A Certain Sound in the Oasis

By Stacie P. Leone

Lying belly down on the floor, I slid almost completely under the bed to reach my suitcase.  Our bedroom loft was the driest place in the house, still, green velvety mildew had sprouted all over the bag since I returned from Leyla’s house on the Aegean the week before.  Matt’s canvas duffle somehow resisted mold, but I didn’t want to ask to borrow it.

Photo of dark passage in Tozeur, Tunisa by Richard Mortel

Tozeur #22. Photo by Richard Mortel via Flickr (Creative Commons)

We lived in Istanbul, in a one-room house on a hill where the Bosporus merges with the Black Sea, and where the call to prayer echoes from sunrise to dusk.  Enormous ravens, the size of bear cubs, perched on a tree outside our window and one cawed and danced on the skylight over our bed one morning, as if trying to tell me something.

We had a constant supply of pot from Hakan’s greenhouse that we smoked on our seaside patio while trying to spot dolphins looping up the Straight.

Hakan’s cook, a stocky woman who wore flowered shalvar pants and a cotton kerchief often brought over little white dishes of Turkish appetizers or figs from a tree in our yard.  Matt and I always planned to send the dishes back with something we’d prepared, according to Turkish custom.  But when she knocked we’d open the door and, squinting into daylight, hand them over empty, murmuring “tesekkürler.”

To make room for my gigantic wardrobe, Matt replaced the loft staircase with a ladder.  We leaned the old staircase against a wall, put our books on it and joked that it led to some other dimension.  The house faced the seas in the East and the opposite wall was windowless, built into cold stone.  Little direct sunlight came in through the windows and mildew covered almost every surface year-round.

Matt played guitar and sang and when we were stoned I encouraged his dreams of touring Eastern Europe in a Turkish minibus.  He planned to convert the bus into a camper and rig the exhaust pipe so it could be used for cooking.  Stoned or not, my own dreams always stuck in my throat.  I wanted a baby.  Maybe I could stand to travel with a newborn in a converted minibus, or, maybe he could tour while I stayed home with the baby.  Mostly we avoided making plans.

Marriage appeared in Matt’s songs as a carnival by the sea and something to do with a queen and a chained knight.  We filled out paperwork for a marriage license at the American consulate in Istanbul one day.  But that was as far as we got.

A former Alaskan Husky sled dog racer, Matt made money in Istanbul by training the dogs of wealthy Turks.  Indoor pets were a relatively new trend and most dogs in Turkey were feral, roaming the streets in packs because, as a Muslim friend explained, “Angels flee when a dog enters the home.”  Sometimes the dogs needed special attention and we’d board two or three at a time.  Matt became known as the dog whisperer of Istanbul, was invited to dinner parties and sometimes went on vacation with the dogs and their owners.

Bunches of red and blue Turkish lira layered with new green dollars used to unfurl from Matt’s jeans’ pockets and he’d throw them across the desk near our front door when he came home.  So, I ordered him a money clip from Tiffany’s engraved with his band’s initials.  Later, on drunken night in Taksim Square, it was pickpocketed along with $600.

Leyla, who preferred Europe but would make do with Middle Eastern ancient ruins, suggested Tunisia.

One day Matt stopped singing.  Then he stopped answering the phone and the door and stayed in bed most of the day.  Even Hakan, who let us live in the house for free in a loose barter for training his Doberman, Caesar, was left standing outside.  He tried to talk to me about Matt.  He didn’t care about the rent but, to keep up our end of the bargain, I offered to make a website for his wife’s foundation.

Sometimes Matt woke at sunrise, went for a run, did yoga and made us fresh squeezed pomegranate juice that we sipped while writing in our journals.  I’d work from home at a desk overlooking the sea on those days, listen to him pick at his guitar and imagine it was the start of our new life.

On the days Matt stayed in bed, I took an hour-long bus ride across Istanbul to one of my jobs in an office building.  My money came from odd editing and freelance writing gigs, and, after buying groceries and paying our electric and phone bills, it went in my bank account where it accumulated like a nagging secret.  I didn’t hide the money from Matt.  I secretly feared he’d get drunk, crash his motorcycle and I’d spend all of my money on his hospital bills.  That’s when I knew it was probably time to break up.

Meditating on our musty couch one morning while Matt slept in the loft, I decided to spend the money on a long vacation.

Iran and Syria had always appealed to me, but in the summer of 2005 traveling to either as an American tourist was too complicated.  Leyla, who preferred Europe but would make do with Middle Eastern ancient ruins, suggested Tunisia.

