Sunday, 18 August 2013

The Outlandish Traveller Guide: Snapshots of the Least Remarkable Landmarks. (Part two)


There is nothing outlandish in these pictures; actually, most of them are the very usual pictures you will find on travel blogs, even less exciting than many other articles written by others. 

If there’s anything or anyone out-landish here, that will be me, the person who took the pictures, in the sense of being a foreigner, a non-native witness of the scene.

You may recognize a few landmarks (like the Golden Gate Bridge, or Jamaa Lefna) but every time, something in them is undermined that you will not be able to recognize them without reading the caption. Sometimes its the wholeness of the scene, sometimes the angle from which the picture was taken.

There are people, animals, signs, but really, it’s all about places. All elements here are landmarks, but they are the least remarkable landmarks, so unexceptional that they seize to be landmarks at all.

All pictures were taken by my own camera, (sometimes a mobile phone). Very few of them were taken by other people, but all of them, without exception, were taken using my own devices.

Part 2: Animals:

How can those terrified vague fingers push
The feathered glory from her loosening thighs?
And how can body, laid in that white rush,
But feel the strange heart beating where it lies?

W.B. Yeats

The lines above, taken from Yeats' "Leda and the Swan", describe the lovemaking (or rape) scene between Leda, one of the beauties of Greek mythology, and a swan, which happens to be no one other than the infamous Zeus, the greatest seducer and rapist mythology has ever known. 

Mythology tells us Zeus, who is unable to conduct love affairs of equals and who happens to have a taste for women that he should not get involved with, will sometimes approach his victims after shapeshifting into an animal. 

The result of the union will be Helen of Troy, and maybe it is not a coincidence Zeus chooses to transform himself into a swan.  

Though the animal kingdom is often depicted as inferior to our own world, it has not always been like that. It interferes and crosses ways with the human world in every imaginable way. Art, mythology, literature, philosophy and a walk down the street will tell us so.

Squirrel in the grass. Syracuse, April 213.

A squirrel having a conversation with Nijmeh Ali. Niagara, May 2013.

Lonely seagull. San Francisco, March 2011.

Turtle on a rooftop. Marrakech, July 2012.

Seagull. San Francisco, March 2012.

Black bird. Houston, April 2011.

Big snake (anaconda?) Houston Aquarium, April 2011.

You cannot actually see it very well, but this is a white tiger. And a real one. Houston aquarium, April 2011.

Panthers. Washington DC zoo, March, 2011.

Proud flamingos. Washington DC zoo, March 2011.

Cat on a doorstep. Rabat, March 2009

click here to see part 1

Tuesday, 13 August 2013

Tunisia's National Women's Day

This post originally appeared on Sharnoff's Global Views.

In the middle of the political crisis in Tunisia, Tunisian women, celebrating their national day today, seem to be caught in the middle of a situation that does not look like a celebration. Besides facing the threat of conservative political forces, a lot of issues remain unsolved, for women’s issues cannot be isolated from the country’s larger challenges. In the middle of the economic crisis, women are not spared, as they constitute an important fork force, a great section of which is unacknowledged in official documents. The deficiency of the democratic institutions in the country also makes the ground shaky below women’s rights.

The official story claims that the history of women’s rights in Tunisia starts in 1956. However, if we want to contest the idea of the ‘Bourguibian woman’, which has grown into something close to a myth, several other factors can be discerned.

On 13 August 1956, the Code of Personal Status was promulgated, making unilateral divorce (or repudiation), polygamy and child marriage things from the past. This is when 13 August becomes Women’s National Day, cutting off that date from what has preceded it.

Tahar Haddad’s book, Our women in Sharia’ and Society, published in 1930, and explicitly calling for women’s emancipation through education and participation in the workforce, is a truly avant -gardist  document with regards women’s rights in Tunisia. The book earned Haddad the antagonism of the Tunisian traditional population and scholars, and banishment from scholarly circles at the time. The Zeitouna, now standing for the moderate aspect of Tunisia’s traditional background, has not always shown support for modernizing projects, especially if they were related to women’s emancipation.

