24 January 2011


All the recent news about Tunisia has got me thinking about Tunisia. Obviously.

Six years ago right about now, I went to Tunisia with a French tour group. It was winter vacation of the year I spent teaching English to French high schoolers, and some friends and I booked one of those flight/hotel/bus tours. This one, because it was in Tunisia, also included a camel ride.

I was happy to go to Tunisia. My grandpa had spent part of the war there, and I'd grown up hearing his stories about camel races and swimming in the Mediterranean. And oh yes, about how he met a guy in the British army who was also named Ronald Walker and how they became good friends.

British Ronnie Walker would sneak into the American camp to get a decent meal, and American Ronnie Walker, aka Grandpa Ronnie Walker, would sneak into the British camp to get a decent drink.

That was my experience with Tunisia growing up, and six years ago, I had a perfectly fine and memorable experience with Tunisia myself. There was a sandstorm, references to Star Wars {which was partially filmed there—name the scenes}, a lot of couscous, and some writing.

But now the Tunisian government has fallen apart, and I read an article in the New York Times about how a fight with a fruit vendor started the riots. I'm sorry and somewhat ashamed to report that I didn't read the whole story, and I know this is how rumors and other forms of misinformation gets started; someone is underinformed and then tries to pass themselves off as informed. Fruit caused the Tunisian crisis. At least according to the New York Times.

I'm thinking about Tunisia, trying to form an informed opinion on what's happening, and trying to ignore the fact that when I hear on NPR about riots and chaos in another country, I go slightly blank and numb.

With Tunisia on my mind, I dredged up the writing I did while crammed on a bus with French people.

Here's a little excerpt for you.


I’ve lost my imagination.

At the very worst, my sympathy because sympathy looks at someone else and imagines, “My life is your life. I know you.”

Sometimes, I don’t even want to know. Like that old man slumped in the doorway of that house in the impossibly isolated desert of Tunisia.

The house was half the size of a single-wide trailer back home, making it more the size of a pop-up trailer popped up. Like every other building here, it’s built of red hollow bricks, bricks that must come from a government factory in the middle of the country, an easy location for shipping to everyone.

The bricks are like cinder blocks that have dieted and been dyed red, and from the way the houses, restaurants, hotels, and shamble shacks creak up to the sky (never very high), I understand that this is a people with a nomadic past.

They don’t know how to build permanence, or at least permanence in the way I understand it coming from a baby country that likes to put down some roots and watch them grow.

That old man slumped in the doorway—I couldn’t tell if his house was half-finished or half-destroyed. The red hollow bricks were crumbling back to dust, and the house, which barely had a roof, was being eaten away by the desert.

No electric lines ran to the house; no telephone, either. Out back, the desert crawled into the distant mountains, monotonous except for one or two other houses and a herd of camels straight out of Lawrence of Arabia.

What does he do all day, that old man slumped in the doorway? His coarse but necessary brown hooded robe wraps him against the relentless sand.

What’s it like to live somewhere where the ground never stays put?

After so many years of the blown landscape scratching at your skin, perhaps you can’t feel a difference between your face and the desert. You become part of the blown landscape, hardened to its hardness, accepting of it because it’s all you know and all you want to know.

Maybe that old man slumped in the doorway would see Iowa and not even want to know.

He might wonder what we do all day, shut off right in our climate-controlled boxes. Looking at our strip malls, megastores, fast food, and convenience stores, he might question how much stuff we need to buy to make our cushy lives any cushier, buying into imagined needs.

Our Grant Wood rolling green may make him distrustful of all that lushness in one place that stretches to only more lushness on the horizon.

I don’t know what that old man slumped in the doorway would think of Iowa because I don’t even know what his life is.

I’ve lost my imagination.

I don’t know.

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