Adventures in Tunisia

Adventures in Tunisia

A Performance at the Municipal Theater in Sfax

by Aisha Ali

Sfax is the second largest city in Tunisia, and in 1973 it was reminiscent of what American towns must have been like at the beginning of the 20th century—somewhat modern but still unspoiled. I had stopped there on my way to Gabbes, not intending to stay long. Shortly after arriving, however, unexpected opportunities presented themselves that encouraged me to extend my visit. In the lobby at my hotel, I had met Hassan, an attractive and personable young man who spoke some English. Glad to have someone to talk to in my own language, I sat for hours drinking coffee and listening to him recount the history of ancient Carthage. He welcomed the opportunity to practice his English with an American, and when he asked what I was doing in Sfax, I explained I was on my way south to record traditional music. He told me about several interesting groups of musicians who lived in Sfax, and said that he would introduce me to them.

The following day Hassan escorted me to a place called ”The Chems Correspondent’s Club” to hear some musicians who were frequently there to play Andalous, or classical Arabic music. He explained that although the place was exclusively for men, he had obtained special permission for me to attend and record the music. It was more of a clubhouse café than a nightclub, a place where members gathered to play cards or backgammon and listen to music.

The author in Tunisian costume. Photo: Gary Margolis

On this occasion Hassan had arranged for some members of the Dar Shaab (a local division of the Ministry of Cultural Affairs) to meet us there. Be aware that in 1973 my command of the Tunisian dialect (or most Arabic dialects for that matter) was not very fluent, therefore I was dependent on Hassan to explain my purpose and to be my voice when conversing with others. I do not know for certain exactly how he introduced me, but from what I understood, he told them I was a dance teacher from America and had come to Tunisia to gather music examples in order to preserve Arab music and dance traditions.

They listened to him and politely nodded at me, then the musicians began playing, not Arabic classical music but a folk style known as Tunisian shaabi. After a few minutes, during which time I placed my microphones and adjusted my volume levels, Hassan announced that they wanted to see me dance. This had not been my plan because I needed to watch the controls and change the reels on the tape recorder, and since the music was syncopated in a way that was new to me, I knew I would be unable to perform well. Hassan insisted that they expected me to, so I agreed to do my best if he would watch the needle on the controls.

It was challenging for me but I have to admit that I enjoyed dancing to their music so much that I forgot about my ineptitude. I must have been running on adrenaline, because judging by the length of the music we recorded, they had kept me dancing nonstop for more than 30 minutes, and I had made no attempt to end the dance because I didn’t want to stop recording the music.

Afterwards Hassan and the “committee” left me alone to speak to the musicians and adjourned to a small office to have a discussion. When they returned, Hassan explained that we were to meet them again the following day to hear their final decision on something important.

It evolved that the committee had conferred with the high school authorities and voted to offer me a teaching position at the Dar Shaab. It was their hope that I would choreograph and train the local girls in order to form a folkloric dance troupe in Sfax. They apologized about the fact that they could offer me only a modest salary but said they would provide a house and a driver during my stay. I said I would consider their offer and give them an answer soon.

The entrance to the old Suq, Sfax. Photo: Aisha Ali

Of course, I was flattered, and to accept would have been not only a great adventure, but also an opportunity to learn Tunisian dance in depth. After examining all the consequences, I came to the conclusion that even had I believed myself qualified to teach Tunisians their own dance, in Los Angeles I had a performing career, a dance studio to operate, and a new house with mortgage payments to be met. The salary they were offering could never cover my expenses at home. Hassan tried to convince me that I could have a good life in Sfax, but I knew he had his own motives for wanting me to stay. The next day I met with the head of the committee and expressed my regrets for not being able to accept the position. However, I did agree to stay in Sfax long enough to perform at the Municipal Theater on Tunisian Independence Day.

I had been spending a lot of time with Hassan exploring Sfax, but he was no longer fun to be with. When we first met he had seemed happy and charismatic, but since taking upon himself the responsibility of managing my affairs, he rarely spoke to me except to give instructions on what I should or should not do.

