The winter weather in Tunisia was windy, rainy, and cold. And dark.
I'd been given a house by a farming company. It seemed like a better idea for me to stay in this house beneath palm trees scattered by the wind, than to wander around a cold and dark Tunisia. I planned to travel next to southern Tunisia, a land full of desert, oases, and dry salt lakes. Only a fool would attempt such a trip with a donkey. Most Tunisians agreed only a fool would attempt to travel anywhere with a donkey, in this day and age.
Either way, I planned to take a hitchhiking trip to the south, return to the greener north, and - "insha allah" (if Allah willed it) - buy a donkey.
I awaited good weather. In Sminja Village, I got to know some of my old friends better and met some new ones:
Sali the Islamic Shopkeeper -
This guy still thought I was going to "enter Islam". He was ever the optomist.
This unquestionably crazy forty-five-year-old continued to shepherd his sheep around our farming company, with the seriousness of Napolean at the Battle of Waterloo.
His round body and chubby, moustached face watched me eating with the hungry eyes of a patient child. He was the only person who accepted the food from me if I offered it. One morning, I awoke to a knock at my door, and the calls of, "Zohayr! Zohayr!" It was Zohayr himself. "Tabona," he said, handing me North Africa's flat, round, fluffy bread that his mother must've made.
He constantly wanted to go with me to Sminja's cafe. "Nemshee-u fel-qahwa." (Let's go to the cafe.) I liked Zohayr. But, how could I have a conversation with a lunatic in Arabic?
At least he always had someone to talk to. One day, he spoke into his telephone with a loud voice that filled the headquarters of our farming company. "Bel-haqq?" he yelled into his phone. (Really?) He laughed wildly. I'd never seen anyone so happy to talk to himself.
This short, moustached man wasn't crazy. His friends were Monsoor, my former roommate Amur, and a guy named Mwassan. They used to hang out together in Amur's and my warehouse.
I would play my flute, and Hamed and Monsoor danced. Hamed's pelvis bounced around the room like one of Saturn's moons. At age forty, he smiled like a child. He acted out farm animals so expressively, that when he lowered his head and thrust it upwards like a cow, I thought he might grow horns and gore me. He and Monsoor reminded me of high school friends who hadn't started drinking yet.
Hamed dressed in Western jeans and sneakers. But, he prayed five times a day.
Monsoor had drunk alcohol before. But, he still had the energy of a young man. He worked by day in the olive orchards, took his cows to graze in the evenings, and worked on improving his home for his daughter's wedding.
He was mischievous. He liked to shine his flashlight in Amur's eyes, then laugh about it. He climbed onto a roof at our farming company while no one was watching, and dropped tiny stones on Saloha the Daytime Guardian. Some of the stones weren't so tiny. "Il est mechant," said Saloha. (He's mean.)
He was nice to me. He had basically adopted me. His wife, Ferhanny Hamimi, lay on cushions in front of the TV and called me "Michael Jackson" or "Zaxom" while trying to pronounce Justin. Monsoor's adult sons, Haikl and Ferhan, joked and taught me Arabic. Monsoor and I enjoyed listening to a classic Egyptian singer named Oomm Kalthoom, a woman whose dramatic, melancholy voice sang of mobsters.
Monsoor insisted I come for dinner every night. He asked me which of his co-workers gave me food, and shook his head in disappointment at the ones who didn't. Amur? Yes, Amur shared his food. Shamsidin the Agricultural Engineer? No. Mwassan? No.
This dark brown man had a great, bulbous nose and a rough beard that was gray and black. He was grumpy. He spoke with his friends about "flooss" (money) and ignored me. Whenever I saw him, I greeted him with as much happiness as he had grumpiness. "Mwassan!" He began to like me.
He drove a tractor for the farming company. He lived with his wife and three daughters in a house that was next to mine, but unreachable. Its windows were boarded up. A wall of sticks, palm fronds, and sheet metal surrounded the area where his wife washed and hung clothing.
This woman covered her plump, powerful body, but smiled and greeted people as she walked to town.
Among Mwassan's three teen-aged daughters, one covered her hair. Another one exposed her long black braid, and was rather pretty. I watched these two doing housework. The plump one with her hair covered did all the work. The pretty one sat and played with her phone.
Walking through the farming company, Mwassan's daughters never looked at or greeted anyone. It seemed like the two girls who covered their hair were always listening to their pretty sister complaining.
Mwassan prayed five times a day.
My former roommate liked to dress in a brown "kashabiya" robe and a religious skull-cap. He had pale skin and white beard whiskers. He had a tame and boring personality.
