Arab Poem

Board member Alanna Nelson models a henna application.

Henna: An Enduring Tradition

By Marilyn Cvitanic Ph.D.

For over five thousand years henna has been a symbol of good luck, health and sensuality in the Arab world. The plant has been associated with positive magic and provides us with a link to an ancient age full of good and bad spirits, baraka and jnoun. Generations of women have used a paste made primarily of dried ground henna leaves to cover their hands and feet with designs ranging from simple blobs to intricate geometric patterns designed to ward off evil, promote fertility and attract good energy.

While there is some controversy over the origins of the use of henna as a dying agent, the earliest clear evidence of henna application on the body appears in Egyptian mummies whose hair and nails were stained with the reddish brown tones of henna. Botanists believe the henna plant, Lawsonia inermis, originated in Persia. It grew extensively in Egypt and was carried to India where it was used since at least 700 AD for decorating hands and feet. Historically henna has also been used for medicinal purposes, to dye cloth and leather as well as hair, to color the manes of horses and other fur of other animals.

Brides throughout the Arab world still participate in the traditional henna party or ceremony. Henna is not only decorative but also carries good luck and fertility; it has baraka and protects against jnoun. In some areas women attend a party shortly before the wedding during which the bride’s hand's and feet are painted with intricate designs. The henna paste is carefully applied and must remain undisturbed on the skin for several hours to create a strong dark stain. During this time the bride is waited on by her friends and family and has a final opportunity to socialize without the responsibilities of a husband and, ultimately, a family. In other areas henna application can be part of the actual wedding ceremony or is applied immediately before the ceremony.

The henna plant has significant baraka attached to it. Legend has it that Mohammed used henna to dye his beard and that the henna flower was the Prophet's favorite. As a result, henna occupies a unique place in the Moslem world. It is used for both decorative and magical purposes and has religious sanction.

While the present generation of Arab women may apply henna for fun, some still turn to it for its magical properties. Henna is used to protect against witchcraft or the “evil eye” and many of the motifs used in henna design are designed to ward off the eye's power. The unique geometry of Moroccan Berber design (pictured) is a result of ancient animistic beliefs and Islam's prohibition of artistic depictions of animals or humans. While the Berbers converted to Islam, many still secretly clung to their traditional beliefs. They developed simple geometric representations of animals, which they used without overtly violating Islamic codes. We see these geometric motifs in rugs, ceramics, and jewelry and in henna design.

Each artist has her own recipe and preferred technique of henna application. Until recently most artists applied henna using small sticks and only the most experienced artist could successfully execute a detailed design. Today some artists still use sticks or toothpicks, though many prefer homemade plastic cones or large syringes. Both tools make application easier and faster. In the U.S., artists can also use plastic applicator squeeze bottles (Jacquard bottles) fitted with small metal tips. These were originally designed for fabric paint and are available in art supply stores.

Many artists carefully guard their henna recipes, only passing them on to a chosen relative or friend. Most recipes contain some combination of sifted ground henna leaves, strong black tea, lemon juice and a few drops of eucalyptus oil. The thickness of the paste determines the ease of application. Too watery paste means the design will run, and overly thick paste is difficult apply. Factors which influence the intensity of the final design include heat, warmth which darkens the stain, and length of time the henna paste is left on the skin. Once the paste is applied it will dry and eventually crack. Some artists suggest leaving the paste on for an hour or two; others insist on leaving it on overnight before scraping it off to reveal a stain which darkens on its own over the next day or so.

Whatever the artist's system, one can be sure it is the product of a tradition kept alive by generations of women throughout the Arab world as well as the Indian subcontinent. In the past few years, a new crop of artists has emerged in the U.S. bringing contemporary designs and techniques to the craft. But no matter how it evolves, one can never separate henna from its ancient traditions and the magic it continues to generate.

Marilyn Cvitanic Ph.D. teaches studio art and art history at Mt. St. Vincent's College in Riverdale, New York.

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Arab Contributions Enhance Civilization

By Robert Najem

The rich heritage of the Muslim peoples embraces almost 14 centuries of tumultuous history. It spans parts of three continents, and links societies of every, race, economic condition and political orientation.

