This post is the thirteenth in a series which starts HERE.
After the visit to show my daughter her father’s gravestone (link to that post), we return to find the house filling with relatives and neighbours who want to celebrate my daughter’s sixteenth birthday and welcome her to their village. In addition to various men and children, there are older women in traditional tachleilas and younger ones in more modern Arabic garb; long robes and tight headscarves. Although no women cover their face entirely, several of the women hold their scarves across their mouth and nose.
This is a change from the late nineties when I lived there; in those days few younger women covered their heads. In fact the Niqab (which covers the face but not the eyes) was banned during the reign of long term dictator Ben Ali, who was toppled during the Arab Spring in 2011. Ben Ali ran a police state, keeping tight control on fundamental Islamic sentiment, which is now on the rise since the birth of the new democratic era. Tunisians now have more control over their choice of government but many seem to be using it to increase the grip of Islam.
Dusk is falling and my anxiety is rising; Rania is staying in the village on her own while my mother and I carry on forty miles to Sousse. I have hired a car and don’t want to arrive in the dark; I have no road map of Sousse and can only hope I will remember the layout of the town from sixteen years previously.
When we planned the trip I was adamant I didn’t want to sleep in the village. I had stayed there many times during my earlier years in Tunisia and those days were behind me; Samir was long dead, these people were strangers, their culture and religion alien. In some ways I felt like it had all happened to someone else. Even writing this blog sometimes feels like a work of fiction; surely this didn’t actually happen to me? Except my daughter was living proof that it did happen – and she was adamant she wanted to stay.
‘They’re my family.’
‘But you’ve never met them before.’
‘And you can’t speak Arabic.’
‘You said some of them can speak French.’
‘Your French isn’t that good, and neither is theirs.’
‘I’ve done it at school for four years. Keep your hair on. I’ll be fine.’
‘Alright, you can stay, but I’m not staying with you.’
‘I don’t want you to.’
There was a pause. ‘There’s no phone signal or wifi. You won’t be able to contact me.’
‘Stop going on, Mum. It’s boring.’
So I am about to head off in the last remaining daylight when Rania’s uncle arrives from the town with three enormous cakes. Each says Happy Birthday; one in English, one in French and one in Arabic. ‘It’s for the star of this party,’ he says, as he sets them up on a cake stand in the middle of the courtyard for everyone to admire.
Rania looks bewildered but happy and tearful at the gesture as everyone tries to take a photo of her beside the cakes. Her uncles and aunts stand beside her, many of them crying; she reminds them of their deceased brother and their family bond is strong. I can see they immediately accept her as one of their own. And no wonder – she is the spitting image of her aunts, especially the youngest who is twenty-one (the feisty little girl I met when she was only five and who made me long for a similar daughter).
Apart from my daughter, the three aunts are the only women without head coverings; they have abandoned that custom for the evening so Rania doesn’t feel out of place. That small gesture is reassuring, and seeing them link arms with her makes me more confident about carrying on to Sousse without her. I’m leaving my daughter with strange foreigners, yet they are her family. It’s uncomfortable and confusing; I can’t wait to get away from the awkwardness because it has brought back so many memories, some happy but many of stress and fear. I feel as though I’m abandoning her.
It’s now dark; the birthday cakes have delayed me. Goodness knows how I’m going to negotiate the traffic in Sousse.
I can’t even say goodbye to Rania; she has been borne away to help her cousins in the kitchen. With a heavy heart, my mum and I get into the hire car and make our way over the hard-packed, bumpy earthen tracks out of the village.
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.
There’s also my facebook page: Fiona MacBain – Writer – thank you!