“I saw a photo of El Jem on social media last night,” I said into the phone. “Do you remember when we went there?” My father, listening to me on the other end of the line, starts laughing.
The name El Jem takes me back 25 years, far from New York City, where I am, stuck at home like many others; far from Paris, where my father lives, also stuck at home – back to Tunisia and a dusty summer, along a winding road south to El Jem’s sights and beyond.
Since the pandemic began, my father and I have been catching up daily via our transatlantic morning calls. When I ask him about daily life in France, he invariably answers “Kif-kif bourricot,” which means, “It’s all the same.” As the health crisis deepens, our conversations have turned away from gloom to anodyne subjects and, lately, to this unexpected memory from 25 years ago.
For me, it’s the olfactory sense that first awakens the resurgence of childhood recollections, and the first trip to Tunisia that we took together. I remember the aroma released by a jasmine plant that we had outside the window of our family home, an old white and blue house situated in a small Mediterranean seaside town. I used to curl up and read books there while my aunts and uncles napped after lunch. I loved above all the smell of geranium and orange blossom mixed in hot water, an indulgent drink called café blanc. I remember how the cafes in our town had grand names, like Le Café des Ambassadeurs. That one was home to an assemblage of young and old men alike, undiscriminatingly unemployed. No matter how early or late we passed by it, someone at the cafe terrace would salute my father, inevitably sharing and retelling stories. That trip was his first time back after a decade of absence, the first time back with a child in tow.
That summer, we passed official portraits of Tunisian President Ben Ali everywhere and, far away, the World Trade Center still graced New York’s famous cityscape. I hadn’t yet crossed the Atlantic or become the frequent traveler that I am now, but during that scorching month of July 1997, I crossed the Mediterranean’s two shores with a sense of unparalleled adventure. My mother is a French native, while my father was born and raised in Tunisia. He later emigrated to France, where they eventually met, and he hadn’t seen his family since the passing of my grandmother – a loss that he endured before I was born.
Then, life got busy. We talked about visiting relatives, people who were practically strangers to me – people that my parents thought I should perhaps get to know. In the months leading up to the end of the school year when I was 11 years old, we finally made plans to go to Tunisia. All I knew of the world up to that point was La France. Soon after, from the window seat of a full Tunisair flight in descent, I watched with awe the white rooftops of a new continent as they grew closer and larger, until we landed in Tunis.
After a couple of weeks staying with family, who lived by the beach on the Gulf of Tunis, my father and I decided on a whim to go on a road trip. “I want to see the desert!” I told him, before we jumped into our rental car. We loaded up on topographic maps, and I tried in vain to pronounce names of places that belonged to a language I didn’t speak and a country I didn’t know. This was before we had cell phones to help us navigate, when the only phones available were the neighborhood’s coin-operated public Taxiphones. The desert was a full day’s drive from Tunis, and my father seemed more interested in exploring the northern seashore, which was closer. So, at first, we went to Bizerte by the sea and strolled along its promenade with a family friend who lived there. Then we drove south to the archaeological site of Dougga. “Let’s go a bit more south,” I suggested to my father, trying again to cajole him to take us to the desert. This time, he obliged.
We reached the eastern coastline and the city of Sousse. A long time ago, Sousse was known as Hadrumetum, a colony founded by the Phoenicians, a prosperous sea trader people who lived east of the Mediterranean. After Hadrumetum, Phoenicians from the port city of Tyre set up Carthage, just 10 miles north of modern-day Tunis, which gave way to the rise of a formidable civilization from the 9th to the 2nd century BCE. It was head-spinning to imagine a place that had always been at a crossroad of influences and had seen a succession of empires, from its Phoenician origins to the Roman invasion, the Germanic Vandal kingdom, the Byzantines after that, and then the westward expansion of the Arab tribes, followed by the Ottomans, the French, and all sorts of other nations in between.
From Sousse, we followed the road south to Monastir and visited the resting place of Tunisia’s former president, Habib Bourguiba. Leaving the austere mausoleum, my father told me that Bourguiba’s (first) wife had been French. I wondered whether the statesman and his French wife had children and, if so, whether they now lived in France or in Tunisia. Weeks into my first touchdown in Tunis, I encountered what I tried to describe years later as a “strange familiar.” Places were new, and I couldn’t entirely blend in. Though not hostile, my family kept asking my father about a son and I sensed their disappointment that I was “merely” a daughter. My world was more colorful, but it also needed navigating between different identities. I always felt a bit different from my French friends in school, yet in Tunisia people were quick to label me as “too French.” Perhaps it was the escape from all these social constrictions that I remember my road trip with my father as liberating, like a breath of fresh air.
After Monastir, we left the Mediterranean Sea and drove inland, admiring the beauty of El Jem’s colosseum. “How old is it?” I asked. The well-preserved ancient amphitheatre stood very tall for the tiny sun-soaked person that I was.
“Two thousand years, more or less,” my father said.
“That’s a lot,” I said, “how can you be sure?” I made a mental note to double-check once we’d go back home after the holidays since I nurtured an early passion for old stones. It was my first introduction to this history, which dad had never mentioned before, but now we were exploring it together.
We drove through the large salt lake of the Chott El Djerid, passing chili peppers being sun-dried on the sides of the road, like some expressionist drops from a future harissa dream. The lake was immense, water near-absent, and the salt, at various stages of crystallization, painted in white strokes a scene of beautiful desolation. Coming out the other side, we finally emerged in the desert. And, for the first time in my life, I finally saw a mirage! The sun drooped heavily on the horizon, and a warm sirocco blew against my face. It was all very otherworldly, a fascinating but alien environ that mesmerized us. Even my father had never been that far away from the Gulf of Tunis – or from Paris. We had never before spent so much time together, and I leaned back and listened to the stories he told and held my arm out the window and felt the wind. It was divine.
After an overnight stay in the oasis town of Tozeur, we began our drive back up north toward the sea. We drove through al Hamma, where my family lived three generations ago, before they settled in Tunis and before my father eventually settled in Paris. Despite these origins, al Hamma made no imprint on me; its tribes and villages and ancestors remain vague and distant, like the whispers of an ancient oral tradition that leaves mysterious gaps and contradicts itself. Twenty-five years later, while in New York City, when I reminisced about this road trip with my father over the phone, he too could barely recall al Hamma. Some things, I decided, would probably always belong to the past, like the black-and-white portraits of my Tunisian grandparents whom I never met, whose frozen gaze into the camera I could never decipher.
I’ve asked myself many times through this pandemic why I have been returning to the memory of that road trip, with all its richness and alienations. As I embrace my new home city of New York, I find that this must have been a turning point, a moment that grounded me in both Tunis and Paris at once, as if to remind that I never exclusively belonged to either. Before that road trip, my father had not shared much about where he had come from. Our journey together through Tunisia revealed him to me in a different light, loyal and loved despite the decades that passed and the distance that separated him from siblings and friends. We shared a love for a land, one that also became mine during those weeks of my acquaintance with it. In a year marked by lockdown, travel bans and uncertainty, I find myself especially in need of warmth. I cannot know when the time of COVID will be finally behind us, or when I will see my father and loved ones across the Atlantic Ocean. For now, I find my solace in memory.