From its origin in seventh-century Arabia, Islam has spread across northern and western Africa, southeastern Europe, the Levant, central and southern Asia, China and Indonesia. Today the faith includes some 800 million people, the vast majority of them non-Arab. Illiterate herdsmen in the Sahel, bankers and diplomats in Istanbul and Kuwait, revolutionary zealots in Iran, scientists in Pakistan and factory hands in Egypt are connected in their diversity by the banner of the Prophet Muhammad.

In the history of Islam, great empires have come and gone, leaving rich literary and artistic legacies even as their political and military power evaporated. The caliphate of the Abbasids in Baghdad, the Mamluk rule in Egypt and Syria, the Safavid empire in Iran, the empires of the Mughals and Ottomans all reached breathtaking levels of achievement in science, literature, art and architecture, creating brilliant and enduring monuments to their common faith.

In mathematics, the Arab sifr, or zero, provided new solutions for complicated problems. We owe Algebra to the Arabs who also perfected the astrolabe and compiled astronomical charts and tables. It was an Arab doctor who first diagnosed smallpox and measles. Camphor, basil, oregano, cinnamon to name a few herbs and spices found their way from Arab pharmacies to European tables. The Alhambra in Granada is only one of the many great examples of Arab architecture.

Arab pilots guided Europeans around Africa to India, and Arab scholars helped Columbus learn the earth was round. One of the earliest philosophers—al-Kindi—wrote on specific weight, tides, light reflection and optics. Cotton muslin, Damask linen and Shiraz wool were watchwords for quality in textiles in Europe. Arab words such as admiral, candy, julep, saffron, sugar, zenith and many others filtered into English. Three great monotheistic religions came from the region which gave us Arab culture.

In every aspect of our daily lives we are indebted to Arab creativity, insight and scientific perseverance.

The late Robert Najem was coordinator for Arabic in Liberal Studies at the University of Wisconsin Extension in Madison, Wisconsin. He is an “American of Lebanese background with a lifelong interest in the Middle East.”

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 A Sister Remembers the Circumcision Party

 By Faouzia Chaouch

The day my brother was circumcised (and I wasn't, I'm a girl) was the day it first came to me that I was, for some unfathomable reason, different. Up to that D-Day, the anticipation had been slowly building. Every facet of our daily twins life was regimented by the words “the day you'll be circumcised”

In those days, I was my brother's shadow; he was the son around which my moon gravitated and I was content to bask in his glow. My brother was the kind of child with a sunny disposition, who could get away with anything on the force of his laughing face and pretty long-lashed eyes. Anyway here we were, Circumcision Day!

All the extended family came, from grandmother to aunts, uncles, cousins, second cousins and the whole hoopla. My twin brother was bathed, scrubbed and arrayed in a beautiful Jebba (Tunisian Djellaba) with the cutest Chachiya (Tunisian bonnet for men). I, of course, was clothed in nothing else but the usual, which was puzzling, but I was fully intent on securing my share of the loot (the presents!). Anyway, the “circumcisor” came and my poor brother was seized on the bed and held by my grandmother and some other matron, and the deed was done. I have to point out that the tradition says that at the exact moment the deed is carried out, a male member of the family (my uncle in this case) would crash a heavy jar on the floor and cover therefore the child's cry so the mother wouldn't grow faint. Instead, the little sister grew faint. What have they done to my beautiful, wonderful brother? I was to know some years later! But then again, that was all to the best. After that, the fun began. The presents started coming; the money started collecting, for it is also tradition that money be given to the “circumsisee” to compensate for what he's lost (however small it was that was removed); in fact it's rather a way to help out parents with all the expenses they had incurred, what with all the aforementioned hoopla. Outside, the band that was hired for the occasion started playing. Cymbals, drums, trumpets all begun their joyful cacophony and my brother was then paraded in the streets at the head of the small crowd that had gathered. I, of course, was allowed on the fringes; but, it's okay; there were still the presents to share.

The celebrations continued the rest of the day and finally, finally: presents time came. Breath bated in anticipation, I watched as my brother started opening the beautiful packages—boy's things, all of them boy's things! And the puzzle was to remain with me for many years afterwards. Why wasn't I asked if I wanted to be circumcised? I would have said yes, just so I could be the little princess-for-a-day to my brother's king-of-the-presents coronation. But then, if you ask me now, I have to admit that whatever hard feelings stayed with me that day were erased a hundred-fold by my brother's unwavering love in the years since.

