Enfida, Tunisia, 17 September, 2008

This little town where I’m staying is, by virtue of being a small town, simultaneously representative and non-representative of Tunisia as a whole. It serves as a microcosm in that the country is mostly composed of small, conservative, rural towns like Enfida. But that is not a complete inventory, for there exist several large cities – Tunis, Sousse, Sfax – with more Western, progressive lifestyles. As a country Tunisia is an interesting mélange of traditional Arab and Islamic cultures and, to a lesser extent, modern Western expectations.

A good example can be found in the city of Sousse, which is the main resort area in the country. Here one can walk down the street and encounter a woman in traditional, body-length coverings, her head fully wrapped and her eyes lowered, only to turn the corner and stumble upon a crowd of German or Russian tourists frolicking in string-bikinis. Unlike neighboring countries who, due to the oil that flows beneath their lands can act with disregard and even antipathy to the West (can you say Muammar Quaddafi?), the only significant oil that Tunisians have comes from their olive trees, which, while abundant, nevertheless doesn’t trade with the same commercial value as crude petroleum. So regardless the average Tunisians sentiments in regards to the string-bikini, financial constraints limit their capacity to object.

One aspect of life in this town that’s particularly striking to me is the boys and girls play with one another. Simply put, this is a Man’s Man’s Man’s Man’s World After All. Presently it’s Ramadan, which means that throughout the day-light hours most of the town isn’t eating or drinking (there are those who don’t observe the abstinence, but they are small in number). The strong majority of women here do not have jobs outside the home, and so their days are occupied with some housekeeping and, in large part, preparing the evening’s meal, which, as it will be the only significant meal of the day, is by nature very large and involved. Hours will be spent in kitchens, few of which have air conditioning, and when the temperatures outdoors sail above 100-degrees Fahrenheit it can simply be miserable.

For his part, the man will either go to work, or, as seems to be the case as I walk the streets during the day, run errands. The souks or marketplaces teem with men purchasing meat and produce, which is returned home for the women to prepare. (Sometimes I’m baffled at the sheer numbers of men out during the day, and I’ve found myself more than once asking, Who’s actually working in this country?) After the strain of shopping, the men need rest, and they either nap, watch TV, go to the beach or run more errands; the latter two undertakings accomplish the desired end of removing them from the house for some time.

Dinner is served at sunset, which presently occurs around 7:30. The table is set and waiting in advance, and the diners-to-be mill about like impatient runners before a race. Finally it’s time: the iman blows the whistle and we’re off. Don’t let the metaphor mislead you to imagine the foresight involved in a distance run, for this is a sprint: after not eating or drinking all day the body requires replenishment, and within ten minutes the food has been devoured. The men are always served first, and they do not wait graciously to be joined by those who have toiled in the food’s production. Leaving aside questions of digestive-quality from such eating habits, the fact is that consuming such large quantities of food in such short quantities of time is exhausting, especially for the male, who once more needs rest, and to that end plops himself down in front of the television while the women clean the table, wash the dishes, and prepare tea and coffee. After consuming the latter two the man is now ready for his evening, and he departs the house for his local café.

The women remain at home. They finish cleaning-up after the meal, and spend their evenings watching television, preparing deserts for sale in the local markets or as gifts to the neighbors. They may sit curbside with one another, chatting and gossiping and playing with any children that might be around. The television will stay on: corny telenovellas beamed from all over the Arab world, but they’re gripping enough and much time will be spent attending to them.

The men swarm the cafes like bees to a hive. They haven’t had a cigarette all day, and the most reasonable solution seems to be to inhale as many as possible as quickly as possible. They smoke as if at any moment tobacco may stop being produced. Women in this town do not smoke – “they don’t have the habit” I was told – and so it rests on the men to make up for the women’s shortcomings. There’s no alcohol consumed during Ramadan, and so they drink coffee – straight espresso shots sweetened to make its otherwise bitter taste palatable – or tea with enough sugar to offset the worst diabetic attacks. They play card games and generally bullshit with one another.

The whole scene is truly a spectacle: hundreds of men crowded together in tiny cafes that spill out into the streets while smoke hangs upon them like halos on Renaissance paintings; there is yelling, always yelling, accompanied by loud bangs as hands are smacked on tabletops in protest or to emphasize a point; there is the requisite television, blaring a histrionic soap opera no one seems to be watching; hookahs or shishas loll from mouths like bottles held by lethargic infants; motor-scooters cruise the dusty streets.

Noticeably absent from the night’s public livelinesses are women. Occasionally some will appear on the streets, groups of two or three, never alone. They are walking to another’s house, to visit an aunt or deliver some deserts. They walk past the cafes and the men notice them, but there is no flirting, no engagement. There is, in fact, obvious disregard. There will be no women in the cafés. Such a notion is as unthinkable as a man washing the dishes. Cafés are men’s domains, and they will be at it at length. The cafés will close at 1:00AM, 2:30AM, 4:00AM, whenever the men are ready to call it a night. Throughout the evening they will return home to eat or shower. Leftovers are consumed with only slightly less impatience as the actual meal, and shortly the men return to their Rummy and cigarettes.

During Ramdan there is no sexual contact between men and women, and this might explain some of the distance they keep from one another, for who wants to be tempted by that which you cannot have? Physical contact among males here is much more intimate that in the West, and it’s not uncommon for men to hold hands or lock arms as they go about their business. This physical intimacy, coupled with the absolute lack of women in public spaces, colors the evening’s experiences with a strangely homoerotic hue, a tone that is less San-Francisco-bathhouse and more Junior-High-shop-class. Sometimes I feel like I’m in the middle of some cop-buddy-movie, a small-town Arab Lethal Weapon. Sure there are women on the set, but they’re not really essential to the plot, and it’s best to keep the camera on the guys.

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