Tunis, Tunisia

Part 1.

Muhammad VIII Amin, last bey of Tunis

Tunis is cold in January. I escaped the halting snows of the Northeast but the chill it seems, resides here too. Our apartment is just as we’d hoped it would be, spacious for two students, with the mismatched furniture we had expected as well. The heater is a great blessing in this weather and in these walls that are built to keep out the heat when it swelters in the summer but don’t offer a similar service of keeping out the cold in the winter. The great oxymoron of the heater is that it takes in air from outside by a tube that stretches from it, through the window and attaches to the outer wall of the building. This means that the window is permanently cracked open. It brings in a draft when there is a breeze and sucks out the warm apartment air the rest of the time. But there’s a good lesson there. If one wants to make a change for the better (heater) it will be a challenge because old habits and stones left unturned will spoil some of the positive change. Eventually, I assume, the heat will be so intense and prevalent that it will act as a barrier to any cold intrusions on its own, without a need to close the window at all. I remember once, in California, sitting around a table with many students and one shaykh. We asked him about bad habits and how to get rid of them, and he pointed us to another way.

“If you have a glass of muddy water, separating the mud from the water will be extremely difficult. But if you start adding in pure water, slowly, without stopping, eventually the cup will overflow, and you will see the contents and color of the glass change as the mud effortlessly flows out of the cup.”

In other words, it is often easier to inculcate good habits and characteristics, then to root out the bad, outdated ones. Sometimes the most effective strategy is to focus on the good until your time and patience for the unsavory run out. This might be the least painful approach.

But back to the window. For now, we’ve got tape. I sealed the living room window, which is the main culprit, with tape, as far as up as I could reach. None of the windows fit their frames in the apartment, so they all draft. The bathroom is the biggest adjustment because unlike bathrooms in America where people like to linger to take long showers, ready themselves in the morning- this bathroom screams ‘Get in and get out!’ There is no separate shower, only a vague hinting at a shower by a hose that hangs in the middle of the wall. You could almost miss it. Somewhere in between the sink and the toilet one is expected to shower in this strange barzakh. And shower, we must.

The school, Institut Bourguiba des Langues Vivantes is, one assumes, a shadow of its former self. That is perhaps the best compliment I could offer to the brick and mortar of the place. Atop one wall lies a bust of the man himself, Habib Bourguiba the prime minister and president of Tunisia from 1956–1987. Perhaps once that bust towered over everyone, but now it seems more like some useless thing tucked away on a high shelf- out of sight, out of mind. I’m learning more about the man who has his name plastered about town, Bourguiba. I imagine like many Arab leaders of his time, he was a complicated figure. I read that he discouraged fasting during Ramadan to promote productivity, once drinking a glass of orange juice on tv during the fasting month to prove that he put his money where his mouth was. In my mind’s eye I can clearly see all the heads that shook in disbelief and disdain, thinking ‘What is wrong with this man?’