Life with my Muslim family: A sick day

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.



I have met “The Enemy” and he is adorable.

When I was little, I heard about the horrors of Pearl Harbor.  I watched movies about the “bad guys” from World War II.

Of course I did.

My father and some of his brothers fought in that war.  I read “The Diary of Anna Frank”.  I read Elie Weisel. I learned all that I could learn about the Nazi’s.

I grew up thinking of the Germans, and to a lesser extent, the Japanese, as “our enemies.”  They were the “bad guys”.  Pure and simple. We were good, they were bad. I was the biggest supporter of the Jewish homeland that you could imagine. I thought at one point that I’d like to move to Israel, to experience this wonderful righting of such terrible wrong.

Then I graduated from High School, and went on an exchange program to Tunisia, where I learned that Moslems are sweet, gentle, funny, kind, loving and so so much like my Italian family that it was hilarious.  At that time in my life, at the tender age of 17, I began to wonder about my country’s unshakable support for Israel.  I began to wonder about those Palestinians who were unceremoniously booted off of their land so that Europe could make amends for its crimes.  I started to wonder about “good guys and bad guys” at that point.

When I got to college, it was the middle of the Cold War.  The Germans were now our Allies, but we still thought of them with a good deal of caution.  The Soviets were the “real” enemy now.  Israel was our ally, the Palestinians were suspect.  I was confused and frustrated when I recognized that my beloved Tunisian family were seen by my countrymen as “the opposition.”  The bad guys.

This didn’t make a whole lot of sense, knowing what I knew about Tunisia, but I was intrigued by international relations in 1974.

I decided to major in both Political Science and Soviet Studies.  I wanted to become an expert on “the enemy”.  I learned to speak Russian, I read all about the Russian Revolution, I learned a LOT about the workings of the Soviet Union.

It was easy to identify the “Soviets” as the bad guys, but most of my college professors were from the Soviet Union.  They were sweet, gentle, funny, kind, loving and smart. They were Russians and Serbs, and Ukranians and Czechs.  They were my friends.They didn’t really feel like “the enemy”.

And so here I am, in the winter of 2015.  I am watching the news, and seeing that “Muslims” are the new Germans.  They are our new “bad guy”.  I hear my President trying to explain why he needs War Powers to fight this “existential and ideological threat.”

I’ve heard little children in my classroom talking about “Muslim terrorists”, and I remember when we used to play “Nazi’s” in the backyard.

I am sitting in my living room, waiting for my German student, my German “son”, to come home for dinner.  I think about him for a minute. He is sweet, gentle, funny, kind, loving and smart.  He is everything you would want your child to be.

I look up at the German flag that is hanging in my living room.


It was a lovely gift from Lucas’ mother, my new friend from “across the water”.  She is wonderful! She is absolutely everything I’d ever want from a friend.  I am so excited that I’ll get to meet her and her husband next fall, when they come to Boston for a visit. I’m even more excited that they have invited us to visit them in Berlin!  I can’t wait to go!

And this all makes me wonder: why do we feel such a need to identify and label an “enemy”?  Why can’t we just step back and realize that there are wonderful, phenomenal Germans/Russians/Poles/Serbs/Japanese/Chinese/Islamic/Israeli/African humans?

And that there are horrible, despicable, violent, bitter, crazy Germans/Russians/Poles/Serbs/Japanese/Chinese/Islamic/Israeli/African humans?

I am happy to have my German flag, my Russian dolls, my Italian food, and my Islamic jewelry in my home.  I am happy to have my Jewish friends and relatives, my Muslim family and friends, and my wonderful, sweet German “son”, all a big part of what makes my life meaningful.

The enemy keeps changing, the enemy keeps moving, the enemy keeps giving the US Government a reason to spend money on more war.

I have met the enemy.  And he is us.

Monochromatic days.

My Dream Yard.  Really.

My Dream Yard. Really.

The thing about winter is that it just drains the life right out of me.

I know.  Thanks to global warming, we haven’t really had a good old fashioned New England winter in years.  We’ve been lucky in terms of snowfall, I know.

