This year marks 55 years Peace Corps has been sending Americans around the world, to promote peace and understanding and share skills that will help others in some way. I think the greatest legacy of Peace Corps is the enduring relationships that not only span miles but bridge the gap of cultural differences. Today I write in honor of my Tunisian father, a man who adopted me during my Peace Corps service and who for the past 26 years loved me like I was his very own. I am so grateful that Peace Corps gave me the opportunity to know a love like that. I am so grateful for this man and his family, my family.
I was an English teacher in the town of Beja, two hours west of the capital, Tunis, in North Africa. As is standard Peace Corps convention, I arrived in Beja not knowing a single soul and barely able to speak the language, Arabic. My students ranged in age from 17 to the early 20’s. I remember feeling awkward the very first night of classes, fumbling my way through the roster of names so difficult to pronounce, blundering my way through those first moments. At the end of class, when most of the students had departed, one, Bchira, stayed behind to introduce herself to me. She quite boldly stated that she had little opportunity to have relationships with women her intellectual equal and fearlessly asked if we could be friends. Curious, I had never had a conversation or a relationship start in this way. Bchira invited me home to meet her family. And so I walked with her to her home that very evening. Immediately upon arrival, I was ushered to a low table in the middle of the family room. Seconds later, a feast appeared and I was requested to partake, solo
One by one, family members arrived home, five daughters, mother, grandmother, all of whom proceeded to fuss over and dote upon me. Bubba, the patriarch, was the last to arrive. Sporting a brown woolen fez, a well-endowed pot belly and a very warm smile, he was jubilant and openly affectionate. He welcomed me enthusiastically to his family, and then he took a place on the floor beside me. We talked about America, about politics and conflict, about education and women’s rights. We talked so late into the night that I ended up staying. It happened that fast: I was adopted on site, as if like a stray I was plucked from my isolation, from obscurity and enveloped completely by this family. From that point forward, I spent few days alone or and even fewer hungry.
My situation, the over-the-top hospitality that I received was not unique. Without exception, my Peace Corps colleagues around the country were similarly “adopted” by families, charity driven by their culture and largely by their religion, Islam. Indeed “Zakat” is one of the five pillars of Islam. It obligates Muslims to give of their property, their food, animals or grain, their silver, gold or in modern times, their income. That being said, the generosity I received came not from duty or obligation, but from a meaningful place: from a place of love.
(Excerpted from my book) “I love Bubba, as the paternal figure, as the defender of his women, as the driver of our family conversations, especially political ones. He is open and exceedingly non-confrontational and very good at keeping everyone engaged in debate. He surprises me. He is my reminder that I assume too much of some people and too little of others. It would be easy to gloss over a man like this, assume his life is as simple as anyone’s could be, without a great story, without tragedy or triumph. I did. I meet him as a loving father, devoted to his family and now, even to me. His simple life is good enough. His clothes are plain. In fact, most days, he wears the same thing, his faded blue union suit and brown fez. His home is strikingly unadorned, adequate. His day is going to and coming from his job as a supervisor of the barrage, a massive damn that holds and controls the flow of freshwater to the whole of the north and eastward toward Tunis. Work and family. Simple Life.
But nothing about a former freedom fighter is simple, especially one that has been scarred by conflict. Military service shapes and hones a man. But war sears the memory center, rendering everlasting hurt and wounds felt forever. Bubba goes cloudy at the remembering of war, eager to tell the overarching story, but with stops and starts and omissions. Deep pain, the never-ever-go-away-variety inhabits him, bubbling up when conversation veers there. His sorrow affirms how I feel about conflict. No good can come of it.
This is a photo of Tunisia’s first president, Habib Bourguiba, pinning the Order of Republic medal on Bubba, decorating him for his part in helping wrest control of the homeland from France in the early 1950s. He showed me his stunning bronze ornament, with a five-pointed star highlighted with green and red enamel, finely engraved with silver lances encircling a coat of arms, with a ship, the scales of justice and a lion, topped by a crescent moon and star. Republic of Tunisia is embossed in Arabic. He shows it to me and then it goes back in a box, back into the bureau. Out of sight. Out of mind, mostly.
In 1960, Bubba served in the Congo as part of a United Nations peacekeeping operation whose primary function was to ensure the speedy withdrawal of the Belgian military from the newly independent Republic of the Congo. For his participation, he was conferred a medal that bears the logo of the United Nations on its face. On the obverse, it simply reads “In the Service of Peace.”
Bubba’s exploits come as a surprise, given his lovable demeanor and easy way. He does not fit the picture of a military man as I know it. He is not at all authoritarian or regimented or orderly. Quite the opposite. He is soft, in every way. He is the undisputed head of a household teeming with females. Though one thing’s for certain, he is too yielding, too responsive to be its supreme ruler. That role falls to Naima, his wife. Bubba is surprisingly relaxed, progressive almost about his girls. That he supports their professional education is significant. That he says his girls will have a “say” in who they marry is a liberating avowal. Marriages are negotiated between families. Long before the marriage contract is signed, good mates are heavily prospected and vetted on both sides of the equation and too many times, the bride is not consulted. Bubba will not negotiate away a one of them.
He calls me daughter, tells me “as much my daughter as my other five, and as such I will share all that I have equally with you.” Instinctively, I think of Dad. He would never compromise his fidelity to his family, especially never to an outsider. Never so callously dilute the holy relationship of father-daughter for someone not of his blood. I know it sounds dramatic, but, so is my dad. I look to the sister’s faces, Raoudha, Sonia, Bchira, Intessar and Raja, looking for hurt or dissent. There is only unanimous agreement.” …
Mehrez, my Bubba, died yesterday. As sad as I am today, I find the greater emotion to be anger. I am angry for having had to delay my return visit because of events so very out of my control. I am angry that ISIS (known as Daesh in Beja)—evil incarnate ISIS—is growing in influence within Tunisia, is making any return to Tunisia unforeseeable. I know my being pissed at ISIS for ruining my travel plans is absurd. But they did. I was not able to make it back to see one last time someone who was father to me. No, anger is not the right emotion. It would be better to focus on gratitude, to be thankful for the love and charity of Bubba’s heart. When all the world is awash in fear and hatred for Muslims and their perceived universal hate for Americans, I give you Bubba, a man who took me into his very crowded home and gave me the very best he had.
Nshallah labess, Bubba. Nshallah I will see you soon.