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Two women I met by chance on Monday saved my Valentine’s Day.
“Come, we are going to dinner and drinks,” they said. I didn’t have plans—great.
I couldn’t make it to dinner, but met up with them at 11PM at a nearby restaurant for a drink. When I arrived, there was a sign on the door in French. I couldn’t quite make it out, but it seemed to say something about a private party. I opened the door, and immediately, the stern-looking host demanded to know who I was. I stuttered… “Um, my name is….” the guy looked at me skeptically. “I am here to see… [my new friend’s name].”
“Oh really? Welcome! Entrée!” His eyes sparkled and he started treating me like a VIP. He kissed me on either cheek (the typical Tunisian—and French—hello). The door opened to show about 70 people and a rocking, live Tunisian band. A few people were dancing while most sat at their tables finishing their dinners. I scoured the room and didn’t see my friends, although I knew from the host they were there. No luck. I awkwardly went from table to table making sure I didn’t miss them somehow.
Then, a man I had never met walked up to me “Jen, we are so happy to see you here!” He kissed me on either cheek. Surprised, I took a step back. “Oh, um, me too!” He led me to a table of 15+ Tunisians just finishing their dinner. Multiple bottles of gin, vodka and wine were spread out on the table. Awesome. I spotted my friends sitting on the other side of the table. “We have been waiting for you! Everyone is very excited to meet you!” I shook hands and introduced myself slowly to the table. A waiter brought a chair, and I squeezed into the already crowded table between a Tunisian dentist and a doctor.
It was definitely a party… The band was playing high-energy American and European hits, and the whole restaurant was decked out in Valentine’s Day red, pink and white. Even the desserts were heart-shaped. But the atmosphere wasn’t typical V-Day-quiet-romantic, it was “let’s party!”
Slowly through the night, I got to know the table—such kind, friendly (and fun) people. After a few drinks, well all got up to dance. The live band (never seen a live band in Tunis before) was playing music from the 1950s to today… Elvis, the Beatles, Adele, then Pink Floyd:
“Hey, Ennahda, leave our kids alone… all in all it’s just another brick in the wall.” The crowd erupted, the lyrics referring to the ruling Islamist political party Ennahda. Ha. The jokes about Ennahda continued. One man and his wife joked that they would take me as another wife. He counted two more of the couple’s female friends. “Ennahda is in power, so soon I will be able to take four wives!” Everyone laughed.
I met the ambassador from a Western country, a few doctors, a lawyer, a dentist, a few artists, a few writers (and editors), a few people in the energy business and a few free spirits. The night was magic. I love Tunisia. So did jazz-great Dizzy Gillespie with his hit, “A Night in Tunisia”. Tonight, a great night in Tunisia.
We talked about my book, politics, the uprisings in the region, American foreign policy… and of course my favorite part after meeting new people: whether or not I am a spy. A few of the men joked with me incessantly that I was learning Tunisian Arabic, living here, meeting people, and had a flexible job with lots of travel… I must be a spy. Unfortunately, I get this a lot (especially in Egypt). I made it clear that I was not, in fact, a spy. So funny.
I have been back in Tunis for a week and have been very stressed about finding an apartment and settling back down again into the book. A lot has changed in the past few months—including me. Tonight, a lot of my stress and doubts melted away. I felt like the universe gave me a sign, saying, “Yes, you are supposed to be here. Chill out.”
I have been quite reluctant to share what has been going on here to me personally… I am one of those paranoid, don’t-share-too-much-on-the-internet kind of people—whatever you share will come back to bite you later. However, this personal and professional leap I have taken have thrust me right into the public sphere. Hell, I am planning on publishing a follow-up narrative about my experiences here. But for some reason, I am not comfortable putting these stories up on the internet in real time.
Maybe it is because in my last job I was the voice for someone else and had to silence my own voice (or at least loan it to someone else)? Maybe I am just paranoid? Or maybe it is because I think having a personal blog seems a little unprofessional and a little less hard-hitting-foreign-policy-writer-esque. Not sure.
What I do know is that I have a lot of friends and family who want to hear more about “what it is really like” instead of what is happening politically. So, to those people, hang tight. I am going to try to more often share what I am learning, what I am doing, and the people I am meeting here: crying with a former female protestor after hearing her story in Tunisia, getting a little too close to the action in Tahrir Square, and the funny stories of a single blonde girl living alone in the Arab world (there are a few).
The real reason I am here is to try to bridge the cultural gap in any way I can—what better way than through my own stories?
I know I’ve mentioned this before, but I mean it this time!
After spending a few wonderful nights in Los Angeles with an amazing friend, I got onto a plane from LA to Tunis. I had spent about 6 hours in the LA airport and had an 11 hour layover awaiting me in Frankfurt, Germany, so I thought a little sleep on the plane might do me some good.
