After visiting the Bardo Museum in Tunisia's capital, I took an evening train to a spot on my map where there should've been a small town called Sminja. I got out of the train in a dark land where there were few buildings and no shops. I slept among the endless rows of olive trees.
In the morning, I located the town. Its six hundred houses were mortar blocks painted the color of sand or pearls. Strong winds blew dirt on the houses, and garbage around the land which was empty except for a soccer field, people grazing their livestock, and rows of olive trees. This town would be my home for the next week or two ... maybe my whole thrump in Tunisia?
I would get to know many nice townspeople - who were all crazy in their own ways, with few exceptions:
This young man, with a black beard hanging from the edges of his face like cotton candy, was only crazy in the sense that he was an absent-minded shopkeeper. He once added up my food items eight times to figure out I owed him $6. This short guy and I were always happy to see each other. He mostly spoke to me about why I should become Muslim.
He would be getting married in August, and he wanted me to know that his wife would cover herself from then on. Why? "Islam."
He was tall and thin and listened to music on his ear-phones, like many young Tunisians. His name meant, "The Sun of Religion", but he wasn't so religious.
He'd just begun working as an agricultural engineer for a farming company, and he found me writing amidst the company's olive trees. "Bonjour, monsieur!" he greeted me, while hiding behind a distant tree. I must've frightened him, because he walked towards me not in a straight line but in a madman's slant. After talking to me briefly, he insisted I come with him to the headquarters of the company. There was a home for me there.
This middle-aged woman was the daytime guardian of the warehouses, farming equipment, offices, and a grassy area that made up the company's headquarters. She wrapped her brown head in rags, and sat beside small fires to stay warm. Teeth protruded from her head at weird angles like big bones. She spoke French in nonsensical patterns.
The nighttime guardian of the company headquarters. This middle-aged man was also, therefore, my roommate in a warehouse. At first, I just thought he was quiet. Not crazy at all.
Early one morning, he did something that I considered crazy. He woke up well before sunrise, and laid down his prayer mat. He recited verses in a singing voice; verses that were rather beautiful, except that he recited them five times a day, and seemingly out of duty. In an almost demonic voice, he breathed, "Allah Akbar" (God is the Greatest), to his left and right.
I soon realized he did this every morning, at sunset and again before sleeping, and - presumably - once at mid-day and again in the afternoon, while he was home with his family. I respected his discipline; he didn't even mind praying right next to me, waking me up in the mornings.
I knew a bit about Islamic prayer, having recently read much of the "Hadith" (The Sayings and Teachings of the Prophet Mohammed). In fact, about half of the three hundred pages I'd read were about prayer. I now knew something about Mohammed's character, as well. He was extremely disciplined. Some might've called him: "Quirky."
In spite of great success, he spent much of his life-time bowed in humility to Allah. His success was no doubt a result of his discipline. It was also a result of his humility.
I was also disciplined. Some might've called me: "Quirky."
But, there was a difference between me and Mohammed. More than one, no doubt. The one I had in mind was: I based all my philosophies on the belief that life was wonderful, that people could live in bliss. My theology - that all humanity shared one soul, meaning we should work in harmony and could do so, because we had the power of God within us - fit into that belief.
Others like Mohammed believed they were meant to suffer and not be free and admit their impotence, and it was through this suffering that they earned refuge from the hell they accepted Earth to be. And so, they believed in gods that scared them into or rewarded them for prayer.
"O followers of Mohammed! By Allah! If you knew that which I know you would laugh little and weep much," said Mohammed. He explained his endurance of long and unbearable prayer by saying, "should I not be a thankful slave?"
As a child, I'd believed in a religion like Mohammed's. I prayed thirty minutes every night; most of that was the mindless repetition of "Our Fathers" and "Hail Marys" (Catholic prayers). It was boring, it was suffering, but hey! it was worth it to avoid eternity in hell.
"He whose head was being crushed with a stone was one who'd learnt the Qur'an but never acted on it and slept ignoring the compulsory prayers," Mohammed had said, interpreting a dream. He said, about another man who slept through the prayers: "Satan urinated in his ears."
While I was a praying Christian, my personality was duller than it would become. I was obedient and less powerful. And though I asked God for good things to happen, I was selfish, requesting special care for my loved ones, always concerned with my own salvation.
At age fourteen, I decided that Christianity didn't fit with my belief that the world should be fun and perfect. I stopped fearing an imaginary God, and stopped praying. Looking back on it now, I would've said that decision was a major step towards me realizing my true personality and feeling free.
Maybe the biggest step.