Moving about in Tunisia, we thought, would be similar to Turkey because both were politically secular and predominantly Muslim.  Tunis, we assumed, would resemble Istanbul, where throngs of young women and men with perfect haircuts loitered near cafes and shopping malls.  But Tunisians didn’t loiter; they moved swiftly and avoided eye contact.  Restaurants recommended by our guidebook were mostly empty.  We couldn’t find the nightlife because it was probably at the coastal resorts, which we avoided in favor of old town center hotels.  We met just one other foreign traveler in three weeks.

Leyla hated Tunisia.  The day we arrived in Tunis, a large bellied man in a kaftan and turban leered at us from a narrow archway.  I smiled at him.

“Don’t you love this place?” I said to Leyla.

She rolled her eyes at me. “I hate turban men,” she said.

“Why?” I said.  “It’s probably kind of like walking through Istanbul 100 years ago.”

“Exactly,” Leyla said, picking up her pace.

I told her about the Turkish astronomer in The Little Prince who’s ridiculed for wearing funny pants and isn’t taken seriously until he changes into a European suit.  She didn’t laugh. I thought since Leyla was raised in the States, wore shoes indoors, ate bacon, kept a house cat, and not a single evil eye hung at her parent’s beach condo, we’d share a similar detached appreciation for Tunisia.  But, for her, the issues were personal, beyond eschewing traditions.  She resented having to put “Muslim” on her Turkish identity card, which I could understand.  But, we argued endlessly over issues like her support of the Turkish law that forbade women from wearing headscarves to school, and because she thought the call to prayer should be outlawed.

I thought Tozeur, a tourist-friendly town at the edge of the Sahara, might cheer Leyla up.

Unlike most single Turkish women I knew, who were forbidden from leaving their parents’ home until they were married, Leyla had her own apartment in Istanbul.  Her parents sent over a housekeeper once a week and Leyla would scour the apartment for condom wrappers before she arrived.  One time her clothes dryer broke and it turned out neither she nor the housekeeper knew about emptying the lint screen.

Sometimes I envied Leyla’s coddled independence.  The way her father dropped us at the airport and pleaded for her to call from Tunisia every day.  My cell phone, dead, was at the bottom of my bag somewhere.  My family had no idea I was in Tunisia and Matt didn’t ask me to call.

In Carthage Leyla posed for a picture next to our tour guide, who had wicked body odor, with her hand fanning her nose and her mouth drawn as if she’s about to vomit.  Otherwise she smirked for the camera, unable to smile, she explained, as long as plastic-slippered children begged for change outside sparkling religious monuments.  In Kairouan, one of Islam’s holiest cities, where the disparity was particularly obvious, I told Leyla that the situation looked pretty much the same all over southeastern Turkey.  But she didn’t seem to believe me.

To make matters worse, we were usually the only women in sight.  Along a cobblestone street in El Kef we approached a young crowd at an outdoor café, but as we got closer realized it was all men.  Going back to our hotel room with some beer and chips from the mini mart seemed like a good idea to me, but Leyla insisted we sit.  Except for the waiter, no one spoke to us and we didn’t speak to each other.

When not leering from doorways, or ignoring us, Tunisian men at most made polite conversation.  I was glad to be left alone.  But, Leyla, who had long feline eyes and a tiny waist and thrived on the verbal sparring variety of flirtation with cute guys, took it hard.  To keep up with the conservative atmosphere, our tank tops and shorts were stuffed, unused to the bottom of our suitcases and we rotated a few modest shirts and pants everyday.  In the desert Leyla even reluctantly put on a headscarf, essential for keeping out flies and sand.

Out the train window, somewhere on our way to the desert, where horizon and sky blend like a whitewashed canvas, I saw an elderly couple walking beside a donkey, the only living beings for miles.  The woman, draped in a long head covering, and the man in a suit and turban, seemed un-phased by the heat.  Meanwhile, pools of sweat formed on our vinyl train seats and we blew down our own shirts every few minutes for the illusion of cool.  Watching the couple disappear on the non-horizon, I felt a twinge of longing for Matt.

Leyla thought I should leave Matt so I didn’t tell her that most of the souvenirs I bought were for him.  In a shadowy stall of the ancient stone souk in Tunis I picked out a long dark blue kaftan.  I imagined Matt wearing it on our seaside patio, smoking a joint and playing his guitar, and tried to fathom whether I was sitting beside him or not.

Leyla’s seriousness weighed on me.  I thought Tozeur, a tourist-friendly town at the edge of the Sahara, might cheer her up.  A city of low, sun baked buildings, it’s mostly a departure point for other sites and known for its palm oasis, or “palmeraie.”  We checked into our hotel, changed into longer skirts than we would have worn in Istanbul, and searched Tozeur for nightlife.  But it was summer in the Sahara, the low-low season, and the city was dead.

The grandmother poked a finger out of her covering and pointed at a solitary cinderblock building. The young girl looked away.