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Cherished Memories of New Friends

By Gordy Nelson

My eyes have been opened to another part of the world where the people are friends and not the terrorists that I hear about in the media. Let me tell you about my visit to Tunisia:

After 30 years of teaching Social Studies at the 6th grade level, I saw the area of the world which has been the focus of my curriculum. I saw the ruins of the Roman empire in Tunisia and was invited to participate in an archeological camp hosted by Tunisia AFS (Another Friend Somewhere). Seeing the pure blue sky over the beautiful Mediterranean, strolling through the souk on a hot afternoon and squeezing on to over-crowded trains are only a few of the pictures I could paint for you.

The most priceless picture is one of generosity from the people of all ages all along our pathway. It is something I will never forget. I remember the children from Bizerte, Tunisia giving two people a two hour concert of Tunisian songs and entertaining us with games while trying to find out more about Americans. I remember the young Algerian men who helped us on our way. I remember the taxi drivers with questions about our country. The students at the archeological camp on the Isle of Kerkenna who helped with translating and shared their views of the world were part of opening up the dialogue between this American and the people whose paths I crossed.

I am grateful for the help of Mr. Fethi Chelbi, the scholar who leads the Institute at the dig for his contribution to my classroom presentation, Tunis AFS and my hosts Faouzi and Samia Chaouch in Tunis who made this adventure in peacemaking and understanding possible.

As I tell my students about the Roman fort on Kerkenna and the dig to uncover the community around it, in my heart I will remember the people across this tiny land who are really our neighbors. And I guess I better tell my students that too!

Many Tunisians helped recover this fort on the island of Kerkenna plus many international students also helped.
Hannibal stopped at this island fort during his travels in North Africa.
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Hospitality and Friendship: A Maghrebi Adventure

By Tim and Charlotte Weiss

“Hospitality” has taken on a deeper, richer meaning, and one that we will always associate with Tunisia, Algeria and Morocco in North Africa. We have just returned from North Africa. There is much that we could write about our lives and travels there, but certainly one thing that we want to tell others about is the hospitality of the people whom we met and got to know as friends.

Tim Weiss and Algerian friend, Madjid
After having lived at least briefly in all three countries, we want other Americans to know that this welcoming spirit exists throughout the Maghreb. One of the first examples occurred when we were invited to a Tunisian friend's family farm. He picked us up in his truck and drove us to the farm. As we were walking through the rows of fruit trees and plants, we were handed a myriad of freshly picked peaches, “one bite” pears, grapes and “baby” plums. We then had a wonderful picnic lunch prepared by our friend's mother. Tim gorged himself that day, as did I, and he set a new record for number of peaches eaten at once—eight! This sense of openness to others and sharing meals and gifts with them continued during our stay in Tunisia; often neighbors invited us for “coffee,” which usually meant a beautiful tray of pastries and whatever drink we wanted to accompany them.

In Algeria and Morocco we were no less impressed by people's warmth and openness to us. One of the most touching examples of this took place in Algeria, a country which North Americans, because of the news coverage of events there during the past three years, usually associate only with political and social turmoil.

We had a memorable outing thanks to our friend and vegetable vendor from Kabylie. We had mentioned to him that we would like to go to Tipasa, a coastal town about an hour from Algiers, famous for its Roman and Phoenician ruins. He immediately said, “I’ll take you there.” We met him at his market, and once again we were taken on a royal outing in a pickup truck. Madjid insisted on paying for the gas, the entrance fees and our drinks at a café. We had a great time talking and listening to his viewpoints on the situation in Algeria. We ended up seeing not only the ruins, but also the “Mauritanian Tomb” (a regular stop on the way to Tipasa) and spectacular vistas along the coastal mountains to the east of Tipasa. We were treated like royalty by someone of little financial means but of an impressive openness and spirit of life.

