Kerouan may have been Islam's fourth holiest city.
But, small town communities were usually more conservative and traditional than big cities. The small town of Sminja, Tunisia was the most conservative community I'd ever lived in. I sometimes went weeks without seeing a woman's hair.
Sminja was also one of the warmest communities I'd ever lived in. Walking around, I passed small children who held hands and greeted me, "Bonjour!" and then giggled, because French sounded funny to them. Sminja's head-scarfed mothers met me in small shops, and delighted in conversing with an American who made jokes in Arabic. Moustachioed fathers smiled as happily as if being tickled. Young men looked rough, in their leather jackets and Adidas clothes, but they loved everyone whom they knew and who greeted them. They insisted I greet their friends, and became happy when I knew the people they loved.
I felt relieved when I returned from Kerouan to my Dreedy family and Sminja. The only thing I needed to make my relationship with Sminja perfect was a girlfriend. Somehow, to my great surprise, I had found one.
In mid-March, this unmarried woman whispered to me: "Nti besh turgud ma-aya?" (Do you want to sleep with me?) I quickly nodded. "Niheb." (Yes, I'd like to.) Her brown eyes widened and she swallowed a breath of air, in fright.
Maybe she liked me because I always told her she was beautiful? She had a thin jaw and broad cheekbones, a broad smile full of big white teeth, and black nail-polish on tanned fingers and feet that fit perfectly in the palm of my hand. Or maybe she liked me because my positive attitude, learned while in Guinea-Bissau, and dancing skills were famous in Sminja?
She motioned that I could only touch her from the waist up, and I agreed. She asked, "Weqt-ash?" (When?) and "Ween?" (Where?) These were important questions. Our intimacy had to remain secret. She had once suggested that, if she and I were ever just alone in the same room together, her male family members would kill us.
I didn't fear these small and friendly men. And "Sneaky" was my middle name - a middle name so sneaky that neither my own mother nor the F.B.I. knew I had it. When no one was looking, I gave my girlfriend a secret note.
On the far right of this note, beneath the number "1.", I had drawn a moon and stars surrounded by black. Number "2." was in the middle; a head-scarfed girl was shown, opening the door to her courtyard; and written in Arabic letters was: "Weqt-ash? 11:30?" And "3." was on the left; a long-haired guy snuck through the door; ... "11:40?"
That night, I walked down her dark street. Were the neighbors going to see me? Did I look suspicious? Did I look guilty? I felt guilty. Uh oh, my girlfriend's door was closed. Should I knock on it, or ring the door-bell? How could I let my girlfriend know I'd arrived, without waking up her family? Uh oh, I'd better get out of here. I put my kashabiya hood over my head and walked home.
I would make several failed attempts to sneak into my girlfriend's house. Every night, my mind was frightened by the same questions. But, I was willing to risk almost anything, if it meant I got to touch a girl from the waist up. Of course, it would've been easier to see my girlfriend if I had a cell-phone. But, I got five extra "sneaky points" for not using technology.
One night, she appeared at her door.
A moment later, I was inside her courtyard. I felt safe. I felt excited.
She led me to a dark room. Several family members slept in the neighboring room. And we kissed passionately. She wore her head-scarf and a thick "djellaba" robe. It was difficult to kiss a girl who wore such clothing. But, we had fun.
The next time she brought me to this room, I got to see her black hair. It felt dry and rough, it never saw the sun. My girlfriend looked free and comfortable. She wore Western clothes. We spent an hour kissing and exploring each other's bodies. My girlfriend was a hot-blooded, passionate woman - though society didn't allow her to be one. We whispered to each other in Arabic.
She said I was the first guy she'd ever kissed. An older woman - a "pretty older woman", ha ha - she might never marry. She might never kiss again. She became attached to me. She wanted to sleep while embracing me. She did nice things for me. She wanted to take care of me.
"When you only kiss a girl, she lives to appease you. The more she has sex, the more despotic she becomes." - J.Breen philosophy
I liked my girlfriend's passion and energy. I liked her playful smile.
In public places, we sat and put her bag over our laps, so we could secretly tickle one another. We held each other in her courtyard at night. One day, we kissed in her house while we were sure the other family members were either sleeping or busy outside; a moment after we stopped kissing, a male family member arrived from work. If he had arrived a minute earlier, we might not have heard him coming.
We would never get to sleep next to each other, unfortunately. I thought about putting her in my kashabiya robe and smuggling her into my house. But, I wasn't that sneaky.
I would be leaving Tunisia in mid-April.
My girlfriend was sad. Of course ...
"It's easier to leave than to be left behind." - R.E.M.
Tears came to her tan cheeks. I wanted to say something to make her feel better. To give her hope.
I said I believed she was an amazing woman who any man would be lucky to marry. I said, I knew a man in southern Tunisia who was searching for a wife. He was clever and funny. I would tell him about her, and suggest he call her. It was a long shot. But ...
To my surprise, this made my girlfriend much happier. She wanted someone to hug and kiss. She wanted to live with a man, and have a baby. I told her I'd write to this man, soon after leaving Tunisia.
We said good-bye. I had to leave Tunisia and go to visit one more country, so my world travels would be complete.
She walked me to the door of her courtyard. We kissed. "Akhar boussa," she said. (Our last kiss.)