One day during the week of Semia's wedding celebrations, I was chasing a neighborhood kid around and I hit my head on a door. A small but deep cut appeared above my eye. I put a piece of tissue on the cut, and returned to dancing.
Hours passed. But, my cut continued to bleed slowly. I worried I was going to have to pay for a night taxi to the nearest town, to get stitches.
Semia's family suggested I use "qahwa" (coffee) to stop the bleeding. Was this the medical wisdom of the Arabs? I didn't want to hold a steaming glass of coffee to my eye, that sounded painful!
But, anything was better than paying for a taxi.
I allowed gray-skinned Haikl, Semia's brother, to become my doctor for the evening. To my surprise, he didn't try to burn my cut closed with a hot cup of coffee. He simply placed dry coffee grains onto my cut. After a few minutes and a bit more coffee, the bleeding was stopped. And I peed fresh coffee.
"Tbeeby" (My doctor) Haikl made fun of me for constantly looking at my cut in the mirror. "Okay, Justin," he said. "Don't sleep tonight. Just lay on your back with the lights on, and hold the mirror over your head and look at your eye."
He continued to joke. "If you wake up at night and you need more coffee, get out of bed, walk all the way over to my house, wake me up, I'll put a bit more coffee in your eye, and you can go home."
I would have a purple blotch over my eye for the next few days. And I finally had a use for coffee, which I'd never liked drinking.
Semia's wedding celebrations came to an end. This left me with a few more weeks in Tunisia. I made use of this time to visit the holy city of Kerouan.
This city was home to great mosques from the 9th century, some of the oldest mosques in Africa if not the oldest. Apparently, the prophet Mohammed's friends and followers had used Kerouan as a base when they'd come to North Africa to spread Islam.
I would be staying just outside of the city with a man named Mohammed Idriss. This large man, with a large and graying beard that stretched towards the ground, wore a thick white robe and a skull-cap. We'd met when I was hitchhiking to southern Tunisia, in February. He'd told me he went to Mecca every year and had the Koran memorized, and he invited me to his house.
Now, in late March, I sat in his home. I sat on a mattress in a large and open room that had the feeling of an Islamic Study Center. I felt a bit uncomfortable here. But, that usually meant I was going to have a memorable experience.
My host was, in fact, an "imam" who'd given speeches on Islam in France, Germany, Pakistan, India, etc. One man in Kerouan would tell me, I was so lucky to be able to spend a night with him.
Mr. Idriss' four sons entered the study center. Two of these young men wore Islamic beards, three wore skull-caps, and all of them prayed.
The women of the family lived in a separate building, and the only one I would ever see was the youngest of my host's three daughters: two-year-old Fatima. She didn't pray yet. Apparently, Mohammed Idriss' wife covered herself completely in a "niqab" robe.
My host and I left his countryside home and drove to the city, so I could see Kerouan before sunset.
We visited a palace that housed the tomb of one of the prophet Mohammed's friends. We entered a courtyard and were encircled by blue arches so light in color it seemed they'd glow at night. We walked beneath an orange stone tower and entered the orange stone palace. Inside, its tiled walls had been painted with purple, orange, and green, to look like colorful gardens. Above these colors, the walls were a white fish-bone material carved into delicate designs. Finally, we came to an inner courtyard surrounded by marble pillars supporting stone arches. The prophet's friend, Uqba ibn Nafi, rested near here.
We traveled from here to Kerouan's "Great Mosque". This smoothly polished building - made from rectangular stones in the 9th century - stretched for a city block. I was able to peak inside, to an open plaza surrounded by orange stone pillars and large enough for a thousand worshippers. I couldn't enter the mosque because it was prayer-time.
Instead, I explored the city's ancient medina. Pedestrian alleys led me ... past chalky white homes connected to one another, with their bright blue doors; through medina streets where a hundred merchants stood to my sides, crowding me; to dead end corners where kids kicked around soccer balls; to curved spheres built into the ground, which I enjoyed running up; through tunnels where brick arches connected above my head; and beneath pointy minarets and spherical moon-like domes.
I saw only one woman in a "niqab". The people of Kerouan didn't seem any more religious than Tunisians elsewhere.
I returned to my very religious host. He was waiting for me to finish my tour, and speaking to a friend of his. This friend informed me that ...
Mr. Idriss was a direct descendant of the prophet!
He was a direct descendant of Mohammed's daughter, Fatima, whom the prophet had considered to be one of history's four perfect women.
He was a direct descendant of Fatima's son, Husseim, who was killed by Saudi Arabia's King Yazid. King Yazid was worried Mohammed's descendants would try to seize control of the country. Husseim's children fled to Morocco. More recently, some of this family moved from Morocco to Kerouan.
