It was all swank and great fun, the ten-day trip I took to Tunisia. At least that’s what I expected. Little did I know that my reality would be shaken once again and my thesis research on the Arab Spring wouldn’t be the only enthralling part of my trip. I hopped on a plane within hours of finishing my last final, so I was hungry, tired, excited, relieved, dazed, and scared. In the months prior, the University suggested that I strongly reconsider my travel plans, out of concern for my safety. Even so, I pushed and pleaded to go—the opportunity to see a new country and gather meaningful data for my independent work was invaluable. The weight of how I was to spend my intersession didn't set in until I boarded my connecting flight from Istanbul to Tunis.
I usually dismiss my emotions as fickle, but I decided to be honest with myself this time. What was I apprehensive about? I travel often enough and I’m comfortable doing things on my own, so this wouldn't be much different, right? Wrong. I sensed a disquieting fear deep within. For one, I was worried about functioning in French and potentially being misunderstood. I hoped that my experience with the language from studying abroad would come to good use now. A fear larger than language, though, was being a solo, black female traveler in Tunis. The actual significance of this was hard to gauge, but I certainly felt the weight of the political unrest in Tunisia due to the nationwide curfew and the University’s ensuing apprehension.
When I arrived, I spent my first few days tip-toeing around the city extremely on guard. Lost were opportunities for carefree frolicking. I constantly felt eyes on me. As much as I tried to blend in, I couldn’t. My desire to be anonymous was unmet and overshadowed by my dissimilarity. And what better place for my difference to be emphasized than the souks, where my foreignness could be the baseline for getting ripped off. But I did want to go shopping! Just to see what it was like. For a culture can be understood in the expression of its goods and services. Going to the markets would be a give-take process, and again I was afraid. But I couldn’t not go.
The Bab al Bahr, an archway in the middle of a large square named Place de la Victoire, marks the entrance to the traditional markets in Tunis. From this wide-open space, I entered a narrow walkway, clutching my fear in one hand and my wallet in the other. I was bombarded with color. I slipped off the shades that kept me from making eye contact with people and put on my glasses to get a better view. The ground was clear of litter and paved with asymmetrical stones. Naturally, I started to power-walk—as best as I could along the narrow path with traffic flowing in both directions. Breathe, I told myself. Slow down, Tumise. No point being here if you’re going to charge through.
I was there, seeing all that could be tried on, tasted, smelled, and touched. It was glorious. But one thing was still holding me back. What would happen if I tried to buy something? Price tags didn't exist and haggling was inherent to the experience. I continued strolling down the curvy path until I came across some stalls selling essential oils. Tunisia is famous for the jasmines along its northeast shore, so I had to bring some of the scent back with me. I stepped inside one of the stalls and almost fainted from the force of different aromas. Luckily for me, the vials were pre-priced according to size and the shop owner generously let me smell the different oils. I left with not only the scents of rose, jasmine, and sandalwood, but some confidence in my ability to not be swindled.
I continued down the path, now with a bounce in my step. Next, I had my eye set on buying a foutah. I had seen many draping from the ceilings of stalls or folded in staggering piles. Hand woven from fine Egyptian cotton, I couldn't wait to find the perfect one to bring to the beach. A dusty rose color, detailed with gold piping and the Hand of Fatima caught my eye. Mhm, I could see myself and a friend or three lying on it, surrounded by white sands and the murmur of the sea nearby. Maybe I could make this dream a reality during Dead Week, after exams and before graduation. The shop owner started by suggesting a price four times its worth, so I haggled back and forth with him for ten minutes. Clearly amused by my shrewdness and after I threw out some numbers in Arabic for good measure, the shop owner conceded and I finally landed myself the pink foutah, and two others for my family.
My heart was smiling and my eyes were bright with excitement. My haggling skills weren’t too shabby and I had tangible items to show for it. I was so pleased with myself for success in a seemingly frivolous task: shopping. Such a familiar and often therapeutic experience had become more taxing, but just as rewarding. If anything, it represented how relative and unfixed are the realities in which we live and the emotions they produced. My longing for stability and routine often shifted positions with my desire to live fully aware, unjaded by familiarity and comfort.
I hummed to myself as I turned yet another corner and headed into a traditional coffee shop with the drink menu listing fixed prices outside.
~Tumise Asebiomo ‘16
© 2014 Princeton Traveler