Fellows' Reflections: Hannah Byrd

As my airplane descended into Tunis in late August, I looked out my window and saw a white sailboat skimming through bright blue water. This first sign of life in my new home sparked the realization that I would have to find my place here in a country with distinct customs and language. In the almost two months since I have lived here, every day has felt like a test of whether I am succeeding at this. Like most things in life, the path to belonging has not been linear. There are days when I walk home from work at sunset when the pink sky frames the white houses and I feel an enormous sense of contentment. I feel cared for by my neighbors when I buy bread from the bakery near my apartment and the women owners ask how I am. I feel the joy of sharing life with others during moments of laughter at lunches with my co-workers over something one of our students did that day.

That being said, there have also been times when I have felt lost living here. I speak Modern Standard Arabic, but the Tunisian dialect is different. The phrases “Mora okhra?” meaning “Can you repeat that?” or “La afHam” meaning “I do not understand” have left my lips too often to count. An incident with FedEx challenged my ability to live in a different context. A package my mom sent from the U.S. with prescription medication was detained at the shipping facility for a seemingly growing list of reasons.

When I consider these challenges, though, I see clearly how I have been helped over and over again. The taxi drivers and shop owners who I give my apologies to for not speaking the dialect are always kind and persistent to communicate with me. My American and Tunisian co-workers helped me solve my issues with FedEx, translating over speaker phone for me, finding medication to act as a substitute, and asking a doctor to write a prescription. The issue was finally resolved thanks to my mom’s call to the company’s customer service, after which my package was delivered in full with no questions or cost. This is an excellent reminder of the support from my family and friends at home for which I am grateful.

I think often of my favorite poem here, Wild Geese by Mary Oliver. It has been a source of comfort since high school, but my experiences in Tunisia bring it even closer to my heart. Nearing the end of the poem, Oliver reminds the reader that “the world offers itself to your imagination, calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting — over and over announcing your place in the family of things.” The immense challenges life can bring in a new country are no match for the capacity of human connection. The place I inhabit in Tunisia I owe largely to the myriad of people who have made it for me through their deeds and words. I trust these relationships will continue to create a sense of home as I grow more acquainted with Tunisia.