The Oberlin Stories Project

On spending a semester in Tunis

Rachel Colwell ’10

“Intrepid or crazy, there I was, jumping off the deep end, learning to swim, learning about other people and about how to be myself in a new place.”

With only sand visible to the horizon, three people jump off a dune.

By my junior year at Oberlin, I was knee-deep in debates over the relative merits of structural functionalism, multiculturalism, and postmodernism in my anthropology and ethnomusicology classes. Wading through dense ethnographies and culture theory, I realized that after all the time I’d spent thinking and theorizing, I hadn’t really gotten my feet wet. It was about time for me to put my learning into practice.

Spring semester, on an otherwise typical Tuesday, I stepped down off public bus 52b in La Marsa, Tunisia into a flash thunderstorm. It took only moments for the wind to whip my umbrella inside out. Already soaked and left with few other options, I embraced my situation and tried to take the high road. I smiled to myself as a familiar sensation registered: exhaustion with equal parts frustration, exhilaration, and excitement. The mixture was standard throughout my semester-long language-intensive studies in Tunis. I was fortunate to be surrounded by people who wanted to help me adjust and make my stay as meaningful as possible. All in all, my troubles were relatively few and far between.

Dusk had fallen and the green lights along the top of the neighborhood minaret blinked on, hopefully. I sloshed, hunched, past the twin cafes whose TV soccer broadcasts stood as lit sentinels on either side of the dirt street that led to my host family’s home. Trash and sheep crap joined plastic bags of baguette ends — no longer hanging on wrought-iron gates for the hungry — in the ankle-deep mud that washed down the street toward the main thoroughfare.

By the time I had my house key in the door lock, my host mother was turning the knob inside. “Rachel!” she exclaimed, “you are going to die!” I knew all too well that to be wet outdoors in Tunisia spelled bad news, as far as Tunisians were concerned. Local standards for maintaining one’s health forbid so much as leaving the bathroom or falling asleep with wet hair. To do so was to tempt all things unfortunate: sickness, bad luck, and other punishments. Her initial reaction to me standing wet and bedraggled in the doorway was horror, but seeing my grin (you’ll recall that I’d embraced the situation fully), she and her six-year-old grandson broke into hysterical and contagious laughter. Ordered to remove my drenched jeans and sneakers in the doorway, I climbed the stairs in my underwear, joining them in heartily laughing off my misfortune.

My host mom, Kalthoum, and I had grown pretty close by that particular evening, but the day we met, I exhausted my week’s worth of “survival Arabic” in just five minutes of polite textbook introductions and questions whose answers I struggled to half understand. I recall the dread that washed over me — how the heck was I supposed to do this for four months? It took me more than a few days to recognize that everything I was experiencing was necessary and important. Intrepid or crazy, there I was, jumping off the deep end, learning to swim, learning about other people and about how to be myself in a new place.

My professors and peers at Oberlin inspired and encouraged such audacities. Their own wild adventures, which they spoke of mundanely and mythological in turn, had me chomping at the bit to have my own. Oberlin showed me that there is no better way to learn than to tackle new challenges with all you’ve got. The types of leaps I took in Tunis are what Oberlin students are all about. We jump, knowing that there will always be support and guidance waiting for us when we need it.

The first day I came home with my Tunisian host family, I resolved to work hard, trust in the power of patience, and take risks in my creative endeavors as a budding anthropologist, wherever they might lead me in the winding streets of the Tunis medina. I doubled my Arabic course load, ate all I could and then some, and stayed up nights transcribing hours of interviews with musicians. In the Oberlin spirit, I figured, why go half way?

Back at Oberlin, I asked harder, better questions. Overwhelmed for the first time by the ease of communicating in my native language — I hadn’t, by any measure, become fluent in Arabic — I expressed myself more clearly than before I’d studied abroad. I like to think I’m more patient now as well.

Oberlin’s rigorous academic curriculum gave me with the tools to do independent research abroad and to further the development of my findings in the form of an honors project on Tunisian musical hybridity when I returned to campus. More importantly though, as I found during my travels, living and studying within Oberlin’s supportive community opened up a fresh creative thinking space for me, one that I can take with me anywhere.