In this town where people never talked about sex, Amur came to life when imagining liberal women. He asked me questions about youth hostels, where guys and girls who didn't know each other shared rooms. He said that, before he was married, he used to go to the beaches of Tunisia's city Souss, where the "bnayyat" (girls) wore little clothing.
Sometimes, I thought I was falling in love with this thirty-year-old daughter of Monsoor's. Maybe this was because she always wore a positive smile, when she brought me food or laughed at my jokes? Even more likely, maybe this was because I never saw any young women besides her?
She covered her hair. But, she couldn't cover the dimples at the corners of her eyes. She was quiet. When she spoke, she made fun of me. "Mert-k Saloha," she teased me. (Your wife's Saloha.) Her brother called me "thkiyy" (smart), because I was learning Arabic; Semia said, unimpressed, "Shwayya, shwayya." (Just a bit, just a bit.) And when I asked if she had any single friends I could meet, she said I'd like her friend Huday. "She's pretty. She has long hair. (Semia held her fingers to her mouth, and curled them like claws.) And she has teeth like Saloha's!"
When she wasn't making fun of me, Semia brought me food. She cooked me pasta in milk, when my stomach couldn't handle the spicy Tunisian food at first. My stomach improved. I got to eat Semia's Tunisian specialties: bowls of "lubya" beans; huge piles of couscous; salads of slimy spicy peppers; "shefshuuk" stew made from fiery red peppers; a green stew made from spinach and olive oil; and bits of potato wrapped in thin dough and fried to make "bricks", which were popular during the month of Ramadan.
One evening, she gave me "tajine" (a healthy cake of eggs, spinach, and tuna) to take home.
A cat snuck into Amur's and my warehouse, and ate my tajine! On another occasion, a cat ate a piece of mutton which Monsoor was saving for me to eat with couscous.
I'd read a Tunisian book called "Oommy Sissy" (Mama Sissy), in which a cat eats Oommy Sissy's couscous and she gets revenge by chopping off the cat's tail.
Ha ha ha. Good job, Oommy Sissy!
"There's the cutest puppy in the world here - I think a donkey could carry it with no harm to the donkey, and only some minimal motion sickness to the puppy." I wrote this e-mail to a friend to convince her she should come travel in Tunisia with me.
This bronze-colored puppy belonged to Monsoor. I doubted Monsoor's family would mind if I took the puppy on my donkey excursion, seeing as how Ferhanny Hamimi and Semia hated puppies as much as I hated "gattooses". I tried to get these women to change their minds about the puppy, who thirsted for love with his black eyes and wagging tail. "Bass el-kelb," I told Ferhanny Hamimi. (Hug the puppy.) "Boussa el-kelb!" (Kiss the puppy!)
One evening, I sat with the puppy in my arms. "Shkoon hatha?" I asked the puppy. (Who's that?) "Hatha oomm-k," I said, pointing to Ferhanny Hamimi. (That's your mom.) "Oo hatha ookht-k." (And that's your sister.) Semia and Ferhanny Hamimi thought it was funny that I pretended to have conversations with the dog. Apparently, Arabic people didn't do that?
"Shnuwwa tiheb tekul?" I asked the dog what he'd like to eat on our donkey trip. The answer came from Semia, in a doggy growl:
That night, the puppy wanted to come home with me. Okay! I put him in my bag and carried him one kilometer to my house.
He got motion sickness and puked all over my bag.
Puking puppies were not a good transition to this last Sminja character.
Hamda was a smart young man. He ran the local internet cafe. He wore fashionable black and gelled his hair. He had a happy, charismatic smile.
"Je n'aime pas cette vie," he told me. (I don't love this life.)
He loved Islam. He was certain the Koran was God's word, transmitted to humanity through Mohammed. He loved Islam, because it placed men above women. He claimed that scientists had recently proven that men were smarter than women, but that Islam had known this for 1400 years.
He spoke about the after-life. He couldn't get married on Earth yet, because he didn't have money; but when he died, "thousands of thousands" of beautiful girls would be waiting for him. In heaven, if he saw a flying bird and wished to eat it, it would appear in his hand like magic. On Earth, it was "hram" (forbidden) to drink alcohol; but in heaven, good Muslims could drink from the best liquors.
It seemed to me that Hamda was sacrificing his life on Earth, for an after-life that religion promised him. This seemed like a foolish decision, when you considered that the only life any of us had ever known was this life on Earth.
And I was the fool, for walking around with a donkey?
To be continued, in the form of a fable ...