As the flight touches down at Carthage airport, our party of three disembarks. My heart skips a beat as we pass through Passport Control but we are soon enveloped into the arms of my husband’s waiting family. We are in Tunisia, and my husband is home at last. His family welcomes home a son, brother, uncle, cousin, friend, and comrade after close to 20 years in exile. The joyful ululation of the women gives voice to an elation that cannot be expressed in words.
The heady fragrance of the Jasmine Revolution, which finally rid Tunisia of its crippling authoritarian rule on the 14th of January 2011, captured us in its folds and carried us from the southern tip of Africa to the shores of my husband’s homeland – Tunisia.
To recapture the moment of reunion, of hearts bursting with joy, is impossible. Knees sank to the ground, prostrating with gratitude. My husband held the faces of his elderly parents, met his sisters who were now mothers, smiled in the eyes of his beloved brothers, and embraced his comrades, released from years of imprisonment or like him, exile. Songs of freedom wiped away the grief as smiling hearts sang of hope and victory. With tears of happiness wet on our cheeks, we left the airport for my husband’s family home.
Sitting in the car, the voices of my sister-in-law and niece, thanking and praising the Creator, accompanied us as we made our way to the town where my husband lived, the town he fled in February 1992, when his politics earned him exile. My husband asked to stop briefly at a river which runs along the town border. He stared out at the murky waters and remarked that the river had grown smaller. I wanted to tell him “No, it’s you who has grown bigger.”
Honking cars marked our arrival in his hometown and like a bridal party, we meandered through the streets, greeted by people waving and smiling at the return of a son. Every day during that first week was filled with such sweet memories and meetings. These hot but happy days and nights lasted until the early morning as family, friends and neighbours streamed in. At the end of this first week I was also treated to a second wedding, complete with all the paraphernalia which accompanies a new bride. Well, except that I had a three-year-old in tow who watched with fascination and approval as his mother was transformed into a bride. After all, we had come to Tunisia in the wedding season.
One week after our arrival in Tunisia, I entered my in-laws home, a white safsari cocooning me from head-to-toe. Among the singing women, I fluttered out from beneath this shift, and like a butterfly, spent a beautiful evening with amazing women whose love, warmth, and smiles adorned my wedding party. I had visited the Turkish bath or hammam with my sisters-in-laws two days earlier, sitting for hours as my hands and feet were decorated with henna, and I braved the drive to the dressmaker’s shop where I was dolled up for the occasion. I marvelled at the women’s songs which spoke of patience and sacrifice, of love and happiness, and of the promise of Paradise. The beat of the duff lasted well into the night. The violet and gold wedding gown was exquisite; and seated at my side on the dais was my son, holding my jasmine-scented bouquet. On a beautiful Friday evening, my husband and I celebrated our marriage Tunisian-style.
The night thereafter, it was the men’s turn to rejoice. Friends and family arrived after the Maghrib prayer and the beautiful sounds of the Qur’an recitation, in the Warsh style still widely practiced in North Africa, electrified the night air. For Tunisians, a gathering of this nature was unheard of months before. Alhamdulillah, all this is changing.
For two weeks, we met family and friends, and I was beginning to adjust to the customary afternoon nap, the qayloolah, which was necessary to cope with the sweltering heat as well as the busy nights. At night, cool lemonade and delicious sweets, served on silver trays, were always at the ready. Children swarmed about, and my son was swept away by his cousins, playing and laughing for hours. The sheep which lived on the roof fascinated the children almost as much as the classical Arabic which both my son and I spoke. This soon changed as we became immersed in the life and language of Tunisia. As for Tunisian food, well that’s another story…
My adventurous eating habits helped me adjust easily to the spicy Tunisian cuisine, but my husband had somehow lost his taste (or stomach) for harissa and my son was not coping too well either. As the food went a bit lower on the Scoville scale, all was well again. The milky coffee and crusty bread dipped in olive oil at breakfast; fruits and vegetables which burst with flavour; and tomato-based dishes that defied my imagination, have altered my taste buds forever.
The blue waters of the Mediterranean beckoned but a story which cannot go untold is that of my one sister-in-law who, like the rest of the family, had crept into my heart completely. She had been parted from her husband when she was in her twenties and her two children were aged one and three. When he was freed seventeen years later, she was in her forties. She was diagnosed with cancer a short while after his release, and is now, alhamdulillah, in remission. An elementary school teacher, she truly reflects the dignity and patience of so many of our Tunisian sisters.
The following week, we packed for the beach, and a small group of the family travelled ahead to the holiday house. Our two-hour journey to south-eastern Tunisia took us through acres of olive groves, small towns and villages, and on to the little coastal town of Tazarka where we were faced with the clean-up job of a lifetime. With brooms, mops and buckets of water, we started scrubbing layers of dust away. Under all that grime the house was a real beauty and best of all, the jasmine tree in the yard was in full bloom…
Najma Mohamed is an environmental researcher and writer living in Cape Town, South Africa with her husband and young son.