Red Paste -- and Spice

“Have you heard of a little country called China?” Wei said with a wry smile, looking down and fiddling with his iPhone. This precocious conversation starter – by a teenager from near Shanghai – was easily one of the best lines I heard at the Global Education Office’s International Student Orientation at Virginia Commonwealth University (VCU) in early January. As a volunteer small group leader for international students beginning their first semester at VCU, a university with over 32,000 students representing over 110 nationalities, I had formally introduced myself to Wei, and this was his cheeky response. And it was absolutely pitch-perfect: so much global moment mixed with economic tease and competitive tension.

Moving on, I made my way across Room 331 in the building formerly known as the Franklin Street Gym. When I asked a new student just in from Tehran in what section of that city he lived, he might have sensed an unintended subterfuge. In broken English he said: “You know something of Iran. Through the media, or the real?”

Notwithstanding the surreal Iranian state media, I could not determine if the Iranian student was referring to his media or ours. Either way, his question – which assumed complex questions about media, reality and mediated reality – was probably enough to make Marshall McLuhan scream with delight.

Then came Ameni, from Tunisia.

The first thing I noticed was – yes, ladies – the fashionable black boots. Second, it was hard not to observe the fastidious way she was filling out her student registration sheet. (Later she would tell me she’s majoring in Business Administration; I suppose the unrelenting attention to detail now made more sense.) Third, there was this older man watching her from a table in the back.

By now we all know what Ameni surely didn’t know at Orientation: that in one week her country would experience massive disorientation – a popular political uprising unique in the post-colonial Arab world, a dissolved government, the exile of the long-term autocratic president and the initial and volatile attempts at the formation of a national unity government.

Throughout the day I played guide to Ameni and other undergraduate internationals through a litany of well-organized VCU workshops: briefings on immigration matters, tutorials on online services and information on community connections. Ameni told me she’s from Monastir, a city on Tunisia’s central coast that was built on a former Punic-Roman city. At this point I could only imagine the long, strange trip connecting the dots between Berbers, Phoenicians and Romans and I-20 immigration forms, email passwords and feminine black boots.

When I met Ameni, I also met her dad (the older man watching from the back). This was all quite cross-culturally charming in that old-fashioned way. He had accompanied his daughter to the United States to inaugurate her formal university – and American – education. Assertively, she admitted her dad was a bit “protective,” but she also said she expected it. Ameni’s dad had recently traveled with Ameni’s twin sister to drop her off for her own foray into university, in Beirut.

Many in Tunisia’s current educated class, as we are hearing, are unemployed or underemployed and thoroughly disillusioned by the former government’s corruption and general inability to do anything about their long-term economic prospects. Such are the tipping-point realities now facing these two young Tunisian sisters studying abroad and heading – expectantly, eventually – into their country’s future educated class.

Meanwhile, back at Orientation, on a mini-tour in the orbit of VCU’s James Branch Cabell Library, along the disjointed bricks in the alley behind the Shafer Court Dining Center, Ameni shared that her sister looks more like Lebanon while most people think she looks more like Turkey. A simple and fascinating comment, I certainly did not have the gender or knowledge or narrative to interpret what she was really saying – not to mention its social or personal implications for her.

In fact, actually I can count on one finger how many Tunisians I’ve met before becoming acquainted with Ameni. I know very little of what distinguishes Tunisians in appearance, personality or temperament from other Arabs. So when I asked Ameni about Tunisian food and she started excitedly describing the culinary staples of her homeland, I realized once again that I had found the timeless portal to cultural understanding.

In the presence of another Arab – an 18-year-old student from Kuwait who spoke limited English and was dressed casually but smartly with a scarf tucked around his neck – Ameni differentiated Tunisian food from that of the Gulf States, the Middle East or even her North African neighbors. She took pains to make sure that I knew her food was not rice-based. It was more Mediterranean, she said, and it prominently evidenced the Italian influence.

“You know red paste?” she asked. “Ah, yes, tomatoes,” I responded. At this, she smiled brightly. Tunisian food is renowned for its stand-out spice, Ameni continued. And at that, she seemed like she could talk spices for hours.

As Ameni carried on about the essential role of red paste and spice in Tunisian cuisine – not like the relative blandness, she inferred, of other Arab cuisines – I couldn’t help but notice a peculiar colorfulness and resolute fieriness about her as well. The topic was still food, right? Maybe, maybe not.

On International Student Orientation day at VCU, a Chinese and an Iranian offered me a kind of cultural artifact -- a headline ripped straight from their countries’ evolving scripts. They brought their artifacts, which I thoroughly appreciated, wrapped in clever questions. What Ameni brought from Tunisia, however, was red paste – and spice. Could it be, for her country, that somewhere in these artifacts are the ingredients behind the questions of revolution and reform?

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