My philosophical boss in Turkey, Serhat the Atheist, said I should let praying people pray. And of course, I wanted everyone to feel free to do as he pleased.
I also imagined a world where people didn't believe in: boring worship in exchange for salvation; payment in exchange for freedom; weakness and a separation from God; a separation from others and antagonism towards them; judgement and punishment; obligation in exchange for life.
I wanted to live in a world where everyone was accepted, just for being human, and this feeling of acceptance gave him power to do great things ...
... such as love and be happy.
This happy peasant was the guy making my first weeks in Tunisia so enjoyable. He didn't pray.
Fifty-seven years old, he had a petite body that stayed healthy because he worked in olive orchards and walked everywhere. He wore the hat of a train engineer, a pointy nose and moustache, and smiling eyes. Playful like a puppy, he was always waiting for a reason to smile, though he lacked teeth in the middle of his mouth. When he wanted to express that something was nice, he closed his eyes and kissed the air.
He often visited Amur and me at night. This meant I was forced to speak Arabic more than I would've chosen to, with my current language abilities. This meant I was learning quickly.
Monsoor took me to his house for dinner. His wife gave us an enormous bowl of couscous. Lying on the couscous were whole carrots, hard-boiled eggs, mandioca, sweet onions, chicken meat, and hot peppers. "Bneen!" I said. (Delicious!) Monsoor closed his eyes and kissed the air.
After dinner, we hung out in his home. We played cards. We did funny dances. We spoke Arabic, acting out words and being silly. We talked about what great "sohab" (friends) we were. Mostly, we laughed. Monsoor always wanted to laugh.
The craziest thing about him was, although he himself was missing an interesting combination of teeth, he made fun of Saloha. To the delight of his family.
Ferhanny Hamimi, Haikl, and Ferhan -
Monsoor's wife, Ferhanny Hamimi, seemed to be the only family member born under Saturn. (Romans used to believe people born under Saturn were somber, while those born under Jupiter were jovial.) She prayed regularly. She sat in her living room, wrapped in different-colored clothes and cooking tea on a coal fire, and watched TV. Her family was usually with her, making her laugh.
Monsoor's two adult sons were Ferhan, whose name meant "happy", and Haikl. They wore fashionable black. They liked drinking alcohol. They loved exchanging jokes with me in Arabic, and they spoke slowly so I could understand and laugh. "Mert-k Saloha!" we would say. (Your wife's Saloha!) "La. Mert-k nti." (No. She's the wife of you.)
Monsoor's daughter kept her hair covered when I was around. At first, I thought she was fourteen. She was actually thirty. She would be getting married in late March. Monsoor and his sons and I were excited for the wedding.
The people of Sminja believed women should rarely go out of their homes. Men accepted that they would have little contact with women who weren't family members, and seemed happy. I rarely saw women in Sminja, except those who worked in shops or took their sheep to graze.
I would get invited to Monsoor's house for dinner every second day. Semia did the cooking.
She'd lived a sheltered life. With a father like Monsoor, it was no doubt a happy life. Though she wasn't the prettiest girl in the world, she laughed and smiled with an innocence and grace that was refreshing to be around. Once, I got to Monsoor's house early, and I got to spend time alone with Ferhanny Hamimi and this girl. I felt lucky.
Semia was usually quiet. She didn't pray. She may've been the only sane person in Sminja.
Back at the farming company, it seemed that the daytime guardian's only job was to keep people from entering headquarters with their cows and sheep. Yet, Zohayr was always here.
This moustached forty-year-old had a calm face, confident posture that relaxed on his shepherd's staff, and the expressive gestures of a leader. He called, "Saloha!!!" from across company headquarters, as if dealing with a matter of presidential urgency. He wore the cleanest clothes in Sminja.
I began to think something was wrong with him, when I noticed he talked constantly. He gave frustrated speeches to himself. Standing all alone, he would laugh in glee. He was a one-man party.
He told me something in Arabic which meant: "I'm in charge of this farming company." But, the only thing he was in charge of was a flock of ten sheep.
Saloha and Shamsidin told me: He was a "fou" (crazy man).
He heard one day that I wanted to buy a donkey. He was wearing a "kashabiya" - a fuzzy brown robe with its pointy hood over his head. Whenever he saw me, he said:
"Bheema! Bheema! Bheema!"
(Donkey! Donkey! Donkey!)
And the newest townsperson, me -
Maybe the craziest.
I wanted to buy a donkey. A female (bheema) was cheaper than a "bheem".
But, after waiting a week for the neighboring town's livestock market, I didn't go because it was too early. I hated waking up before sunset.
I liked the people of Sminja. Almost as much as I liked donkeys.