In Morocco we were invited to a dinner that we shall always refer to as “The Banquet.” Lahcen and Waffa invited us to a traditional “breaking of the fast” meal during Ramadan. Waffa’s mother, with some help from two or three other persons, prepared the food for the dinner. I asked when they had begun to prepare the meal. The reply: “Very early this morning.” Incredibly, we were served at least twelve different dishes (including harira, the national Moroccan soup; pastilla, another Moroccan specialty that resembles a meat pie but unlike any other; and beghrir, special semolina crepes prepared with meat and honey), two kinds of desserts and four different drinks, including mint tea and a delicious fruit concoction made of strawberries, carrots and oranges. We savored each course with slight pauses in between and lots of conversation. The whole event started at sunset (6:30 p.m.) and ended around midnight.

These are just three of so many instances, both large and small, of welcoming and hospitality to which we were treated during our stays in the Maghreb. “Guests” and “hospitality”— these concepts have become richer for us, charged with an exotic flavor and an almost inexplicable openness to and sharing with others.

After nearly a year in North Africa, Tim and Charlotte Weiss have returned and have sponsored an Algerian friend whose life was in danger.

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On hot sumer evenings, young people sell small bouquets of jasmine on the streets and in the restaurants. Each bouquet will cost less than the equivalent of one US dollar.

A Typical Day in Ramadan

By Mourad Chaouch

It was barely dawn. All you could hear in the distance were the calls for the “El Fejr” or dawn prayer from the minarets. A few worshippers were hurrying to the mosques for the first prayer of the day. El Fejr also marks the beginning of the fast. We are in a Moslem city during the Holy Month of Ramadan. Moslems fast from dawn to dusk for the whole lunar month. This year, Ramadan coincided with February.

The workday starts a little later than usual. It ends in mid-afternoon. Because of the shorter winter days, housewives get to the market early for the best pickings. Souks—or markets—are full of the best vegetables, fruits, fish, meats and other goods. Shoppers are rushing about to get every little need for the evening meal. It is a holiday atmosphere and everything is available. The cooking starts early and the delicacies prepared are plentiful.

As the day goes on, some people start showing signs of exhaustion. No food, drink, smoke (for the nicotine addicts) or any other “pleasures” are part of the fast. Only children, the elderly, the sick and pregnant women are not supposed to fast. Many people shorten the day by taking a siesta. The most energetic people toward the latter part of the fast are the cooks, usually housewives, as they rush about preparing five and six course meals. Every detail is prepared meticulously. Teenagers are encouraged to try their hand at cooking a dish for the first time. Special Ramadan dishes take a particular place on the dinner table; after-dinner treats are prepared early on so no house work takes place after dinner.

Whole families get together for the meal, as nobody is supposed to celebrate the breaking of the fast alone. Poor families are provided with meals by neighbors, charities and government agencies. The breaking of the fast is announced by a call for prayer in the cities and by a cannon shot in the rural areas. People share their views on how long or short the day felt for them as they pick at every dish and try every salad. The meal usually is not very long as it usually is hard to eat heartily after a full day of fasting.

After the meal, some people rest. Others go visiting family around the corner or around town. Many of the men go to cafés to meet friends and chat all evening. Back with the visiting families, sweet delicacies are served with coffee and tea and the evenings last past midnight. In many parts of town, fairs and festivals are organized.

Later in the month, the festivals become more crowded as families start preparing for the “Aid Al Fitr,” or holiday of feasting. This is the Moslem holiday most like Christmas, as kids get new clothes and toys. Families start shopping for the Aid after the Ramadan halfway point, and kids start telling everybody their wish list. Mothers also start preparing or shopping for special pastries such as Baklava and Kaak. The Ramadan evenings start to become more of a frantic shopping season as everybody wants to be ready for the big day.

Mourad Chaouch is a board member who lives in Melrose, Mass.

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What About the Women?
Diversity is the Reality

By Sue Nelson

In the 1990's so much is being written about Arab women and Islamic women. Despite this, many Americans have the idea that all Arab women wear veils all the time. There is such a wide range in patterns and cultures in the Arab League countries, it would be a disservice to all to proclaim that there is a normal mode of dress or lifestyle for women—or for men—in the Arab countries.