Mr. Idriss explained all this to me, in his car. He added that he frequently saw the prophets Mohammed, Jesus, and Moses in his dreams.
He said that Jesus had a beard, but Moses had no beard. Mohammed had a slightly gray beard, and long hair shorter than mine. When he smiled, the sun shone from his mouth.
What did he say? I asked.
Mr. Idriss said, he recited "surahs" (verses from the Koran). "Jameel!" he said. (Beautiful!)
My host insisted on speaking classical Arabic to me, instead of the Tunisian dialect. He said "jameel" instead of "mezyan". "Zawja" (Wife) instead of "mert". "Mujud" (There is) instead of "femma". "Sayyara" (Car) instead of "kerhba". I kept telling him, I didn't understand classical Arabic.
We passed Kerouan's soccer stadium. I asked Mr. Idriss if he and his sons ever went to soccer games. He said:
"My sons don't like 'kora qadam' (soccer),
"they like the Koran."
We arrived again at his countryside home and farm. I felt relieved to be away from Kerouan, a busy city of 600,000 people.
But, it felt boring to be in an Islamic Study Center. Mr. Idriss and I sat around with his sons, and nobody had anything to say. One of the sons would tell me, Tunisians were happy when foreigners visited them because they usually didn't have much to say to each other.
Two men, students of my host, arrived. They kneeled on the carpeted floor and faced Mr. Idriss. They slouched, resting their big beards on their chests. They smiled their dopey smiles. Nobody said anything.
I did like the quietness and lack of television.
"And-kom gasba?" I said. (Do you guys have a flute?) I felt like playing music, just as I did every night with my friend Monsoor in Sminja.
Mr. Idriss said stonely, there weren't any flutes in his house. More silence.
I tried again. "And-kom darbuka?" (Do you have a darbuka?)
Nope. No darbukas. Only silence. I felt like a child being forbidden from doing something he believed was good and enjoyable.
Mr. Idriss had just been telling me about "jenna" (Islamic paradise). Sounding hopeful, I said: "Femma darbukat fi el-jenna?" (Are there darbukas in paradise?) Mr. Idriss' youngest son laughed.
My host informed me, no, there were no darbukas in paradise.
It seemed strange to me that religion, with its organized rules, brought meaning to people's lives. It seemed to me that the most meaningful thing a person could do with his life was to develop his personality in a new and unique direction. The world didn't need a billion Christians or Muslims, the world needed individuals! "If you want to contribute, do something new." - J.Breen philosophy ... It seemed Mr. Idriss' friends and sons were afraid of their own personalities, afraid of themselves.
Having read a large sample of "Hadiths" (The Deeds and Sayings of the Prophet Mohammed), I came to my conclusion that the inspiration for Mohammed's Koran were Mohammed's feelings of guilt. This great and humble man considered himself unworthy of the good things in life, unworthy of any life but a life lived in servitude. I believed he was familiar with the Christian idea of "original sin"; maybe he felt the judging Jewish God was right in His harshness?
And Mohammed believed the angel Gabriel sent him the Koran, a book repeating the other religion's stories and emphasizing God's threats.
Muslims of today had to free themselves from Mohammed, from his guilt. They would feel lighter and free; and they'd enjoy their lives more.
Currently, Mr. Idriss was telling me about Europeans he knew who'd converted to Islam.
He recited a "surah" for us. His voice rose and fell, taking a deeply meditative but pained tone. It moved with the rhythm of a patternless song. I had to admit, this surah sounded beautiful coming from the mouth of a descendant of the prophet.
We ate a delicious meal that included a hot red soup, rice and tuna cooked in a yellow spice, and "bricks" (potato and egg wrapped in dough and fried).
I practiced handstands in the study center, to ensure I did at least one fun thing this day.
And then we went to sleep.
In the morning, we ate another delicious meal that included fresh dairy products from Mr. Idriss' cows and honey from his bees. My host said, I and my family were welcome in Kerouan any time and could stay in another house he had on his farm.
He dropped me off so I could hitchhike back to Sminja, and he gave me fifty dinars ($32) which he said were for food. He gave me an Islamic rosary and perfume from Mecca.
And he gave me a box of "makroods". A makrood was a rhomboidal pastry with a center of sesame seeds and tiny nuts, which was covered in molasses. The people of Sminja would be happy when I shared these with them.
Kerouan may have been the fourth holiest city in Islam.
But, it was the world capital of makroods.
Thanks to Mohammed Salah; Hamdi; a guy who gave me & 3 others a ride; Majdi; Zied Masri; Mebrouk; Mohammed & Karim; and Semi ben Amar & Sihem for rides!
Much thanks to Mohammed Idriss & his wife, Zakaria, three other sons, and Fatima & two other daughters for the place to sleep!