Women’s participation to history is complex and embroiled with political disputes of various political forces. The most notable women militants like Fatma Haddad and Fawzia Bouzgarrou have belonged to different, even rival, ideological and political currents, but have nonetheless contributed to the creation of a relatively coherent women’s movement, despite being part of existing political parties.

Perhaps what characterizes pre-independence women’s movement in Tunisia is that unlike feminist groups in some other Arab countries that burgeoned among upper classes, Tunisia’s early women’s movement mostly flourished through the efforts of middle class citizens who connected easily with the labor movement in the country. In the early fifties, even rural women became part of the struggle, something that is quite unusual for a country that had not yet obtained independence, and where rural areas were relatively isolated from public life.

For further reading:

The Outlandish Traveller Guide: Snapshots of the Least Remarkable Landmarks. (Part One)


There is nothing outlandish in these pictures; actually, most of them are the very usual pictures you will find on travel blogs, even less exciting than many other articles written by others. 

If there’s anything or anyone out-landish here, that will be me, the person who took the pictures, in the sense of being a foreigner, a non-native witness of the scene.

You may recognize a few landmarks (like the Golden Gate Bridge, or Jamaa Lefna) but every time, something in them is undermined that you will not be able to recognize them without reading the caption. Sometimes its the wholeness of the scene, sometimes the angle from which the picture was taken.

There are people, animals, signs, but really, it’s all about places. All elements here are landmarks, but they are the least remarkable landmarks, so unexceptional that they seize to be landmarks at all.

All pictures were taken by my own camera, (sometimes a mobile phone). Very few of them were taken by other people, but all of them, without exception, were taken using my own devices.

Part 1: Inside and out of airplane windows:

The brain is wider than the sky,

For, put them side by side,

The one the other will include

With ease, and you beside

Emily Dickinson

The human race had dreamt of flying throughout its entire history; there’s barely a work of imagination that does not call this dream to mind. But once it succeeded in making the first flight, the human race developed new phobia: the fear of flying. 
Having a window seat may work very well if you are claustrophobic, but not when you have fear of flying.
Still, a window seat is a great thing, and flying for the hundredth time will always be as fascinating as the first time.

 Turkish airlines. Destination: Amman. June 2013.

Air France. Destination: New York. January 2011.

Turskish airlines. Destination: Jordan, May 2012.

Turkish Airlines, landing. View of Istanbul. May 2012.

Jet Blue. Flying to Boston. March 2013.

Jet Blue. Flying to Boston. March 2013.

Jordanian airlines. Flying back to Tunis, July 2013. What you can see below is an amazing haze hovering over  a completely clear sky.

Wednesday, 30 January 2013

Was Roubtzoff a Socialist? A Reading of Alexander Roubtzoff’s ‘Bedouin Alya’

I don’t expect many people to be familiar with the works of Alexander Roubtzoof, first because he was one of the last orientalists, and second because his style, especially in his last works, diverged drastically from the line followed by most orientalists, particularly when painting women. Between 1914 and his death in 1949, Roubtzoff lived in Tunisia; does this make me have a soft spot for his works? Maybe. But Above all, I particularly like his focus on motion which was more refined than the depiction of stationary scenes that characterised oriental paintings in general.  Before acquiring a French citizenship through naturalisation, Roubzooff was born in Russia and was of Russian origins, but this does not necessarily make of him a socialist , (sorry, the title of the post was meant to mislead you!!). However, something in his paintings makes him an innovator.

Roubtzoff’s style departs considerably from the style of early painters of the orientalist school whose works were characterised by garish sensuality, something which also typified some of Robtozoff’s earlier paintings. His more mature works tend to illustrate realistic scenes in their naturalistic fullness and complexity. Roubtzoof, who has resided for a long time in Tunisia, is known for his depiction of rural women, Bedouins. The last of these pictures is Bedouin Alya, which he painted in 1941.

