I’m thankful for these women, some of whose names I never even knew. First was our professor with the wild black hair and flowing robes, an audacious lover of literature, justice, life. She was freshly on this side of cancer. She flew seven of us over the Mediterranean sea in October. My youthful femininity unquestioned and untested, I teetered on the cusp of enlightenment. Still reveling in all that glittered in our adopted Paris, we landed in the heart of a Tunisian sisterhood we couldn’t yet understand. Over the course of a week, the dark rhythms of 14th arrondissement nightclubs would fade, replaced by women weaving strength with strings of prosodic Arabic.
Sometimes the strange words were soothing, sometimes defiant. When we boarded buses, the seated men noticed our whiteness, our bare heads, our ignorant eyes. We could only guess at the meaning of what they said, but we could feel by the way their stares hit our skin that they despised us, or wanted us, or both. At first I thought that knowing their second language would give us a pass, but we quickly realized it wouldn’t help us here. I had only begun to understand that French was a gateway to worlds for which some had paid heavy tolls. Our professor spoke angrily to the men in her native language on our behalf.
I can still picture her striding through the medina with us in tow, or with her aging companion on her arm as they navigated the ruins of Carthage. Always moving. We met her friends, the poets. These women welcomed us into their cool, clandestine space somewhere in the crisscross of city alleyways. Poetry was the lantern by which they illuminated their reality. It was the manifesto of a righteous cause. It was a badge of courage that they wore knowing that it made them vulnerable, unsafe even. We listened and understood that these words were important.
These same women invited us into their homes. We made couscous together, selecting herbs and chopping tomatoes. This was a time for laughter. We drank mint tea and ate the fruits of our labor.
Then there were the women in the hammam, a sacred sanctuary of womanhood. The only one they had, and they welcomed us, outsiders. They sat on benches and whispered to each other as they rubbed one another’s backs. A stout, wrinkled woman gestured for me to lay on a marble slab while she scrubbed off my filth with a painfully rough sponge. My armpits, my neck, my breasts, my feet. Afterwards, she dumped a bucket of warm water over me and I watched my dirty skin run into a narrow aqueduct along the floor. I was raw, exposed, loved, redeemed.
Lastly, there was the filmmaker, who dared to hold up a mirror and say that something here is not right; women must have a voice in their own story. Her work premiered in a crowded theater in Tunis. No paparazzi were present to illuminate its drab facade with their flashing bulbs. Nobody rolled out the red carpet. We were directed with urgency to the few empty seats that remained.
What we saw on the screen that night surprised us only in its subtlety, because we’d seen all kinds of shocking things on screen before. But we knew, because our professor told us, that making this film was a subversive act. Its creator would be threatened. Her family would be threatened. In spite of that, she conceived it and birthed it and held it up proudly, because it meant something. It meant everything. And we were there.