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Au Revoir for Now

February 3, 2010 3 comments

My last days in Tunisia felt like nothing more than a blur of fun. No emotional elaborations, no final closure. This form of departure could be either good…or very very bad when the reality of good-bye finally hits me.  I’ve been heavily preoccupied with dreaming of visiting my news friends in new places and perhaps that’s delaying all associated emotions. In fact, I’m with my favorite Fati right now in Morocco, enjoying  North African hospitality and modernity and will soon be with Constantina, roaming the streets of London.

I’ve had no real desire to travel in the traditional sense and this will, no doubt, make good-bye more difficult than imagined. To explain, each page of my travel journal has a quote expounding on exploration. One that I remember distinctly said something to the effect that we best engage in travel when we learn everyone travels differently. There is no set criteria or definition for travel. For many it’s  sightseeing. For others, it’s relaxing with a pina colada. For me it’s getting to know people and myself. (At any rate, I hate sightseeing unless I’m doing it on a bike or in fresh air.) My attachment to my Tunisian home and family is so strong, I can’t fathom not seeing them within the week.

So how did I relish my last days of travel? I don’t quite remember! A blur, like I said. I went to Villa Didon for an event where splendor and corporate drunkeness was almost as fantastical as the view from the balcony. I hosted an Indian dinner party where Omar’s hilarity was the only thing that topped my chicken curry. I went to a soccer game where the lack of an announcer and sunshine made me almost as confused as the flying SOS sparklers and foreign cheers. And of course, I went to Kourbous where the breathtaking beauty of the ocean against the mountains made me break out into yoga.

Kourbous was a last minute plan, that as usual, ended being a gem of a day (especially when in contrast to the crappy weather of that whole week. I’m going to have to say God made Sunday January 31st for me to go to Kourbous.)

I went with Lavinia, Constantina, Mona and Meriem. Kourbous is known for it’s mineral springs and so we all went together to spend the day at the Hammam. The extreme beauty of Kourbous prompted us to make a detour from our spa plan and we went climbing a mountainy hill to get a better view of the scenery.

After a proper workout, we went into the Hammam, the Arab beauty salons. Here, you immerse yourself in a giant sauna and have a “hazra” scrub the bejesus off of your body. While I initially thought the roughness of this Middle Eastern exfoliation technique would probably leave scars, I saw 70 year old women with backs of a 17 year old teenagers. Ancient wisdom is wisdom no?

Soft and clean, I decided I needed a beer upon return to Tunis. Constantina Omar and I went to Hotel International where you can sit outdoors and see a full panorama of Tunis. We drank pale ales, ate olives and talked of love late into the night.

The next day was my last day. I spent it packing and preparing for my goodbye party where I had my most intimate friends come over for a dinner party. It was an absolutely amazing night but not at all an good-bye. I felt certain that I would see each and everyone the next day.

But no, in fact, it was just me , Constantina and Lavi- soon to be just me. They helped me do last -minuters and get out the door with my 30 kilo suitcase. Lavi then went to work and Consty and I bought Patisserie Magenta for a final coffee with Omar at the airport. After paying an arm and a leg for my suitcase, we sat together relishing the famous sweets and each other’s laughter.

I held Omar and Constantine for 20 minutes outside the gates, hugging them and in effect, hugging all my memories of Tunisia, before I walked through the doors and away from my home away from home. My travels here have been to build roots in pots of new cultures, and I will keep them growing strong for a long time to come.

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Finding Direction in Having None

January 25, 2010 3 comments

Casually munching on gaufrettes while working through my lunch break. I’m preparing an urgent sales pitch Elyes decided to tell me about at 12:28. It’s naturally due at 2 pm. Gah. Our work processes here are pretty haphazard and there’s rarely room for pre-planning. When there is room for pre-planning, the final project requirements end up changing so much that it’s the  equivalent to having never been been preplanned in the first place. 

However, one could argue that a bit of disorganization is good for me. A few weeks ago, I was complaining to friends over a pile of cheesy crepes that I have never been lost in a city. I’m so anal and OCD, I have always had my every hour planned out to the minute. Utter planning freak. There’s a yogic axiom that a relaxed mind leads to a sharpened intellect. Easier said than done while in the US and worse still when you add my self-created stress over time and detail. It’s impossible to relax while glued to my sated agenda.

But in step with the wisdom of the yogis- and contra that of modernity- I’ve found that I’ve produced some of my most creative work or learned some of the most complex things in mere seconds while here in Tunisia and it’s by virtue of the fact that I’m living at a tortoise pace. Fml. How will I return to reality?! 