In Tunisia alone, for example, women show a wide range of dress and lifestyles. Many women work in areas ranging from weaving rugs to highly professional work in social services and business. Tunisia Digest, the newsletter published by the Tunisian information office in Washington, D.C., offers no suggestions on dress for either men or women, but tradition in the country strongly suggests that women not wear shorts or skirts above the knee. It is considered in poor taste to do so. For a foreigner to do so is insulting to the people. At the same time, one rarely sees a woman with her face covered at all, though many wear a shawl-like article covering over the hair and dress.

In contrast, the Saudi Arabia, a monthly newsletter of the Royal Embassy of Saudi Arabia, says “Western women are not required to wear the traditional full-length abaya, or cloak over their clothing, but they are encouraged to wear a knee-length tunic/dress over slacks and a scarf on their heads.” The assumption is that Saudi women are encouraged to wear the full cloak over their clothing.

In like manner, involving oneself in Islam varies considerably for women within the Arab countries.

For instance, in the current issue (#191) of the Middle East Report, Heba Ra'uf Ezzat of Cairo, Egypt explains that she is “not an Islamic feminist. I do believe in Islam as a world view, and I think that women’s liberation in our society should rely on Islam.”

Ezzat is an assistant in the Political Science Department at Cairo University and believes that “God (does not) want to humiliate me as a woman.” At the same time, many women accept Islam as they have always known it while others do not make room for religion in their lives at all, and some make room for other religions.

Too many Americans have the Casablanca image of camels and veiled women etc. as their only view of the Arab people. The Habiba Chaouch Foundation continues to bring bits and pieces of the reality to Americans through this newsletter, speaking to community groups and the outreach projects which aim to diminish the myth of what the people are like. A list of reading about Arab women and women of Islam is available from the Foundation office.

Some women wear more western-style clothing.
Others are more traditional.
This Egyptian woman spends her day at the beach fully covered.
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Islam's Holy Month of Ramadan

By Mourad Chaouch

Banners, flags and multicolored lights are everywhere. If it sounds like Christmas in the United States, guess again. These are the outward displays of a culture celebrating Aid Al Fitr, the holiday which comes at the conclusion of the Holy Month of Ramadan.

Fasting from sunup to sundown during the month of Ramadan is one of the five main pillars of Islam. Fasting means no food or drink (even water) or smoking during these hours. The other "pillars" of Islam are to believe Allah is the only God and Mohammed is his prophet; to pray five times each day; to give to charity and, if possible, to pilgrimage to the Holy City of Mecca (in Saudi Arabia).

During Ramadan more than a billion Muslims worldwide usually work slightly shorter days and celebrate the breaking of the fast with a family dinner at sundown. Ramadan is either 29 or 30 days long, and is based on the lunar calendar, which means that over a period of many years, the holiday occurs in different "months." Ramadan begins 11 days earlier each year on our calendar.

During Aid Al Fitr there is an additional prayer during the day. Ramadan is intended for people to experience the life of the unfortunate among the world's population that frequently have only a single meal during the day. Most Muslims contribute more to worthy causes during this holy month, and several sites for the poor to get a warm meal are staffed with volunteers.

In the evenings, people stay up late for family and other gatherings. Multiple cultural and artistic events are scheduled. Many young people gather at cafés in celebration of the breaking of the fast.

Then the month-long fasting is concluded with the two-day Aid Al Fitr holiday. This is one of the two most important Muslim holidays. It is probably equivalent to Christmas in its family significance. On the social level, most families visit each other, and all Muslims are encouraged to be forgiving.

Families make sweets such as baklava and almond donuts at home and share them with their neighbors, family and the poor. Children often receive gifts of clothes and sometimes toys, and people are usually in a cheerful mood.

Mohammed, the prophet, broke his fast with dates and water. For many American Muslims, breaking the fast with American food is often more convenient. For some, fasting during the day is only done on weekends when a work schedule is not as frantic.

Mourad Chaouch is on the board of directors of the Habiba Chaouch Foundation

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Wedding Tradition, Algerian Style

By Wassime Achkar

Dreams of marriage often begin in childhood. The concept and rituals of marriage are instilled in people at a young age by family as well as society. This is as true in the Middle East as it is all over the world. Little girls and boys dress up and pretend to walk down the aisle, or create their own house out of building blocks. This kind of role-playing is a common thread that binds children from all nations.