Leyla usually slept late while I sat cross-legged in our darkened hotel rooms and tried to meditate.  But, she promised to wake early to go to the palmeraie with me before our desert guides arrived.  After whispering her name and gently shaking her the next morning I gave up and tiptoed out of the room alone.

A thin line of buildings at the bottom of a vast bright sky, like a child’s drawing, Tozeur seemed empty of life and I couldn’t fathom how trees could survive here.  I wore the usual long cotton pants and button down blouse and was already sweating at nine in the morning.

After a few minutes donkey drawn carriages appeared, lined up on a side street, presumably waiting to take tourists into the palmeraie.  I waved them off and followed the animals’ noses down the narrow road.

Abruptly, like in a cartoon, the oasis popped into view.  One minute I walked on hot pavement and the next was enveloped in a canopy of dark palm shadows.  The palmeraie, barricaded by dried plant bales, seemed inaccessible.  I walked on and eventually found a path leading into the thicket.  I wasn’t sure if it was legal or safe to go in but two stocky men stood in the road nearby chatting over the hood of an ancient pickup truck.  I figured they would warn me if necessary.

Several yards down the path I stopped and took in the scratching sounds of dry wispy leaves waving in all directions like a drunken welcoming committee.  I aimed my 35mm all-manual and recalled how I usually heard Leyla complain about my slow picture taking.  Alone and relaxed, I took my time checking the lights in the viewfinder, adjusting the shutter speed and aperture settings.

Bent at the waist, zooming in on some fingery shadows, I saw a bright flash out of my open right eye.  A young man in a white t-shirt stood facing me from several feet away off the path.  He’d appeared from nowhere and I wondered briefly why I hadn’t heard him approach.

“Bonjour,” I said, trying to sound preoccupied and like I was not up for conversation.  The man, brown and wiry, smiled at me.  He stood awkward and unhinged-looking, like he didn’t know what to do with his hands.  A sound, the beginning of a laugh maybe, echoed from his throat and it occurred to me that I should leave.  There wouldn’t be another chance to return to the palmeraie, though, so I dismissed the thought and hoped the man would get bored and move on.

I lifted the camera to my eye, tilted my head back, and aimed skyward to capture the fringy head of a tall palm teetering on a serpentine body.

A second later a hard hand grabbed my left breast and another tried to grab my waist.  Blinded by the camera against my eye, I was momentarily paralyzed.  My scream, constricted by terror, like in a dream, pushed out in loud, stuttering primate howls.

When I was 12 years old I decided that if I were ever raped, I would throw off my attacker by acting insane.  I’d thrash around, foam at the mouth, force snot from my nose, make elephant noises, like I was having a fit.  Making plans made me feel secure.

But all I had to do was scream.  The man was taller than me, more muscular and could have easily silenced me.  I saw him vanish into the darkness of the palm trees.  But I ran like he was chasing me.

The men still chatted over the pickup truck outside the palmeraie.

“Help!”  I shouted.  They didn’t look.  I didn’t speak Arabic, but if I combined my slim vocabulary of Turkish with my limited French, Tunisians sometimes returned my efforts with vague recognition.

“S’il vous plaît!” I ran closer.

As if I were a mirage, a mere trick of light and atmospheric pressure, they ignored me.

“Imdat!” (“Help” in Turkish), I shouted standing before them, waving my hands in the air.  One of the men lifted his chin at me and grunted.  The gesture, which I used with pesky street vendors in Istanbul, meant “no.”  I was speechless for a moment.  Then whispered, “What the fuck?” and ran.

The men’s bizarre behavior added to my fear.  With no idea how to interpret it, I assumed they thought my appearance was too suggestive, and that I got what I deserved.

Tozeur’s streets looked unfamiliar, which added to my urgent search for safety.  I saw two women, who looked like grandmother and granddaughter; both wore long coarse cloths draped loosely over their heads.  It seemed they might ignore me too.  So, I stood in their path and, in a mixture of languages and with my hands, recounted the scene in the palmeraie.  They flinched at the word, “attack.”

“Police?” I asked, shrugging and pointing.  The grandmother’s small eyes searched my face, she said something to the younger one and touched my elbow for me to follow.  Silently, the women guided me down the street and around the block.  The grandmother poked a finger out of her covering and pointed at a solitary cinderblock building. The young girl looked away.  Looking down, the grandmother nodded, hooked elbows with her granddaughter and they disappeared around the next corner.

I didn’t understand.  I was sure they were going to walk me inside and explain what happened.  I was used to being mothered and protected by Turkish women, young and old, in almost any circumstance.

My bottom lip quivered as I crossed the street towards the building.