But it doesn’t matter.

It isn’t the amount of snow (although with good old Nemo we have plenty of that commodity, thank you).  It isn’t the freezing rain that’s falling today or the freezing fog that is blanketing the yard.

It isn’t really about those things.

It’s about the lack of color, don’t you think?

I remember, many years ago, commuting along to work as I did every day.  Looking out ahead at the gray highway, the gray skies, the dark gray branches of the leafless trees.  I remember feeling absolutely desperate for a glimpse of something vividly blue or red or green. Something alive.  When I got to work, I dug through my cabinets until I found a big poster of a Caribbean beach and I hung it where I could see it a hundred times a day.  I yearned for the aqua shades of water and the emerald green of the plants.

It got me through to spring, and those first few precious green sprouts.

Today I am sitting in my living room. Once again a captive of the winter days.  Looking out at the gray sky, gray trees, gray fog.  The snow is sodden and heavy and colorless.  The only hues that I can make out are the dark gray/green needles of the pines and the dark gray trunks of the trees.   My brain is overwhelmed with the boring sameness of everything I see.

So what can I do?

If I were rich, I’d get on my private plane and fly myself to Barbados.  I’d pluck the blossom of a big pink plumeria and I’d gaze deep inside of it to fill myself with energy and life.

If I were rich, I’d take off right now and take myself to Sidi Bou Said, on the coast of Tunisia, where the houses are blue and white and shining in the sunlight.

If I were rich…….

What can I do, seeing that I am so completely and absolutely not rich?  I can open iPhoto, and scroll through my pictures.  I can look long and hard at this:

SONY DSCAnd this:dsc00919.jpg

And this:

SONY DSCAnd I can remind myself that time goes on, even when we wish it would slow down.  Time moves forward, in a way that we cannot stop or change or impact in any way.

Time goes on.  And before we know it, we will be seeing the color and the vibrancy of spring.

The trick is to keep believing that spring will come.  And that we will be here to see it.



The world through the eyes of others.

Sometimes I forget that the world as I see it is not the world in reality.  Sometimes I lose sight of the fact that not everyone on this swirling blue planet feels what I feel.  At times it seems as if everyone out there, all across the vastness of the continents, must be  aware of “American Exceptionalism” and the “American Dream”.   Surrounded as I am by political ads, political discussions and all of the other detritus of the American election season, at times it is literally impossible for me to understand that not every human being alive is debating the choice between Obama and Romney.

Luckily for me, my life is filled with interesting people from diverse backgrounds.  Luckily for me, I sometimes run smack into the reality of the wide world around me, and I am forced to see that my little sphere of experience is not actually the whole thing.

Let me share two experiences from the past week that have opened my eyes to the wider horizons.

The first is the chance I have had to read about events in the Arab world through the eyes of a woman from Tunisia.  I knew Anissa way back in 1973 when I was 17, and she a mature 18 years old.  Her family hosted me for three months through the American Field Service Program.   I lived with Anissa and her family in the ancient city of Kairouan, where I visited the 3,000 year old medina, saw the mosques and heard the haunting call to prayer.  I learned, through that experience, that families are just families, and that an Islamic Dad and an Italian American one had a whole lot in common when it came to raising teen aged daughters.  I learned that “food is love” in North Africa, too, and that mothers everywhere worry about the length of their daughters’ skirts and the boys who come to call on theose daughters.

I lost track of Anissa after a few years, and it was only about a year ago that I found her again through the miracle of Facebook.  Now I am able to read her status updates and to follow events as they unfold in Tunis, in this historic year after the Arab Spring.  Through her updates and photos, I am able to watch as Tunisians struggle to find their democratic voices, to reject religious extremism and to move away from a dictatorship and into a more open and secure society.

Here is a photo that Anissa posted tonight, from Tunis, showing a huge demonstration against  violence.


And here is her new cover photo, showing hands linked in solidarity around the Tunisian flag.