Perhaps here’s a simple answer: Fati once said to me, ‘In Morocco we don’t like to plan too much because excessive planning leads to nothing’. I at first thought this is the most counter-productive philosophy I have ever heard but retrospectively, I see it’s not. Some of my biggest life breaks dropped from the sky and some of my favorite memories came from a lazy Sunday. 

Like yesterday for instance. I opened my eyes up at 7 am, sent out a hoard of text messages, then woke up slow. I made rose petal tea. I cooked Indian french toast. I did yoga. I read. I beautified with a face mask. I journalled. I cleaned. I played with the new turtle my landlord brought. Fine, so not so lazy of a Sunday but you get my drift. I finally walked out the door at 1 pm, with patisserie magenta ‘madelines’ in hand. (tip: they’re most nummy because the bakers add lemon rind!)  

Anna, Thameur and I had no idea what we wanted except that we didn’t want to travel. (Lavi was the exception but heureusement, negated by majority rules)  Stomachs led the way to Avenue Bourguiba where we got crepes-to-go before heading to the Medina. 

The Medina is an example of the Mediterranean influence on Tunisian city planning. Encased by the fortifying castle walls, the winding alleys of the Medina are typically alive with overloaded stores, cafes, and people. But since it was a Sunday, most Tunisians were home watching soccer and for the first time, I saw the beauty of a tranquil Medina. The absence of activity let the sunlight fall in all the right angles and permitted the architecture to receive its due appreciation. 

We drifted through the Medina up to the grande mosque Zitouna. None of us had had the opportunity to wander into the alley ways beyond this mosque, either due to lack of energy from battling crowds of shoppers or due to a lack of time from battling crowds of shoppers. The opportunity to explore unadulterated was ripe for the taking.

We took a left then a left then a right then a left. With each footstep, the buildings got more and more beautiful, decorated by chance with vines, whitewash and splashes of traditional Tunisian doors.  What I love about Tunisia is how you can jump from Mediterranean to Arab in a split seconds. In one instance, you can feel as though you are deep in the south of Spain and in the next, as though you are back with the Pachas.

After exploring and sun basking, we took a coffee then went onto Baba Soukh for its famed kafteji. Unexpectedly, once we reached there, everything was closed. This had now become an imposed lazy Sunday and I did not appreciate. Thameur called one of his friends to help us navigate the foreign turned terrain of centreville-au-dimanche. The thing of it is, when stores close for the night, they are boarded up which makes it more difficult than usual to remember nameless streets that lack their tell-tale landmarks.

Thameur’s friend, the explosive Algerian, works for Club Med and has been living in Tunisia for 2 years. We walked and walked through God knows what, where or how. Foreigners following a foreigner. 

Suddenly we arrived at a random hole in the wall. Final destination?! Noooooooo!

But this hole in the wall served a mean ojja,  a tunisian speciality of spices, pepper, seafood and sausages. Thus in spite of it being a grimy, testosterone teeming resto, it served us up a scrum-didly-upmtuous dinner of five stars. (Case in point, I burned my tongue nicely from an impatience to gorge.) Hyper piquant et hyper savoureux, a rare break indeed for Tunisian cuisine! We ate till the point of food coma, doused our burning tongues with plum smoothies, talked about happy nothings, and somehow found our way back home.

And so just like my days of work, where unanticipated projects and opportunities crop up, I’ve been exploring Tunisia in unforeseen junkets, where my darling Tunisian friends spend lavishly on us interns to make sure we take home the best memories of their country. And it’s worked. I have a fantastic cache of memories, the most evocative coming from a day unplanned. Certainly adding a bit of this ‘mode de la vie’ is invaluable for surviving the concrete jungle upon my return, n’est-ce pas?

Recapping with TounesBledi

January 23, 2010 Leave a comment

At present I hate Sybel for making me work on Saturdays and all I want to do is die right now. I’m so stinkin tired, my knees ache from the crap weather and my lungs hurt from sheesha hotboxing. I actually think I might die from post-sheesha asphyxiation. God bless. 

Below is a really nice note I got from the radio-host this morning and is probably the only thing that is preventing me from killing Elyes slowly. 

Hey Sweet preeti , 
Me and the radio station we were so happy for having you in the show . you were such great person and profile for my radio show .
I thank you so much for coming we r gona meet soon inshallah and i’ll definitely wanna have you again for dinner or lunch at my house before you leave . keep in touch buddy 🙂 Ashraf

To listen to the broadcast, click here. (FYI: I don’t start until 50 minutes into the show. Forewarning: I sound ridiculous) 

For the website, click here


Ennui Musings on the Absence of Change

January 7, 2010 Leave a comment

Today is a day where I have nothing to say but a desire to type. Not being challenged at work makes me dry! And also, not being surrounded by people who challenge me makes me dry. I think that’s what I miss most about the US of A. Vibrant curiosity. 

