From the archives:

Letters

It is not surprising that people saved Sterett’s brilliantly written letters. Here is a small sampling.

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4-16-78

Emily, baby,
I myself have just returned from a week’s vacation to discover two exuberant epistles  from you – congratulations to your brother, tell that professor to fuck off- and as for your legs [ ].I hope they will have recovered by the time I see you next…Excuse me, but I am quite impatient.

Apropos, perhaps its time to exchange summer plans in a bit more detail. I do intend to stay here for the summer session which starts on the 2nd of July and ends the 15th of August. The normal school year ends the 15th of June or thereabouts and between sessions I am planning a trip to Algeria. As for my glorious return to the States, I may well take a boat which leaves from Casablanca after winding my way across the Maghrib (as an aspiring North Africanist, this seems appropriate). However my plans remain subject to change and I’ll happily accept any suggestions you may have. I do hope you’re still planning to check out Italy so that we might combine forces…But what precisely are your plans?

I spent a very pleasant ten days or so in the south of Tunisia with Michael (or Samin as he is known in Tunis) and some French friends of ours, who have a small house in Djerbe. Quite a nice place, Djerbe:  a windswept mass of  date palms, olive trees and desert flowers which shine in the sand. It is completely rural, a landscape of small date groves, cactus-bordered wheat fields and those wonderful famed Djerbian blue houses. The coast of the island is unfortunately rimmed with ultra modern hotels and tourist complexes, while the interior is undisturbed –dreamlike. We left the island and traveled to the edge of the Sahara and ended up spending three days in the caves of the Matens – strange houses carved into the face of sandstone buttes which rise up from the desert. These caves were inhabited several centuries ago by Berbers. From the peaks of the buttes can be seen the scattered remains of an extensive settlement, crumbling terraces where crops were planted and watered, elaborate arches, cisterns,.. The oueds in the valley are now completely dry, the desert barren and the a few nomands live here now occasionally using the grottos to house their herds in the winter. This Saharan interlude was a welcome change from the hum drum activity of Tunis the sky was clear, the desert quiet  save the rushing wind- still these three peaceful nights I spent in abandoned caves were troubled by blurred but persistent thoughts of you. (Only later did I see the obvious Freudian logic which tied the exotic desert caves to you.)

Meanwhile. The plot has thickened considerably in my domicile back in Tunis. Our Egyptian roommates are continuing their nefarious activities but what they fail to realize is that everybody from the neighbors to the police know. It turns out that one of the classier women who occasionally visits our house is a indicatrice de police, a professional prostitute who is in league with the local vice squad – her job consists of profiting from the indulgences of her clients before turning them into  the authorities for an additional rebate. Since the departure of their more upright compatriots, the Egyptians have stepped up their activities which are now most flagrant. It seems a bust is in order.

In the meantime, our French friends have discovered a fabulous house for rent in the heart of the Medina. The place is huge, its courtyard is tiled in the old Andalousian style. Its walls decorated with faience.. at the moment we’re waiting for the owner to return from the trip so that we can move in. And when Michael went to the local police station to report that he was changing his address the man behind the counter noted his address and said “You live with several Egyptians. Right? There are quite a few women there, aren’t there?”

“That’s why we’re leaving”

“Don’t worry- on va les controler”

Write soon baby, now in fact. I love you, I love you…

Sterett

And yes, well, about Princeton (I sent in a form marking the acceptance questionnaire in the affirmative) I  myself confess to a bit of nervous excitement… but my visit to Princeton will last two years and not two weeks. In any case, I certainly hope that I’ll be bumping into you elsewhere that in the library and the supermarket…[ ]

It may well be.


Tunis 5-7- 78
.

Emily, baby,
A most amazing spectacle last Friday night. On the occasion  of Michael’s 25th birthday, I organized and participated in my first genuine bash here in Tunis, which featured birthday hats, Cuban cigars, a sumptuous French “blanquette de veau” and plenty of liquor (purchased from a neighbor who dabbles in the black market since liquor sales are illegal here on Friday) To my great satisfaction, I once again proved my formidable tolerance to alcohol by drinking the birthday boy under the table, and then to my surprise and amusement, roused all our Tunisian guests to dance to a Dooby Brothers cassette. To see all the ladies of the house, their kids and even the wine – bellied Sadoq grooving across our matted floor- that was a memorable experience. All in all, a fitting expression of the success of our new establishment. All seems for the best here: the food we consume is of excellent quality, our own culinary concoctions being complimented by our neighbors offerings (which are incredibly hot compared to the Egyptian cuisine – you’d feel right at home here- heh heh)I’m really digging sleeping on my sheepskins (even if they are infested with bed bugs); and the human atmosphere defies comparison with my three previous living experiments. The only possible disadvantage is the lack of privacy in our slightly cramped quarters. But so far this has posed no problems whatsoever- my two roommates proving quite congenial. Michael you know (although in retrospect your meeting with him was probably misleading). He is in fact quite intelligent, very well read, and particularly adept and dealing with people. I can reproach him for nothing except perhaps, his superiority (real I mean, not pretended) but that’s already too much! My other roommate, [ ] is a cherubic if slightly chubby girl of 18 whose personality although somewhat bland, makes for an excellent roommate. Our ménage a trios is purely platonic, even if Michael seems to sublimate some of his sexual energy by catering to the woman- girl of the house. As for our neighbors, they represent an interesting cross-section of  Tunisian petit-bourgeous society. The landlord, Sadoc, is a real-estate man who has an amazingly sweet wife and two little boys, the younger of whom, Hanafi, aged 4 is an absolute terror. The next family consists of Mousol, a 28 year old Tunisian who works at the local Family Planning office. His plump henna- haired wife and their 3 month old son (who ironically seems to have been a ‘mistake’) and Mousol’s mother and brother are also part of the package. The third family is a middle aged couple who have a tobacco shop in the Medina. Said’s (the husband) way of welcoming us was to stumble in one night and pour a pack of Crystals on to my table. Most appreciated!


