I’ve been thinking a lot these past few months about the year I spent in Tunisia. It was 2003, I had just graduated college and was living on the outskirts of Tunis. Officially, I was there as a Rotary Ambassadorial Scholar and was supposed to be studying Arabic while bridging the gap of understanding between the United States and the Arab World. It was, by all accounts, a good year. I did my best to bridge the gap between the United States and the Arab World, I read a trunk full of classic literature, and towards the end of the year I started writing what would later become my first novel, The Oracle of Stamboul. Those first few months, however, were full of loneliness and alienation. I missed my family and my friends, I missed my girlfriend, I missed being in college, and I missed those small American comforts (peanut butter, dryers, wood floors) which seemed not to exist in Tunisia. I had a few Tunisian friends at the internet cafe around the corner, and my Eastern European roommates — Ozzie and Petr — were good guys, though I had difficulty connecting with them at first. One reason for this was that I got up early for Arabic class and they stayed up late partying, drinking cheap Tunisian beer, and playing hair metal at the highest volume Petr’s tinny laptop speakers could bear.
In those early months — before I met Nomi Stone, a Fulbright scholar/poet who will feature prominently in the next post — the only Jews I saw were those in the cemetery I passed on my way to school. I didn’t realize how much this absence of Jews bothered me until I found myself lying in bed one night with the pillow clutched over my head and the sounds of Whitesnake drifting through my door. “Here I go again on my own. Going down the only road I’ve ever known.” Those melancholy lyrics, accompanied by Ozzie’s warbled harmony, hit me like a sledge hammer, clarifying the alienation I had felt for months, the yawning distance between my current life and everything I knew myself to be. It wasn’t that I was living in a Muslim majority country with two uncircumcised Eastern Europeans. Rather, the absence of Jewishness in my life was like the absence of peanut butter. I never knew it existed until it wasn’t there.