There’s a Greek proverb that says ‘Wonder is the beginning of wisdom.’ I feel that people here don’t wonder enough. A part of that comes from the intensity of internet padlocking, another part of it comes from the work reality where you do not ask questions, and a final part of it comes from the culture- change is analogous to sloth.

The cultural component of anti-change became apparent during the Presidential Elections this fall. I was with my boss Hager having lunch in La Marsa after a shopping fit. Litt men dressed green clothing scampered about everywhere, handing out flyers for the current president, Zine el Abidine Ben Ali. I was naturally fascinated. I asked Hager who the other candidates were. She didn’t know. I asked her what the incumbent’s platform was. She didn’t know. I asked her why she wasn’t interested. I know she didn’t know even that, but after hefty reflection she says,  (and I paraphrase because I can’t remember word for word) “We have a saying in Tunisia. It is better to keep what you have  then go for change because what comes next could be worse”. 

While other countries thrive on globalization, change flurries are going to be this country’s achilles heel.

One thing I’ve always found interesting is the way the micro magnifies onto the macro. Sybel underwent a strike within this first month I was here and way the strike played out clearly illustrated micro workings for me. It all started when Elyes went off on a swearing rampage and made the grave mistake of insulting all the technician’s mothers. The technicians refused to come back to work the next untill he apologized, which he didn’t, and from there- long story made short- things escalated into a full blast list of demands.  Working hours, job tasks, pay, respect, holidays, health care, safety standards, yada yada yada. It really mirrored the way strikes pan out in the US actually. (Inherent solidarity amongst the international working class case study material if i do say so myself. )

In a way, it’s amusing that I majored in Industrial and Labor Relations, but I had nothing much to offer for ameliorating the warfare that was going on each day at the office. This was partly due to the cultural complexity of it all, partly due to the fact that I was too new to embroil myself in it. To me, things could have been resolved quite easily: communication and more organized work processe. The fact that neither camp was even mentioning the obvious indicated to me that I am not going to be of use here.

Still, I decided to point out some tried and tested OB principles.  Elyes nodded seriously, grunted a few times, then said, ” You know, I would like to, but the culture won’t allow. The only way we can bring change in the work processes is if we find a European technician to work with them whicch will change their attitude. Without that, things cannot change. Hmm, can you start looking for a European technician?”. 

Whether you’d like to call it horrible reasoning or an easy defeat, either way, his logic by deduction led towards an impossible solution. This was the seminal point when I became aware of the built in apathy and fear of experimentalism. In the end, Ben Ali’s henchmen intervened and put everything straight. The truism “it takes a generation to create, a generation to maintain, and a generation to destroy” is moot for Tunisia. Thanks to the demi-dictator, Tunisians have been coasting along for over a generation, happy yes-mans to Ben Ali’s decrees and in effect, malleable pawns for his growth vision. Top-downism like I never knew!  

Most of us @ interns have noticed how our Tunisian friends are awfully coddled in a fabricated bubble. Could this be why Tunisians are quick to put up their nose to foreign food? Or grow hot over critiques about modernization? Or turn quizzical when we start chatting about the latest? Could it be they are immature because they don’t/can’t wonder? All work and no play may make Jack a dull boy, but the absence of change makes him duller.

The Real Value of Holidays

January 4, 2010 Leave a comment

This Christmas holiday, it was Punjabi family time everyday. Dinner parties, like the legendary. Parantha Fest where my grandma and masi make 3 different types of Indian latkas and we all get together to competively eat as many as possible. Pub nights, like our Christmas Eve drink fest at Woodlands where we enjoyed both the beer and running into my aunt’s heavily hair gelled ex-students, all brown of course. Can’t forget general down time, where we battled it out over ‘Articulate’ and drank cappucinno’s while watching Singh is King. Topping it all of with a cherry is the gloriously golden turkey we had for Christmas dinner that had…. a thurka masala stuffing. 

Normally, my family does this almost eerie Pleasantville Christmas where we do a grand tree, a special dinner, open presents at a precise time, crank up christmas carols and eat a special brunch at a precise time, clean up then start cooking the main event altogether, then we eat at precisely 4:30, then we drink/desert/chat. Then it’s over. Just like that!