Tunis 5-19-78
.

Emily, baby,
A thoroughly enjoyable although unproductive day. Rose  at 8:00 to the screaming of Hancati in the courtyard and Michael’s puttering around the room, dutifully preparing the morning Turkish coffee. After 20 or so minutes of staring at the high ceiling and cogitating last night’s particularly bizarre dreams, I dressed quickly and sipped my lukewarm morning brew over an early cigarette. Then I was out the door, and deciding to forsake the habitual perusal of the daily paper in my [ unreadable] café, I wandered instead up thru the soukes to the casbah and to the kiliat il-Afab, the Faculte de letteres where I haven’t put my feet in months, a fitting moment to return as today is the last day of classes. Stepping into the University [ ] I ran into 3 or 4 fools from the old Bento II crowd and rapped to them for half an hour or so, in time to catch Prof. Tlili, my one contact at the Kulia, who was down from class on coffee break. In my amateurish mixture of literary and  dialectical Arabic,  I discussed  with him the possibility of publishing in a capsulized form  my thesis and then headed up to his class which I sat in until 12:30.

Then back to Halfaonine, thru the meat market, hassling with the crowds. In the three or more weeks that I have been in this neighborhood, I’ve grown very fond of it – the immense mosque with its yellow sandstone, its green tiled roof, its long colonnades, the bustling market, the square crammed with kids playing soccer, the continual human spectacle.- that colorful mix of ethnic elements and national identities. Strange to say, after months of drifting and mild estrangement, I’ve come to feel part of this world—but soon I’ll be leaving.

After the customary [lunch] I buzzed off to school to peruse mags and take in 2 hours of Tunisian Arabic class. Then Samin (That is Michael) and I wandered back to Halfaonine to hang  out with our “neighbors” the people in our house and cook dinner. Our housing situation has continued to be most gratifying and enjoyable. Our hosts constantly proving their hospitality and good nature. We have taken to sitting up with them at night and bullshitting in the courtyard. Nevertheless our household, or rather our roomful, has undergone a crisis: that of Catherines traumatic relationship with her father. Franciose is a vigorous 50, a talented and hard working architect, a beau parleur who can be very entertaining as well as ingratiating. A great admirer of Balzac like many of his compatriots, he might easily fit into the Comedie Humaine. He is ccompletely obsessed with money, possesses the constitution of a schizophrenic maniac, and suddenly alone at 50 (he’s spent his life either flim –flamming associates or bullying his women to the point of mental exhaustion) he is desperately trying to hang on to his 16 year old daughter who has become a captive audience to his obsessive and contradictory personality. She moved in with us to escape him, at least at night, something he’s found hard to accecpt despite himself, And the other day he locked her in his office, pushed her against the wall in a sudden outburst of furious anger, rav3ed at the rfor 2 hours until she collapsed under tha strain of a nervously induced cardiac seizure. Shipped to the hospital, she was told that it was nothing serious and she returned to the house whimpering and wasted. Crazy! Immediately Michael and I were mobilized as an emergency two man small groups counseling team- we spent long hours arbitrating between the two sites, together and individually, attempting to stabilize a basically hopeless situation. Catherine now refuses to deal with ther fasther at all – her mother arrived and they both went off to Jerba, giving Michael and I a well deserved rest. When she returhns the day after tomorrow, I don’t know whats going to happen.

Meanwhile, time is flying. The winter session at the Institute is all but over, and I am presently planning my month long tour of North Africa. In  fact, I’ve manged to make no plans, only unmaking previous ones. The prospect of getting a hold of a car has proven unfeasible, a very interesting opportunity having of course fallen through. No word from Michel whom I wrote two weeks ago about his seeing Algeria with me, or at least relaying to me some of his parents North African connections. And no word from you either concerning your would-be trip to Italy. The possibility of taking a freighter from Tangiers at the end of summer has been shutdown, leaving the latter part of August unplanned.

Now at this time, [after my] 8 or so months in Tunis, I am forced to face feelings of unaccomplishment. At this point I feel that my Arabic is just beginning to take off. I feel the necessary strength to open the huge bolted door to peer from a long tunnel where the light of mastered knowledge glimmers dimly at the other end.. Each day, I contemplate the growing horizon of things I don’t know and I find myself frenetically trying to redouble my efforts at study in vain, for at the moment I find myself surrendering to the aimloess gratification that comes with the first swells of summer, as well as a certain sexual frenzy long repressed by the dismal and continuing rains of spring.. and yes that brings me to you, baby; how are you? (Impossible to convey on paper the rush of emotuon that such a simple phrase can carry in a conversation
) Of course I miss you, but I have managed to keep my head together by avoiding large doses alcohol and the emotional indulgences it brings on.  Are you by the way still coming to Europe this summer? Oh, I so long to see you, Its been so god damned long now…
I Love You

Yes, the unexpressible

Sterett

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Tunis 10-21-77

Greetings, Peter Homans, pride of the muses!