Bedouin Alya presents a very rich scene that embodies the maturity of the artist’s style. It also presents something rare in the Orientalist paintings: women at work. The environment around the Bedouin captures the intensity of the women’s toil. The earthenware pot where couscous cooks on a canoun of approximately the same colour as the pot next to the woman, the bowl between her hands, her slim, brown arms with protruding veins, and the tattoos over her arms and face. The earth’s presence is strong in the scene, in the colour of the Bedouin’s skin that imitates the brown rich earth, the earthenware and clay material around her, the vegetables, the fronds carpet covering the wall in the rear, and the very posture of the Bedouin, that could have also been meditative.

Age is visible in her parted lips and the veins in her arms; but she is by no means to be discarded or treated as a useless accessory now that she has grown old. The harmony between the colours, and the vividness of the materials, earthenware and fabric, stunningly refer to times when women held the balance of the household’s existence until the last breath. The weariness over the woman’s face is a story of toil which is not necessarily romantic or unfair, for it imparts a suffering that defies death through movement.

With her bare, slim hands, and the scattered vegetables at the tip of her fingers, the woman seems to generate a world of abundance and harness its elements in perfect legerdemain despite age. You and I may have memories of the old world of abundance; if not, we may at least have been told stories about it. A friend of mine once told me how she was brought up in a traditional Tunisian household, the kind of households that accommodated many families under its roofs, usually brothers and their wives and offspring. She told me how her grandmother used to cook the meal for the entire family, then divide it into several shares, and put each share in a bowl which she would then give to the families living in the house. Strangely, (perhaps even magically) the shares used to be sufficient for all members of the big family. Fairytales telling about small portions of food which, despite being shared with many people, last longer than bigger portions of food that are kept selfishly to oneself, may have some truth in them.

This thing has a name, it is called ‘Baraka’ in Arabic, a word literally meaning ‘blessing’, but which has a whole system of spirituality, wellbeing and wise management attached to it. I am sure the word has innumerable equivalent terms in different languages and belief systems. In most cultures women are storytellers, midwives, herbalists, and they are the earliest doctors that tribes had ever known. The kitchen we see in Roubtzoff’s painting (or it could be any corner in the house) is more a laboratory where health and wellbeing are controlled, than a place to signify women’s servitude. I am not defending the kitchen, nor am I saying that women that Roubtzoff painted enjoyed freedom because they worked inside the house instead of outside; but I am referring to a belief system where women radiated beyond their personal boundaries. If you think I am writing this to say that women are better inside the house than elsewhere, then you are probably reading the wrong post, for this is not an article about women fitting in or out of somewhere.  Probably it’s time we shift the focus back to values and to the lost spiritualities that condense the meaning of existence. Roubtzoff’s Bedouin illustrates the first of these: Work, Motion, Life.

Sunday, 13 May 2012

The Arab Family, Virginity and the Price of Honour

A Moral Obligation:

We all know what a virginity test is. Many of us may find it a normal practice, and many others may consider it abhorrent and disgraceful, and somehow at odds with the spirit of the age. Feminist and human rights movements in the Arab world where virginity tests are still performed with a taste of moral obligation, keep flagging this practice as a violation of individual freedom. 

This is true, yet this approach has rarely tried to examine the impact of this practice on the individual and on society, or to examine it in relationship to the reality of sexuality in the Arab world, which is a very thorny issue, and which I will try to tackle here from a very individual perspective.

Once a friend told me how her father overheard her discussion with her boyfriend over the phone about their sexual relationship, and dragged her to the gynaecologist for a virginity test as a result. Fortunately for her, the doctor declared her a virgin, and with it declared the honour of the family undamaged. It was her first virginity test, but that was not where it ended.

What ensued later was a series of mishaps: her father pressured her to drop out of university, (she was doing her postgraduate studies and preparing for a career in law), then to take a job as a primary school teacher, one which she was not aspiring to, and to make things worse, he confiscated her mobile phone for several months. 

Not very long after, he arranged for her to meet with a suitor he knew from his circle of friends, and though he did not force her to accept the suitor in the literal sense, she did not reject him because she had started to grow weary of the pressures put on her by her father. The intactness of her virginity did not save her many troubles as she was hoping it would.