 I think that’s what I forgot though. It’s not about the exterior actions of Christmas, but the closeness it facilitates. I’m not Christian and so this holiday carves out a spécial time for me that is far beyond the Santa Clause or the birthday boy or lavish meals. It’s about having the luxury of time and using that to be with those near and dear to me. Shame I didn’t get to see my puppy 😦 I did a skype chat with my family and my baby Leo had already forgotten me. Stupid Cavalier King Charles’. They have no loyalties, as suggested by that happy go lucky name.

But in addition to family far away, I also got to reconnect with old friends all around London and I loved being able to tell my cousins, “Ok, I’m off to London Bridge! Hope it doesn’t fall down”. I’m such a christmas sweater wearing looser. 

Despite all the endless shopping, cuddles, and amazing food, I must admit, I was quite happy to come back to Tunisia. I have a new appreciation for it after being away. Omar was there waiting for me and his warm silliness made me so glad to be back. After I unloaded my duty free purchases of flavored Absolute, we went off for a sea side lunch outdoors, and then a walk along the beach in Lac where an amusement park with a ferris wheel slowly turns and techno heavily pumps.I saw the police reprimand a cute couple because they were getting a little too snuggly and the holy ghost couldn’t fit in between. I laughed for ages. I love this place. I love the surprises. And God, I love the weather. England sucks in that department! 

And that’s the other thing the holidays did for me, it made me appreciate what I have before me each day. I have exactly one month left in Tunisia and I think that’s the greatest Christmas present of all. Another chance to live what I love.

The Privellege of Proximity

January 1, 2010 Leave a comment

When I was younger, I would always lament that my cousins are boring. No longer the case! With us being older, wiser and merrier ( aka of age) family time is now always a good time and I sincerely look forward to every visit.

My Christmas holidays in London are exemplary of this. It’s only been over the past two years that I’ve been visiting England quite frequently and one of my favorite parts is how everything is compact. The physical closeness of family, friends, restaurants, temples, grocers, tailors, schools etc provides a diferent level of intimacy that I haven’t yet seen in the US.

An instance of this is when I got a watch rash on my wrist and my grandma insisted on taking me to the doctor. I did not want to sit for an eternity in a socialized health system’s waiting room. but if you know my grandma, you know that arguing with her is senseless. So early-ish one morning, we crossed the street and passed about 5 houses before we were at the doctors. Big surprise. I always thought thèse things weren’t conveniently located in such a system. Next surprise : all the signs were all written in English and Punjabi. My grandma’s little neighborhood is 95% Indian and this is level of personalization I also didn’t realize existed in socialized health systems. but then, the jaw-hit-the-floor suprise: my grandma knew everyone in the office on a personal level and the secretary fudged the books so that I could be admitted as a British Citizen. Finally, near-conniption-level surprise : I waited a total of 30 seconds before the doctor admitted me. Being in England has convinced me small is better and I’m on my way to becoming a fully fledged Libertarian.

Point being, I love visiting England because I love the pleasant surprises that come with compactness. Time, love, and connection are all augmented.

Bougie Encounters

December 19, 2009 1 comment

Today is my last day in Tunisia before I fly out to England tomorrow and spend the Christmas holidays with my British family. My mom’s side has had générations in Uganda, Kenya and Rwanda but the infamous Africanization policies of the 1970’s scattered them westward. The English speaking members went to London and the French speaking ones to Montreal.

This has clearly played a huge rôle in my immigrant family’s life story, but interestingly, it’s not one that’s discussed to often. I, myself, have had little interest in getting to know the history of thèse countries. At the bottom of my life-to-do list is watch « The Last King of Scotland » and at the top of my never-to-do list is visit those countries. I have zéro desire to die from a brain-eating parasite.

Which is why the event I attended last night, on the Islamic New Year, was so fascinating for me. I  recieved an invite to the African Developement Bank’s end of year party and fortunately, was able to find a last minute date for Fati so I could hog her for the last 48 hours I will be with her in Tunis. I am really glad we chose to go to El Mouradi for this party as opposed to our usual Biwa/Bouef sur le Toit nights. ( a blog on this soon to follow)

So last night’s évent opened with a Senegalese drum band and involved the most raunchly explicit male dancing I have ever seen. I am pretty sure it was inappropriate, however authentic it may have been. After, we all went to get food from the African buffet and it was a shark feeding frenzy where lines were mosh pits. Once we came out alive with a plate of African alimentaire, we were enterained by a parading of the African varieties to be found on the continent. It was actually quite amazing for me to see all the diversity. I admit, I am notoriously guilty of lumping all Africans together as one people.