The servant of God who needs the mercy of God who is so rich in His kindness, David Sterett Pope, follower of Truth (God give him success!), says:

Praise be to God! His power is great; in His hands He holds the fortunes of countries and Empires. He causes his children to travel great distances, as in conquest and submission. He places obstacles in the way of those seekers, so that only the faithful endure. This is how He rules his Creatures!

So here I am in Tunis, tangling with an entirely new life, a continual cascade of new encounters, impressions and revelations. All is extremely interesting, although not without frustration and fatigue.

After two very pleasant weeks in Nîmes with Charles and the Benguiguis,1 I took a plane from Marseilles to Tunis on the 31st of October. Following a week of bureaucratic hassle, I managed to register at the Institut Bourguiba.2 Classes began two weeks ago: 10 hours a week of literary Arabic and 4 more of the local Tunisian dialect. The work so far is extremely demanding, and there are unlimited possibilities for personal study outside of class. In addition, I’ve tackled an intense reading list: Marx’s Capital, Ibn Khaldoun’s Muqadimah3 (extremely interesting) and numerous other works on Arab politics and history.

For the moment, I’m staying at the Cité Universitaire – student housing outside of Tunis. This is strictly temporary, as the conditions are deplorable. Nothing works: toilets are non-functional, the electricity is always on the blink, and a hot shower is nothing less than a miracle. I’ve taken to wiping my ass with the local French newspaper, since Arab culture has rejected toilet paper in favor of the left hand. . . . In general, I take little stock in material amenities, but life at the Cité is extremely uncomfortable since it precludes all privacy (3 people to a 12 x 25 ft. room) and all efficient use of time. Impossible to entertain friends (the female gender is expressly forbidden) and party with them. The problem is getting an apartment in Tunis; they are hard to find, requiring a lot of money and friends to share the expenses with.

As for the city itself, I dig it. The climate has been superb so far: 70° with a cool, sea breeze and blue sky every day. With such weather, people can afford to hang out in the streets; there are consequently many cafés and night spots to dig [?] on. The people are extremely hospitable, inhabitants of Tunis are a handsome people of every color and costume, the women are (alas!) extremely attractive.

In general, Tunis is extremely Francofied. French as a language is spoken by every merchant and high school graduate. Most European ideas and lifestyles have gained currency here (with the frustrating exception of sexual mores: Tunisian women remain the property of their families, who safeguard their sacred sexuality for the great Arab ritual of marriage). A bit different from the U.S., what?

In three weeks, I’ve run into quite a few interesting characters: Tunisian students of all sorts and states, business men, cosmopolitan dope peddlers, Americans who have come here to study Arabic. Tunisian women are, however, an unknown quantity to me; the little contact I’ve had with native girls has been so cursory as to preclude any communication.

Several years ago, you made the amusing comment that I could get along with anybody, even Adolf Hitler, if only to check out his rap. I suppose you were making reference to my natural tolerance of personality and constant curiosity thereof. These penchants have found another object in my current roommate at the Cité, an American who has come to study Arabic at the Institute. This guy’s a bizarre combination of gesellschaft “time is money” mind-set and “occult” consciousness. A student of Aleister Crowley4 and self-made boogey man who has come to Tunis to find medieval Arabic manuscripts dealing with magic and have them translated into English for immediate publication in the U.S., he also plans to start an import-export business out of Tunis with me as translator. (?) A very intelligent fellow but his rap seems inconsistent and nebulous (is Weber’s otherworldly/this world5 ascetic [sic] distinction valid?). We shall see.

All in all, I feel quite at home here, despite frequent feelings of cultural dislocation and isolation. In particular, I miss Emily’s company6 – things worked out extremely well this summer, but that story already belongs to the annals of history and its possible suite [?] to the leisurely games of fortune tellers. Transatlantic communication is slow to say the least, and I have to cope with a time lag of 3 weeks at best. For all you and I know, I could be on Mars! Due to bureaucratic befuddlement here at the Institut, delivery of mail is delayed and uncertain, but I assure you, Homans, any letter that I do get brings me great satisfaction (something that is rare for me at the moment), so I demand that you write. In any case, I’ve come to feel cut off from the East Coast scene that you’re living,7 but this I have accepted – fully. To you, to inform me.

And how the hell have you been anyway? How is your art, and your famous “vie intérieure”? I trust that everything is hip academically (as always with you), but what of the social scene? Do you have any news of Doug Hughes8 or any other characters that we know (knew) at Harvard? Have you seen Emily? Are you getting laid? (Forgive the vulgarity – it’s the least I can do.) What are your projects? What I mean is, what’s your RAP? These and many other questions await me in your first letter, right?

You know, I’m sorry I’m not in the States now smoking pot with you, and discussing life. I miss my friends and even pot’s hard to get. What – here in North Africa? Let’s just say I haven’t been able to use cannabis as a daily medicine.

