Friday, 18 May 2007
Triple Cultured Sonia
Owen Powell – 18th May 2007
Sonia has what she calls a ‘double culture’ – she’s Tunisian, but grew up in France. Now, after two years in London, it’s become triple. Arriving with little English, she deliberately avoided French and Arabic speakers to immerse herself in the language, and is virtually fluent now. She works as an office manager near Paddington, used to live in Camden (“The police! The screams! The fights!”), but now shares a flat in Ealing with Trevor, “a gay guy who cooks a mean Thai green curry”.
In her childhood, she spent every summer in Tunisia, three long hot months when everyone has parties: for their weddings, their engagements, and “when the young boys have their –” here, Sonia does a scissoring mime that makes me wince. How old are they? I ask. “Four or five,” she says. “That’s why they have the party, to distract them.” One summer, walking near the beach, she interrupted a camel while he was with a lady camel, and got attacked. Years later, walking past the same camel pen, the same camel attacked her again. “Camels have long memories,” she sighs. “I never had much luck with animals. What are the camels with two humps? Dromedaries? I fell off one of those once – I was sitting between the humps and slipped out. And a cow attacked me on a farm. Oh, and then we had a tortoise that jumped out of his aquarium. I didn’t think tortoises could jump, which was why we kept the aquarium on the balcony, which was on the second floor, a long way down. There was a smaller one in the same tank, but he died of heartbreak soon after. And what are these things? You call them fishcats?” Catfish, I suggest. “Catfish. We had two of them in a bowl, and my brother wanted to change the water, but mum said he wasn’t to. Then, when she went out, he thought he’d do it anyway, put the bowl in the bath and tried to pour the water out, and one of the fish jumped out and went down the plug hole. He hoped mum wouldn’t notice, but when there were only two fish to start with ...” Sonia is right. She hasn’t had much luck with animals.
Growing up in Strasbourg was tough. Most of the French-Tunisian population is based in Lyon, and in Alsace they find it hard to welcome people they perceive as ‘strangers’. “They don’t even think of themselves as French, or German – they’re Alsatian. Even though there is such a turbulent history in the region, people there haven’t learnt any lessons. They saw everything, but they’re not open-minded. I once offered my seat on a tram to an old lady, but she said she wouldn’t sit on a seat where an Arab had sat. I said that an Arab had probably sat on every seat on the tram. And anyway, none of the ‘French’ people were offering their seat! It might need a generation to change.”
Sonia is pleased that London is more mixed, and more welcoming, than France. “In France most Muslims are Arabic or North African, but here they are from all over – across the Middle East and Asia as well. And they is no real disrespect here – if you work hard there are opportunities for you. In France, it is hard to get on if you are young.” I ask if Sonia herself is religious. “How shall I put it? I am not praying in London. The way I am living is not compatible with Islam, although I still fast during Ramadan, for example. I see this more as a way of connecting with the poor than following a god. If we all fast, we’re all equal – rich and poor. It helps us to understand hunger and thirst, and I will always give food to a beggar if I see one on the street.”
Food is also a fundamental part of family life in Tunisian culture. The houses her extended family lived in were arranged around a central courtyard, and eating was a communal affair. A typical meal was cooked for twenty people, and Sonia has found it hard adapting for a more solitary city life. “My mother always tells me to cut the amounts in half, and I do, but while I am cooking it doesn’t look enough so I add more in. Luckily, my housemate Trevor eats for three or four. Everyone in Tunisian eats a lot – even my brother, and he’s like you.” She holds up her finger as illustration. “He’s a stick.”
Sonia loves how London contains wildly different areas. She enjoys people-watching in Soho during Chinese New Year, and loves walking the Thames – taking her mum to the top of Greenwich park was one of the highlights of her time here. However, there are some things in British life that she will probably never quite get used to. When she first arrived in the UK, she spent a year in Eastbourne, studying English and working as a waitress. “One morning, a man had kippers for breakfast,” Sonia says, already wrinkling her nose. “I could not bear it. It stunk out the whole kitchen.” I protest, on behalf of kipper-lovers everywhere, but Sonia remains resolutely unconvinced.