In all Arab countries, religion garners great respect. The society is based on religion or customs that have religious acceptance. What is important for Moslems is to be respectable in the eyes of God. Rather than being proof of sexual ability, marriage is considered a sign of maturity because it cannot exist without responsibility and self control.

The Qur’an, the holy book of Islam, clearly indicates that marriage is something to be shared between men and women. It must be based on love and mercy. According to Islam, women cannot be forced to marry anyone without their consent. However, one's parents have as much say in who their children marry as the children. The children may have romantic visions, while their parents take a more practical approach. Certain qualities are expected in a spouse: respectability, honesty, a good family and a good education top the list.

Frequently, a man will go to his mother and tell her that he loves someone. The mother will ask her neighbors about the family. After being satisfied with this choice, the man’s family will visit the woman's family to ask for her hand in marriage. A respectable man will be accepted, but only after the acceptance of the woman. At that time, the parents will fix a date to go to the Mosque to mark the beginning of the engagement. At the mosque, the imam (ee’-mahm: a clergy person) will explain how both are required to follow the Islamic code of morals.

The engagement period is a time of great preparation, but the groundwork started before the young woman was grown when the mother begins discussing marriage with her daughter. During the engagement, parents buy gold, clothes, kitchen and household needs for the woman and wool to make mattresses for the man. These items are called a shoura (shur’-ah).

Habiba Chaouch Foundation board member Alanna Nelson models traditinal Maghrebi wedding attire.
Marriage is a serious business for Arabs. The rights and responsibilities of both spouses are clearly defined. Husbands and wives have equal claims in marriage. Husbands are required to provide financial support and protection, but not allowed to be a dictator. The wife is required to take care of the children and make sure the house is running smoothly. Islam emphasizes the importance of making mutual decisions. This gives the family stability. Prior to the marriage the couple gets to know each other, exchange ideas and buy things for their house. The man will buy gifts for his bride and her mother as a sign of love and respect for her and her family.

Traditionally, the more money spent on a wedding, the prouder the family will be. Before the wedding there is a party at the bride's house where all the relatives work to meet the guests’ needs. Weeks before, women start to prepare many different kinds of desserts: baklava, makroud (mahk’-rood) and other sweet treats. The dinner will always include couscous with vegetables and meat. Men will sacrifice lambs to eat in celebration, and shourba (shur’-ba: tomato sauce and meat), chicken and salads are also served. The latitude of choice and multitude of food are testimony to the parents’ generosity; otherwise people would consider them stingy, which is shameful.

After the party, the bride leaves her parents’ house in a fancy car followed by other cars, including some which display her shoura. This shows all people how greatly she is loved by her family and husband. At the groom’s home, the bride sits in a specially decorated chair looking like a queen. She wears an elaborate wedding dress, heavy make-up, many jewels, and designs painted on her hands and feet with henna dye. Everyone dances and celebrates while approaching a sad farewell. Then the groom will come to the bride and, as they leave, women will cry tears of happiness and sadness. The couple will walk out together with all the guests cheering and yelling as they leave for their honeymoon.

Parents continue to have love and hope for their children’s lives, though their lives will be separate. These rituals are somewhat different, but the basic concerns are the same for all humans, regardless of religion or nationality.

New Language, New Awareness: A Tunisian Journey

By Sue Nelson

Picture the clear blue skies with the warm sun blazing down on a sand beach as white as sugar with crystal clear water. Picture the warm summer evening with star-studded skies when families gather on their adjoining porches to visit and share the concerns of the day with an American visitor.

These words paint the picture of the four days I spent in Kalibia, Tunisia—a village where most know very little English and nobody speaks it regularly. After six weeks of intensive language at the Bourguiba Institute of Living Languages in Tunis, I was ready to test my new skills.

A narrow and dusty road leads to Kalibia, which is accessible from Tunis by a two- to three-hour bus ride. The contrast of old and new is apparent. Both television antennae and families washing their clothing in the river were visible.

My first day in Kalibia I spent at the beach with Rodha, a young friend who helped me often with the language. Often there were words I did not know. We struggled, often to the point of absurdity, to act out the word we wanted to say. I learned so much from her.