But I’m here, Peter, and I dig it. This is Africa, this is crazy! When I return, we’ll rekindle the old ties . . . .

Listen man, I’m expecting your letter, and I’ll dig you later.

Sterett

My address: Sterett Pope c/o Institut Bourguiba, 47 avenue de la liberté, Tunis, TUNISIA


Djerba, 4/4/78

Part II 4/15/78

Dear Peter

I’m presently rereading your last letter so as to work myself into a correspondent’s fever and compose my impunctual [sic] reply. An excellent and most entertaining piece of prose – your last letter. My own correspondence has been sporadic and random, to say the least, and during the past few months has suffered a period of hibernation and hermetic retreat. Still, spring has arrived here in Tunisia, and your letter has inspired me to hazard a reply – if a bit tardily.

Carl Young’s9 [sic] description of Tunis was amusing – yes, there is homosexuality here (after all, Tunis is well within the confines of Richard Burton’s10 famous “pederasty zone,” that geographical belt which stretches from the western Mediterranean to Northern China), but this ain’t classical Greece! A strange place this Tunisia – to stroll into a steaming Turkish bath early in the morning to see men mumbling on their prayer mats, or to wander thru the narrow streets of the old city among mustachioed men with towels wrapped around their heads and women clad in white sheets, clenching their veils in their teeth – all this might suggest a strange and distant land. But to walk down the Avenue Habib Bourguiba on a Saturday to see students dressed in denim bell bottoms and UCLA sweaters, lining up to see a Charles Bronson film – America is not too far away after all.

But for the moment I’m enjoying a brief change of scene; I’ve been given a week’s vacation, and several friends and I have gone south to Djerba – an incredible island off the south Tunisian coast, a windswept mass of sand, date palms, olive trees and beach. And while the coast of the island is typically littered with various hotels and “clubs mediterannées,”

(a week later)

the interior exudes a dreamlike calm, the land of the Djerban fellah11 with his olive groves, wheat fields, his whitewashed domed manzel,12 and of course a camel to complete the cliché. We then cruised south to the Sahara to check out some bizarre Berber dwellings carved in the side of a mountain overlooking terraced green fields and palm groves (which make for a spectacular contrast against the sandy expanse of desert and barren ridges).

But how to describe Tunis? Bars close at 8:00, there’s almost no pot to be smoked, and bored youths sit around the cafés discussing past copulations with tourists (and sometimes little boys) and their disgust over Tunis in general. My own life here has been far from spectacular, a solitary trek thru the Tunisian rain between classes and my domicile, between cafés and Turkish baths. A maze of linguistic confusion and cultural isolation, rushes of self-recrimination and wanderlust – it must be all these Conrad and Malraux novels that have convinced me that I’ll never be either Lord Jim or “le héro malrausien,13 l’homme d’action [indecipherable] devant la mort …” But that was winter here in Tunis, and spring has come!

Your last letter mentioned that you had had no news from Ms. Apter. As it turns out, I’ve had plenty; in fact, she visited me here in Tunis in the middle of January – just in time to witness the bloody riot (up to 300 civilians were shot down in the streets) which marked the defeat of the Syndicalist Union and the victory of the new regime. Politics aside, our little rendezvous proved quite an experience – I was surprised, almost shocked that our relationship (such an unsatisfactory word), our love, had been preserved; in fact, it had taken on a new force with the flow of those months apart. I had forgotten exactly what it was we had had, and the meeting in Tunis turned out to be quite a happy one. As it turns out Emily (still, at this distance my life seems strange) may be traveling to Italy this summer, and as I will probably be here in Tunis taking advantage of the summer session, we may meet again before I make my glorious re-entrance to the States.

Which reminds me: you may by this time have heard a scurrilous rumor to the effect that I will be attending graduate school. In fact, it seems that that drunken (and most unimaginative) prophecy which you made last summer at the Lampoon14 may come true after all. But why? Maybe it was the insidious influence which a woman’s impassioned voice worked over my confused brain during the small hours of last summer. More probably, it was the realization that my future role in society, as insane as it seems, needs further refinement and schooling (essential [undecipherable], you know). In any case, I applied [to] and was accepted at, of all places, Princeton in Middle Eastern Studies. If one wants to study, one of the best places to go. I am enthused about going, but I do feel a bit queasy returning to academia., succumbing occasionally to pangs of self-doubt and the need for legitimacy (after all, what have I done in these past 23 years?) as well as the desire to be financially and productively integrated into society . . .

But this is babble – I must put down my pen, as in these past few pages, I have disemboweled any pretension I may have had to write fine prose. In the meantime, I count on you to reinspire me with your inimitable blend of spicy gossip and academic erudition. That is – WRITE! I know I’ve been prodigal. No matter!

Your man in Tunis,

Sterett

And if I don’t hear from you soon, god damn it, I intend to write a venomous but brilliant letter.


Tunis 5/18/78

Dear Peter:

May God bless you and grant you peace!

Your letter arrived today, and I read it with great interest, although I noted to my dismay a certain sloppiness in you once distinguished prose: the phrase “it was real” was repeated twice; you seem to have joined the latter-day Beat Generation after a stodgy upbringing and education. But this won’t be the first time that LSD15 has crippled the creative capacities of an artist.

