Sunday, September 23, 2012

Tunisians Must Speak Up

Tunisian Army protecting American Embassy

In 2008, my husband and I visited my cousin and her husband, a petroleum engineer, who lived in Tunis, the capital of Tunisia.  They often ate at the American Embassy on Friday nights and asked if that sounded good.  It did, of course.  Carolyn had to get the numbers of our passports and provide them to the Embassy before we could be cleared to come.

The American Embassy in Tunis lies on a large tract of  flat land between the old walled town and the modern suburb of La Marsa.  A major boulevard passes in front and the airport is close.  It is encircled by a ten foot wall.  When approaching, drivers must slowly maneuver the switchbacks deliberately placed before the entrance gate as concrete bunkers  buffer each curve.  An embassy officer compared our passports with his list of approved visitors. We were waved forward and allowed to park near the canteen.

It was a beautiful evening.  Some families brought their children to swim and play on the swing set.  All were there to enjoy the familiar tastes from home - hamburgers,  hot dogs and the Marines’ favorite,  Bud Light.  Carolyn introduced us to some of their new friends.  I looked up as a tall, fit man in casual dress approached our table.  It was Ambassador Robert Godec.  He shook hands all around and welcomed us.  I remember thinking he was lucky to get this post.

The United States’s history with this North African country is long, having been recognized by Tunisia in 1795.  When President Thomas Jefferson invited its envoy to the White House in 1805, he learned it was Ramadan and moved the state dinner to sundown, thus respecting Islam’s  prohibition of eating during daylight hours.  Fast forward 200 years and the most recent American Ambassador to Tunisia, Jacob Waller, arrived in July of this year.  One of his first appearances was to Sidi Bouzid where he announced a university-to-university linkage program with the University of Colorado  promoting modern management in the agricultural sector.  In another encouraging move, the United States agreed to guarantee some Tunisian bonds to help open up international financing. Tunisia’s move to real democracy 20 months ago appeared to be on target.

Last week, however, that same American Embassy and the adjoining American School were attacked by members of the ultraconservative Muslim sect  known as Salafis who are small in number but quite disruptive of the democratic process.   They were furious over the film produced in the U.S. criticizing Mohammed.  Walls were breached, 68 cars vandalized and burned and three Tunisians died.  The country’s President Marzouki soon apologized saying “... acts of destruction, burning, and attempted attacks on the representatives of a friendly nation are not tolerated. These groups have crossed a red line.”

Tunisia has the best chance of the Middle Eastern countries to succeed in the transition from dictatorship to democracy.  Its modern history includes universal education for boys and girls, investment in infrastructure, and a political independence that kept ties with the PLO and France.  On its beautiful beaches, a successful tourist industry developed.  Much of Europe vacations here just as Americans do in Cancun.  Whole resorts are dedicated to the Germans or English. And its new president is a member of  the once-banned Islamist party, Ennahda, but has vowed “to protect the rights of women and free worship, while building a robust democracy.”

It’s hard to watch the violence and anger directed at the United States.  After visiting there, all I could think of were the friendly Tunisians we met - my cousin’s next door neighbor who invited us to her apartment, the rug salesman who insisted we sit for tea, our driver who had never met an American but was thrilled with the Paris, Texas pin we gave him, and the young woman attorney who worked for the stock exchange and was grateful for the career.  These are the Tunisians who must keep their country moving forward in its democratic quest.  They will have to use their majority to stand up to the radical Islamists who have hijacked their religion.  Whether they will.... we can only hope.

Sunday, September 9, 2012


Georgia O'Keefe's Abiqui Home

Georgia O’Keefe is still an artist of the people despite her death 26 years ago at age 98.  Clean lines and crisp colors fill her oversized flowers.  Desert subjects evoke life and death.  Pastel canyons wave across  large canvases.  All are so simple and appealing to the public.  After a tour of O’Keefe’s Abiqui home in northern New Mexico, I learned those same qualities filled her life.

Judy Lopez, former companion of Mrs O’Keefe’s,  gave a tour of the winter home, just a few miles down from Ghost Ranch, the summer home.  “Total simplicity” was how a traveling mate described the Abiqui compound encompassed by rounded adobe walls. Sleek, modern lines easily supported the original Eanes furniture. Art work of O’Keefe’s friends filled the rooms although she was known to rearrange them often, noting that you stop seeing a picture if it is on the wall too long. Scattered throughout the house and courtyards were rocks, bones, and deadwood, collected on her many walks. And  out the large picture windows were Georgia’s familiar art subjects - valleys and canyons in desert colors, scrub trees, wooden doors, adobe walls.
Church near O'Keefe's home where she walked

O’Keefe’s ordinary tastes were reflected in the metal cabinets ordered from Sear’s and clothes hung to dry, summer or winter.   For entertaining, a linen tablecloth would be placed over the plyboard dining room table.   She bought the home from the Catholic church but negotiated the sale so that part of the price was deductible on her income tax returns.   Her wealth, like her fame,  was understood but carried lightly.

O’Keefe was green before it became fashionable.  An irrigated garden provided fresh vegetables and fruits, kept pesticide free by turkeys brought in to snack on the bugs.  Her life was surprisingly routine.  As an early riser, she often ate breakfast in the morning darkness - eggs always and her favorite fried potatoes with green chiles.  She enjoyed fruit yoghurt smoothies  and a light dinner at night.  Daily walks sustained her.  When her eyes faded, she had the paths painted white to better maneuver them, using rocks to keep count of her laps around the driveway.

View of valley below O'Keefe's home
By the time Ms. O’Keefe moved to Abiqui at age 67, her renown attracted fans.  Most would just drive by but some climbed the fence.  An employee escorted all away with one exception.  When two women from Japan pleaded to meet her, she asked them to tea, and kept in touch for years.  Knowing the need to keep her name before the media, O’Keefe did allow occasional interviews but would complain later about the big words used in the writings.

She still painted when inspired but after her vision was limited, she needed help in creating the art.  O’Keefe’s yearly notebooks that catalogued all of her work became smaller.  More time was spent on correspondence or even traveling.  Her library had a large section of travel books which were read to her as she aged.

Halfway into the tour, we got a hint of the will controversy generated after O’Keefe’s death.   Our guide was circumspect in her discussion of the ownership of the house, indicating only that the Georgia O’Keefe Museum in Santa Fe now owned it under the settlement agreement.  The actual story of a potter named Juan Hamilton arriving at Ms. O’Keefe home in 1971 looking for work is far more intriguing, filled with all the elements of a good will contest - younger male companion, elderly wealthy woman, years of companionship, gradual allocation of powers, and late in life amendments to a will.  In the end, most of the estate was distributed under the terms of the original will.

 The tour emphasized the veneer of Ms. O’Keefe’s time at Abiqui - simple, uncluttered in a beautiful  setting.  But her life was  complicated by wealth management, constraints of fame, physical deterioration, and need for companionship.  She tried to live her life as austerely as her paintings projected and came close to succeeding.  Old age just got in the way.

Blog Archive