One of the things almost sure to be heard in a Mormon testimony meeting after someone has traveled (whether it’s across the ocean or just to the next town over) is an expression of gratitude that “the Church is the same no matter where you go.” To a certain extent, it’s true. We all sing the same hymns, although every ward congregation seems to have its particular favorites. We all read the same scriptures. Sunday meetings follow the same general format, even if the meetings are in a different order. Sunday School and other lesson manuals are standardized and translated into over a hundred languages, and on any given Sunday the whole worldwide Church is studying the same lesson (give or take a week or two depending on how organized the local Sunday School teacher happens to be).
We’ve traveled and moved around the world quite a bit, and I’ll admit that I do appreciate the general “sameness” of Church meetings. It’s nice for my children (and for me!) to know that no matter how different the country where we live may be, when we go to Church it will feel familiar. But I also deeply relish the little differences. For example, in Italy when I arrived at Church I was greeted not with a handshake, but with kisses on both cheeks (and sometimes the top of my head too). There is nothing like being kissed thirty times in a row as you walk in the door to really make you feel welcome.
Among my favorite things about attending church in a foreign place is meeting new and different people with whom I nevertheless share many things in common. Church members are always some of my first friends in a new place. And you don’t always meet the people you would expect. Our branch in northern Italy naturally had some Italians in it. But many of the members there were from Argentina, so while Italian was the official language spoken from the pulpit, there was a lot of Spanish floating around in the halls. We also had some members from Nigeria, with whom I conversed in mutually broken Italian for several weeks. Finally one day we laughed in embarrassment and relief when we all experienced the sudden simultaneous epiphany that we were attempting to speak a foreign language with a native English speaker.
Testimony meeting in our Irish branch was a luscious bouquet of accents. There were Irish members from various cities, someone from Latvia, South Africans in both vanilla and chocolate skin tones, a cute little family from France, a missionary from the English Midlands, and then us. The missionaries had a hard time convincing one young black South African man to come back to church, because he was afraid the white members would shun him. When he finally came one Sunday, my heart was touched to see our white South African family be the first to go up and introduce themselves to him, and then invite him to sit with them. From then on, he was taken in as one of them, and sat with them every week, enveloped in the love of their family.
Our branch in Florence may have been even more eclectic, although it varied a lot from week to week, since many worshippers were tourists just passing through. One sweet woman in the branch really took us under her wing, although we were only there for a couple of months. She was from Peru, and had lovely thick black hair and a dark complexion. Her husband could not have looked more different. He was from somewhere in Eastern Europe, and his ruddy face was crowned with a profusion of curly blond hair. I loved the fact that they had both come so far from their native lands only to meet each other in this Italian melting pot and fall in love.
Aside from the obvious surface differences, another fun aspect of Church in different places is the subject matter of Sunday School discussions. General topics like faith, following Jesus, and loving our neighbor, come up everywhere, of course. Lessons on the Word of Wisdom typically revolve around alcohol, smoking, or coffee. In our Filipino Sunday School class, however, we skipped discussing forbidden stimulants in favor of a heated debate on whether we should ever be eating meat at all, since in the Philippines it is never cold, and winter is just a distant fantasy that nobody has ever experienced.
In fact, Filipino Sunday School was always interesting, because they have a lovely cultural tradition of respect towards the elderly. Invariably, at some point in the lesson there would be a venerable old man (a little hard of hearing) with bizarre ideas on every subject, who would lecture until it was time for the closing prayer while the rest of the room sat in reverent silence. The ward we attended in Manila was a downtown one with many English speaking foreigners, and meetings were generally conducted in English. Somehow, though, whenever the speakers in Sacrament meeting told a joke, they thought the punch-line would be funnier in Tagalog. So I’d laugh along with the rest just to be sociable, and then lean over to ask my husband what I was laughing about.
