Our Latest Cultural Blooper

Before I let you gasp in horror over what we did last night, let me give you some background on our side of the story. Before we moved to Tunisia, I read someone’s list of things she liked and disliked about living here. I can’t remember most of them, but one of the things she said she disliked was the “garbage everywhere.” I just laughed, certain she must be exaggerating. Living among the ultra-tidy Piemontese, I had nearly forgotten that the world was not one big well-tended, immaculate garden. In the part of Italy where we lived, there was barely a dirt clod out of place. And although our town did have some peculiar trash regulations, they only caused me embarrassing and sometimes even criminal problems with my garbage because I wasn’t as obsessively organized as everyone else.

In any case, our neighborhood here in Hammamet, is fairly clean, but only because they pay people to constantly pick up the garbage. In fact, a fellow tourist told me that once she was in the act of taking my garbage over to a can when she was told by someone that it was better to just throw it on the ground, because it gives people jobs. To an American born and bred on $1000 fines for throwing a gum wrapper out of a car window on the freeway (non-American readers, I am not making this up), the custom of just throwing garbage on the ground is pretty novel. I confess that I can’t really bring myself to adopt it, nor really condone it, even in the interest of job creation.

Every day the beach gets newly covered in bottles, cans, plastic bags, etc. And every day the hotel employees are out diligently raking it into piles and carting it off. The stretches of beach that aren’t in front of a particular hotel are just out of luck. I think this is all probably frowned upon by whatever government environmental agency uses the cute endangered fennec fox mascot, but the reality remains that throwing garbage in the can is not the norm around here.

It’s just weird to me to watch someone who’s standing right next to a garbage can throw the garbage on the ground. To my American eyes, it looks like it must be deliberate, but I’m sure it’s actually completely unconscious. Last week on our date, Tony saw a boy throw a bottle on the ground, and he marched over, picked it up and threw it in the garbage, just to make a statement. The boy wasn’t even looking, and all Tony got was me reminding him that when you live in a foreign country it behooves you to make allowances for the strange, and even the offensive, if only in the hope that perhaps corresponding allowances will be made for your own inevitable indiscretions.

Sure enough, we were very soon to find ourselves in the middle of an egregious blunder. On that same date, we had noticed some shy little sparrows, and tried to feed them a few bits of bread. Most sparrows I know are happy to accept a human handout, and will even hang around picnickers waiting for stray crumbs. But these were so unusually skittish that we trailed them for several blocks, unsuccessfully scattering crumbs like Hansel and Gretel. We finally gave up, and just left some bread on the grass for them to eat after we left, which in retrospect I realize must have been absolutely scandalous to all the Tunisian onlookers.

Because this week as we were eating our dinner of sardines spread on baguette and washed down with drinkable yoghurt (a combination at which the man in the grocery store shook his head in horror), we planned ahead and scattered a few crumbs in front of us on the sidewalk in anticipation of the sparrows.  To our mystification, a few minutes later as a family was walking by, the mother noticed our bread crumbs, looked over at us disapprovingly to make sure we were indeed the culprits, and proceeded to gather up the crumbs and put them over on the grass, all the time muttering, “haram, haram,” the Arabic word for “forbidden,” in the sense of morally unacceptable. She and Tony exchanged a couple of fairly unfriendly words, but since his words were English and hers were Arabic, I think the misunderstanding remained intact. They were quickly persuaded (she by her husband and Tony by myself) to drop the matter, and she went off, still muttering, “haram.”

We were coaxing our sparrows again, and trying to figure out why the lady had such a strong objection to our feeding bread to the birds when another man came by, saw our bread on the ground, and reacted in much the same fashion. In fact, he went even further. He scooped up a few crumbs along with their accompanying dirt, and without a word deposited them in our bag of food. By this time we had gotten the hint that something about scattering crumbs for birds is highly offensive in Tunisia, and decided to give it up. I can’t imagine that they just hate birds. It must be something about the bread. Can anyone enlighten me?

When I think about it, this is not the first time I have encountered cultural taboos that have to do with bread. In Chile, people see bread as something sacred, because of its connection with the Last Supper and the Host at Communion. They view throwing it away as desecrating something holy, because the bread is symbolic of deity. They have some interesting ideas for what to do with stale bread. The strangest was explained to me by a sweet old lady I encountered one evening. She was out on her slanted patio with a hose, making a miniature river and sprinkling her stale bread on it, bit by bit, until it was all washed away. I asked her why she was disposing of the bread in that way, and she responded by quoting Ecclesiastes 11: 1, “Cast thy bread upon the waters: for thou shalt find it after many days.”

I’m sorry to the Tunisians whose evening I interrupted with something so offensive. The violation was completely unintentional. I do try my best to keep abreast of cultural taboos and avoid them. If it helps, I think I know how you feel. Throwing bread on the ground seems like it must be offensive to you in the same way that throwing garbage on the ground is offensive to me. I guess it just goes to show what I am constantly reminded of as an expat: a healthy dose of cultural relativism is vital, even (and maybe especially) when you don’t understand yet why in the world people do whatever it is they’re doing.

7 thoughts on “Our Latest Cultural Blooper

  • April 18, 2013 at 3:13 pm
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    Throwing bread at someone’s feet in the street is indicated as a MARXER, there you have it it mean MARKER!

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  • August 9, 2011 at 3:27 pm
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    We spent several years in Turkey, and my language teacher was sure to let me know not to throw away bread. While no food was ever wasted, bread was even different–sacred. Turks would go out of there way to place dropped bread on a windowsill or other non-ground place.

  • July 18, 2011 at 11:14 am
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    I think you will find their denouncing of your act as ‘haram’ may stem from their thoughts that you were throwing away food, which breaches islamic law.

  • July 17, 2011 at 3:06 am
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    I think putting bread on the ground in an Arab country is even more “wrong” that littering in the US, at least relatively. You simply don’t put bread on the ground for any reason, even for nice little birds. The custom isn’t quite as strong in Central Asia, but I never see bread on the ground, and I see most everything else. Or at least you can put western-style loaf breads on the ground, but not flatbreads.

    But the littering thing. I have such a hard time with that. I remember reading a book about a woman who was traveling around the world and ate with a family on a beach in South America. She wrote that it was right/better for her to leave her trash on the beach then because that’s how things were done there. That bothered me a lot. It wouldn’t have been necessary to lecture her friends about their leaving their trash, but there’s NO WAY I could have left my garbage on the beach. I’ve carried out more than one plastic water bottle that wasn’t mine when we’ve hiked with local friends here.

    But it’s also interesting to me how American attitudes about littering have changed so drastically in just 30 years.

  • July 16, 2011 at 1:43 pm
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    Once when we were shopping in Bali, I accidently backed up and stepped on a little paper plate with purple flowers, rice, and odds and ends as I was looking through some clothes on a rack in front of a little shop. I had seen others plates on the ground outside other shops and wondered why they were there. I thought that they were place quite annoyingly in the way of the the things for sale in front of the shops. When I stepped on the plate, I turned around and saw the look on the shop keepers face. He was very upset and I appologized profusely . It didn’t help at all and he just kept saying, ‘Bad luck on you today! Bad luck to all of you!” I sked one of my Indonesian friends later and found out that it was thier good luck offering for the day and that if it got disturbed they would have bad or no sales all day. They took it very seriously. It was very embarrassing and I was a lot more careful at the other shops. I’m curious to find out what the bread crumbs mean.

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