In the evening Rodha, her sister and brother-in-law (Samira and Hatem), and I walked down to the seaside cafés where the residents of Kalibia gather to socialize and relax. We looked out over the Mediterranean Sea, drinking mint tea and snacking while children ran and played between the tables. All this begins somewhere between ten and eleven at night shortly after the evening meal and ends, generally, by two in the morning.

Walking down the village street where I was staying, I began a dialogue with relatives of my friends. We talked about our lives and how we are different. Yet in the balmy air of the late night, we often found a common ground.

The only way to keep up with a schedule like this is to have an afternoon nap. Fortunately, that is normal in Tunisia, especially during the hottest months of the summer. Many shops close between one and four in the afternoon, since the workers need to rest from the heat and most shoppers save their chores until late afternoon and early evening.

Mealtime is also family time, and food is plentiful and very spicy. With this spicy food comes loaves and loaves of freshly baked French bread, and the meal is always topped off with a huge bowl of fresh fruit, often from the family's yard.

I returned to Tunis safe and happy with the idea that I could not only create a dialogue in a foreign land with people who are generous and delightful, but travel unaccompanied for half a day and convey to those whose paths I crossed both my needs and my wishes of goodwill to them.

American Returns Touched by the Land and the People

By Elizabeth Rovere

The vibrant purple and pink sky is shrouded in orange which slowly melts into the royal blue of evening; it is sunset. I am sitting on the stone balcony at the home of my Tunisian hostess feasting on fresh figs, dates and the traditional flat Arabic bread. The white stone home, with its wrought iron railing painted in the hue of a Mediterranean blue, stands proudly on the border between two quaint resort towns of La Marsa and Sidi Bou Said, about 17 kilometers from Tunis.

The above photographs show the tradiditional architecture found in Tunisia - white stone and “Mediterranean” blue trim.
The air is saturated with jasmine (Tunisians pronounce it YASSMEEN), which grows wildly here in abundance and is often strung and sold by street peddlers. All is quiet except for the occasional whir of a moped or the faint sound of sheep in the neighboring pasture. Later in the evening the rhythmic vibrations and sounds of Eastern harem music are felt and heard as a couple not so far away celebrate a marriage.

Tunisia is quite beautiful, abundant in history and is a current study in contrasts.

Tunisian land was Carthage, conquered by Rome during the Punic Wars nearly two thousand years ago. It was part of the Roman Empire, the Byzantine Empire, and finally in the 8th century A.D., Tunisia was absorbed into the Islamic Empire. Nineteenth century imperialism granted France the opportunity to take Tunisia as a colony. Tunisia gained independence in 1956. Today's post-colonial Tunisia is encumbered with a hodgepodge of modern western culture, the Islamic Sunna, and traditional Arab custom. Now ruled as a secular state under the regime of Ben Ali, Tunisia seems to be searching for its identity like most post-colonial states. For me this was evident in the many contrasts. European tourists bathing topless on the private beaches make a noteworthy distinction to the more traditional Muslim women frolicking in the sea in full chadorah. Yet today's Muslim women swam in the sea only at night by moonlight as they were not permitted to appear in the waters by light of day.

Change is ever present in this society which marks a historical turning point in Tunisia's definition of itself as progressive and secular, yet Islamic. Contrast between the old ways and the new ways follow as this country skips rope to and fro hoping to find a rhythm that harmonizes both traditional and modern culture.

Islam, for some, is an external ideology—a means to a utopia rooted in the past. Others express their religion by means of national culture and despise the Western influence, particularly that of the American. Individuals of such opinion modify their stance upon discovery of a foreign guest (an American) in a grocery line or even on a crowded bus where standing on a most basic common ground individuals find their common humanity. Tunisians are masters in the art of hospitality. Tunisia is very curious about America.

The tragedy lies in the lack of American dialog with the Tunisian counterpart, except for the few scattered Americans studying abroad. There is lack of trust because there is a lack of knowledge and communication. Perhaps my most poignant moment in this land was a conversation I had with our guide from the Bourguiba Institute, a very devout man who led a group of us on a weekend excursion to the Tunisian mountains in the north. He was a traditional Muslim man who had never met an American. He shared with me what he called an Arabic proverb: “Life gives you a one way ticket on a train...” He added that we should make it the best trip possible and not ruin it with hostility and war.

