An Afternoon In Tunisia

The tourists had stopped where three cobblestone streets came together. The young man held out a yellow tourist carte. They had been in the souk and then they were out of it. Where the souk was shaded and jammed noisy with sellers and stalls spilling out into the little streets; the stalls packed with leather goods and painted pottery from Nabuel, Berber jewelry, chica water pipes and beaten brass plates; the sellers trying in every language to get your attention, often getting you by the arm and only three or four non mercis would get them off; it was quiet now and empty in the bright whitewashed narrows of the medina.

“Don’t be so stubborn,” the young man was saying to her. “You don’t prove anything that way.” She wore a dress and a little black top that showed much of her chest and back and arms. She stood apart from the young man.

Anglais?” the Arab spoke to the tourists. They hadn’t seen him come up from behind. The Arab was short and dark with thick moustaches.

Americains,” the girl said to the Arab.

The young man looked at her. She knew he did not like people to know they were Americans.

“You are lost,” said the little Arab, continuing in French. “Come with me. I know the way. The musée is just here. You do not worry.”

The Arab spoke towards the young man but kept looking at the American girl. He produced three keys from his pocket. “You see, I work at the musée,” he smiled. “Come I will show you the musée. It is the most beautiful musée in Tunis. Come.” The Arab guided the girl gently on her back in the direction.

The young man folded the map and hurried up. “He knows the way out of here?”

“Yes,” the girl said.

“From where do you come in Amerique, madame?” the Arab asked politely.

“From Philadelphie,” the madame answered.

“Ah, Philadelphie, a beautiful city,” said the Arab.

The young man said something in English and dropped back behind them.

The Arab led the American couple through a dirtier part of the medina. The buildings were faded and gray, the whitewash stripped away, with garbage strewn along streets. The garbage stunk in the sun and heat and cats searched through the piles. Some of the doorways were open and inside were men weaving on large wooden looms. In another doorway men were sawing and measuring as young boys hammered. The weavers and carpenters stopped to watch them. One of the boys yelled out something in Arabic and grinned.

“And how do you call yourself, madame?” the Arab turned to the girl.

“Elizabeth,” she said.

He looked back questioningly at the young man. “Does he not speak French?”

“He cannot.”

Tant pis. It is too bad.” It was as though a great plan had been suddenly reduced.

“But he will enjoy the musée anyway,” he assured her, brightening, and smiled to show teeth browned by tea and nicotine. “There is much beauty inside, madame. We are close. It is just ahead.” He liked the American madame. He liked that she walked with him and the young husband walked behind. He had not known Americans before.

The Arab stopped before the heavy blue-painted doors of the Musée Dar Ben Abdallah. He waited for two women in white sifsaris to pass before taking out his keys and unlocking the doors. The Arab guided the American couple into the dark corridor and carefully shut the doors behind them.

The young man said to the girl, “You know he’ll want us to pay him.”

“I want to see the museum.”

“If that’s what you really want.”

“That’s what I want.” She did not look at him.

The Arab frowned. All the talking in English made him nervous. “The musée is closed the Monday, madame,” he said. “You were fortunate to discover me. It is beautiful.” He was worried he might lose them so close. “Venez, come. Follow me, come, madame.”

He showed the American couple out into a mosaic tiled courtyard with a stone fountain at the center. He smiled to the American girl. “It is beautiful, no? Come.” There were four doors for the four rooms of the museum, one on each wall of the courtyard. He would get the tour underway.

This first room, he explained, was consecrated to man and contains the costumes and sabers of the 18th century. He pointed out the red chechia hats in the glass case and he explained the hammam that had been reconstructed in the corner. He made the explanations like the museum guides. But he saw that the young man was disinterested. He did not understand French.

“M’sieur, here, your hands like this,” he gestured to the young man.

The Arab took the young man’s hands and rubbed the backs and then the centers of the palms with his thumbs. The Arab’s hands were coarse and dirty and his thumbnails were unusually thick. Then he kneaded the center of the young man’s forehead with his thumbs.

“He has been walking long today. He is tired. Explain this to him,” he told the American girl.

The young man nodded that he understood.

“Here madame, for you too, but different. Come, relax,” he said to her. “Do not be nervous.”