Speaking of Doc,16 I heard an amusing, but tragic (and inevitable) anecdote about the man: it seems that he got six months in jail after asking a judge in court: “Your honor, how much will it cost me to call you an S.O.B.?”  I don’t want to repeat old gossip, but all this seems to symbolize the far-removed life I once led. I must admit you managed to wrench a few nostalgic chills out of my estranged soul, when you recounted news concerning Doug, Mimi, and of course the Band.17 Extend my blessings (Allahir ya’īdik!) to the whole crowd. Tell them I’m prospering in this never-never land . . .

The biggest news I can produce for your perusal is a recent change of address. I believed I mentioned in my last letter my Egyptian roommates’ (real assholes!) flagrant womanizing and the possibility of immanent intervention by the local vice squad; and so finally, my American roommate and I moved down the street to Halfaomine, “le quartier populaire” which straddles the traditional Arab quarter (the mefine) and the never-native section of town. Michael and I share with a French girl an oblong room which opens out onto a courtyard used by three other Tunisian families. Our neighbors are incredibly hospitable, bringing us cous-cous, washing our clothes, and speaking only Arabic. Quite a contrast from my last experiment in international living..

Each morning I trudge thru the Halfaouine meat market bound for my habitual café where I order my exprès-crème and hunker down over the day’s newspaper. As I move thru the market in a daze, my senses are jarred to consciousness by freshly cut goat heads, the yellowish cow stomach linings and hanging tripe – a repulsive spectacle that exercises a strange attraction on my fading subconscious . . . At this time of morning I awake in the market to the human landscape of Tunis – a colorful tableau of ethnic elements and sartorial identities. Here stands a toothless crone dressed in the habitual white sheets bickering with a fish merchant who sports an army-issue khaki shirt under his 1940 Brooks Brothers coat which he purchased for a few dinars at the local clothes market. There strides a member of the old order, dressed in his striped, caped and baggy knee-high britches, wearing a grey handlebar waxed mustache and Turkish red-felt cap. And here I am, leather vest and shades – “Nejm ed Din,” they call me (“Star of Religion” in Arabic) — making my own way thru the meat market. Strange to say, after some months of anomic estrangement, I finally feel a part of this place. But soon I’ll be leaving . . .

And yes time flies. The winter session at the Institut is all but over, and I’m currently looking forward to a month’s vacation in which I plan to bop around Algeria and Morocco, perhaps to be joined by Michel Benguigui, who sends you his best and who  — god-damn it! — hasn’t responded to my letter concerning his summer plans. In his past epistle, he related that his parents had just visited Algeria – the first time since ’62 – and that they were very well received. Michel said he would really like to go with me, but that we should discuss the matter “plus seriuesement.” In any case, my trip would be greatly improved by his parents’ connections if not his company. Then in July, I return here for another 5 or 6 weeks of Arabic before leaving Tunis definitively. My return route is uncertain – I had intended to go to Morocco and grab a freighter from Casablanca – but alas there are no more freighters. Emily was supposed to come to Italy this summer, but a letter I received yesterday from here indicated her plans were now focused on a trip to Germany. The tone, however, was uncertain; she may not come at all. But then again she suggested the possibility of a rendezvous in France . . .

As my stay here is drawing rapidly to a close, I’m faced with the prospect of drawing the bilan18 of this year. My conquest of the Arabic language has been far from complete – instead, I have the impression of having made a good start on a formidable task. My Tunisian colloquial is rapidly developing with the long daily conversations with the neighbors – I’m continually amazed by what nice people they are. As for the literary, my newspaper Arabic is half-decent and making constant but slow progress. But hell, I’m 23, dependant as fuck, some sort of half-baked “intelléctuel” still reaching clumsily for his niche in society. And I find your Oblomovian moanings19 in bad taste; they ring too many inharmonious and poorly tuned bells in my head. Congratulations on your electronic music making20 and campus exposure. For myself, I have the possibility of publishing in a Tunisian scholarly journal a shortened précis of my thesis – hardly in service of the social sciences but rather with the goal of increasing my own meager armament for future credential warfare. … But here in Tunis, as time slips away, I’m continually struck by all that I still have to learn, and the necessity to redouble my efforts at study while I’m still here. In vain, for I find myself surrendering to the lethargic gratification that has come with the first swells of summer, as well as the agonizing distraction of suddenly reawakened sexual impulses which jar my body (and alas my mind) in a sort of suffocated frenzy. Unfortunately, I do not miss Emily in “a sort of glowing unseparated way” (I’m referring to Steve’s21 description of his feelings for Mary22 in a letter he wrote in October – more on this later) but more in the “nagging, depressive way” (which Steve does not feel, he says), which is to say that I am forced to admit the presence of a strong need, and yes a desire, which annoys me. Ça m’agace, quoi!23 These feelings are “nagging” indeed, quite uncomfortable – throughout my stay in Tunis I have noticed a certain instability – the slightest inconvenience or ambiguity – a long wait in the Tunisian post office or a menacing cryptic word in a crowd of babbling Tunisians – can plunge me into irritation of despair, while the most banal gratification, such as a particularly good meal or a conversation with an attractive young lady, can suddenly raise my spirits to the point of frenzy. And I can assure you that I sympathize (somehow the wrong word) with your complaints of sexual inactivity – I’m continually frustrated by my contacts with Tunisian women which remain tenuous and absurdly superficial, if indeed existent at all. My uncle24 has a saying that “the best way to learn a language is in bed,” and I recently wrote him that while his pet technique was unquestionably superior to the audio-lingual method favored by the Institut Bourguiba, I had not had the chance to put his advice to good use. My Arabic could use it! Perhaps it’s my own gêne25 before the prodigious pudeur26 of the Tunisian women . . . All this, in theory, should make my reunion with Emily all the more ecstatic, God willing (as the Arabs say in all their wisdom), but that’s not the point. Not at all.

