Tunisia | What Can and Cannot Be

Updated: Feb 27, 2019



"Mister Sandman” drifts from piano keys in the background of what has found itself to be my favorite place on the border of Hammam-Lif and Hammam Chat – Coco Coffee.


My favorite place, just south of Tunis, south of Carthage, south of Italy, sings. Dogs and mist and fishermen nets. Young students at study. Men with greased back hair, shiny shiny, smile, sort-of sparkle. Men who come and go and shake some hands – never once removing their sunglasses – all here at the innermost tip on the Bay of Tunis.


Plastic bottle confetti and shells of the sea decorate this bed of sand and brown sea matter clumps. The beach is a narrow strip of stuff, family homes and tea salons. Black mountaintops.


A long time ago it was a “grand” place. So says a friend I have met. So says the internet. So says the pools of pollution. A place Europeans and travelers to the region would go to relax in bath houses, prop up their feet at ‘le casino’ along the coastline, and do business. Today, a series of buildings surrounding the derelict casino are home to near a hundred families who have taken up residence in what is probably not their opulent past. A woman leads me to the stoop of le casino. Peoples, laundry lines and spicy octopus in hot aluminum pots waft out of open rooms.


Many persons live here beside le casino, and in the traditional fruit-foliage encircled homes on nearby hills, and by the water, and the refuse – freely living in their own shadows. The shadows of their neighbors. Dragoons of dead street-cat shadows too that congregate on corners and wall-tops all day and night. The cats wearily watch the hands of could-be providence. As they wait, each cat affords a wink. Each eye winks in the tire, neither eye fully yielding.


Memories of many ‘sunken orange peel’. They, we, me – remember those peels floating in the water, as we walk along with these shadows in broad day light.


It is a soundly place when the water crashes. One day I walk and crunch the crunchy earth. My shoes are flat, best for crunching. Memories that are mine because ‘I think they were’ come to pass. Memories of the times I’ve stepped over some crunchy rubble on a path, or meditated on an eyeless animal in the brush. Flies nearby devour my motions in this sand. Some fishermen gather by the rocks. More fishermen gather by their wooden boats.


We all are here, in Hammam-Lif, in Hammam Chat. Yesterday was Al-Mawlid, the birthday of prophète Muhammad. Celebrations of sound and thoughts and sugary nut puddings. We eat the leftover sugar and nut puddings all week-long. Walnuts, pistachios, and hazelnuts. Prayer of anew, kindness to another.


I sit in Coco Coffee, and like Shainez à Paris, the space lightens with a variant of ‘as-salumu alaykum’, and ‘mon ami’ and ‘salam’. The woman at the front counter brings me a small red flower. High cheeks. She says “Americain, oui” and turns to a young man with short hair and a blue plaid shirt, who studies history in the corner. The young man makes my Americain and in tune resets the music – ‘we don’t need no education’. He asks me – what I am doing here, where I am from. I say I am here as a writer and a traveler. He has a fair face and is full of spirit. Fellowship of life. He places my coffee and his laptop at the table.


We read his writings, his poetry that rhymes, his frustration of the ‘to be’. Words of love and future. He tells me of the Tunisian youth, who are sad. Of his friends. He tells me of the youth who have passed. He speaks of the despair of those who are told or shown some things that ‘cannot be’. He hints at his own pain, then he paints his rebirth to me. We smile together, sharing these truths.


Line by line, his writing is simple and pure, telling the tale of what he hopes, what he dreams. Youth of Tunisia, spirits by the water and the dogs that jaunt across the sun. Ripples of my life I come across – found here with my friend. Northernmost Africa.


The day before, I arrived in Tunis in the dark, to take a wobbly train in the dark, to an unmarked, unannounced stop in the darkness. A low hum of motors and one yellow light pour onto the platform. A man with one-pierced ear approaches me to ask if I am a tourist. I suppose so, “oui” I say to him. We talk below the yellow light. For a while it is ‘where I go’, then ‘where he goes’. I tell him I do not know the place I am to go, only that I move towards it. He walks with me, so as to find my way.


We say goodbye.


I arrive at the home of a gracious host. Cheery smiles and curiosity. He shows me the gardens, and the fruit trees, the oranges that have yet to fall. Often he says to me “as you like”. I eat and sleep and find comfort in this grace. I meet his father, his mother, aunt and uncle, grandmother, grandfather. One evening we sit in the bedroom of his grandfather who is ill, his grandmother brings a tray of cookies and sugary orange-colored beverages. In English, in Arabic, in French. There is talk. And here we sit. They are all in arms reach. They are all here to see for, care for, be there for in practice and in peace.


In Hammam Chat I see a woman who stops to feed a cat. From one to ten little cats. Each cat is a different color and pattern. Each cat crying out to be seen, to be heard, to be distanced from the day they do not eat. Another woman comes to kiss the cheeks of the woman with food. Tosses something on the sidewalk. I witness this early morning kindness beside a long, yellowed wall; the smell of jasmine and exhaust whirling in endless dust.


There are folding waves of majik here. So is not often said. The layers we fold together, over time. One finds where to place each layer. Youth who try to scrub away despair. Ghosts remembered, ghosts that finally will have that meal. À la plage our cups are read. The tingles that we feel. It is here we fan the coals of self.


Together, I see us dancing on the blue bejeweled sands near the water. Some love with a ‘Lolita’, who loves by choice, I hope. Each pattern as we be. Each being as we are. I have. Surely, we can brush cheeks with any sunshine or dans-le-gris gods we seek. Gray gods we probably already know. C’est possible. So it will be written. Inshallah. No more sunken orange peels. For this dust falls on us all.

It can be that we forget the ‘cannot be’, here by the Bay of Tunis.


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