How she managed to keep her virginity intact although she had a sexual relationship is not a secret for many girls in the Arab world. Of course, I guess that by now every reader understands that what I mean by ‘virginity’ in the context of Arab societies is primarily the hymen. In fact, the tricks by which a girl manages to remain virgin (or to keep her hymen intact) are so many and well-known, for anything that could avoid penetration or deep penetration is tolerable in the context of so many relationships outside marriage. 

After all this, and although she was no more virgin than her grandmother, came the second trial, which my friend again passed successfully: the wedding night. But the glee of the wedding night that young girls dream of throughout their adolescences did not much resemble the experience of my friend. She told me that after her first intercourse with her husband, and after the actual ‘loss of blood’, she cried her heart out and sank into deep distress. Every intercourse with him brought a bitter sense of guilt that left her void from inside, she told me. It was the guilt she felt when her father found out about her pre-marital affair, the same guilt she felt with regards a whole society that placed a taboo on her sexual promiscuity. 

But then, there was a deeper guilt, the guilt she first felt toward her own body, and toward her own sense of wholeness. The exhilaration and the ecstasy she felt on her first intercourse with her boyfriend was now totally absent; she could never experience it again with her husband, she confided to me. Every time intercourse with her husband was a reminder of the ‘lost’ pleasure, of the fact she had to give up her love, her education, and all the promises of happiness under the pressure of keeping family honour.

Traumatised Virgins, Traumatised Societies:

My friend told me these confessions many years after she got married, a marriage that brought her little fulfilment or happiness to the extent that she refused to have children, although on the surface, everything looked fine. During those years, I could sense there was a malaise running deep, a malaise that she often justified by the fact that she was not yet ready for the responsibilities and the engagements of married life. In some way, it was true. But it takes a lot of mettle to spill out the discontents about the intimate life, especially in a society where the details of the bedroom are often shrouded in mystery.

The whole experience of my friend before her marriage turned into something similar to post traumatic distress, which her own well-being and that of her married life suffered so much. But in the context of societies that put so much pressure on the sexual purity of women and on the duty of men to ensure and monitor this purity, it is difficult for both girls and boys to get initiated into sexuality without experiencing this traumatic at an early age.

For boys, it is often the separation from the mother’s body and the female sphere which often triggers the sense of loss peculiar to trauma. From an early age, boys are indoctrinated with values of masculinity which rule that this separation is necessary for the completion of their manhood. Part of this indoctrination utilises and justifies violence as the price that should be paid for growing up and for becoming an adult male; this violence teaches young males to be aggressive especially when dealing with the opposite sex (and I am not speaking about physical violence only)

This aggressiveness can be overt and extreme, such as the case of honour killing or the right to ‘correct’ misbehaving women, or can be as latent as being ingrained in claims of superiority, of demanding that males control and rule over females. To be responsible of women’s sexuality and to hold the right over her body represents yet another hue of this education. Therefore, a father’s reaction to find out about his daughter’s virginity is ruled by this early indoctrination, the fear of losing his masculine power which is necessarily tied to the ‘honour’ and which in itself is tightly linked to women’s virginity.

Women are subject to this traumatic distress at an early age as well, and to a degree that is even stronger than men. It also happens through violence that they, like their male counterparts, are subject to. But if their male counterparts are subject to violence that teaches them to become violent or at least dominant, females are subject to violence that teaches them to become subservient to both male violence and male dominance. This could be seen in the sexual education of women that imparts that their bodies are sources of evil, in FGM practices, and for sure, in the practices related to virginity, like the virginity test, whether at a doctor’s clinic or on the wedding night. 

Another woman once told me how she experienced bitterness and distress on her wedding night., although it was her first intercourse, and although the condition of keeping her virginity until she got married was fulfilled. The loss of her virginity with which she has grown so tightly attached resulted in a strange emotional attachment between the girl and an invisible membrane in her body, to the extent that her sense of wholeness and of female identity became projected onto a membrane in the body. When lost especially before marriage and even when it happens accidentally, the loss would sometimes lead an immense sense of void, guilt and fear, and an early dissociation occurs in women between sexual pleasure and honour, so that pleasure becomes rather associated with guilt. 

