I thought of this ditty the other day during a conversation about cassette tapes. When Erik and I rented a truck in Tunisia … probably the best little rental car we ever had, straight out of the factory with like 10 miles on the odometer … we soon discovered that there was a cassette tape in the car stereo’s tape player. It was an Alpha Blondy album which we ourselves possessed at home and so were familiar with. This unexpected inclusion in the rental made us unduly happy … I think it just seemed so random to find a Reggae album in the stereo of a brand new truck in Tunisia.
We were also excited over the car’s radio, for it had, in addition to AM and two FM bands, a shortwave band. We did, in fact, get a fair amount of entertainment out of the shortwave. The handful of main “big” radio stations on FM and AM were exasperating to listen to most of the time because they spent at least three-quarters of the air time talking in French or Arabic with only a very occasional sprinkling of music. We therefore scanned the shortwave a lot. In fact, this activity actually inspired an essay I wrote, “The Fish is Mute,” which was published in Sou’Wester (you can find on my writing website). We found all kinds of bizarre audio offerings in many different languages on the shortwave. But with so much time spent on the road, the entertaining stations were still relatively few and far between (until we got near the Cap Bon coast and brought in Italian radio), and we ended up popping in that Alpha Blondy tape over and over until, sadly, we could hardly even stand it anymore.
So one day we were driving through a small village, and the kids came up to mob our truck with their smiles and curiosity. We slowed down. Anytime we did this in Tunisia, people seemed to presume we were slowing down to ask them directions. The kids want to know, where are we going? “Can we help you?” Naturally they hope for a reward for their information. As I recall, we did actually desire some confirmation we were on the correct road, but mostly Erik saw it as an opportunity to rid ourselves of the ability to torture ourselves anymore with the increasingly loathed Reggae album, and to trip out the kids with an unusual gift. He grabbed the tape from the sinister mouth of the stereo and chucked it out the window to the kids. They went wild. I looked at him and said, “You know that wasn’t our tape to give away, it surely belonged to the guys who rented us the truck.”
“Meh,” he said. “They can buy a new one.” We watched the kids grow small in our side mirrors, huddled in a raucous crowd around the tape, waving at us and laughing. I always wonder if that ended up being the cause of any animosity, if it was an object of sharing or if it led to kids fighting over who gets to keep it; I wonder if the kids even had a boom box to play it in (this was still boom box country, not overtaken by MP3 players, etc.), and did they like the music? Does it still exist in somebody’s collection as “the music the foreigners threw out the window?”
It took a few years before I wanted to listen to that album again. But now whenever I hear any songs from it, I always see that gang of kids growing small in the side mirror of our truck, their little hands thrown up in the air with glee.
read "The Fish is Mute," inspired by listening to the radio in Tunisia