As concerns Steve, I recently received a letter from him in Dublin – it seems that Mary showed up in Ireland in March – more Baba’d27 out than ever. Steve said he “gave her quite a lot of shit” and that they spent a few weeks working out their difficulties. Steve noted that she was a bit unhappy in Ireland where there was little for her inward crusade for consciousness (with a big C, I forgot) and that she talked of returning to ashram life at some point in the future. When he wrote, she was working in a little local restaurant for a pittance, of course, while Steve was finishing his graduate studies. He’s reading a lot of Joyce and Yeats which he’s “managing to get into to some extent,” and thinking as little as possible about job prospects in New York.

Curiously, you requested a reading of my “politics” – indeed, much reading and observation of the Tunisian scene has proved very interesting. You may have heard of the riot we had in Tunis on the 26th of Jan., “Black Thursday” as it is known here, when Tunisian youths were machine-gunned by the tens in downtown Tunis. Altho 40 citizens expired according to the official statistic, 400 is a more likely figure. All in all, a macabre festival to celebrate the political retirement of the aging “Combattant Suprême,” and the definitive rise to power of the Nouira28 faction of the Party.29 But Bourguiba’s decline was already old news, his senility having effectively removed him from power some time ago. Several years ago, in one of his daily television discourses, the Mujahid Al-Akbar gave a speech on sexuality and revealed that he had lost a ball in prison. And several days after the évenements of January, Bourguiba’s last live speech was cut short when he exclaimed, “Achour30 (the president of the National Union crushed at gunpoint during the riot) is a pimp! He wants to take my place!” Concurrently, the President-for-Life published in the Arabic newspaper Biladi an official communiqué to the people in which he praised the forces of order for their “courage” and “devotion to duty.”  In the following article, however, the Minister of the Interior was reported to have assured the party that the President was in good health and was following closely the political developments in the country (as if the reader doubted as much after having read the communiqué!).

The riot was launched in the wake of a nationwide general strike declared by the National Union, which sought the resignation of the three top government ministers. The result was police and army repression, which dismantled the Union, the only institution capable of opposing the three-man clique which had gained control of the party. Despite much talk of foreign espionage and provocation, it seems reasonably clear that the riot was provoked by the ruling faction as a pretext to crush the syndicalist opposition. Supposedly “an insurrection,” the people and the Union were sadly unarmed and defenseless.

By coincidence, Emily arrived in time to catch all the action. She landed in Tunis on an airplane with Habib Achour, the Union leader, who was greeted in the airport by roaring applause. And when we decided to take a trip south, we arrived in Sfax to discover a regional strike, to be followed by a national one the next day (the 26th). Forced to hitch-hike back to my suburban village outside Tunis, we witnessed a bombardment of oranges by a returning basketball team, aimed at the local police, which were attempting to enforce the curfew. Hardly a revolution! Still, the night was troubled by bursts of machine-gun fire – the National Guard had arrived in force.

And as I leave you under the blue skies and rising heat of midday Tunis, I hope this letter, perhaps the most complete of my Tunisian correspondence career, reaches you, as you did not advise me of your “Gotham” change of address. . . .

Sterett

P.S. Please note my new address (as I demand response): chez Sadoq ben Othmani, 19 Rue Gasconne, Halfouine, Tunis, TUNISIA; and give my regards to Broadway and all the folks …


Tunis 7/7/78

(and 7/8)

Dear Peter,

I got your letter on my return from Morocco – I can always count on you for fine correspondence: the gossip is tasty and the perspective always fresh. However, I found that disparaging comment about the religious overtones of my Arabic knick-name31 gratuitous – as you know I never was admitted to the exclusive circle of those high-octane ascetics Catherine and Sam Gordon32 – Hah! Excuse me, Peter, I couldn’t resist. I was appreciative of your observations and advice (always welcome but often so expensive!) concerning Emily. Your remark about “the premarital vibes”33 between parents was especially intriguing: that such vibes could exist at all is merely impossible; instead we’re dealing with a projection on Emily’s part. This makes sense: as early as January she discussed the sexual-social instability of her new post-graduate and professional pose. And for the moment I seem irreplaceable – I mean, I can do no wrong in that girl’s eyes – when I think back on the semi-misery she was forced to share with me here in January, I marvel that she’s still on my side. But the proof is that we do each other a lot of good – a lot. Since then, this place has opened up for me – I [have] learned and seen quite a bit. Perhaps I’ve changed her as well. “La bes dima ensha’allah” (“Everything will be hip, God willing).” As for marriage, that was never a question – I ain’t gettin’ married to no-one for a long time – I can’t even support myself! let alone a woman. Let’s be reasonable, folks. As to “playing it cool,” good advice but remember, I’ve made a career of just that, and if I’ve been overcome at times by blind frustration, my personal properties of rational detachment (or perhaps just detachment) and physiological lethargy can pass for “coolness” in a pinch.