The Future of the Arab Family:

All the frenzy about virginity is grounded in honour, which in itself is part and parcel of the package of the family institution. It is deeply ingrained in societies where family values are strong. Today in most of the Arab Islamic societies, the notion of honour has come down from tribal times that preceded the appearance of Islam, and travelled with it throughout the different parts of the globe with the expansion of the Islamic empire.  It could be traced back to a time when a woman’s body was literally a commodity owned by the family and by the clan at large. As the constricted control of women’s sexuality has kept patrilineal structures pure, it has also ensured the family unity for many and many generations. Where societies tended to give less importance to the community and more importance to the individual, such as in the western societies, less and less emphasis was lent to the moral price of sexual freedom.

However, restricting the meaning of family unity to the purity of the bloodline is dangerous, for the sexual and psychological health of both men and women are also important ingredients for the unity of the family. Women living the effects of a traumatised soul barely have the means to arrange for healthy emotional environments for the next generations, especially when they are not given a leeway for active and public expression to voice their qualms.

As I discussed earlier, men are also victims of this trauma, like women, and an effective education that frees the society of the grips of an askew sexual upbringing that encourages discordant values, should target both sexes. A father who subjects his daughter to the virginity test is no less a victim than his daughter, although in his mind-set, the practice is associated with masculine pride. 

But trauma is just that: it is the belief that we should give up the values of deep emotional bonding, of love and of compassion, as the price for something we consider bigger and much more important, like honour and pride. This exchange does not happen without costs. The loss of emotional bonding with others often results in trauma. After virginity tests women are often left with a sense of betrayal, loss of trust in those they love and they consider to be their protectors, and of having their inmost spheres invaded, leading to a long-lasting pain, and to women’s inability to feel and express trust, compassion and love especially vis a vis their partners and their children.

Until these times, we are still, as Arab individuals, identifying ourselves as the devout member of our families, an institution that is still very vital to our sense of wholeness and social stability. Yet with times advancing fast, we may want to adjust our speculations about this institution. From honour, we need to grow something else, something that stems from the well-being of the individual and which extends to include the well-being of the group as well, that which we call dignity.

The dignity of the individual sprouts from the inviolability of his intimate sphere, of the feeling of trust that extends between him and those who shape his world, something that I very much liken to that raw instinct of babies when you throw them up in the air and they keep laughing because they know you will grasp them. The true essence of family should be to function in the same measures.

There is a large body of literature that discusses the impacts of trauma related to sexual upbringing on both men and women by feminists and social critics, like in the writings of Carol Gilligan and GerdaLerner, and which should be taken into consideration when discussing the future of social upbringing in Arab societies. As it is difficult to enforce a radical change on the meaning of the right and wrong in the world view of a culture, I prefer that right and wrong be changed in terms of how societies and families tackle their most intimate issues, and especially how they treat those who cross the line and how they define ‘crossing the line’. Instead of covetous control, it should be the feeling that no matter how much an individual errs, the rest should be there to support and nurture him instead of mistrust and chastise.

Saturday, 7 January 2012

The Red Shoes and the Blue Bra

The two pictures have become the most popular icons of protest in the last few months, both came at about the same period, both from Egypt, both of women.

Somehow, both became symbols of the same thing, though much different .  Aliaa’s red shoes incited anger and excitation, shame and shock, and so did the blue bra of the Tahrir girl.

Whereas one was staged, the other was not. Whereas one of the 2 women chose to reveal her identity in defiance, the other never revealed hers for fear, shame, or both.

Both pictures produced deep shock, both were viewed thousands, perhaps millions of times by browsers.

But we have to understand that the nature of anger, shame and shock that the two pictures stirred were not of the same nature.

The picture of the naked blogger brought an explosion of protests, verbal insults, death threats along with words and acts of support from people from different places of the globe, among whom were women who posed naked in support of the blogger. Her blog beat a record by going over one million views in a short time. 