Standing in front of the open door, I glanced up. “Gendarmerie” was engraved onto a plaque.  I hesitated.  Some of my Turkish friends had told me fearful stories about their country’s Gendarmerie.  I was about to turn and sprint to the hotel when a round faced man in uniform spotted me from his desk and waved me inside.

My Birkenstocks skidded on a layer of sand on the linoleum leading into his office.  Smiling, he waved his palm at a chair to say, sit.  A tall soldier with deep lines whose uniform hung on his body like a clothes hanger stood by the officer’s side.

Before saying a word, I took my passport from my string purse and handed it to the officer.  Being American, I knew from other travels, always trumped being a woman.

“Welcome!” the officer said, looking at my picture.  In his uncertain smile I thought I saw veiled surprise or horror at having a distressed American before him.  The thin man left the room and returned with a plastic cup of water for me.

“Merci,” I said, relaxing into my seat.

The officer seemed to have used the only English word he knew and now spoke only French.  The word I understood was, “…un problème?”

I tried to explain.

“Adam!” (man in Turkish), I said.  The officer looked at me blankly.  “Adam” must not be an Arabic word that survived modern Turkish, I thought.

“Un homme!” I yelled.

The officer nodded slowly.

“Palmeraie!”  I shouted, pointing at the grey wall.  Words flew from my mouth like bursts of air from an old tap.  “Un homme, et palmeraie… attack, moi!” I said, acting out the part of the attacker, lunging forward and clawing at my chest.

They squinted at me.

The officer made consoling sounds and said something incomprehensible while pointing at my camera.  Somehow I understood that he was asking whether the man had tried to steal it.  I had a moment’s doubt.  Did the man try to steal my camera, missed and somehow grabbed my breast instead?

“Non!” I said and slowly cupped my right hand over my left breast.

Wide-eyed the officer looked at me then looked away.  No more consoling sounds came my way and his Arabic words, like loud clapping, made the lined soldier scurry out of the room.

Unsure of what was happening, I shifted in my seat and peeked over at what he was writing down from my passport.  I wondered if I’d have a permanent record in Tozeur and whether that meant anything.  When he handed the passport back I started to leave.

“Merci beaucoup,” I said, rising out of the chair.

“Attendez,” the officer said, his eyebrows raised his palm patting the air for me to sit.  He looked more relaxed and ran his thumbnail along the edge of the desk.  No idea what I was waiting for and depleted of foreign words, I sat opposite him in awkward silence.

After a few minutes the officer abruptly looked past me and stood up.  I followed him into the hallway.

Fifteen or so men, dressed in faded shirts and stained trousers, heads down, shuffled into the hall.  The assistant said something sharp that made them congregate in a staggered line against the wall.  Some were stooped with straw hats or ragged turbans, the younger ones were bareheaded.  None of them looked at me.

The officer said something to me in French or Arabic, I wasn’t sure anymore, but I understood that the men had been rounded up from the palmeraie and brought before me so that I could identify my attacker.

I glanced at the men’s faces and understood that, standing there in my expensive sandals, I was the accused.

“Non!” I said, shaking my head, a vivid throbbing pain erupted behind my eyes and I thought I might faint.  I looked at the open door.

“More coming,” the officer said, lazily patting his hand in the air again as if I were waiting for a fresh pot of coffee.  The assistant herded the men out the door.

“Non.  Merci.  S’il vous plaît.  Non,” I stammered.  Bent at the waist, I backed towards the door, my hands in a vague prayer position.  I bumped the threshold with my cork and rubber heel, turned and bounded down the steps.

Unsure if the officer was following me, I ran to the main street towards the hotel.

Leyla woke up when I came in.  I told her what happened and we spent the next few days agonizing about what I might have unleashed with my scream and my American passport.

On our final day, we rode the hotel elevator with a Tunisian couple.  Our clothes were stained and rank, despite washing them in the sink, and I had abandoned makeup and hair routines about midway through our trip.  The woman wore a silky headscarf around her pale round face and swirling henna designs decorated her hands.  The man, lined and bearded, could have been her father or uncle but was likely the bridegroom.  She was probably in her late teens and her marriage likely prearranged, but she looked satisfied.  They were on their honeymoon, I guessed.  I’d read somewhere that traditional Tunisian women are fattened up with high calorie foods and, to lighten their skin, kept indoors for weeks prior to the wedding.  Shyly, the woman looked me over, and through her eyes I saw a wild haired foreign creature whose future wasn’t guaranteed.

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About Stacie P. Leone

Stacie P. Leone is a freelance writer and editor who lives in Ithaca, NY. She was recently published in Defunct magazine. She has contributed feature stories to The Ithaca Times, and was a features writer for The Guide Istanbul. She is currently working on a book about Turkey. Before deciding to write full-time, she was a marketing/public relations executive in New York City.

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