I don’t sleep on planes… at all really. This was made even tougher with 3 crying babies and the woman in front of me who leaned her seat all the way back (PS: frequent flier etiquette: lean the seat back, but not all the way). No sleep for me. I drifted off for about 10 minutes and woke up terribly motion sick. I walked to the galley and asked one of the young, blonde German flight attendants for a Coke and a motion sickness bag.
Then, all of a sudden, I felt better. My nausea was gone, my body felt stretched out/comfortable and I could breathe again.
And… then I woke up.
On the floor.
Six blonde flight attendants stared down at me from above while shouting to each other in German. I then realized I felt a little naked. I lifted my head off the ground and saw a male flight attendant holding my legs straight up in the air (supposedly to get more blood circulating to my head). Of course, I was wearing a short-ish skirt.
They all asked if I was ok… I was fine. No injuries, except of course, my pride. Yep, for the first time, I was “that girl” on the flight. The severely dehydrated, tired, motion-sick girl who flat out fainted on the transcontinental flight.
They put me in a nice isolated chair reserved for flight attendants (it reclined!) and fed me lots of soda and juice to get my blood sugar up. Turns out, the young flight attendant I first approached in the galley was a trainee. It was her first flight, and when I fainted I nearly scared her to death—she actually thought I had died. Ha. One of the older flight attendants let me know that they usually get one fainter every other flight. That made me feel a little better… but not much.
After my 11 hour layover in Germany, I got on my last flight to Tunis. I sat with a family of Tunisians and we started talking about the politics of the country. One of the woman even told me some of the horriffic stories she had heard about continuing violence in the country. We talked some more and realized we had all been on the flight from LA together.
"OH YEAH! You are the girl that fainted! I remember you!"
Originally my flight was supposed to arrive 6AM Weds morning, but instead I came in very late on Tuesday, 1AM. My plan was to stay at the airport until the morning so I didn’t wake up my friend in the middle of the night, but turns out she was awake and told me to come over.
In Tunis at the arrivals gate, the taxi drivers make a living from duping unsuspecting tourists. My first cab ride in Tunis, the taxis quoted me 70 dinar, and I ended up paying less than half that. I was proud of myself at the time… until I realized a ride to the airport is only about 6 dinar.
So the trick in the Tunis airport is to go up to the departure gate and get an honest taxi which uses the typical fare counter. But when I walked outside to find one, a group of about 10 policemen stopped me, telling me that the area was closed. I explained to them that I can’t go downstairs for a taxi, that because I am blonde they charge me 40 dinars minimum. The policemen laughed and were amused by my spotty and slightly sassy Tunisian Arabic. One offered to help me. He walked me downstairs, flashed his badge, yelled at some of the taxi drivers and helped me get a fair fare.
Once inside the car and out of the policeman’s sight, the driver tried to get 50 dinar out of me. When I didn’t budge, he drove like a madman to get me to my destination as soon as possible so he could get back and get more money from unsuspecting tourists. He was so angry at me—he treated me like a thief (taking away his good tourist money! ha).
I got to my friend’s house and she welcomed me with open arms. She is amazing and is letting me stay with her until I can find a new apartment. I am so thankful for her and her generosity… welcoming me into her home with her family. Visiting home in Kentucky is always wonderful because of my family, and it is so nice to now have a bit of a Tunisian family here. (You know who you are, thank you.)
Crazy trip, but so worth it.
Although they are rarely spotted on the front rows of fashion shows and favor discretion when placing orders and managing their investments, wealthy individuals from the Middle East have become the world’s biggest buyers of high-end fashion during the last decade. Most of the luxury goods producers and worldwide retailers are now originating from Dubai and the Arabian Gulf, including the owners of Harrods, Gucci, LV, Prada and more.
Traditional buyers of exclusive designer clothes tend to include members of rich industrial or royal families and high net worth expatriates. The biggest buyers of couture today centre on the Gulf - nationals of the United Arab Emirates and Saudis, Kuwaitis, Qataris who do not hesitate to spend $75,000 on a low-cleavage silk dress for an event where no men will be present.
"All the royal families of the Middle East are our customers," Catherine Riviere, head of haute couture at Christian Dior, said during the brand’s show at Paris Fashion Week. "Women from the Middle East are our top buyers and they are likely to remain so," said Jeffry Aronsson, chief executive of Emanuel Ungaro, who had run Donna Karan, Oscar de la Renta, Christian Dior and Marc Jacobs in the past.