Some of my most spiritual church meetings have been the simplest ones. There’s something about missing all the usual trappings of church that shows you the importance of what’s left without them. One of my favorite Sacrament Meetings ever happened when I was on a semester abroad in Syria. There were of course no local congregations, and our group of BYU students was on a long bus trip that Sunday, so we had Sacrament Meeting right there in the bus. I watched my friend Kyler walk down the aisle, swaying a little with the movement of the vehicle on the bumpy road. His hands were carefully cupped together around a little pile of broken bread, which he offered reverently to each of us in turn. Something about the expectant silence of the usually rowdy bus and the intimacy and humility of the bread coming straight from his hands to ours, touched me with strange profundity. It was as if we had turned the mundane world inside out for a moment and made it suddenly holy. The very incongruity of participating in the familiar ritual in such an unexpected place shocked me into really seeing it, as if for the very first time. I pictured the last supper, and Christ’s hands holding out the bread to each of his disciples in turn. It was a visual reminder of how personal his act of offering the Atonement is to each of us, and I’ve never forgotten it.
We spent most of last year in another country without the benefit of organized church presence: Tunisia. Just like in most Muslim countries, we were cautioned not to be too open about our church membership or meetings. We felt wonderfully blessed to find that there were a couple of other Mormon families in the country too. Every Sunday we took a taxi, then an hour-long bumpy, smelly, death-defying public minivan, and then another taxi to meet in the home of a member for a very simple church service. We would sing a hymn, watch a Conference talk, partake of the Sacrament from the smallest cups in our host’s cupboard, and then sit around in a circle for a Sunday school discussion while one adult rotated out to teach our tiny, five-child Primary.
Our meetings were held in Carthage, a well-heeled Tunis suburb built right on top of the ancient Carthaginian capital and its Roman successor. When we visited the nearby mosaic museum, we found this beautiful tiled baptismal font designed for immersion baptisms. St. Augustine lived and taught in Carthage, and many early Christians met martyr ends in the ruined Roman amphitheater just down the street from where we met for church. My favorite weeks there were our testimony meetings, where it was not a question of if you would bear your testimony, but when. Gathered together as a tiny band of believers in a country full of chaos and unrest, we poured out our hearts to one another and were spiritually strengthened. In those moments, I felt a powerful kinship with the ragged, persecuted members of the early Church, who must have also met secretly in private houses on those same Carthage streets, shared the Lord’s supper, and borne testimony to one another.
We’re back in a “normal” American ward now. We meet in a nice chapel with over a hundred other saints in a well-functioning ward with all the requisite auxiliaries and activities. It’s something I missed when we were away, and I love being back in the comfortable familiarity of American Mormondom. But sometimes, sitting in my cheerio-laced, padded pew, I close my eyes for a moment and imagine myself in one of those more far-flung places. Immersing myself in those distant scenes of worship, I touch a little more deeply the core of what it really means to be a Saint, and thank God for the experience of difference that illuminates the familiar with a rich new light.
photo credit: Baptismal font
July 9, 2012 1 Comment
Guess what came out of my mailbox today? My copy of Bridges, the alumni magazine for Brigham Young University’s Kennedy Center for International Studies. And guess what I found on page 14? An article about the Tunisian Revolution. Written by me.
If you’re a regular reader of this blog, you’ve probably already heard what I have to say about Tunisia. But if you think it’s as cool as I think it is to see my name in print, you can access the online version here.
March 20, 2012 4 Comments
Can I tell you again how awesome Tunisia is? At the Friends of Syria meeting on Monday, Moncef Marzouki, Tunisia’s interim president (chosen just recently in December by the Constituent Assembly, the interim parliament) played an active role. He suggested only half ironically that Russia back up its support for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad by offering him asylum should he choose to abdicate. And today Marzouki put his money where his mouth is, and offered President Assad and his family political asylum in Tunisia itself.
Proffering what even Marzouki admitted were undeservedly soft terms for a dictator might seem odd, especially coming from a country so intimately acquainted with the pain of despotism. However, I don’t think anyone could possibly question Mr. Marzouki’s motives. An M.D. by profession, he is also a long-time human rights activist and admirer of Gandhi, and has spent his life studying transitions to democracy. Like most Tunisian political activists, he was arrested multiple times by Ben Ali’s regime, and spent many years in exile.
His offer of political asylum simply acknowledges the reality that President Assad’s safe departure is the best way to secure a democratic transition and future political and social stability for the Syrian people. After all, consider the contrast right now between Tunisia, whose former dictator-president lives on unpunished in peaceful luxury in Saudi Arabia, and still-troubled Libya or (heaven help us!) tortured Iraq, both of whose presidents met vengeful and violent ends on the heels of international intervention.
