“You must marry an Arab woman,” said the taxi driver as he took me across Tunis, the capital of Tunisia. Then he moved his eyes from the road to the rearview mirror and fixed me with a gaze that both emphasized his deep conviction and betrayed his disappointment in me as a man. “No, you must marry an Arab.”
Let me back up. I’d been telling the cabbie about my past two days in Tunisia, where I’d suddenly arrived on less than a day’s notice, and how I’d fallen in love with the food. From salty, crackly-skinned roast chicken, which I’d torn apart with my fingers and dipped into puddles of spicy harissa and olive oil, to icy street-corner lemonade alive with zest, I hadn’t had a bad mouthful yet. My only regret, as I told the cabbie, was that I couldn’t plunder the Marché Central, the covered market at the edge of the labyrinthine Tunis medina, to concoct meals for my wife and daughter, who were back home in Brooklyn.
As we sped along a causeway across the Lac de Tunis, racing a commuter train that had passengers hanging out its open doors, the cabbie explained the problem he had with me. I not only did all the cooking at home, but I did it willingly—I liked cooking, which was obviously a woman’s job. “Muslim men,” he explained, “can have four wives.” And each has a particular role, he continued: “One cooks, another keeps house, a third is pregnant, and the fourth you sleep with—until she gets pregnant, too.” Then all the roles shift.
“How many wives do you have?” I asked.
“Zero,” he said, then cheerfully corrected himself: “All the women of Tunisia are my wives! Except my mother and my sister. But all the rest are my whores!” Then he asked if I could introduce him to an American girl.
The interaction left me in a weird mood. On the one hand, it represented much of what I found myself loving about Tunisia: the casualness of conversations, the ease of getting around. But at the same time, his stereotypically Muslim male chauvinist point of view bothered me. Or rather, what bothered me was that it seemed he’d chosen to inhabit a stereotypical role: Did he really feel that way, or was he performing for a tourist?
The taxi driver wasn’t the first clichéd persona I’d encountered. In the Tunis medina, the afternoon I arrived—a quiet Sunday, the narrow streets empty—a flamboyantly mustachioed, nearly toothless guide named Ali had attached himself to me. Expert and practiced, Ali enumerated drily and precisely how many pashas and pashas’ wives were entombed in each room of the Tourbet El Bey, the elaborate mausoleum that houses the remains of generations of rulers. Then he offered to take me to a street where prostitutes line up in front of cafés to present themselves for inspection. “They’re not very expensive,” Ali added nonchalantly.
With what I hoped was equivalent nonchalance, I declined his offer.
Of course, in the span of four days, I did meet Tunisians who defied stereotype. Case in point: Abdelaziz Belkhodja, an author I’d contacted (during my layover at Charles de Gaulle airport in Paris) through A Small World, the supposedly exclusive online social network. Abdelaziz inhabited an entirely different Tunisia from that of the guides and taxi drivers—and of nearly all present-day Tunisians, actually. An amateur historian, Abdelaziz was obsessed with ancient Carthage, the Tunisian civilization that 2,500 years ago challenged Rome for supremacy in the Mediterranean. He mined Carthage’s legends and heroes—Dido, the Phoenician queen who founded the city-state; Hannibal, the general who nearly brought Rome to its knees—for his thrillers. He’d earned a reputation as Tunisia’s Dan “Da Vinci Code” Brown.
Yet Abdelaziz was hardly bookish. He seemed to spend his days driving his Mercedes between local hot spots such as the Café des Nattes, perched aerie-like on a hilltop, and The Lodge, which resembled any sleek restaurant in western Europe. Wherever we went, we were surrounded by the beau monde of Tunis—the owners of five-star hotels, a former national football hero, and a parade of glamorous fair-haired women, one of whom flirtatiously asked what I, the New Yorker, thought of les Tunisiennes. Uh, how do you say “flummoxed” in French?
Frankly, in Abdelaziz’s shadow, I wasn’t sure how to act. Which Matt Gross should I put forward to him and his friends? The humble husband and father? The globe-trotting writer? The insecure geek? All were real. All were, to some degree, clichés. But none was entirely me. In the end, I picked an identity I thought would easily translate: gastro-tourist.
It was a label Abdelaziz grasped instantly. “I need a brik,” I told him, referring to Tunisia’s deep-fried tuna-and-egg turnover. And off we Benzed to the open-air restaurant row of the Tunis suburb La Goulette, where we alighted at Le Roi du Brik. After finishing off a runny-yolk rendition of brik, I said offhandedly, “I like salade méchouia.” So the next day we met for said salade (with another of Abdelaziz’s blond friends) at the Marché Central. A vendor piled a plate with roasted peppers, olives, capers, hard-boiled eggs, shredded tuna, cucumbers, tomatoes, harissa, preserved lemons, and probably half a dozen more ingredients that we mixed together and scooped up with crusts of baguette.
At moments like these, I felt especially conflicted: As a lifelong traveler, I know that first impressions can be illusory—that to appreciate another culture, you must dig beneath the surface. But here in Tunis, those surfaces were so instantly pleasurable that penetrating them seemed not only impossible but beside the point. And yet that only made me more curious: How far would I need to dig before I hit the blogger-jailing police state I’d heard about? What else could I know of Ali and Abdelaziz? What lay beyond the briks and across the oceans of olive oil? Something stranger than I could imagine? Or something reassuringly normal?
The answers, I told myself, must lie in the beige-and-white morass of the Tunis medina. Every day I’d plunge headlong into the high-walled alleyways and crumbling arches, past the pocket mosques and through the spontaneous markets and hidden palaces that make up the historic heart of the city. I hoped, somehow, to break through the beguiling imagery to something deeper.
I needed a challenge. I didn’t know what it might look like, but I found it on my last day in Tunis. At a restaurant deep in the medina, I ordered half a lamb’s head, boiled, roasted, and served with french fries.
It may sound like a lunch for extreme eaters only, but during an hour of bare-handed plucking, I discovered its secret: While some may praise the buttery brains (excellent smeared on baguettes) and others love the lolling tongue, and still others quell the gag reflex to down the eyeball, the best parts of the animal’s head are also the most normal—the muscles at the base of the tongue. They’re sweet, tender, and, like Tunisia itself, so instantly and easily enjoyable that the clichés and counter-clichés fail to matter, and you must admit to yourself that some things are simply good. Now if only I’d asked for the recipe—for my wife to cook, of course.