Thursday, February 10, 2011

tabouna — Tunisian style (and that's the problem)

In the countryside of Tunisia women make خبز الطبونة (khubz tabouna) on a daily basis. Which I may well have spelled wrong, because my Lang Arabic Lexicon seems to have omitted it — and besides, it's in idiomatic fellahi dialect. Generally not written at all.

And that was the problem, of course.

So. For about five hours a day, country women are mixing and kneading, letting rise and slapping down, and forming nice flat, round loaves of durum wheat bread about the size of the American dinner plate. They make about 15 loaves a day — a major enterprise, as far as I'm concerned.

The tabouna is outside, usually just past the women's courtyard. It's about four feet tall and at its base, around three feet wide, narrowing toward the top. The oven is made of baked earth, what we would call adobe here. It's blackened rim and interior attest to the multitude of loaves these ovens have had slapped onto their sides for baking. Yeah, the bread does not lie flat in the oven. Instead, it is sprinkled with cold water and bakes vertically — turned periodically — on the sides of the interior. The tabouna has first been filled with stones and kindling, and when the fire simmers down, it is the heat of the stones that bake the bread. Fifteen loaves take a long time. Every day.

And that's one of my favorite things in the countryside — the taste of freshly baked khubz tabouna.

So. I was thinking about this with great nostalgia and longing, on a flight from Paris to Casablanca, and upon arrival. I was with a belly dancer friend, and some friends of hers (male) were picking us up at the airport.

We get in the car. Both of us sitting in the back seat, of course. The guys are in the front. And I say in Arabic, just to make conversation, and because it really was true,

"I can't wait to get into the countryside and eat some khubz tabouna."

The car screeches, narrowly missing a camionette on the road. There are no lanes, or at least any lanes that anyone pays attention to. I hate driving around Casa. I just don't get it. But Moroccans navigate really well through it all, so what just happened?

The driver pulls over, and the two guys turn around and they're glaring at me.

"What did you say?" the driver asks in French.

So I repeat myself in Arabic.

They look at each other. They look back at me. They really heard right.

"You can't say that here," his front seat passenger says. I didn't remember their names yet.

"Eh?" I say in French.

"C'est interdit!" the driver says — it's forbidden.

I'm very very confused. My belly dancer friend is not really paying attention to any of this. She doesn't speak French, and she doesn't speak Arabic. But well wow, can she dance. She's come with me to find the source of one of her favorite dances, and to see how North African women interpret it. Right here, right where the dance was born. She also wants to see if she should study anthropology. This trip is a big deal for her, and I'm blowing it.

We're barely past the airport, and already something's gone terribly wrong. Ominous for the whole trip we're embarking on. A land rover heading south into the Sahara, looking for a library that may (or may not) have texts still written in tifinagh, the primordial writing system of the Amazigh, or Berber people. So I can see if there's a correspondence between the old writing system and Tamazight women's tattoo patterns. That's the goal this time round.

Morocco. We're in Morocco — not Tunisia.

I catch my bearings, and explain.

"In Tunisia, the women in the countryside make this wonderful bread. The oven is called a ta—"

"Stop!" they both say in unison.

"That word," says the driver, "means something different here."

"Means something different everywhere — except Tunisia," chuckles his buddy. The tension has passed. I'm a moron, clearly, and hadn't intended to be so crude.

I think again of what that oven looks like. Earthen, with a blackened rim. So organic (in the old sense of the word). You look inside and you're looking straight into — oh, I get it.

Just as they, haltingly, explain it.


I had just said that I can't wait to get into the countryside and eat hot cunt.

So much for my Arabic proficiency.

As may now be obvious, Moroccan dialect differs significantly from the Tunisian. And both of them are distant from the mainstream Arabic further east. But worse than that, my Tunisian dialect is fellahi — peasant style. It's like an anthropology Ph.D. candidate from abroad coming to the U.S. to study Appalachian land disputes, and learning English for the first time at the hands of hillbillies of West Virginia, as depicted say, in the movie Deliverance. And that's the English you speak.

Well, that's my Arabic. That's why people would cringe when I'd open my mouth at the Archives Nationales, and tell me to switch to French. That's why the head of the Women's Union in Baghdad hugged me crying her eyes out at the 'authenticity' of my my backwoods language skills. That's why the women of Dubai had a good chuckle at my expense.

Okay, so I've probably made the worst linguistic gaffe possible in the Arabic language. Does that mean shut up and never speak again? No. I figure, after that one, I can say anything I want. Letting people correct you is in part what anthropological fieldwork is all about.

I just wish I was better at languages. Switching dialects is such a pain. And so much of my research has been in the mountains of Morocco in the past ten years. But my language skills just don't want to switch over.

They think I'm North African, but have been living in France way too long (they have no idea just how bad my French is, I guess). Or, they're just being polite.

"Are you from Egypt?" someone asks. "Where are you from?" another inquires. Finally, finally someone recognizes the Tunisianisms I just can't let go of and nails it down.

"Aahhh," they respond, at the identified exotic dialect. Tunisia does not come first to anyone's consciousness, even in North Africa.

There's that French expression:

petit pays, petit esprit

The French always used it in reference to Belgium, but I could see it in the look in their eyes. Small country, small spirit. Everyone underestimates Tunisia. Even now.

We're still in the car on the road to Casa. The ice has clearly been broken. What are you studying they ask, and I explain.

"We're Berber," the driver says.

"My grandmother has those tattoo patterns," the passenger says. His name is Aziz, I learn, finally. "She has those symbols on her hands and face," he says — having always taken them for granted before.

"We're going up to the mountains," his cousin the driver says.

"It's Eid. Come with us," says Aziz.

And so, we abandon the library at the edge of the Sahara (whose manuscripts it turns out, have long since disappeared) — and after picking up the tzaddik at the airport the next day, we all head up the winding dirt roads of the Middle Atlas mountains.

The women are baking bread when we arrive. It smells swooningly good.

I keep my mouth shut.

At least, about the bread.

Every moment goes swimmingly. A perfect fieldtrip, and perfectly unanticipated, given the rocky start. With lasting friendships made and kept, even now.

"So. What do you think?" I say to the bellydancer.

"You made it all look so easy," she says. "I could never do that."

Which is exactly how I feel about her dancing.


  1. 浩浩有意思! 我真想收看了。

  2. Given my own post, I'm not sure I want the translation! But please —

  3. Thank you for this instructive and funny article! There are some words that have very different meanings from maghreb country to the other. In tunisia itself, you should not say "tmanyik" (to mock) in the south...
    Concerning Tunisian language, there is a nice book or manual that teach it nicely, especially dedicated to native speakers of English:
    Tunisian Arabic in 30 Lessons

    it is found on Amazon