Though her true identity is still shrouded in mystery, the girl beaten in the Tahrir square became no less popular.  Her picture caused an equally angry reaction of thousands of women rallying in the streets of Cairo after the photos were released.  I am still not sure whether it was the brutal beating that was more shocking, or the tearing of the abaya to reveal the upper half of the body, with nothing but a blue bra whose colour could have remained unknown maybe until the girl took it off at night, alone in her room, if not for misfortune.

The two pictures also came at a critical time of history.  The image of the boot hitting the blue bra girl reminded me George Orwell’s famous statement: ‘If you want a picture of the future, imagine a boot stamping on a human face — forever’.  Somehow, this bleak prediction became true.  The stark incongruence between the boot, non human, synthetic and abrasive, and the human face, all soft flesh and fragile bones, is shockingly painful.  So was the image of the boot stamping the bra, made of soft fabric with a soft colour brought suddenly to the light of the day, like a frightened kitten.

The individual versus the authority has been an old age clash, but the twentieth century gave it a different taste, and the twentieth first century gave it a taste that is even sharper:  women are now seen in the centre of the public arena, and protest is no longer a male privilege, but a collective duty.  And even if history cast a shadow on women’s acts of heroism, pictures in the twentieth century brought the proof that they too can be there.  

The pictures of the nude blogger are also meant to show an act of protest, though the majority of virtual community who visits her blog and comments on her picture does not think so. Like the Tahrir girl, she too is a protestor.  But unlike her, her nakedness is not brought upon her as a punishment, but as a choice.  

What inspired me to write this entry is a picture on Aliaa’s blog with the caption ‘Free choice instead of violation and humiliation’.   I discussed ‘naked protest’ in another blog entry, as being a form of protest that brings the body in the fore in all its fragility, by choice.  When chosen, nudity comes against the enforced stripping, which often is done as a way to degrade, to crush and to violate the sense of wholeness.  Stripping with one's choice on the other hand, does not, but does instead disarm authority. Like the tank man who stood before a row of moving tanks in 1989 in China showing he has nothing to lose, the naked blogger displays her body to social voyeurism that had both cherished and condemned its nudity.

When the Egyptian women took to the street to rally against the rule of the army, they were inspired by the picture of the blue bra.  One of their signs addressed to the army read:  ‘the women of Egypt are not to be stripped’.  It was not an outcry against violation of the female body only, but also against the violation of the women’s right of protest that was hampered that day. As they do, acts of supports for the naked blogger are silent, a silence that explains the embarrassment of the liberals who are afraid of stigmatisation if they show their support, and who may be cursing providence under their breaths for the 20 years old girl who staged her own understanding of owning her body in the least imaginable way.  They might have hoped for a more compromising, and politically correct way, but they forgot that protest is just what it is: an uncompromising act.

The silence on the side of liberals is scary, I dare say.  But against silence, images remain, an eternal carving in the shallow mud of obscurity.  It will be long, very long before the bra and the shoe sink into oblivion.  Though one appears in a soft shade and the other in a burnishing colour, though one is for a woman posing upright, and the other is of a woman lying down and beaten, and though one staged and the other is unprompted, they represent the woman in all her flimsiness and authenticity, beaten and glorious, like a translucent, hard pebble washed out on the banks of a river.