This view crosses too many cultures to be only an Arabic saying and, though simple, is too often forgotten.

Tunisia is a wonderland of folklore, traditional religion and modern influences: sounds of disco along side the call of the muezzin. Tunisia extends a welcome, yet maintains a distrust. Cultural barriers persist, and will continue to do so until exchange of knowledge can establish more common ground.

Elizabeth Rovere spent the summer of 1992 in Tunis, Tunisia studying Classical Arabic at the Bourguiba Institute of Living Languages. She hails from North Carolina.

Before the Wedding

By Faouzia Chaouch

The Bride’s Hammam Party is an all-women affair. It takes place about five days before the wedding in Tunisia. For a standard Hammam a whole Turkish bath is rented during half a day. All the women including aunts, cousins, friends, etc. are invited to accompany the Arrousa to the Hammam. This makes a very large group.

Sure enough, among this number of women, there is at least one good drummer, whose primary function is with the Darbouka. This drummer is usually the center of all the music and dancing activity trailing the Aroussa wherever she goes.

With the assistance of one or two closely related persons, the bride takes off her clothes in the Maksoura. A Sanjak is held in front of her so as to cover her nudity. This Sanjak is dedicated to one special saint and is used by the Aroussa as a veil in which she enters the Maksoura.

With the use of several Stal, hot and cold water is carried to the bride's Matahra where an experienced lady of her entourage will rub the bride's body with a Kassa. Her hair is washed with the Tfal. The Tfal, which the bride's mother previously put in a sack with jasmine flowers, is like any other rock, extracted from the mountain.

The Aroussa is now “clean” and can be taken outside to the sound of the singing and drumming. At her feet are Kobkab which helps to avoid slipping on the wet floor.

Outside on the Dokkana, everybody gathers to rest from the heat. Wrapped in her brand new Bachkir, the Aroussa, blushing and carefully watched by the women, will then be helped to dress, usually in a Caftan and recovered with the Sanjak.

During this resting period, Rousata, grenadine or mint drinks are offered along with the famous Tunisian sweets called Hlou.

Now it is time to depart. A full procession of cars would be waiting either driven by relatives or, in recent years, by some of the attending women themselves and the Aroussa goes back home to the sound of the Agharit.

Faouzia Chaouch lives in Tunis, Tunisia.

Glossary of Wedding Terms

Agharit - a women's chanting, somewhat shrill sounding like “you-you-you.”

Aroussa - The Bride.

Bachkir - a very large towel.

Caftan - a beautifully embroidered long dress.

Darbouka - a typical Tunisian drum.

Dokkana - The Hammam's reception hall where clients shed their clothes, keep their bags or suitcases. It is supervised by a queenly matron, generally the owner of the Hammam. She sits on a higher platform with a counter, where women deposit their jewelry and purses. Nothing escapes this woman's eagle eye; she is the one who makes sure that the Hammam's attendants perform their job, that cleanliness standards are maintained and that the patrons do not leave the Hammam without paying their dues.

Hammam - the building where the party takes place is similar to a sauna and includes four large rooms.

Harza - a worker at the Hammam.

Hot room - Hottest chamber in the Hammam, mainly occupied by a large pool of steaming hot water which supplies all users. This is where newcomers go first. A few minutes are sufficient for the sweat to start pouring. The heat mellows the body and makes it easier to clean later. Some die-hards sit in the hot room all the time until they come out, using only steaming hot water to shower.

Kassa -a rough mitten-like cloth.

Kobkab - wooden-made flip flops.

Maksoura - the coldest chamber. Only those indisposed to the heat sit here. In this room one can find only the cold water tap and basin.

Matahra - this is a group of smaller middle rooms and is hotter than the previous room. Each room has its own door, where the client can go for the final rinsing, taking off all clothes, as it would be indecent to do so in front of all the other clients. The Matahra is the only private place in the Hammam. Each Matahra is adorned with a small stool, a basin, a tap for cold water and a tap for hot water.

Rousata - almond perfumed syrup.

Stal - buckets

Sanjak - a colored sheet dedicated to a special saint.

Tfal - rock-like material which melts in water.

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