I returned to northern Tunisia, and my house in the small town of Sminja.
The month of March arrived. It was full of rain. Mud. Cold winds that forced me to wear my kashabiya robe in the daytime. Occasional patches of hot sun that tricked me into wearing small amounts of clothes, and which eventually made me sick.
Every night, I walked through muddy olive orchards and went to my friend Monsoor Dreedy's house to have dinner. Monsoor's wife, Ferhanny Hamimi, cooked an awful food called "farfoosha" one evening. I couldn't eat it. Monsoor's daughter, Semia - who normally did the cooking - laughed and laughed and made fun of her mom's farfoosha.
Monsoor's family was always joking.
Once, I was playing cards with Monsoor's son, Haikl. I pretended to cheat, by hiding a card in the long, gray tornado beard of a man named Hmida. "Hram!" said Ferhanny Hamimi, scolding me. Apparently, Hmida's beard was sacred because it was grown for religious purposes.
The following day, Haikl told me: "Hmida told Monsoor he doesn't like you, because you put the card in his beard." My heart dropped. Oh, no. Had I really offended poor old Hmida? ... "Ha ha." Haikl's friendly gray face laughed at me. Hmida hadn't really said that, it was just a joke!
Monsoor's family quickly became my own.
One night, however, Monsoor's son Ferhan - with his strong jawline, orange brown skin, sympathetic eyes, and mischievous smile - came home from the cafe. He pretended to talk on the phone with my brother, Brandon, whom he'd never met. He hung up and said, "Brandon mezyan! Justin mush mezyan." (Brandon's beautiful! Justin isn't beautiful.") Semia said, "Brandon khoo-ya. Justin mush khoo-ya." (Brandon's my brother. Justin isn't my brother.) Oh, no. I was losing my Tunisian family to my American brother!
Semia was hilarious, because she made jokes and didn't care who she offended. She looked like a dimpled fourteen-year-old, and I was sure she'd experienced no emotional trauma her whole life. She was always joking to me that a different one of her neighbors (for example, Hmida) had "klaa rassu". This meant, literally: he'd eaten his head. It was Semia's favorite way of saying someone was dead.
She had taught me this phrase. At first, I didn't realize it was a reference to terrorists cutting off a person's head.
On my hitchhiking trip to southern Tunisia, I walked through a town. A young man asked me: Was I going to walk all the way to southern Tunisia? I told him: No. If I did that, I would eat my head! We were near Mt. Chanbi, the only place in Tunisia where Islamic militants were said to be active. The young man's eyes grew wide, in fear that I'd gotten the wrong impression of his country. "La, la, la. Ma-tekul-sh rass-k!" (No, no, no. You won't eat your head!)
Semia thought all this was pretty funny.
Every night, in Sminja, I announced how many days remained until Semia's wedding. This thirty-year-old "sister" of mine would be getting married on March 27th. The wedding festivities began before then.
Ten days before the wedding, Semia's older sister arrived. Hanen. She wore pink outfits and head-scarves around her dark eyes and sculpted cheekbones and shining smile. She cooked pasta for us Dreedies. Semia - in a navy head-scarf and a navy sweatshirt with holes in its sleeves which she stuck her thumbs through - said to me: "Justin, qul el-makarona Semia kheer men el-makarona Hanen." (Justin, say that Semia's pasta is better than Hanen's.)
Eight days before the wedding, the Dreedies turned off their television; I wouldn't see it turned on again. The entertainment was now music. Monsoor, with his triangular nose and moustache and his middle teeth missing, never tired of listening to his old cassette tapes. This happy man danced by himself for twenty minutes, while we watched. "Monsoor battale!" (Monsoor's awesome!)
More family members came to stay with the Dreedies.
Ferhanny Hamimi had lost her two brothers while they were still young bachelors, and this saddened her. But she still had her six sisters, and four came for the wedding. Jamila Hamimi, the only one younger than Ferhanny, cooked and danced and smiled with her round nose. Halileah Hamimi used her mannish hands to pull me towards her wrinkled face and glasses. Ganoosha and Mne Hamimi had old, sour-looking faces; one of them looked like she might die at any moment. But, they stayed with Ferhanny the entire wedding week.
We kept eating spicy Tunisian food and dancing, until there were five days to go until the wedding.
Monsoor killed and butchered a lamb. The women of Sminja came to Monsoor's house in the evening, to sit with Semia and watch her prepare for the wedding. Monsoor and I entertained them, by dancing and reciting the funny Arabic phrases I'd learned.
From this night onward, Semia would be surrounded and served by women. I could only get close enough to her, my "sister", to have two- or three-line conversations.
She was dressed now in a silky silver robe. She sat on a mattress on the ground, while her sister Hanen painted her fingers with henna. Old women sat beside her; one of them was Oommy Fatma, Monsoor's tiny mother who liked to laugh. They surrounded a small charcoal fire.
The women of Sminja slowly departed. Semia's family members and I ate chunks of lamb meat, that tasted like the juiciest and most delicious steak.
When we woke up, there were only four days until the wedding. There was to be the first official party, this day.
I entered the room Semia was in, and found her sitting with her best friends. She had her arms around them, as they sat comfortably on fancy mattresses and wore shiny robes and head-scarves. Semia smiled at me. She and her friends looked like the leaders of the Head-Scarf Mafia.
