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.