But then again I received this spring a letter from Emily warning me that I shouldn’t expect a total involvement when I return – this, however, while she was being intensively courted by some professor (or somebody), to no avail she tells me. But the timing of the letter was interesting. The day before it was written, Charles had visited Princeton, gotten drunk with Emily, and philosophized extensively about his pessimism concerning long-term relationships, most especially ours. I must admit I was a bit pissed at Charles, but I had to laugh despite myself – Good old Charles was back in town!

At the moment, I’m still recovering from my month-long trek across North Africa. I wonder if you’ve ever taken a boat across the Atlantic; after a week at sea you touch feet on dry land to discover with dismay that the earth is now heaving, the walls gently rocking back and forth. So with me – after a month of traveling, constantly en route between new places and random encounters, I settled back in Tunis to find that even if I had stopped moving, the city was still spinning around me. The trip was a great success: an incredible variety of places and people, the discovery that my Arabic could be put to continual use and with good effect, and of course the luck [?] of the road. Alone for all but two days of the journey, I was pick-pocketed in Constantine, apprehended for journal writing in public by the Algerian police, fleeced [?], this time for good, in Casablanca. I had my shoelaces stolen in an Algerian hammam34 (the shoes were left, they were in such shambles), Moroccan kids tried to put henna in my hashish, and even the Algerian police shortchanged me at the Tunisian border. But I loved it. The trip was characterized by almost continual conversation (in Arabic), and I scrupulously avoided rabid sight-seeing. Preferring instead to hang out and get a feel for the places on a human level. At one point when I lost all my money in Casa, I ended up spending three days in a local café, rapping with the boys, smoking hash (continually) with them, and watching the finale of the World Cup soccer tournament. I then managed to pan-handle $20, with which I hitch-hiked back across Algeria, not without restopping at Fes (the city of North Africa, excepting perhaps Algiers) and making a long detour into the Ril, the crazy mountainous region where most of Moroccan pot is grown.

My itinerary made for much variety and discovery. I spent my first week in the Algerian Constantines35 (the storming ground of my thesis), then caught Michael, my American roommate, in Algiers, where we took a night bus down to the desert, where we were hosted by a friend who lives in the Mzah, that collection of oasis towns founded a thousand years ago by an extremist Muslim sect, the Kharijites.36 After two days, I trekked across Algeria to the Moroccan border to catch Fes and then alas Casablanca. I remember that Doug Hughes used to say that I was the great traveler (hell knows why), that he would love to travel with me. But I doubt this trip would have suited [him], it was mine alone. Being on my own only exhilarated me, and I was well received wherever I went – the very sight of a garvry (a derogatory word for European much used in Algeria) who could speak Arabic was enough to blow my hosts’ socks off. And so I felt I [was] meeting a lot of people, and that I had exchanged a bit of information. But all this can wait for my return to New York.

As it stands now, my plans are to return to the States soon after the end of the summer session, which finishes the 14th of Aug. Emily seems to have insufficient bucks, and doesn’t know whether or not she wants to go to Europe this summer. And then, of course, there is Jim Schwartz’s37 wedding on the 26th. I certainly intend to make it back for the event, and I expect to see you there, if not sooner. If you haven’t been invited by now, I invite you38 – 2:00 on the 26th at, I believe, Bellport, Long Island. Don’t be late! In any case, I’ll certainly be passing thru Kennedy [Airport] and I may look you up – another reason for including your new return address (after Aug. 1) on your next letter (which must arrive before Aug. 14, etc.).

In the meantime, time is passing very quickly here in Tunis; I’m continuing to enjoy the family atmosphere of Halfouine, Bourguiba School is quite a bit hipper this summer, the beach, the weather, the Tabarka Jazz Festival39 – these are all easy distractions for an estivating Arabist. I count 5 weeks before I leave Tunis and my almost yearlong stay ends.