Mr. Marzouki is in the running for this year’s Nobel Peace Prize. If he can get Mr. Assad to accept his invitation, I’d say he definitely deserves it. And who knows? Maybe an offer of hospitality from a fellow physician-president is just what the mad ophthalmologist needs to start his desperately needed early retirement.
February 28, 2012 1 Comment
Sorry for leaving you in the lurch for the entire second half of December. We had a family wedding, and it just all ended up busier than I thought it would. But nicer too.
I’m still not going to blog here on Casteluzzo today (well, any more than I am right now), but I do have a post featured on Heather’s Women in the Scriptures blog. I discovered her blog just a month or two ago, and have been enjoying both current articles and her extensive archives. As the title denotes, Heather focuses on studying the women in the scriptures. It seems like that would make for a pretty short blog, right? Well, after having read her blog, I realize that there are a lot of women in the scriptures that I never even noticed or thought to study. Heather’s posts are interesting, insightful, and a great jumping-off point for further personal study.
Heather is a Mormon, and during the past few weeks, she has taken a break from scriptural women, and is doing a guest post series on Mormon women who live outside the United States. I was delighted when she invited me to post on my experiences as one of a very few Mormon women in Tunisia.
Fortunately, while I wrote the post several weeks ago (when I had time), it was just posted yesterday, leaving me a great excuse to not blog again today. I had a wonderful time reminiscing about our time in Tunisia, and the special moments we shared during our tiny meetings with the few other members of our church in the country.
Enjoy the article, and don’t miss the opportunity to browse around on Heather’s wonderful blog!
December 30, 2011 1 Comment
I blogged today over at Times & Seasons about what Mormons and Muslims have in common. Pop on over and have a read: http://timesandseasons.org/index.php/2011/10/mormons-and-muslims/
October 24, 2011 No Comments
Words really can’t express how happy I feel for Tunisia and her people today. It has been ten eventful months since Ben Ali left the country, and most of that time I spent in Tunisia, breathing the heady air of new democracy and marvelling at events that seem almost miraculous, and continue to reverberate around the world.
Today brought to first fruition the promise of the Tunisian people’s revolutionary dream. The country voted today to elect a 217-member assembly, which has as its primary purpose drafting a new constitution. The body will also choose a new interim government and set dates for parliamentary and presidential elections, setting Tunisia firmly on the path toward a stable democratic future.
I am in awe of the Tunisian people for accomplishing this, and so honored to have spent the months after the revolution as a guest in their beautiful country. I watched them day after day, week after week, as they kept close tabs on their slippery interim government, continuing to protest and demand change as necessary, often facing batons and bullets but never backing down.
Today their patience, determination and heroism were vindicated as they participated in what for most was the first real election they had ever experienced. Exceeding even wildly optimistic expectations, voter turnout reportedly came in at over 90%. The nearly universal blue-inked fingers today were a badge of honor, a tangible symbol of the courage and solidarity that have brought Tunisia to this historic moment.
Amid the bloody carnage of Qaddafi’s demise, Libya’s future continues to be uncertain. Egypt’s military power base remains difficult to dislodge. Syria’s peaceful revolutionaries press on despite horrifying casualties and crippling sanctions. But Tunisia shines steadfastly as a beacon of hope and triumph for a region and world that desperately needs to believe that ideals are worth something, and freedom and justice are not hazy pipe dreams, but attainable goals.
May they continue to achieve success in their noble endeavor, and may the new dawn they have ushered in spread its rays far and wide until the light of hope and freedom shines with equal brightness on the whole Middle East and all the world.
October 23, 2011 No Comments
I was thrilled to hear last week that Lina Ben Mhenni, a Tunisian blogger who was at the forefront of human rights cyber activism ahead of the revolution, is a candidate for the Nobel Peace Prize, to be awarded tomorrow. If chosen, she would most likely share the prize with one or more Egyptian bloggers.
Along with other activist bloggers in Ben Ali’s Tunisia, Ben Mhenni wrote on issues such as press freedom and women’s rights. But unlike many bloggers, who hid their identities to avoid harassment and detention by government officials, Ben Mhenni defied the press ban, blogging under her own name. For her, daring to speak the truth without fear was the only way to effect a change. As the revolution progressed, she traveled throughout Tunisia at considerable personal risk, documenting protests and regime brutality, and posting photos of young people injured or killed by police forces.
