Cheery archival treasure in a world of pandemic fatigue

Habib Toumi during a graduation ceremony (Picture by Kate Johnson Santhuff)

Habib Toumi during a graduation ceremony in 1979 (Picture by Kate Johnson Santhuff)

By Habib Toumi

MONASTIR: Here I am in the family home Monastir, a coastal resort in Tunisia, indulging in the customary Mediterranean culture of leisure with sandy beaches, warm sunshine and delicious food.

But, this year, there are many more gaps of time than usual due to the pandemic and the movement restrictions imposed by the local authorities to mitigate the spread the new variants of COVID-19. There is plenty of time and I initially wondered what to do with it.

I eventually opted to while the empty hours not by recording my experience traveling through the pandemic or reporting on an anxious, claustrophobic world on pause, but by going through a well-kept treasure of notebooks, letters and short messages. A sort of a journey inside. A trip down memory lane. More than 40 years ago.

And that’s how I re-discovered my diary from my stay in the US where I was an exchange student and re-lived months of intense times, a mixture of immense happiness, daunting frustrations, great friendships, memorable conversations, extraordinary times … The majority of the characters in the diary were teenagers from different backgrounds and various levels of culture, education, knowledge … Some were truly remarkable. Others not so impressive; But they all had something that enriched my life, helped me grow.

I also read letters that I had received from friends across the world, re-living the events and re-capturing the emotions of four decades ago.

Looking at the past through the prism of the present was singularly interesting, providing the best evidence of how as a teenager I saw my life, how I saw the inner world of the people I met and befriended for days, weeks, months or years …

The diary, letters and messages had slowly morphed into a vivid archival treasure that, although cherished, was left aside until I started looking into it.

In July 2021, I was able to reconstruct my world in 1978-82 from the letters I received and from the notes I jotted down about ordinary and extraordinary lives, ordinary people who had appeared and left with no lasting effect and extraordinary people who will always hold a special place in my heart and in my memories …

There was the red wirebound notebook where I scrupulously recorded my life in the U.S., cultural shocks, uncertainty, stress, discoveries, adaptation, friendships, joy, passion, failures, achievements …

I loved confessing my frequent trips to New York, my favorite city, my feelings, my nostalgia and my delightful times to the notebook, although at times, it seemed it was the ultimate Tantalean torment. But I was happy that there was no gatekeeping by an editor, no editing tennis between the editor and me, no slating by a reviewer. I was totally free to write without panic-proofing and as a teen-ager, I loved it.

I re-read passages how events and special friendships with exceptionally caring and remarkably smart people in 1979 carved my soul to form my character.

I skimmed through The Prophet, a book by Gibran Khalil Gibran, that was lovingly offered to me in 1980 by the young woman at the university who five years later became my wife. Our common passion for reading and discovering the world was a major factor in binding us together.

There were pictures that were clear illustrations of how much we have changed over the years, how the world has evolved, how cats can no longer sit or sleep on much slimmer TV sets ..

For people spending much time at home, by choice or under COVID-induced restrictions, every day could feel the same as the one before. However, during this fantastic month of July, I had a marvelous blast grom the past. There were no days repeated for me as the notes and letters were extraordinary variations and recalling and re-living the good times of 40 years ago made each day so different, so special.

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