:

1) Con: You are always French. White=French. No matter how hard you try to speak Arabic (and TUNISIAN Arabic mind you, not some Al-Jazeera formal Arabic or some Beiruti dialect) you will always be French. I can’t count the number of times I have started talking to someone in Arabic, had them assume they’d just misunderstood my French, continued to speak at them in Arabic (literally saying “I don’t speak French, I speak Arabic, please speak to me in Arabic” in Arabic) and have them STILL talk to me in French. “Ala Khater al-istemaar” (because of colonialism) as my roommate would say (or does whenever some random French word or custom is part of Tunisian Arabic).

I think this is best illustrated by my “Who’s on First” Tunisia story. Once, at a local shop, I asked the shopkeeper how much the total was (in Tunisian Arabic, mind you). When he said “neuf” (French for “nine,” as in 900 millemes) I thought he said “nusf” (Arabic for “half,” as in half a dinar or 500 millemes). When I handed him the half dinar piece he looked confused and repeated “neuf” to which I showed him the half dinar and said “nusf” to which he replied “neuf!” to which I returned “nusf!” We went back and forth like this probably three times before he showed nine fingers shouting “NEUF!” to which I responded with a confused “tesa’a?” (Arabic for “nine”) to which he responded “eh, tesa’a” to which I then gave him a “why didn’t you SAY so” look.

2) Pro:(duce) This is a general plus about living in the Arab world (and probably most poorer countries where industrialized agriculture and mega-supermarkets haven’t become the norm yet). There’s always fresh, dirt-cheap, usually delicious, seasonal produce available year-round. I’ve started choosing the local veggie stands at Halfaoine over my old haunt of the Marche Central (istemaar . . .) because it’s closer. Like in farmer’s markets back home, you get to see the pumpkings melt into cauliflowers then into zucchini as the seasons change. Unlike back home, I can buy a kilo of cherry tomatoes for a dinar (aka 50 American cents). I’ve become friends with one of the grain/spice vendors who always greets me with a few green olives to munch on while I order (and his family’s homemade harissa is phenomenal!). There are definitely sights and smells that one must brave to get there (read: cow heads hanging from meat hooks and giant slabs of liver sitting in the sun drawing flies) but it certainly has more energy and vitality than the steril aisles of the Monoprix

3) Pro/Con: Wine. Speaking of Monoprix, most of my time spent in Monoprix is spent buying wine (and, when I feel like spending all my money, soy sauce). Tunisian wine is both very good and very bad, and one of the nice things about living here for so long as been being able to learn which is which. There are a lot of pretty piss poor labels but there a few gold standards that always seem to show up on tables at house parties or on my desk during a post-work day Daily Show watch. My mainstay has been the classily-labeled Chateau Deflour (istemaaaaaaaaaaaaar). Full-bodied, tannony, red, 10 dinars a bottle.