I find myself in an odd place. I know I’m not alone, but I still want to share this strange experience with you. Maybe I can make some sense of things if I do.
Forty two years ago I was an exchange student. I was seventeen years old, completely and unbelievably naive. I was sent to Tunisia, to live with an Islamic family. I had a fantastic time! I’ve written about my experience before, thinking about how comforting it was to find a family across the world that was so very much like my own.
But in the past three days, I’ve been really looking back, and thinking about my time in Tunisia.
I remember that my family had an Uncle, a jovial man of middle age, who was a retired general in the Tunisian military. He had a lovely little house just outside of Tunis. I remember going there for dinner. I remember that he hunted for little birds, which he brought back to the house in the afternoon. They were dressed and cooked and served over couscous. I remember that he was so proud of himself, and I remember that the dinner was delicious.
I remember, too, that the same smiling, stocky Uncle took me and my Tunisian sisters to the famous Bardo Museum. I don’t remember many details, but I do recall that the grounds were absolutely lovely, that the exhibits were amazing and inspiring. I remember a mosaic stone floor in the courtyard, and I remember that we were given a special tour because the Uncle was a member of the military.
I watch the news now, as we talk about “Islamists” and “terrorists” and I am struck by how we use the terms interchangeably. I think about the fact that most American parents now would never send their innocent daughter to live in Tunisia.
And then I close my eyes, and I remember what happened to me when I had to travel across the country by myself, on a bus, to a city I’d never seen. I remember that I got onto the bus in tears: I knew that I was saying goodbye to a family I’d grown to love very much. And I knew that I would most likely never see them again.
It was the last week of my journey, and I was leaving my host city of Kairouan to join up with the rest of the exchange students in the coastal city of Sfax. My Tunisian family said goodbye to me at the bus station, and I boarded a big old bus to head southeast. I was sobbing as the bus pulled out, so I barely noticed the old woman with the chickens in the seat behind me, or the man with the two small goats who sat in front of me. I wasn’t really aware of the handsome man and his wide eyed son who sat in the seat across the aisle. At least, I wasn’t aware of them until the man reached across the aisle and patted my shoulder. He murmured gently in Arabic: I didn’t understand him, but his face showed sympathy and caring. It made me cry a little harder. The man and his son moved across the aisle to sit with me, and he kept talking and patting my back. Little by little, we found a way to communicate. He introduced me to his son, I told him about my Tunisian family. We gestured, we nodded, we gazed out the window at the passing desert together.
I remember that we came to a stopping place, where small boys sold water from huge clay jars. I remember the man buying me a water, which I sipped gratefully from a shared cup.
And I remember arriving in Sfax, and getting off the bus. The man and his son embraced me, and he handed me a gift. It was a beautiful handmade clay ashtray, shaped carefully from the red soil of the country. I remember him pressing it into my hands, his long white robe touching his shoes as he leaned down toward me. “Pour toi” he said, and I thanked him.
I don’t know his name, and I can’t recall his face. But his kindness to a weeping young stranger has always stayed with me.
And I remember what happened after I got to Sfax and the bus pulled out. I sat in the bus station, as I’d been told by our group leader to do. I’d been told that I should stay in place and wait until he and the other students arrived. So I waited. And I waited.
The day went by, and sun began to set. I was the only foreigner sitting in the tiny, dusty bus depot. I began to notice a group of older men, middle aged, in traditional robes. They stood around, speaking softly to each other, but eyeing me as I sat alone on my bench. I tried to look confident, to ignore them, but I was starting to worry.
Now this was well before the time of cell phones, and there was no way for me to reach my friends or my group leader. All I knew was that I was supposed to wait, and that the sun was beginning to set. I didn’t know what to do.
Finally, I remember, one older man, sporting a full gray beard and bushy eyebrows, came to where I sat. He began to ask me questions in Arabic, which I barely spoke. I managed to finally understand him, and to explain that I was waiting for others. He looked upset and began to speak urgently to me. Finally, through a combination of Arabic and broken French, I came to understand that no more busses would be arriving that day, and that the man and his friends were worried about leaving me alone on that little bench. They asked where I was headed, but I only knew that last name of my group leader, whose family home was my destination.
I remember that the group of men argued and waved their arms and shook their heads as they shot me worried glances. I can only imagine their thoughts. “What is wrong with those crazy Americans!? They send a little girl halfway across the world and leave her on her own in a strange city?” They didn’t know what to do with me!
I don’t remember how it happened, or how I managed to understand it all, but I remember that I was placed carefully in the back of a cab, and that the name of my host was given to the driver. I remember that we drove all around the city, and that the young cabbie stopped over and over again to ask if anyone knew where my group leader’s family lived.
At last, after dark, I was brought to the house where I would spend the night. I don’t have any idea who paid the kind cabbie for his long trip, but I know that it wasn’t me.
I look back now, and I am so touched and so astonished at the gentle, unselfish kindness that was heaped on me that one day in Tunisia.
And I think of the word “Islamist”. I think of those thoughtful, gentle, fatherly Islamic men who took such care of me that day, with no possibility of reward.
I don’t understand how the Islam that I learned to love could have been twisted into the horror of what happened at my beautiful Bardo Museum.
I don’t understand it.
I find myself in a strange and sad place.
You see, for me the world “Islamist” brings to mind gentle, funny, generous men who go out of their way to take care of strangers.