Since the beginning of my Middle East travels, this pattern seemed to repeat itself with a different male in each place I visited. Fortunately, in spite of being raised in America, I understood Arab men and their bossy behavior did not bother me the way it would have some of my American peers. I knew how to respond in the manner of a well-bred Arab girl. My experience had taught me to accept their wisdom to have the benefits of their masculine protection while still maintaining my independent character. In this way I was able to comfortably ask for and receive assistance from my “champions” to accomplish things that were not acceptable for a woman on her own.

I had not yet met his family, but Hassan took me to meet his best friend, Najeeb, who also spoke some English. Both he and Najeeb were engineers, and had careers that were better than average, yet they spoke about how difficult it was for young Tunisian men to marry. They showed me some hand decorated wooden chests, which were to be filled with valuable objects by a groom as part of the bride’s dowry. They explained how Tunisian custom demanded that men accumulate a certain amount of money before considering marriage, and that often a man’s youth and looks were gone before he had acquired enough to properly support a bride.

Najeeb spoke of being in love with his cousin. Although she returned his affection, she would probably marry an older man who could immediately offer her security. As she was the eldest of three girls, her sisters were not supposed to marry until after she did. Hassan said that because it was so difficult to arrange a marriage, he was seriously considering going to Germany to marry to a foreign woman who had stayed in Sfax the previous summer and had suggested such an arrangement to him.

On one occasion, boarding along with some shepherds and their flocks, we took the early morning ferry to Kerkenna. I had heard about the famous musicians/dancers who lived on the island and wanted to see them perform, but it wasn’t possible because we had to leave before dark to take the return ferry. Shortly after stepping back on the mainland, an older man on a bicycle rode towards us shouting at me and waving his fist. Hassan behaved as though he hadn’t noticed him, and as usual was walking several steps ahead of me. The man was clearly angry and drove his bike in circles around us in a threatening manner. I was confused and kept asking Hassan what he was saying, but Hassan wouldn’t answer and forged ahead. Finally the old man gave up and rode away. When we reached my hotel Hassan left quickly saying that he had to take care of something.

Later I got a phone call from Hassan telling me that the man on the bicycle was his father, who had been informed about our being seen together on Kerkenna. Evidentially it was strictly taboo for two young single Tunisians to travel alone together to an isolated place and his father had assumed that I was a Tunisian girl. What confused me most was why his father had put all the blame on me. Hassan said that his father wanted to talk, and put him on the telephone. The father spoke in French (which I barely understood) and apologized for his outburst. He said he had not known I was an American and he wanted to make amends by inviting me to the house for dinner that weekend.

Hassan had borrowed a car to drive me to his father’s house, on the outskirts of town. On this occasion Hassan seemed more serious than usual. His family received me in a polite, friendly manner. A traditional Tunisian dinner was served, after which his brother and sisters asked me a lot of questions concerning my work and life in America. Hassan did all the translating, and then announced that it was time to take me back to my hotel.

In the car Hassan told me he had something important to discuss, so instead of returning he drove to a sandy stretch of countryside. We got out of the car and he began walking and talking while I followed. He told me that he was hard working and ambitious and that when he married he expected to be a good and faithful family man. He explained that he had given things careful consideration and had decided to give up marrying the German woman. He felt we were well suited for each other, and had come to realize how much I needed him to help me with my career. His new plan was to work in Europe for a year to earn some money and then we would meet again in Sfax to be married. Later, if I wished, he would accompany me to America. It’s possible that it never occurred to him that I might not share his views on this subject or have plans of my own. I explained to him that I didn’t believe I would make a good wife because I had grown accustomed to being independent but that I would give it a lot of thought. He was not pleased with my attitude.

We walked back to the car in silence and he nervously started the engine. The wheels began spinning and the more he tried to move the car forward or back, the more we sank into the sand. Finally he gave up and said we had to leave the car and make it back to the road. Unfortunately, I was wearing a long straight dress and high-heeled sandals. We walked for some time with no one in sight until we saw a distant light coming towards us that turned out to be a man on a bicycle. Hassan explained to the man what had happened to our car and we followed him to his place to get a board to put under the wheel. He seemed to be a watchman, and lived in a remote building. There was no one else around for miles and he didn’t have a telephone so we couldn’t call for help. The three of us returned to the car and tried moving it onto the board but had no success.