When living in Qatar, my friend invited me to a traditional Qatari wedding. When walking inside, I could see slivers of bright colors peeking out from under the women’s abayas (traditional black cloak) lightly grazing their fabulous stilettos. Inside, the women kept their abayas on until all men had left the building (in Qatar there are two separate wedding celebrations, one for women and one for men). The female band made an announcement, and all the women quickly removed their headcoverings and their abbayas, revealing professional hair, makeup, and the most gorgeous high-fashion dresses I had ever seen.
My friend donned a full-length yellow silk dress custom made to her body. One of the other women wore a beautiful green Vera Wang dress from Vera Wang herself. One of the dresses, I was told, was over $100k.
Despite the cost of the dresses, the women didn’t hold back. In these tight gowns, they pulled out belly-dancing moves I didn’t think were even possible. The crowd especially got a kick out of one energetic, flexible 80-year-old woman giving me, the stiff American, a belly-dancing lesson on stage. Ha.
When my friend invited me, she told me to wear a dress. Living in conservative Qatar, all I had was a very conservative black cocktail dress. At this wedding, I had never felt so under-dressed and frumpy in my life.
I think the last Sex in the City movie was extremely inappropriate and offensive and played on stereotypes of the region. But the one thing the movie did get right was the amazing style and high-fashion clothes UAE and other Gulfi women sport underneath their abayas.
Another Western celebrity is considering converting to Islam. Liam Neeson, star of Love Actually and Taken, considers giving up Catholicism for Islam. Read the Huffington Post story, here.
Neeson is not the first to consider converting to Islam.
Cat Stevens, now Yusef Islam, converted to Islam and, for a time, was on the US no-fly list. CBS News:
"Half of me wants to smile, and half of me wants to growl. The whole thing is totally ridiculous," said Islam, whose string of hits in the 1960s and 1970s included "Peace Train," "Wild World" and "Morning Has Broken." He said he was on flight because he was on his way to Tennessee for a recording session.
Islam, a Briton who was born Stephen Georgiou, abandoned his music career after becoming a Muslim. His United Airlines flight from London to Washington’s Dulles International Airport was diverted Tuesday to Bangor, Maine, when U.S. officials reviewing the passenger list discovered he was aboard.
He is back in the music scene and is performing in Doha, Qatar in February.
So is Dave Chappelle.
And so is the late Michael Jackson, Mikaeel, who converted to Islam in 2008.
Adapted from an article my friend Leila and I wrote in November…
From Ahram: As part of a “virtual world revolution” day, Egyptians are taking to Facebook in high numbers… essentially occupying Facebook. Egyptians began furiously commenting (50,000 comments) on a photo of Vin Diesel in Cairo… but comments quickly spread over to Facebook pages of other prominent figures, including President Obama.
If this grows (which it might), I am sure the international news will pick it up… Just like the revolution and election, Tunisia is first… but Egypt takes the press!
In Tunisia, videos like this started the conversation:
In early November, right after video of the Occupy Wall Street protests started to circulate on the internet, Tunisians—the first to protest in what has become known as the “Arab Spring”—reacted to the American demonstrations with shock and a little humor.
Tunisian President Fouad Mebaza “ruled out a military solution to end the American crisis and says that the hours of Obama’s rule are ending soon.”
This was just one of the over 170,000 comments Tunisians posted on President Obama’s campaign Facebook page in November. The weekend this took place, many Tunisians stayed home during heavy rains and flooding in the country. Instead of going out, they filled social media with tanbir, exaggerated, sarcastic jokes echoing the Tunisian experience during the uprisings and the revolution.
“Newsflash: The Tunisian government froze the assets of the President Obama.” The European Union and others froze former Tunisian President Ben Ali’s assets earlier this year
“Tunisian Prime Minister Beji Caid Essebsi congratulates the American people for their revolution, and calls for Barack Obama to move in response to the demands of his people.”Mr. Obama made similar statements about the Tunisian revolution
A fabricated North African NATO “is preparing to impose a no-fly zone on the United States after severe repression suffered by the American people.”
“Eminem arrested for his song, ‘Mr. President’.” The former Ben Ali government arrested a popular Tunisian rapper, El Général, because of the political nature of his music—one of his most famous songs is “Mr. President”
“Popular Tunisian singer Fatima Busahh inspects the American refugee situation in the border crossing with Canada.” Referencing Angelina Jolie’s visit to Libyan refugee camps on the Tunisian-Libyan border earlier this year
In the posts, some Tunisians even linked to humorous photos about the “American revolution”:
Caption: Tunisian President Ben Ali says to Obama: What happened? Did Tunisians mount a blow to make you join me in Saudi Arabia? … Please don’t forget the PlayStation I asked you to bring.*
Caption: The technique of herding disobedient sheep exported to the United States*
*one of many captions for same photo
New to Twitter: www.twitter.com/voicearabspring