When I lived with Muslims


I was only 17 years old, completely naive and completely sheltered. I signed up for the American Field Service exchange program, figuring that I’d spend a summer in Ireland or Austria or somewhere else that was fairly familiar.

When my acceptance and placement package arrived with the news that I would be moving in with the Barrak family of Kairouan, Tunisia, my reaction was a mix of panic and disbelief.

Where the hell was Tunisia? What would I be doing in a place like that? What were the people like? The food? The weather?

Luckily for me, AFS didn’t give me much time to back out. I read all that I could about the country, feeling somewhat calmed down when I saw that it was hot and dry in the summer, and that the beaches were gorgeous.

The Barrak family sent me letters, some in French and some in English. They were warm, welcoming, excited to meet me. I saw pictures of all of their beautiful, smiling faces and realized that I’d be moving in with a happy, healthy family. In fact, they sounded a lot like my own Italian American family. We had six kids, they had five. They were all fluent in three languages, which was way more than I could say with only my English and my shaky high school French.

I got my shots (OUCH) and packed my bags and off I flew to another world.

I spent 12 weeks with my Tunisian family. I discovered that hard working, family loving Muslims are just like hard working, family loving Catholics. I learned that sometimes the teenagers rebelled against the parents’ limits, just like we did. I learned that when I didn’t feel well, my Tunisian Maman made me special foods and came to check on me, just like my American Mom did.

I discovered that olive trees are gorgeous, that couscous with lamb is beyond delicious, and that it feels cozy and safe to wear a sefsari when you walk around a city.

My summer in Tunisia changed my life. I am still in contact with the Barrak family, through the magic of Facebook. They are still upbeat, warm, loving and still stylishly beautiful (that’s where we have parted ways!)

The ban on Muslim immigration breaks my heart. It is wrong on so many levels. It is the most unAmerican thing that I can even begin to imagine.

I want to write about my time with my Tunisian family. I want to share some of my stories about being a naive American who landed in the middle of a Muslim country way back in 1973, when war was raging between Israel and Egypt and when terrorism hadn’t yet made us fear the world around us.

Stay tuned, please.

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Islamists?


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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.

Mon Papa


Grande_mosquee_Kairouan2_SIt was 1973.  I was a high school junior.  I was scared to death.

Somewhere in the course of the school year, for some reason that I can no longer recall, I had signed up to join the “American Field Service” program.  I had signed up so that I could become an exchange student and travel somewhere abroad.  I had filled out all the paperwork, signed all the forms, gone through all of the interviews.  I was ready to travel.

To Germany. Or Austria. Or maybe to Wales.  I imagined myself chatting comfortably with English speaking people in beautiful European settings. I imagined just enough quaintness to feel as if I was somewhere “away”.

I never envisioned myself living on the edge of the Sahara dessert, under a red African sky, listening to the call of the muezzin as the sun set into the dusty hills.

But that is just where I found myself in June of 1973.  In the dusty Tunisian  city of Kairouan, surrounded by the 3,500 year old walls of the ancient Medina.  The air smelled of jasmine and heat and spice.  It was so dry that it seemed to crackle, and I felt the sun like a pressured weight on the skin of my neck. I hadn’t even known that the world could feel so foreign. Nothing was familiar.

I had met my Tunisian sisters, young women who were beautiful, graceful, charming and totally foreign to me. They all spoke English, but it was the musical sounds of French and Arabic that were swirling around me as I tried to make sense of my new surroundings.  I knew that they were all trying hard to make me feel welcome, but I remember that on that first afternoon, I was overwhelmed by a feeling of strangeness and confusion.  The whole world seem a bit surreal to me at that moment, filled with dangers and enticements that I had never imagined.  I met my Tunisian mother, a quiet, smiling woman whose kindness did nothing to alleviate my sense of dislocation.  I felt as if I had traveled all the way around the earth, leaving behind my sense of belonging, my sense of the rightness of the physical world around me.  I felt a little bit lost that first afternoon, sitting on the little balcony of the family apartment, desperately trying to understand the conversations of the family.  Desperately trying not to miss my own home, my own familiar family.

Suddenly I heard a man’s voice, calling loudly and somewhat forcefully, “Ou est ma nouvelle fille!?”  (“Where is my new daughter?”) I remember feeling suddenly embarrassed, inadequate. And supremely out of place.

Then he was there, Papa Barrack, smiling broadly and warmly, without even a trace of awkwardness. He wore a white robe and black plastic sandals.  He was not tall, but he was a force. His personality filled the room, embraced us all, pulled me in.  From that moment, I never doubted that I was a member of that wonderful family.  Papa Barrak made it so, and it was so.

Over the course of the three months when I lived with the Barrak family in Tunisia, I learned many, many things.  I learned a lot of French and bit of Arabic. I learned about a new culture, and new foods and new music. I learned how to dance to that music, how to make my hips move independently of my shoulders and my feet in time to my hips.  I learned how to cook and eat couscous, I learned about the mosques and about the beautifully haunting call to prayer.

Most of all, though, in that wonderful summer of ruins and Carthage and French pop music and skinny dipping in the Mediterranean, most of all, I learned that people are just people. I learned that a Moslem Dad in North Africa and an Italian Catholic Dad in Massachusetts had more in common than anyone could ever have described to me.  I learned that Dads of teenaged girls are proud and loving and protective and annoying and wonderful.  I learned that Mom’s living across the globe from each other faced the very same trials, and the same pleasures.  They shopped, they cooked dinner, they beamed when the kids ate what they had cooked.  They wanted more help around the house, but they understood when it wasn’t forthcoming.  I learned that kids are just kids, that families are just families, complete with love and arguments and annoyances.

From Papa Barrak, I learned that when someone is there to greet you, you can be at home wherever you find yourself. Even at the edge of the dessert, in a land that smells of jasmine and heat and spice.

Adieu, Papa Barrak. Repose en paix.