Sunday, 23 October 2011

DANGEROUS CROSSINGS ~Encounters with Women/ Encounter 2 ~

From the window of the louage, we could see a long line of cars before the crossing point in El-Djorf.  Crossing from mainland to the island of Jerba does not usually take more than 15 minutes on board the ferry, but with that line of cars, waiting could last hours. Kady had been waiting for us for over an hour, and she was urging us ‘to make it quick’ or we would miss the cruise ship which leaves the port at noon. The woman with the tanned face told us that if we wanted to be on time, we had to do something proscribed, though quite conventional. ‘We are going to tell the driver that we’re getting down here, and continue on foot to the crossing point. From there, we may take the ferry as individual passengers.’ Her suggestion sounded reasonable regarding the time we still had to wait before our louage reaches the crossing station, but the problem was that the crossing station where we were heading was for vehicles only, and that individual passengers like us could access it from another gate at the other side, inaccessible to us at that point. She reassured us saying that there was no problem, that people do that all the time, that no authority was going to disturb us.
Eventually, we did as she bid.  My 2 friends, the woman and I, got down and walked to the crossing point without being stopped by authorities. "No one would get to Djerba on time otherwise" said the woman, smiling. Indeed, it was the beginning of the touristic season, and if someone happened to be travelling from the island to mainland frequently, getting in time to work and to appointments would be problem in vehicles. When we arrived, there was a ferry boat that was closing its gates, while another was visible from distance. We still had some minutes before it throws anchor and empties itself and before we can get on, and we seized the opportunity to take photos and go to the restroom.  We sat then on an old, half demolished fence next to the crossing point and it was during those minutes that I could see the woman clearly. She was any age between 30 and 45, and she wore an ample blouse with patterns of panther spots and tiger lines, and a headscarf.  She had weather-beaten countenance, amid which there were small scintillating hazel eyes which gave her an aura of both openness and cleverness.
When the ferry arrived, we sat in the second level, where we could sit totally still and enjoy the view and the smell of the ocean. We said goodbye to the woman before meeting with Kady and her husband who were waiting for us in their car. Although it was 5 minutes to 12, we were able to make it to the cruise ship right on time.

