Saturday, February 5, 2011

how tunisia works, she said

I'm so proud of Tunisia. Repeat 5x. I've been saying this to myself for a while now, and then I thought of Fatima. And her lesson on how Tunisia works.

We were in her so-called kitchen — a tiny room with a hotplate on a countertop. A very weird room, because nobody used countertops — they all squatted on the ground to cook. The French had designed this part of town, figuring the Tunisians would someday appreciate indoor running water and the as yet unappreciated white tiled countertops in houses built in the souri part of town. Countryfolk had long since turned off the indoor faucet in the so-called kitchens of Medjerda. Running (or dripping) water inside would just bring more mosquitos. Unsanitary, Fatima would tell me. The French, she maintained, knew nothing about good health.

It was 1979. Fatima felt me incredibly deficient in most aspects of being alive. In her provincial ethnocentrism, there was only one way that things were done, only one way that anything worked — and it was her job to teach me, since I was so obviously lacking in both knowledge and practice. She had good evidence of this. Obviously, I was incredibly unattractive to my husband since I had no children. She attempted to remedy this by pulling all the body hair off of me with a sticky mixture of sukr. (Problem solved: I was pregnant by the end of the year). My language skills sucked, and so she yelled at me louder until I got it, and my facility with fellahi Tunisian dialect was so dominant over my modern standard Arabic that city people cringed as soon as I opened my mouth. She smacked me gently if I didn't take enough photographs or ask enough questions of the fellahin. And — she taught me to cook.

Her lesson on how to cook chakchouka turned out be the most important of Fatima's lessons by far. Tunisian chakchouka is a stew that simmers for hours in a couscousi√®re in such a way that it also cooks and flavors the couscous piled in the upper steamer part of the pot. Each region and tribal group has a distinct manner of making couscous and chakchouka. This was hers, but the principle remains the same — I paraphrase below:

The water, she said, we're all in the same water. If the water's okay, then we're all okay. If the water is sick, we will all be sick. The environment. Check. I got it. Where we were in the Medjerda Valley, the water was very very good. So, I didn't think about it.

The spices, she said, the spices all differ from family to family. So I could smell the spices of the Trabelsi, and know who they are. She furrowed her brow a tad. And the Djlass. She wagged her head, not quite in disapproval. The spices were clear markers of ethnic and tribal identity — and I wondered right then why I had ever sought to make them Schezuan lamb during Eid that year. What was I thinking? No, it spoke nothing of my own identity. And yes, they hated it. Spices and flavor are supposed to make you instantly transparent, ethnically speaking. And the spices in one's chakchouka flavor everything they encounter.

The vegetables, she said, each have their own level. There's no mixing. This she emphasized by holding me fiercely with her gaze. I love Fatima! I love her ferocity, protectiveness and pride. She wants me to get it right. The vegetables were the key component to make me realize that she wasn't talking about food at all. She repeated it:

Each have their own level.
There's no mixing.
Fierce gaze, to fix the lesson.

She elaborated on the theme. The carrots are heavy, they sink down to here. The potatoes, too, they go down to here. Turnips, here. And chickpeas rise to the highest point. If you add meat, a piece of meat, no matter how rich, sinks to the bottom.

There is no mixing, she repeated.

Okay. The lesson so far.

—The Andalusians and the Kirouani at the top. The holy families, the family of the Imam. The traditional political elite. Clearly chickpeas.

— The Hammami, Mejri and the Djlass and the Trabelsi and more are right there in the middle. They have their own level, and should not try to aspire to be anywhere else in the pot. Carrots, potatoes, and turnips — good fellahi fare.

— The Jews were at the bottom, no matter how rich they might be. The yummy chunk of meat. No mixing, she reminded me. The apartheid of the pot.

Review so far: We are all steeped in the same environment and colored by the same local spices, despite our prescriptive lack of miscegenation. And in that pot, we all have our own level and should not attempt to rise above our station. And we need them all, all levels, from top to bottom, to have a tasty stew. Ingredients who leave, we feel their absence. We ache for them. The next generation does not. They don't know what they're missing. And — they don't really care. Maybe they don't notice any of this, being just happy to get fed.


Every once in a while, the pot has to be stirred. And what happens then?

Everything changes position. The meat at the bottom can rise, the chickpeas at the top can fall. Most likely those vegetables in the middle don't go too far outside their rightful station. But — and here's the key point — she fixes you with her stern eye: When the stirring is done, everyone settles right down to the natural order of things. In the end, the meat will always fall. The chickpeas always rise.

And every once in a while, someone kicks the pot. The flames shoot up. The meat gets scorched. The chick peas spill out escaping the pot. The veggies in the middle end up stuck inside the ruined stew. When someone kicks the pot, it's bad for everyone.

Quaint, you might say. Typical anthropological overinterpretation, you might say. Much ado about not much at all, you might say. But the rules of Fatima's chakchouka are distinctively Tunisian. American stews don't work this way, nor do Egyptian stews.

And we've all had this Tunisian cooking lesson in the past two weeks, when someone kicked the pot.

Ben Ali and his family, the putative elite, spilled out and fled the pot. Mubarrak wants us all to know that he himself would never flee. It's not the Egyptian way. I will die right here in Egypt, he insists. And I believe him and agree. And Ben Ali's flight may have surprised pundits around the world, but it did not surprise the likes of Fatima.

And the synagogue in Gabes was burned, its Torah damaged. Just as in other years of strife in Tunisia. Infrequent, perhaps, but predictable. But no, no, no insists Roger Bismuth [Roger?!], the president of the Tunisian Jewish Community. This was no act of anti-semitism. Be clear on that. This was no more than vandalism.

I think Fatima would agree. It's just the result of being at the bottom of the hierarchical pot that we get scorched (or in this case, torched). Someone left the little synagogue unlocked, so of course it was put on fire. Nothing to do with anti-semitism. Just, someone's gotta be the bottom of the pot.

My colleague J, said the other day with a great big smile, "Come! Let's talk the revolution!"

And I — my usual oppositional self — said without thinking, "It's no revolution." But didn't have time to elaborate. I was thinking of Fatima.

Someone, she would say — and we know who he is — just kicked the pot. The Jews got scorched. The president escaped. This is the political system. This is how it works. And the pot is still being stirred.

But when that stirring stops, the chakchouka simmers down. And all return to their natural and rightful place. Elites will still be elites, and fellahin will still be fellahin. And the Jews will still on occasion feel the fire most of all.

An uprising, yes. Revolution, no. An uprising implies tremendous dissatisfaction. A just complaint. A revolution implies a call for structural change.

That would be like Fatima deciding to switch to cooking Schezuan lamb. But no. It's still going to be chakchouka when dinner time comes.


  1. Thanks for the Tunisian cooking lesson - great story and best "analysis" I have read about this.

  2. What I forgot is: plenty of harissa — hot chili pepper sauce. In Tunisia everyone likes it hot...