These images serve to remind me that “binders full of women” and “you didn’t build that” and who wants to raise stupid taxes on whom aren’t really big issues in the life of a country.  Which rich white guy to vote for isn’t really a huge historical decision, you know?

These people are engaging in true democratic reform.  Voting in Tunisia really means something right now.

And here is my other story, a very different one, but a story that nevertheless serves to remind me that our safe little American world is not the world that most people know.

I was away for three days with our fifth graders last week. We were at a wonderful camp in the mountains of New Hampshire, and we enjoyed all of the beauty that nature has to offer on a New England fall day.  At one point, I had taken a two hour hike up to a mountain ridge where I stood with the children looking down on the valley below.  We all gathered together, and the camp counselor got us to call out in unison, “Tongo!” and then we waited to hear if some of the campers below would call back to us.  We stood for about a minute, but no return call came up. Instead, we heard the sound of distant construction from the lakefront down below us.

“Did you hear anything?”, our camp leader asked.   One of my students, a little boy who grew up in Pakistan and came to us this year from Peshawar, raised his hand.

“I didn’t hear them yell back”, he said,  “All I heard were those bombs.”

The other kids laughed a little, but I stood still in shock.

From the top of a ledge in peaceful, sunny New Hampshire, on a day filled with golden light and a warm autumn breeze, this child heard a sound, and calmly took it to be the sounds of war.

The world is a bigger place than most of us realize as we go through our self-focused lives.

I’m glad that sometimes I can see that world through the eyes of others.



At the age of fifty five, I have pretty much mastered the art of trying-not-to-offend. I don’t always succeed (in fact, my husband would be laughing out loud if he ever read this blog), but I do try.

I try not to offend. I try not to upset.

As I drive to work, I am thinking of gentle ways to inform parents that their best beloved can’t sit still for 20 seconds in a row.  I don’t want to offend; I want to educate and enlighten!

As I read the news and feel my blood pressure skyrocket, I am thinking of ways to clearly express my outrage without offending anyone.  I want to find a way to express my thoughts and feelings so clearly and crisply that no thinking person could possibly object. I won’t engage in name calling; I don’t want to offend!

I am a middle aged woman. I see most things, most often, sort of from both sides. I can understand and respect those shades of gray.  I really don’t want people to look at me and think “crazy radical”!

But here we are, faced with the “Occupy” movement.  I am conflicted on SO many levels.

One: this is an incredibly naive and simplistic movement. (OK; so what? Naive is innocent, innocent in uncorrupted, uncorrupted is available to hope.)

Two: these people don’t even have any demands.  (OK, when did we decide that you have to be “demanding” to have meaning? What ever happened to civil discourse?)

Three: I don’t have time to march and protest (Well, I am not sure that any demonstrator, protestor, revolutionary ever woke up in the morning and said, “Oh, good. Nothing on the agenda today.” I don’t think that Rosa Parks said that on the key morning of her life. I am not sure that William Dawes was thinking it on on April 18th, 1776. Who am I to feel like my grocery list is more important than the message being delivered here?)

Four: This is going to get messy.   (Yes. Yes it is. Democracy is messy.  It is loud, it is time consuming and it is frustrating. If we could only ask the ancient Athenians about it, I am absolutely certain that they would agree.)

Five: You can’t change the world through a protest. Oh. Yes. You. Can.Ask the Solidarnosh marchers from Poland in the 1990s.  Ask the people of Tunisia or Egypt.  Ask the Boston Tea Party participants from 1776. Oh. Yes. You. Can.

But people will get aggravated with me. They will think me annoying with my repeated political posts.  People I love and respect and want to keep in my “circle” will not know how to respond when I march in favor of increased regulation of banks and investment firms. I’m afraid.  I’m afraid of the snickers. I’m afraid of the rolled eyes. I’m afraid of the “hide” clicks on my FB page.

Then I look at that FB page, and I see the postings from my children and their friends.  I realize that some people are putting their futures on the line. They are risking arrest for the movement. As I watch the videos taken at the various recent marches, I realize that they are risking their bodies, their safety, their freedom. They are willing to march and take those chances and stand up in public.