A prize awarded to Ben Mhenni would acknowledge her personal courage, and also in some sense honor all the Tunisians who braved batons and bullets to peacefully demand freedom and self-determination. It would be a symbolic affirmation of the importance of the revolution as a catalyst for the Arab Spring, and a gesture of hope toward the fruition of the dreams Arab youth throughout the region have proclaimed as their own. Coming just before Tunisia’s historic elections, a Nobel Peace Prize would re-affirm the world’s commitment to supporting fragile emerging democracies, and underscore the importance of this new dawn in the Middle East.
The Nobel Committee has a history of using the prize not just as a reward for those who have promoted peace, but as an encouragement for people and organizations they feel are in a position to make pivotal contributions in the future. A free and democratic Middle East would have the potential to dramatically move the world toward peace. At a moment when the Arab Spring has faltered in some areas, and continues to be brutally repressed in others, a vote of confidence and affirmation from the world outside would be a welcome breath of fresh, hopeful air, in an atmosphere that seems in some ways to be falling bleakly back into the long winter of despotism.
So I’m casting my vote for Lina Ben Mhenni and her colleagues of the Arab Spring. Whether she wins the Nobel Peace Prize or not, this is a wonderful opportunity to let the dictators of the world remember that we are committed to a future of peace with free and democratic equals around the world.
October 6, 2011 No Comments
Yesterday Tony and I went on our last date in Tunisia, to Hammamet Centre. We hadn’t been on a date in a month, since our babysitter was doing Ramadan. And somehow in the intervening time we forgot how much we hate going out to eat in Hammamet. Unlike most places I’ve been, the only really good meals I’ve had here in Tunisia were at people’s houses. Apparently, none of the good cooks here work at restaurants. None of the good waiters do either, unfortunately, so the whole “going out to eat for the experience, not the food” doesn’t really work.
As a result, we haven’t been out to eat in months. We usually just take a picnic to the beach on our date. But we decided for our last date here we would go out to a restaurant in downtown Hammamet, next to the Medina. We’d been to the restaurant before, so we had no illusions about the excellence of the food, but it was in a nice location and had outdoor seating (a must, since we’re having a hot, muggy spell and in every one of the restaurants advertising air conditioning last night we could see it mounted on the wall, but they weren’t running it).
We sat down with the menu and ordered. I had briq and mechouia salad, both Tunisian staples. Tony decided to be adventurous and order spaghetti carbonara. They might as well have christened it “pasta surprise,” since pancetta, (Italian bacon) an important component of the dish, lacks even a remote equivalent here in Tunisia. I was horrified to see the pasta come out topped with pale pink floppy slices of Tunisian bologna. Unfortunately, we didn’t have our camera with us. Just imagine a plate of spaghetti mixed with mysterious lumps that on further inspection appear to be thin, flaccid, wadded-up slices of a gigantic hot dog.
After taking a bite, Tony realized that they also hadn’t seasoned his food at all (black pepper is another key ingredient of pasta carbonara). It took him a few minutes to attract the waiter’s attention to ask for salt and pepper, and several more before the waiter reappeared with only salt. By the time Tony had flagged the waiter down again to persist in his request for pepper, the pasta was getting cold. When the waiter never returned, Tony finally went back to the kitchen to search for pepper himself. He was able to find a lone pepper shaker and returned triumphantly to the table, only to discover upon attempting to pepper his food that the shaker was virtually empty. He even took off the top and tried to dig out some pepper with a knife, but to no avail.
At this point it was obvious that #1 The restaurant didn’t have any pepper; #2 The waiter knew very well that there wasn’t any pepper; #3 Instead of telling Tony he didn’t have it, his solution was to just bring salt and then disappear; #4 Had we confronted him, he would have found it unreasonable in the extreme that we would expect a restaurant to always have pepper, or him to acknowledge and apologize about the lack thereof. Sigh.
I’m sure the strength of our feelings about the dastardly lack of pepper had more to do with our personal frustrations and stresses than the actual deficiencies of the restaurant/waiter. Still, it was one of those “in case you weren’t 100% sure you were ready to leave” moments.