When I uploaded the photos of the trip to my computer a few days later to send them to my friends, I tagged the album with the name: ‘Harqa to Jerba’, as a reference to the ‘illegal crossing’ that we have made that day to reach our ship.  The word harqa means ‘burning’ in vernacular Tunisian, and it has many usages.  We speak about ‘burning’ the red light when we ride before red becomes green, and burning the borders, which refers to clandestine crossings to the European country, usually by means of boats ministered by ‘specialised’ agents.  It is a term that is more recent than all the others as it entered popular usage in the last decades characterised by the shooting  rise of the number of illegal immigrants which only corresponded with the fortification of the immigration in European countries.  In all cases, the word harqa is associated with a dangerous undertaking and about crossing a line, whether that of law or of geographical borders. As we bid the woman goodbye in Ajeem, I could not help thinking how much of her life consists of these dangerous crossings.
She was travelling between Djerba and other Tunisians towns on the other bank of the Mediterranean to trade in clothes and other goods. Precarious as it were, this itinerant way of living has become the  answer to many people who could not find decent permanent jobs, especially in the last few years during which employment has been on the rise.  I knew of many families on the south and midlands whose survival relied on trips their members made to Libya, trips often involving not only the dangers of the road but the continuous haggles with authorities which charged them exorbitant taxes.   Up in the north, a lot of young people traded illegally in unlicensed goods procured in Algeria, relying on ‘contra’ or the trafficking trips.  I remember the taxi driver who told me how he became severely injured in a traffic accident on one of those trips between Tunisia and Algeria, resulting in broken back and a period of three months hospitalisation, of which his family knew nothing.  A single trip could sometimes last 48 hours, he explained, and so, they were always in the risk of falling asleep on the wheel which was even more threatening than falling in the hands of police.  He had now quit and bought a taxi.  Although he missed his former life and the substantial financial gains that it brought along, he was now content with his life, safe and empty of risks compared to the past.  This financial security, he explained, he could not have been able to ensure if not for the years of ‘contra’. The thing he was most proud of was not the taxi though, it was the fact that he could afford for a respectable ‘zhaz’ for his sister, who had no job and no higher education, and who was compelled by a very traditional father to stay home. I still remember the tone with which he spoke, the tone of a retired person who was gratified with his accomplishments over a long career, ‘for you know,’ said he, ‘a girl’s honour is like milk, once a drop of water falls in it, it becomes stale.’  I understood he was talking about the rumours that may befall his sister if she did not get married, and I smiled at the creativity of the simile. The familiar simile in this context is to compare a girl’s honour to a match, very thin and once broken, it can never be fixed, similes that survive to the twentieth first century and attest the contradictions of modern Tunisian society. In the past, marrying a girl used to be the task of her family. Probably the wealth of her family used to play a rule, and if she happened to be beautiful, stories about her beauty would fly to would-be suitors, but the task of bringing a suitor home is exclusively not hers.  With changing cultural standards, ‘finding a husband’ has become the responsibility of the girl, and it relies more on her social web of acquaintances, and especially on the years of university.  I am not saying that girls go to university for the sake of getting married, but very often, something is also expected of her beyond accumulating diplomas while she is there.  This does not mean that society has become totally tolerant with a girl’s freedom, on the contrary, restrictions, though more flexible now, still remain imposed on her freedom . The biggest contradiction is that despite all this pressure she undergoes to rely on herself to find a husband, she is still accountable to prove an intact honour by marrying fast. (Fortunately, the meaning of ‘fast’ has also been subject to some elasticity in the last few years). 
The story of the taxi driver was evocative of all the contradictions of  a third world country, torn between the urgency to respond to the temptations of a nearby continent whose lights are visible on clear nights, and whose greatest lures was the western lifestyle levied by advertising.  To seek union with the promises of the market by crossing borders is punished by both the mother country and the destination country, for this citizen is expected to comply to the demands of the market and to remain constantly alleviated to consumerism, while also remaining within the borders of his countries. Women were subjected to the same contradiction, and now, more than ever, they are restricted by the demands of both traditionalism and modernity.   Her trip outside home is not the adventure she has been eager to assume, but the unleashing of a series of more requirements and yet limited freedom.
The woman who led us to break the rules at the crossing station that day was familiar with this lifestyle, and was herself victim of this contradiction.  She valued her economic independence more than anything, she loved those trips though they drained her of energy, but they did not come at an easy price.  Her husband beat her because he was jealous and did not like her frequent comings and goings.  In the past, similar ways of living were restricted to men, but novel economic standard imposed different realities. At the same time, the amount of profit she was bringing could not be ignored.  We asked her about how she was handling the issue, and she said that she once had to desert the house to force her husband into apologising and ‘admitting her worth’.  And a woman’s worth is not only her place in her husband’s heart, but also her role in bringing bounty to the home. It is why a lot of women choose to stay at home whenever the economic situations improve, when a child graduates and finds a job for example. They renounce their financial autonomy (tough, I found out, even the most ‘submissive’ women value economic autonomy), to sometimes abscond snags with spouses.  
I thought about those who crossed the sea for a ‘better life’, whatever the term means.  Some of those immigrants do not contact their families for months, work in terrible conditions and are treated like peasants in feudal societies.  The taxi driver had broken his back and several bones and risked his life many times in order to buy a taxi and help his sister get married, a sister who did not have the slightest idea on how to make a crossing by herself.  Everybody is seeking some kind of crossing. One cherished genre of the American movies and series now is the paranormal, which often deals with stories of wandering souls seeking to find their way to the world of light.  This may not be a fair comparison, but it strikes me how in all these stories of crossing, someone is always caught between the perimeters of two worlds, one which had grown too insufficient for him, the other refusing to open its doors for him.  

The changing socio-cultural and economic values had also transformed women’s roles radically, making them central agents in the family's economic stability, but remaining reluctant to acknowledge the importance of their roles, because otherwise, to acknowledge that is also to contest  patriarchal conservatism. One of the most serious predicaments that women all across the world face is the lack of open acknowledgment, which draws a shadow over the roles they play in family and in society.  While some jobs have become regarded as suitable for women, like those demanding high qualifications and necessitating less ‘adventurous’ lifestyles, others are still regarded as masculine or devaluing for women, when more and more women need to undertake them, out of financial necessity, or out of choice less frequently.  Women are caught exactly between that necessity, and the dogmatic denial of their standing which pulls them back and stalks them.  Only full, brave and responsible acknowledgment, a shedding down of silence, should make their sacrifice less strenuous.