The Arab bent down and tapped three times on her knee caps. Then he felt behind her knees. He pulled at her calves and then massaged them lightly. He held her hands and pulled each of the fingers until they popped. He put his hands on her forearms and gently twisted, then pulled her arms holding her at the shoulder until the joint cracked.

Cava mieux? You feel better? Yes, of course I make you feel better. Come, you will like the next room very much, madame.” He led them back through the courtyard and into the second room.

This room, the salle of women, is where they prepare themselves in perfume and make-up for the men. These are the hedeyed bracelets, see the engraving and they are made in gold and silver. The khalkal, to be worn by the bride around the ankle as the symbol of fidelity.

“When were you married?” the Arab asked.

“We are not married,” said the American girl.

“Not married?” It surprised him.

“No, not ever,” she said. “Seulement amis. Friends.”

Amis,” repeated the Arab. “Ah, friends, you are friends” he grinned. He winked to the young man. He understood now. He knew what it was about. To have been so lucky. “Come, come,” he said to them.

The third room was for the preparation of the bride. There was a long red couch and walls painted in gold and a crystal chandelier. He had the young man stop at the door. He seated the American girl on the couch before an opened book, placing her hands on the pages. It is the Koran, he explained. It is for marriage and the bride is to sit as you sit.

“Come now to me, mademoiselle, vas-z toi,” the Arab said to the girl from America.

The mademoiselle stood before him. She was too far away. The Arab came close to her. “Here, here and also here,” he said, touching a point on her chin and two others on her cheeks. “A mark of beauty is made in these three places to signify the bride.”

The Arab laughed. “You are a perfect bride, mademoiselle.”

He grabbed the mademoiselle around the waist and pulled her against him. He could hold her with one arm. He glanced toward the young man at the door. The young man looked away. It was okay. He pushed his face toward hers, trying to get her lips, but she pulled away and he could only kiss her on the cheek. These girls of America. He tried again to kiss her and could again only get her cheek. He let her go and laughed. He was delighted. It was all okay.

“Come,” the Arab said to them. “We go now to the last of the rooms.”

He explained the last room was for the baby. He showed the baby items and explained their use. The mademoiselle stood with the young man just inside the door. He motioned her to come forward.

“Here, mademoiselle, come put your hands on your knees like this.”

She shook her head. She did not want to do it.

“Come, mademoiselle, do as I say. It is the heat, you are overheated,” he explained.

She glanced at the young man and stepped into the center of the room. The American girl bent over with her hands on her knees. The Arab grinned at the young man. They had a complicity developing. He pushed her black top up on her back to expose as much skin from the shoulders to her waist. She pulled up. “Stay, stay, do not move,” he told her. “Stay, mademoiselle.” He placed his hands onto the tanned, smooth skin and felt her down slowly to the little hairs on her lower back. She tensed under his touch. He turned to wink at the young man but the young man had looked away.

“It is a great relief to touch here and here,” he said running his hands along her dress to the soft flesh at her hips.

“Now stand up.”

The Arab motioned for the young man to come and stand behind her. He had the young man hold the girl’s hands behind her. The Arab stood in front of the girl and jerked up the black top to expose her stomach. The mademoiselle reacted. Her top was half off.

“Sshh, very quiet, mademoiselle. Do not move. Hold her tight, m’sieur.” His hand smoothed slowly across her stomach, then ran up between her breasts. The girl shrieked and broke free from the hold of the young man.

“No, no, not finished mademoiselle. Not finished.” He clapped her stomach with his cupped hand three times and put his ear at her belly, listening.

“Try m’sieur, try to listen,” he motioned to the young man.

The monsieur hesitated, then came around and listened.

“You hear, of course, don’t you? You hear the air?”

The young man didn’t say anything.

“Tour stop,” the Arab said to him in English. He led the Americans out through the courtyard and to the doors. The Arab stood in the darkened corridor, smiling.

“Some dinar for your tour,” he said in English.

The young man put two dinar pieces in his hand. It was half of what he expected.

“M’sieur,” he said. “Mademoiselle,” he turned to her. “Four dinar. Four dinar is raisonable.”

She did not answer and would not look at him. The young man looked serious now, even angry. It was some joke maybe.