Hassan asked the watchman if we could borrow his bicycle to get back to town, but he refused. After further petitions the watchman agreed to let Hassan take the bicycle if he would leave me there with him. Hassan became angry and called him names, which made the man very angry and he called us names, saying that we had been up to no good. They argued loudly for a while, and then finally reached an agreement. Hassan left his watch with him and we both took off on the rickety bike.

Because of my straight dress, Hassan instructed me to sit sideways behind the seat, holding my feet in the air. After a short distance we both realized that I couldn’t keep my balance that way and we had to stop while I hiked up my dress and sat straddling the fender holding my legs off the ground and away from the wheel. By this time Hassan was in a really bad mood and shouted at me each time I got tired and my feet touched the ground. The discomfort of that ride back to town is forever etched in my mind.

The Independence Day event had been advertised and townspeople were curious about the special “guest” dancer from America. With the exception of a coin belt, my costumes and extra clothing had been stored at the hotel in Tunis to lighten my luggage while traveling to the south. Although the committee had insisted that they could send for them, I didn’t feel that a revealing raqs sharqi costume would really be appropriate. Instead I went to the suq and purchased a brightly colored Tunisian yarn belt to wear with my long, fitted tobe. I reasoned that by changing belts, the tobe would serve as a generic costume for both the folkloric and the Oriental dance.

I had assumed that other local dance performers would join me, but on the evening of the concert it became clear that I was the whole show. I began wishing that I had more than two belts for a costume change.

The Municipal Theater was large and had several balconies and because it was free to the public that day, the house was full. The concert was comprised of two large orchestras. The first played folkloric music on instruments such as the zurna, the mishwish, bendirs and darabukkas. The second group of about twenty-five musicians and singers played Andalous music with traditional urban instrumentation such as kanoun, violins, nay, req, mazhar and darabukkas, and for my dance they played raqs sharqi music. Aside from the afternoon at the Andalous club, there had been no rehearsal or discussion of what music would be played or what dances I would perform.

Still relying on Hassan, I showed him how to use my Rolli 35-mm camera and my reel-to-reel tape recorder, asking him to record all the music on the program and to take photos of me as I danced. He told me not to worry and reminded me that he was an engineer.

When the music began, I danced onto the stage to find a sea of smiling faces. In my experience as a dancer, there is nothing better then performing for an Arab audience, as you never have to guess what they are feeling. This audience was eager to enjoy themselves and my every move elicited a roar of approval from them. Since this was the folkloric portion of the program, I wore the colorful belt that I had purchased for the occasion. Unfortunately, I had not practiced wearing it. The belt kept loosening around my hips and I kept trying to adjust it without drawing attention to the fact. After a vigorous section of hip twisting, I realized that my belt had slipped to the floor around my ankles. The crowd cheered and whistled, throwing flowers they had probably planned to reserve for the finale. I smiled sheepishly, untangling the nest of cords that had formed around my feet, and resumed dancing.

Backstage during the intermission Hassan assured me that he was getting good photos from the wings, and recording everything. The raqs sharqi section went on without a hitch and in addition to being grateful for having this opportunity to record the music, I felt fortunate having such an excellent and large ensemble of musicians to play for me.

In spite of the falling belt incident, I left the theater feeling elated and we returned to my hotel lobby to listen to the music Hassan had recorded. The tapes turned out to be quite disappointing as they had been recorded at too low a volume level and the microphone had been placed to pick up more of the audience roars than the musical instruments. Later when I got my photos developed they were even more disappointing because Hassan had forgotten to remove the lens cap. I didn’t cry, but I gave Hassan a very meaningful look. There would be no more talk of my needing a husband to help me with my career.

Aisha Ali has contributed to the field of dance as a performer, teacher, documentary film maker, choreographer and recording producer. She has done independent research throughout Egypt and North Africa as well as parts of Syria and Lebanon. Ms. Ali tours internationally as a lecturer/performer, and directs the Aisha Ali Dance Company, based in Los Angeles.

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