I’m not young enough to discount public opinion. I’m not innocent enough to believe in a utopian future. I’m not bold enough to believe myself beyond the reach of the ruling class.

But I am naive enough to believe that the sound of a thousand voices can be heard in the halls of power. I am foolish enough to have faith in a system that relies wholly on public choice.  I am innocent enough to believe that the power and strength of an impassioned youth movement can suddenly open the eyes of the power elite.

I will, with some trepidation, march in Boston on Monday, October 10th. I will carry a sign and stand with my children and hold my head up high. I am willing to take on the laughs, and sneers and derision of my peers. I will gulp, and cringe and stand tall.

I am the 99%.


When I was 17 years old, I signed up for “AFS”,  the “American Field Service” International exchange program.  I thought it sounded like an absolutely wonderful way to visit England or Germany or maybe even Switzerland.  There was a long application process and many interviews before two students from my High School were chosen to participate in this worthwhile program.  It was the first time in my life that I had had to really think about myself; to think about what might make me a worthy candidate to receive this incredible opportunity.

It was an eye opening experience: I thought a lot about my beliefs, for the first time in a very young life. I thought about my hopes, my dreams and my place in the world.  I must have done a creditable job of presenting myself, because, to my surprise, I was chosen to travel abroad for the summer of 1973.

My surprise (OK, my shock) was complete in late May of that year, when I learned that I would be spending 12 weeks with a Moslem family living in central Tunisia, just miles from the Northern edge of the Sahara Desert.  What?!!  What happened to England, or Germany, or (oh, so exotic…..) France?  I panicked, I tried to find a way out, but ultimately, I went.

I spent the summer of 1973 in the company of people who were warm, charming, literate, thoughtful, gregarious, devout, funny, and very very loving.  I learned to eat couscous, to wear a sefsari, to barter for goods in the marketplace.  I learned some French and some Arabic and even a few folk songs. Most of all,  I learned that people are people. Tunisian Dads sounded remarkably like American Dads where their teenaged daughters were concerned. Mothers made dinner and nagged about messy bedrooms. Kids argued and pouted, and eventually picked up the dirty clothes.

I learned that politics are always a touchy subject.  And I learned that God is God, no matter what we call Him or where we worship.  I learned that I am a citizen of the world, and that I am therefore connected to all people everywhere. It was a wonderful, exhilarating, empowering and life changing experience for this young woman.  I have never forgotten my love of Tunisia; the beauty of the country, the crystal clear waters, the music, the rhythm of the Medina. Even so many years later, the smell of jasmine brings me right back to that summer, and my home in the “Lycee Des Jeunes Filles” in the ancient city of Kairouan.

Today I watch the news, and I see the events that are unfolding in Tunisia, and Egypt and Yemen.  I watch as the everyday citizens of those countries, the teachers, shopkeepers, mechanics, doctors and students, march in the streets and stand up to the guns of the police.  I watch them demand the right to choose their own leaders for the first time in their lives.  I am awed by the courage and the strength that it takes to do what they are doing.  I am humbled by the power of so many people, acting together in a movement that is sweeping a continent.

I teach fifth graders about the American Revolution. I teach them about the power of common people, working hand in hand, who can overturn the strongest dictator.   As I read the news, or watch it on the BBC, I am reminded once again that people are people.  I am aware, yet again, that we are all truly citizens of the world, more than we are citizens of our own little patches of that world.   If the regime in Egypt falls, as its neighboring dictator did in Tunisia, the United States will be in difficult diplomatic and political straights.   These popular revolutions run counter to American interests in the region.

Still, as a teacher of American History, as a young woman who came of age in the Moslem world, as a citizen of this world, I am excited, happy and filled with pride as I watch common people rising up against tyranny and despotism.

I feel myself, though distanced by many years and many miles, to be a part of the “Jasmine Revolution” that was brought to life in my beautiful Tunis.

I am part of history, as we all are.  I have hope for the future.