Sterett’s letters to Emily Apter

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
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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
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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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