He held out his hand again for the monsieur and smiled. The young man put a two dinar coin in his hand and said something in English. The Arab opened one of the wooden doors and looking both ways led the American tourists out onto the bright street. The Arab locked the doors and went away quickly. The little Arab was gone.

The young man unfolded the yellow tourist map and looked around.

“Are you hungry, Liz?” he said finally.

She shook her head.

“What about a mint tea?”

“I want to go back to the hotel,” she told him. “I want chocolate,” she told him. “I want chocolate and I want a shower.”

“Well,” said the young man looking at their map, “We’ll need to find out where we are first.”


  1. Anonymous5.2.10

    Dear friends,

    Many of you have been asking about my ambiguous and somewhat cryptic facebook messages and things this week. I'm sorry I couldn't be more specific, but I'm happy to finally be able to share my news.

    Of course, I'm a writer, so you're going to get the backstory:

    About four years ago I was looking for work and came across a posting for tour guides for Trek Travel. Trek, the cycling company, leads luxury vacation bicycle tours all over the world. Biking, traveling, guiding, planning events... I had found my dream job.

    Except the application window had closed a week earlier.

    So I kept them in mind, and the next year I applied. I probably spent more time on that application than I had for any of my college apps. They responded, I had a brief phone interview, and they said they'd keep in touch. They didn't end up hiring any guides that year. Or the next two.

    About a year ago I got a freelance writing assignment from Wisconsin Woman Magazine that was "travel tips from the local experts," so I called up Trek Travel and asked if I could interview their president. I did so, and met with their hiring director in the process. It was great to make that connection, and I've kept in touch with them ever since.

    As you know, this fall I moved to Colorado. In September, I found a great job with the Mizel Arts and Culture Center, working in their box office as the Administrative Coordinator. Despite being another office job and another nonprofit job, I've really enjoyed working there. My co-workers are a lot of fun, and its great to be back in the arts world. And I was thrilled to find such a good fit job for me so quickly.

    Then about three weeks ago I saw that Trek was hiring for "Soigneurs;" licensed Massage Therapists to accompany their guests on a two-week long ride across Texas and provide first aid and massage services. So I dropped Garth (the hiring director) a line, and he strongly encouraged me to apply. He said that if they were able to hire me, it would be a good opportunity to see how I would do as a guide. I had a phone interview two weeks ago, and didn't think it had gone very well...

    But I got the job!!!

  2. Anonymous5.2.10

    So this is very exciting, because there's a good chance that this will lead to future opportunities guiding for Trek. (Not to mention it pays well, and will be great experience for me as an MT. ) I'm THRILLED, but the reason taking it has been a challenging decision is that this position is only for 2 1/2 weeks. It's a one-time gig, with no guarantee of future work. I asked my current job for an unpaid leave of absence, and they said no. It's disappointing, but I understand where they're coming from.

    There was never really any question in my mind regarding whether I'd take this job, even if it meant quitting my current one. But now that it's come down to that, the reality of that choice is significant. So this week I have asked many of you for advice and help, not necessarily in making the choice but in coming to terms with what it means (and making sure I'm not making a big mistake, economy and all.)

    It seems crazy to leave a full-time job, one that I genuinely like, for a two week gig. But then, it's me, and I'm all about on the edge, taking chances, and having adventures while I'm able to do it. I've had to weigh a lot of pros and cons, and what it comes down to is that I would really regret missing the Trek opportunity, and I am very confident that I won't go unemployed for long. I do believe that the bigger the risk the bigger the reward, and that change is always accompanied by growth, and that is always a good thing.

    In light of that risk, I've given up my apartment as of March 1, so I won't be tied into a lease without steady income. I'll be gone for most of March anyway, and have a friend who's offered her basement to store my stuff for a little while. So once I return from Texas, I'll be starting over with jobs and apartments again. :)

    Given that, if any of you who are in Colorado has a couch or guest room I could surf for a week when I get back, I'll pay you in home-cooked dinners and free shoulder rubs. And if you hear of anyone looking for a writer/massage therapist/help with their website/to organize their kitchen/housesitter etc. please keep me in mind.

    Thanks to all of you who have been so supportive of me following my dream even in the face of potential unemployment; it has meant a lot to me this week, and I am overwhelmed by the confidence in me that so many of you have expressed.

    Here's to a life of adventure!




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