See you round the resort,

Sterett

ENDNOTES

  1. Charles and the Benguiguis. Charles Khan was a Harvard College classmate (Class of 1977) and friend, and subsequently an architect based in Berkeley, Calif. Of Algerian descent and raised in Nîmes, France, the Benguigui brothers — Michel and Henri (?) – were befriended by Pope while he was on a school-year-abroad program in France during the time he was enrolled at St. George’s, a boarding school based in Rhode Island.
  2. Institut Bourguiba. Named for Habib Bourguiba (1903-2000), the then longstanding president of Tunisia. Bourguiba was thought to be senile at the time of the letters, and was declared impeached on medical grounds in 1987.
  3. Muqadimah. Also known as the Muqaddimah, Ibn Khaldun’s text, written in 1377, is said to be the first Western work to deal with the philosophy of history and the social sciences.
  4. Aleister Crowley. Crowley (1875-1947) was an English occultist, writer, mountaineer, yogi and possible spy during World War I.
  5. Weber’s otherworldly/this world. A probable reference to The Sociology of Religion by the German sociologist Max Weber (1864-1920). The book was on the syllabus of Social Sciences 2, a course at Harvard that both Pope and Homans had taken.
  6. Emily’s company. Emily Apter (Harvard Class of 1976) was Pope’s girlfriend at the time. She subsequently became a professor of comparative literature and French at New York University.
  7. East Coast scene that you’re living. At the time, Homans was in his first year of a “terminal” master’s program in music composition at Columbia University and was living in New York City.
  8. Doug Hughes. A Harvard classmate and college roommate of Homans. Hughes was subsequently a Tony Award-winning director of Broadway plays.
  9. Carl Young’s. No doubt a reference to Memories, Dreams, Reflections by the Swiss psychologist Carl Jung (1875-1961). Homans had recently read the book.
  10. Richard Burton’s. A reference to Sir Richard Francis Burton (1821-1890), the British explorer and orientalist.
  11. fellah. An Arabian peasant.
  12. manzel. A Muslim structure.
  13. “le héro malrausien.” A reference to the typical hero in such novels of André Malraux (1901-1976) as Man’s Fate – a man who must transcend his solitude through fellowship in a common political cause.
  14. the Lampoon. The Harvard Lampoon is an undergraduate humor magazine at Harvard. Although Pope and Homans were not members, the Lampoon occasionally hosted parties that included outsiders.
  15. the first time that LSD. Homans had had his first (and only) LSD trip earlier that year, and in his last letter had remarked of the experience, half-facetiously, that “it was real.”
  16. Speaking of Doc. H.L. (Doc) Humes (1926-1992) was one of the originators of The Paris Review and the author of two highly regarded novels, The Underground City and Men Die. During Pope’s years at Harvard and afterwards, Humes was basically homeless and unemployed and staying at various student residences, where he would expound on a range of subjects while under the influence of marijuana. Pope spent many hours listening to Humes’s talks. It is thought that Humes’s mental instability may have been triggered in the 1960s by some LSD that he had ingested at the urging of Timothy Leary.
  17. Doug, Mimi, and of course the Band. Mimi Ambrose, another Harvard classmate, had been Doug Hughes’s girlfriend while they were at college. The Band refers to their mutual friends, as well as to a favorite rock group of Pope’s.
  18. bilan. French for “balance sheet.”
  19. Oblomovian moanings. A reference to Oblomov by Ivan Goncharov (1812-1891), a satirical novel on Old World Russia as personified by a noble young hero who does nothing.
  20. electronic music making. As part of his curriculum at Columbia, Homans was required to take at least one year of electronic music.
  21. Steve’s. Harvard classmate Stephen Fenichell was a close friend of Pope’s. At the time of these letters, Fenichell was studying literature at Trinity College, Dublin. He was subsequently a freelance and staff writer.
  22. feelings for Mary. Harvard classmate Mary Reilly (subsequently Mary Reilly- Nichols) was Fenichell’s girlfriend during college and at the time of these letters.
  23. Ça m’agace, quoi! French for “That vexes me, what!”
  24. My uncle. Probably a reference to Andrew Turnbull, Pope’s mother’s brother, author of an esteemed biography of F. Scott Fitzgerald and an editor of Fitzgerald’s letters.
  25. gêne. French for “discomfort.”
  26. pudeur. French for “shyness.”
  27. more Baba’d. A reference to Baba Muktananda (1908-1982), a founder of Siddha yoga, of whom Reilly-Nichols was a devoted follower. She eventually became a yoga instructor.
  28. Nouira. As prime minister in the Bourguiba government from 1970 to 1980, Hédi Nouira (1903-2000) espoused a liberal model of economic development.
  29. the Party. A reference to the Parti Socialiste Destourien, the party of the government, founded by Bourguiba in the 1930s as the Neo-Destour Party.
  30. Achour. Habib Achour (1913-1999) was at the time the head of the Union Générale des Travailleurs Tunisiens, the largest labor union in Tunisia. Arrested following the riots, Achour was pardoned by Bourguiba in 1981.
  31. my Arabic knick-name. See “Star of Religion,” p. 7. Homans may have remarked that Pope didn’t deserve the knick-name because he wasn’t particularly religious.
  32. Catherine and Sam Gordon. A reference to Katharine Weiser (a friend of Homans and a class or two behind him at Harvard) and Sam Gordon (a Harvard classmate and roommate of Homans), both of whom were interested in philosophy, religion and Eastern mysticism. Weiser was subsequently a doctor of holistic medicine based in Marin County, Calif.; Gordon died of a cocaine overdose in New York City in 1979.
  33. “premarital vibes.” In a discussion with Homans, Apter had probably mentioned that both her parents and Pope’s were speculating among themselves about the possibility that the couple could become engaged, as parents are inclined to do.
  34. hammam. Turkish bath.
  35. Algerian Constantines. Probably a reference to Constantine, a city in northeast Algeria, east of Algiers.
  36. The Kharjites. The sect originated in present-day Iraq.
  37. Jim Schwatz’s. Harvard classmate and friend Jim Schwartz was marrying Ann Hochschild, also Harvard Class of ’77.
  38. I invite you. Homans was not formally invited to the wedding, and therefore did not attend.
  39. Tabarka Jazz Festival. The jazz festival was still in existence as of 2009.

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