By the time we’d finished our meal, it was dark, and we walked out on the beach. As we were watching the waves roll in, we noticed a little black dog scrounging among the fishing nets, and of course couldn’t help but think of Luca, whom we had given to the sweet little Italian lady in the gelato shop a few days before. He was supposed to be in his new yard, with his new papillon-mix girlfriend Lucy, but at that moment we were sure he must have escaped and be wandering hungry and homeless on the beach. We walked toward the dog, calling, “Luca!” He watched us warily for a moment, turned and barked (at which point we realized he was more heavyset than Luca, with the wrong ears a much bushier tail), and then trotted off on his merry feral way. Yes, we miss our dog.
September 3, 2011 No Comments
The time has come. Next Tuesday we will be on a plane to California. Sorry to spring these things on you so precipitously. That’s just the way things seem to work out.
Ever since our business failed after the 2008 credit crunch, life has been pretty difficult and stressful. We’ve had some exciting adventures, crazy travels, and happy times (the kind of stuff that typically ends up on the blog), but we’ve also had some very serious challenges. I can say that I’m physically, mentally, and in every other way worn out. My in-laws have graciously offered to let us stay with them while I recover from a persistent health issue and we sort out our finances and decide which direction we’d like to take our life next.
It will be a huge relief to be back in a more familiar world, with the support of family. That’s what we need right now. But there are some things I’ll really miss too. To help me sort through my feelings, I decided to make a list. It’s not really a list of pros and cons, more like a list of “excited for” and “will miss.”
The Public Library!!!
My mother-in-law’s snuggly house
The replacement Kindle that arrives the day before I do
My sister’s wedding
Church in a big ward
The eventual eradication of the ubiquitous beach sand
Good Mexican food
The beautiful Hammamet beach
Our sweet dog Luca
Roman ruins an hour away in any direction
Tunisia’s historic democratic elections next month
The call to prayer
Our Mormon “twig” in Tunisia
Wonderful Tunisian and expat friends
I’m hoping for a completely uneventful trans-atlantic plane flight. Hey, I can dream! (even if I can’t sleep, because I’m traveling with two rambunctious and jet-lagged children).
And in honor of our journey and the general surreality of everything, here’s a completely random but actually relevant video clip, courtesy of ABBA:
California, here I come.
September 2, 2011 6 Comments
What is it with us and garbage problems? First there was the Italian fiasco, in which we had to evade law enforcement to get rid of our garbage. And next, we got in trouble for throwing bread to the birds, because I’m apparently the only one on the planet who somehow missed out on how taboo it is to throw bread on the ground in a Muslim country.
Now we have this problem:
This lovely little pile is located just around the corner from our house. It’s the neighborhood dumpster/garbage mountain, which happens to be sandwiched between the 4-Star Miramar Hotel and the main entrance to world famous Hammamet Beach. Nice, huh? And sadly, the beach boasts a similar amount of trash, although it’s more spread out, and tends to get buried somewhat in sand.
What you can’t get from the picture is the incredible smell, discernible from a block away in any direction. As well as the colony of nocturnal cats that is getting fat and sassy off these decaying delicacies. Is ousted Tunisian President Ben Ali reading this and laughing at how poorly we get along without him? I hope not. Are we all planning to vote for whichever of the 94 new Tunisian political parties promises to solve our garbage problem? Well, maybe.
But in the meantime, we fortunately have a problem solver closer to home. Our friend Jo Ann, a fellow-American and long-time lover of Tunisia has jumped right in (figuratively only, fortunately) and organized a grassroots organization to clean up the mess.
We’re planning a clean-up day for the beach next month. In the meantime, we have this, which collects all the plastic bottles people use to wash their feet and then strew all over the entrance of the beach. Since this photo was taken yesterday afternoon, it has already been completely filled and emptied. Score 1 for Hammamet Propre!
Jo Ann (who is also an accomplished artist) organized an information/mural-painting day yesterday, which we were more than thrilled to attend.
Axa and Dominique were recruited to lend their artistic skills:
Dominique painted the world (with a separate sky and sun in each country).
And here’s Axa showing off her painting:
Here’s to a clean beach and neighborhood!
August 24, 2011 3 Comments