This post is the seventh in a series which starts HERE.
In the village, Samir’s family home is crowded with relatives and neighbours. There are older women in tachleilas and headscarves, and younger ones in modern clothes, their heads uncovered. Young men in jeans and Hawaiian-style shirts, their hair slick with gel, chat with older men, some in threadbare suits, some in shepherd-style robes. There are children running everywhere. It is chaotic. Everyone stares at me, the westerner in their midst – but not with animosity, only friendliness and curiosity.
Dusk is falling when we set off to the wedding Samir had told me we were going to – so I’ve replaced my usual jeans and timberland loafers with a long dress and sandals. The women and children walk together, with half the men ahead, and the other half behind us. Most of them carry sticks.
I want to ask Samir how far it is but he disappeared into the group of men not long after we arrived. I have his youngest sister clutching my hand – she has been glued to my side since I arrived – and his two older sisters, sixteen and twenty-three, take turns hooking their arm into mine. It’s difficult to communicate because their French is threadbare but we try.
‘We are going to the wedding now?’
‘How far is it?’
‘We walk maybe one hour?’
This is a shock – but by now the procession is stumbling in the dark across barren fields. Samir told me the wedding was in an even more remote village further inland but it hadn’t occurred to me we’d be walking there in the dark. But how silly of me. Nobody has a car, after all.
‘Why the sticks?’ I ask, pointing at the men.
‘To protect us.’
I recall another conversation with Samir about why his sisters are never allowed to go anywhere unaccompanied. ‘In case they are attacked. There are only police in the town – they don’t care what happens in the villages.’
Eventually the sound of a mizwad (a bagpipe-like instrument) reaches my ears and we see lights ahead. The music gets louder as we arrive at a clearing where floodlights are powered by a hired generator (the village doesn’t have electricity). On one side, over a hundred women and children sit on a slope and we take our place among them. Some of the girls are dancing to the traditional music and Samir’s mother brings out a bottle of fanta which is passed around, along with paper wraps of sunflower seeds. I watch as they toss shelled seeds into their mouths and de-shell them deftly with their teeth and tongue, spitting the shell out onto the ground in front of them. I am useless at it. The little one has said several times that she feels sorry for me because I can’t speak properly, and now here was another sign of my incompetence at life. I am not very good at their traditional hip-swaying dancing either.
In front of the slope, the bride and groom sit on a low platform. He wears a suit and looks bored, while she wears an elaborate white dress and an incredible amount of make-up, so much that it’s difficult to read her expression. She certainly doesn’t look joyful.
In the middle of the clearing a group of musicians play while, to my surprise, belly-dancers writhe and sway (Samir later explains that the ‘dancers’ have been hired for the evening). Beyond them, in the shadows on the other side, the men are gathered, drinking illegal beer and whisky (no police, you see).
We stay for a really really long time; until there is an enormous mound of sunflower shells beside us and it is getting cold. It must be close to midnight and all I can think about is that we still have to walk home. I feel resentful that Samir has abandoned me, although I can also see there is no intermingling between the men and the women
My bladder is close to bursting so I ask where the toilet is. An anxious look crosses Samir’s mother’s face and she has a serious discussion with her daughters before taking my hand and pulling me off towards one of the nearby buildings.
She points to the door of a shack. ‘Samachny,’ she says. Sorry. As soon as I go in I realise why. It’s a long drop toilet that is, literally, overflowing with shit. It’s everywhere. Drunk men have pissed and shat all over the floor and the stench is horrific. I race back out the door gagging. I’ll pee myself rather than stay in there. Samir’s mother looks mortified and I know she feels ashamed that a foreigner has seen that. I wish I could explain to her that British men are pigs when they are drunk too – I used to work in a pub in Edinburgh and was once asked to clean the men’s toilets on a Saturday morning because the cleaners hadn’t shown; it hadn’t been much better.
As we return to the slope, everyone is now standing; something is happening. A man with a mega phone stands beside the bride and groom and reads out names and amounts of money from a piece of paper. One of the girls explains those are the wedding contributions, and looks pleased when their names are mentioned. ‘We gave a lot of money,’ she says proudly.
This is their traditional way of distributing wealth, for the wider community to help a young couple to get started in life – and those who don’t contribute are subject to public shame. Samir had explained there would be much later speculation on the amounts various families had given. Generosity is deeply embedded in the Tunisian psyche. During my time there I was humbled many times by the kindness shown to me by people who were comparatively poor. Tunisians would think nothing of giving up their dinner to a sudden guest to ensure they did not leave with a bad impression.
After the money announcements, the wedding is coming to its conclusion. The bride is carried by her family to a house at the far side of the clearing and is pushed inside with the groom. After a short while the groom re-emerges and hands a blood-stained rag to the family of the bride who ululate their way around the clearing.
This is a sign the proceedings have come to an end and the men emerge from the shadows to start throwing bottles and chairs at one another. Samir’s mother gathers us together and hustles us to the darkness at the edge of the village, to wait for the men to finish their fight.
Me in a beautiful tachleila, 1997
If you enjoy these blog posts, you might want to consider my debut novel, Daughter, Disappeared, a hard-hitting ‘women in jeopardy’ thriller, set in Tunisia. Please read the reviews on Amazon UK: http://amzn.to/2eCnZRf. Or to purchase on Amazon.com, for those in USA/Canada: http://amzn.to/2ozbGe8.
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