When I was only 17, I was a very healthy and hearty young woman. I was lean, but not skinny. I was rarely sick.
My body had some adjusting to do, though, when I left Massachusetts and flew to Kairouan, Tunisia, to spend the summer as an exchange student. The dryness of the air so near the desert was hard for me. I remember how I used to dream of drinking ice cold water. The water in our home and around the city was safe, but it was warmer than ours at home, and it always had a slightly salty taste to me. My skin was dry, my hair was dry, even my eyes felt dry.
My Tunisian family showed me how to treat my skin and my hair with olive oil, which was abundant in that olive growing land. They noticed my craving for water, and kept a supply of small, sweet watermelons on hand.
The food that we ate that summer was incredibly delicious. We ate a lot of chicken, of fish, and a lot of mutton. I love lamb and discovered that I love the rich taste of mutton even more. We ate loaves of dense, chewy bread that came in round loves with a crisp crust. We got it from the market every morning, fresh and incredibly delicious. In the very dry air of Tunisia, any leftover bread was very dry by its second day. Almost too hard to eat, unless we covered it with honey from the huge jar on our kitchen shelf, letting the sweetness seep into the bread for a few minutes before we ate it.
What a delicious memory!
The one problem that I had with the food, though, was that even for an Italian American like me, it was very, very spicy. I once roasted and peeled hot peppers with my Tunisian sisters, and even though we coated our fingers with olive oil, we all had blisters when we were finished.
The result of all that spice was that after three or four weeks in Kairouan, I was suffering from a bad bout of stomach distress. I wasn’t sick, really, but I had stomach pain and I spent a LOT of time in the bathroom.
One hot morning I was feeling the distress of what I’d eaten the day before. I don’t know if I complained, or if I just ate less breakfast than usual. In either case, I was sitting in our family’s living room with a book when Maman came in with a glass in her hand. It was filled with something brown and thick. There was ice in there.
Truthfully, it didn’t look great. But she held it out to me, and said in her lovely French, “This is wheat. It will make your stomach better. Drink it, my daughter.”
I took it with thanks, and then gave myself a tiny, tentative sip.
Even now, almost 40 years later, I can conjure up the taste. Honey, wheat, nuttiness, the cold, cold ice cubes. I drank it all down, and felt better almost at once.
I don’t know what was in that glass, but it made me feel so much better. I’m sure that some of my relief came from the love and care that went into the mixing of that magic elixir.
Maman Barrak is gone now, and I’m not sure that I ever told her how wonderful that moment was. I hope that she knew then how much it meant to me. I hope that she knows it now.
My Tunisian Mom, my beautiful Muslim Mom, was a blessing to me in so many ways. This story is only one of those ways.