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The day I was America
Pat Morrison, NCR contributer
T here is no feast for the senses quite like a Middle Eastern souk, or marketplace. And if you've brought a camera, you're in heaven. Couple that with the exquisite beauty of Tunisia and you've got heaven times two. Lucky me. As one of 12 English-speaking journalists invited to visit the North African nation last May, I was enjoying both.
We were on Djerba, a picturesque island off the southeast coast of Tunisia, and several of our group had descended on the souk in quest of the perfect photo. Like a scene from "Casablanca," the souk exuded the mystique of the Arab world: One could buy anything -- vibrant-hued Oriental carpets and pottery, copperware, scarves, jewelry, flip-flops, water pipes, even Coke (on ice!).
In the distance two Djerban women were standing near a fruit stand, talking and gesturing animatedly. They wore the traditional Tunisian white sifsari, a modified, practical veil-and-cloak combination, topped incongruously with wide-brimmed straw hats that are a fixture for men and women alike on the sun-drenched island. I aimed my telephoto lens through a stack of camel muzzles and a postcard rack, zooming in to get the women in focus. It was then I heard a young voice over my shoulder. "Pardon, Madame," the female voice said in French. I turned around to face a handful of smiling Tunisian high school girls.
"Pardon, Madame, you are America." There was a hint of inflection at the end, but not quite a question mark.
"You are America," she said again, as her companion giggled and whispered a French-accented correction, "Americain, Americain."
Yes, I was from America. They were juniors, on a class outing to Djerba from their village on the mainland. They had never met an American, nor a sahafia, a female journalist. I put down the camera and we talked, definitely a polyglot conversation. I tried out my smattering of Arabic; they practiced their English. When neither worked we opted for French.
They were fresh-faced and eager, their dark hair glistening in the sunlight. (Few veils were in evidence in this moderate Muslim nation.) Like teenage girls everywhere, they were self-assured yet shy, with giggles aplenty. And in the universal fashion statement of female adolescence, some wore bright fingernail polish (but no makeup) and ponytails fastened with bright "scrunchies."
Where was I from in America? Does it snow there? Was I married? How many children do I have? Do I like being a journalist? Do I like their country?
You are Muslimah? No, I am a Christian. They had never met a Christian woman, but some foreign workmen were Christian. Do I like Muslims? Yes, I have many Muslim friends. But their real interest was my country.
"We love America," they said almost in chorus. "America, very good!" What did they know about America, I asked. Their descriptions of this mysterious far-away place they had never seen tumbled out: Beautiful! Very big! People make a lot of money, people are good, women can enter many careers, people are free, schools are very good…
Then a soft voice came from the back of the group. I followed the voice to a lovely girl with sad but kind eyes.
"Why does America make so bad war? War is no good."
We talked about the places of conflict they knew of: Iraq, Afghanistan, Palestine. Not all Americans want war; not all Americans think we should be fighting in those places, I explained. We hope we can have peace soon, bring the soldiers home.
"Why does Bush (pronounced with a distinctive French "boosh") make so much war?" (I only wish I knew, I wanted to reply.)
These girls weren't baiting me. They were sincere. I was the first "America" they had met. They were more knowledgeable about our foreign policy than many Americans, and they had questions. They also seemed to think every U.S. citizen, or at least this one, had unlimited access to the White House.
"When you go home, you visit Bush, you tell Bush to stop the war, oui?"
Yes, I have written to the President, and my senators and congressmen, opposing U.S. military intervention, military spending and much of our foreign policy. Many other Americans have done the same. And many Americans, I told them, are against war.
Soon their chaperone arrived and whisked the girls away. They turned and waved. Merci! Merci boucoups, Madame!
Throughout our two weeks crisscrossing Tunisia, I met many wonderful people. Tunisians are friendly and open. They genuinely like Americans. Still, whenever a conversation stretched to any length, whether with teens or taxi drivers, there was the polite but perennial question: Why does America make war?
It's difficult to answer that. Especially when you are America.
Pat Morrison is a former NCR managing editor. She writes from Bradford, Vt.
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