The showcasing of Africa finally did away with this malaligned thinking. The head dresses, outfits, facial features, music and style of dancing were quite different from country to country, and more interesting for the ignorant American that I am, the same in certain countries which means you could see where the colonial powers messed up in drawing dividing boundaries.

To give a taste of the show : 1.) Ethopian music sounded like South Indian music and the dance was all in the shoulder blades 2.) Cote D’Ivoire was Jamaica revisited and played out in the bodacious bums 3.) Somalia/Djibouti was a cross between drunk-uncle-bhangra and monkey 4.) Tchad’s traditional music was incredible, Spain meets exotic jungle, and I am currently telecharging whatever I can find in hopes of coming across last night’s sampling.

When the North African invite to the piste was announced, I happily joined the ranks. While I wasn’t dressed traditionally, a long Greek gown with a pretty daring deep neck, neither were those who came to the floor . The only traditional outfits exhibited were those by two Berber women from the dessert which is why once amongst the crowd, I didn’t feel out of place and I didn’t feel foreign. My hand and hip motions blended right.

The evening was a really gréât eye opened to a reality I find so cloaked hère in Tunisia. I am in Africa, not the Middle East. The swathes of Africans living hère are made out to be an annomaly in Tunisia, as though they don’t bélong. Tonight I saw the interconnectivity of Tunisia to the rest of the continent and I loved it. ( Can’t say the same about the food though. Ill take Tunisian over Ghambian any day !)

I also loved the beauty I saw in person as opposed to National Geographic. I’ve have always found ebony black skin, gleaming white teeth and a mass of thick braids to be extaordinarily exotic.  For me, it’s a beauty I can’t quite comprehend and it mesmerizes me. I have never found the mélodies of the Arabia, the scents of India, or the khol covered eyes of the East to be anything extraordinary. I am currently listening to « Tabla Beat Science » and for me, it’s America. Which is why last night, dancing away to the slow staccato beats of African culture, I revelled in the exoticness of it all.

I also regretted dancing away the night before that. My unconditioned hamstrings hurt right now ! I went to « La Closerie » for a dinner with Hicham, a Moroccan tennis player who went to Columbia and worked for Citigroup before the inévitable hit. Sob story aside, I finally found a scrumptious salad ! After dinner, we went to the lounge side where a duet was jamming away acoustic interpretations of American 90’s music before the house music came on. Hicham introduced me to all his friends, a medley of modern. I am very fortunate to have had Tunisian expériences in the order I did. It started out with the traditional, closed minded village mentality and has moved progressively along a trajectory where I am now in the midst of refined professionals.

One of the guys I was talking with, a software engineer at HR Access who can’t get enough techno, had an interesting comment about democracy that I had found myself starting to believe long before I came to Tunisia. He said the Arab world is not ready for democracy. The governments want to keep the people stupid so that they can manipulate them easily. He believed that once éducation is fully installed, only then could democracy begin to take supplant the pseudo-democracies and open theocracies.

I have been thinking likewise about American democracy actually. While I believe so strongly in the principles and effects of a democratic society, I often feel as though it is best applied to a state and municipal level and that it might be more benficial if fédéral governments were more oligarchic in nature. I say this because when a populace isn’t educated enough, everything devolves towards neanderthal like populism where gutteral instincts reign over calcuated reason. A truism is that everyone is equal… just some are more equal than others. Money talks, so how can we manufacture a world where humanism trumps profits ? I would say at the outset, start by ensuring livelihoods and éducation, not a welfare state, and then the self-perpetuating cycles of innovation will catch hold wherein a pure democratic system could be better established. This is something only the fédéral government can be tasked with. Right now, there are parts of Cleveland where children have scurvy and unemployment is passing 30%. Cleveland would be able to combat the effects of deindustrialization much easier if this wasn’t the case. Work and éducation intégrâte people into society, and in my opinion, the greatest national security threat is our inner cities where guns and drugs are candy and popcorn. Perhaps we could learn alongside the Arab world on how to better implement a real democracy ? Perhaps.

Anhow, enough theorizing for me. I need to pack because I am heading over to Passage in a few to have a little Christmas teaser with the girls- decorating sugar cookies, making chantilly hot chocolaté, putting up a puny fake Christmas tree and listening to all the versions of « Last Christmas » I found. ( If you have to chose one, go for Glee Cast.) Also, I promised my landlord’s kids I would watch Batman with them before I leave. Ahhh. Also, I still have to mail out thèse Holiday postcards. Ahhh. Also, I still have to de-hangover. Ahhh. Where is the pause button when you need it ?!