Later on this same day, I was snuck into a room where Semia sat with forty women. I was expected to dance for them. All those head-scarves intimidated me, a little bit. Semia's aunt, who'd snuck me in here, danced with me. We were joined by Hooloot - whose caramel skin and slanty, oval eyes wore a yellow head-scarf and slim brown robe - and Hanen and a pretty girl whose hair wasn't covered. The other women clapped for us. It was fun.
At around five p.m., the family of the groom arrived from Tunis. They arrived with musicians - one of them pounding a darbuka, the other one blowing crazy sounds on a wacky flute/trumpet. The women from Tunis danced around for ten minutes. Then, all of us guests ate couscous with lamb meat.
The groom's family began carrying baskets and baskets of gifts from a room in Monsoor's house, to their vans. Wedding guests had given Hatem the Groom and Semia carpets, silverware and dishes, etc. The groom's family departed. Semia remained in Sminja, wearing her new jewelry that included a silver ring on which was inscribed: "Empereur Napolean III".
Soon, only three days remained until the wedding. Was Semia excited? Nervous? I couldn't tell. On this day, she wore a bright red robe with a shiny golden eagle emblem on her chest.
I asked Fawsia, a woman who owned a shop near Monsoor's house, if she'd cried when she'd married her husband Hmida. She said, she hadn't cried when she married him. She cried when he went to work the first time, and she was left all alone in her new house.
Fawsia and many other townswomen came to Monsoor's house again this night. I began to notice that Muslims in general - and Muslim women in particular - weren't that much fun at parties. The women sat around, while the men played cards in an inside room. Monsoor wanted me to dance with him, to entertain the women.
Was this what Semia's wedding week was going to be like for me? I was condemned to dance forever with a smiling toothless man who never got tired?
What I wanted was to slow-dance with a female. I wanted to hug her. No matter how much time I spent in conservative Islamic societies, I still needed to share my positive energy with females.
How did Tunisian males stay sane in this environment?
A sensitive guy like Haikl Dreedy - who loved his mom more than anything - was physically affectionate with his sisters and aunts and grandmother. Others hugged and kissed the cute children who were constantly running around town, just waiting for adults to pick them up and hold them. And other guys went crazy.
My dance with Monsoor ended.
A gorgeous, black-eyed girl named Amina asked me to sit with her and her friends, and I accepted. Maybe I was breaking some rule of gender segregation. But, no one seemed to care. Young Amina told me in Arabic of her love for the old woman named Halileah Hamimi.
Halileah loved dancing with Monsoor; she squatted like a primitive spear-fighter, and hopped around the dance floor.
A slow and groovy instrumental song, full of flute solos and a darbuka, came on. I danced with Monsoor. He made me laugh with his happy eyes and his Arabic dance moves, including the "shoveling coal" move. I really enjoyed this dance.
Only two days remained until the wedding.
This next-to-last day was the culmination of the wedding festivities, in my opinion.
Monsoor's family rented a deejay and speakers, from a neighboring town. Semia spent all afternoon at the beauty salon. Night fell. Monsoor's courtyard filled up with women in their best head-scarves, and young men. Hatem and several family members arrived. I liked Hatem's father, Monjy, who told me happily about the time he'd dined with two beautiful ladies in Switzerland. This short, gray-moustached man wore a navy suit.
She wore bright lipstick, whitening make-up, and a pink dress. She looked uncomfortable. For the first time ever, she looked sad.
She joined Hatem, and they sat on a couch on a stage in front of everyone. Large and intelligent-looking Hatem wore a fuzzy black trenchcoat. His face resembled Semia's: smooth with baby fat, and sympathetic.
And then, we danced to celebrate their marriage. We danced to whistling flutes, screeching violins, and thumping darbukas.
Hooloot, with her exotic eyes, danced with two girls whose hair was free and beautiful. Ferhanny Hamimi, despite her climbing age, pointed her fingers in the air and twisted her hips. The Hamimi sister who looked like she might die soon danced. But, the person I was most surprised to see dancing was the daughter of my grumpy neighbor Mwassan. (Many Muslims considered it too provocative for a single woman to dance in public.)
I did Arabic moves with a young shepherd. I danced with Zohayr, Sminja's crazy guy with a Hitler moustache and superiority complex, and a mute boy who was mentally handicapped.
Haikl Dreedy, who had been drinking beer since noon, smiled and celebrated. He grabbed Hanen, Ferhanny Hamimi, and Oommy Fatma and made them dance. He gave me imaginary basketball passes, and I pretended to do acrobatic slam dunks.
Ferhan Dreedy looked like a stud, in jeans and a jean jacket. Monsoor sat on his shoulders, as Ferhan carried his father around the dance floor.
The wedding photographer tried to photograph Hatem, Semia, and Semia's parents. But, Halileah Hamimi kept hopping around in front of them. Drunk Haikl fell on the stage.
Monsoor took off his navy suit-coat, put on a woman's robe and head-scarf, and danced. His sister Semira put on my men's kashabiya robe and danced with him.
And Semia danced. She held her arms stiffly out to the sides, and spun around like an oil drill.
On March 27th, Hatem's family once again came to Sminja. Semia wore a puffy white wedding dress. Her fingers were reddish-black with henna paint. "Nargiz" tattoos of flowering vines climbed beautifully from her index fingers, onto the backs of her hands, and her wrists.
Hatem's family, and Semia's family and friends, traveled the thirty miles to Tunis. We went to a courthouse designed for weddings, watched the couple sign their marriage papers, and took lots of photos.
Semia went to her new home. Her family and friends returned to Sminja. That night, certain members of Semia's family cried.
Our Semia was married!
wishing the best for Semia and Hatem,
Justin Dreedy Breen