Our song: 'Tunisia' by way of New Delhi

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The 2011 Delhi Jazz Festival in New Delhi

I was driving my black Hyundai Elantra down a back road with my granddaughter Josephine strapped into her carseat, listening to jazz on KPLU, when "A Night in Tunisia," Dizzy Gillespie's co-composition from the early 1940s, came on. I cranked up the volume, hoping it wasn't too loud for her. I thought about explaining why I wanted to hear that particular music, but it seemed too complicated, and besides, I didn't want to deal with the emotions it would stir up. I didn't know how to tell Josephine that "A Night in Tunisia" had been our song — one of our songs, anyway.

Circumstances had given us certain other songs, too: the old Smokey and the Miracles number, "You Really Got a Hold on Me," which Barbara and I had danced to in my lower Queen Anne apartment, a short walk from the old blue King Broadcasting building on Aurora Avenue, where she worked. There was a Bach sonata in G major for viola da gamba and harpsichord , which we had listened to over dinner at her University District apartment with the Murphy bed in the livingroom wall. And "Your Mama Don't Know," by Nathan and the Zydeco Cha Chas, which we had danced to years later in our Vashon Island living room with its new oak floors and its old sash windows facing west.

But none was quite like "A Night in Tunisia. " I had spent my high school and college years listening to Dizzy Gillespie on vinyl and on Symphony Sid's late-night radio show, and less than two years before, we had heard him live in Seattle at Charlie Puzo's Penthouse. a jazz club just south of First Avenue's old pawn shops and SRO hotels, in Pioneer Square. Despite its name, the Penthouse was actually a basement. You always sat close to the musicians. Seattle may have been a backwater in those early post-World's Fair years, when the 1914 Smith Tower was still the tallest building in town, but a lot of good musicians passed through. In the 12 months after I saw the Rolling Stones make their first Seattle appearance at the Coliseum, I heard both Marvin Gaye and the Temptations at the Eagles Auditorium, and James Brown at the Arena, At the Penthouse, I caught the Modern Jazz Quartet and the Cuban-born conga drummer Mongo Santamaria. And then there was Dizzy, with his trademark puffed cheeks and bent horn.

(Music aside, that night turned out to be personally disillusioning: On a break, Dizzy walked up to a cocktail waitress, gave her a hug and a kiss, walked away. This had evidently happened before. She told another waitress, "Dizzy is so disgusting!")

This story isn't really about Dizzy Gillespie, though. It didn't happen in Seattle. It didn't happen in Tunisia, either, although we had recently spent a day more-or-less next door in Libya, walking the streets of Tripoli — where our Greek freighter had made an unscheduled stop.

We were in New Delhi when "Tunisia" became ours. It was January. We were on our way from Afghanistan, where we had spent Christmas and New Years, to Sri Lanka, where we would spend a month with my aunt and uncle, eating fresh papaya for breakfast, swimming in the Indian Ocean, hiking up Pidurutalagala and Adam's Peak, walking the streets of Colombo at dusk to watch huge fruit bats drop from the banyan trees and fly away.

A few months after our wedding, we had left great jobs, boarded a ship in Brooklyn, and set out to travel around a good deal of the world. I was doing some journalism. We were seeing the sights. We didn't know when we'd be back.

In southern Turkey (not yet a big tourist destination), we ate breakfast on our hotel balcony looking out at the tops of date palms but wrapped in overcoats against the chill; then, when the days warmed up, we walked alone through ruined Greco-Roman cities and swam in deep clear water beneath the cliffs. The only other swimmer was a young clarinet player named Hasan. We wound up spending a lot of time with Hasan and his wife, Şerife, who was a belly dancer, and their baby son. He invited us to a couple of gigs. One turned out to be the women-only ceremony the night before a group of 12-year-old boys was to be ritually circumcised. Barbara and Şerife stood down on the floor with the women, Hasan and I stayed up on stage behind a curtain with the musicians. They played Dixieland with a Turkish inflection, passed around a bottle, peered out through the break in the curtain at the women.

In Tehran, where fading coronation posters of the Shah hung on blank walls, we celebrated Barbara's birthday with blini caviar and vodka — which came came frozen in a block of ice — at a White Russian restaurant called Leon's Grill. Diplomats in Tehran told me that the conservative mullahs posed a serious threat to the Shah's regime, but the Islamic revolution lay years in the future, and it was hard to believe. One Friday eveening, we went to a cocktail party at the old American embassy — the same one later taken over by Islamic militants — and stayed late talking with the ambassador and his wife, a published short story writer, and Wallace and Mary Stegner, whom the U.S. government was sending through Asia on a cultural tour. For lunch, we went often to the Palace Grill, where we and groups of Japanese businessmen drank beer, locals drank Coke, everyone ate chelo kebab, and no one escaped the soundtrack from "The Sound of Music." I always associate "The Sound of Music" with Tehran.

And I associate a kind of wood smoke with Kabul. We smelled it whenever we walked through the streets there. Sometimes, we smelled hashish, too. After Tehran, Kabul, not yet shattered by years of war, seemed Spartan. The city was cold and stark, with snow gleaming on the nearby mountains. Except for black embassy cars on inscrutable missions and elaborately painted old trucks, there weren't many vehicles. Poor people wrapped themselves in old bedspreads and tablecloths to stay warm. Hazaras from the central mountains pulled heavy wooden carts piled high with cauliflower . We saw endless images of the balding king, and once, at a restaurant outside town, saw the prince, dressed in sunglasses and black leather jacket. I talked with diplomats and government officials. They knew that the nominal government in Kabul had never controlled the tribal areas. We realized that the whole political structure was going to crumble. We just didn't know what would come next. For Christmas, I found Barbara a very old pin with a verse from the Koran beautifully inscribed in lapis lazuli. The manager of a hotel invited us and another traveler up to a private room to hear a very good performance of traditional music. While we were there, someone stole our passports and half our traveler's checks. Getting the documents we needed to leave the country turned out to be a weeks-long bureaucratic nightmare, although with some distance, just another good story from our youth, kind of like the time a rolling boulder almost nailed us as we scrambled up Red Mountain in the Cascades.

From Kabul, we took a bus through the Khyber Pass to Peshawar. In the villages, men carried rifles that looked as though they might have been left over from Britain's Third Afghan War of 1919. No one had Kalashnikovs or rocket launchers yet, but everyone was armed. We took a train to Lahore, then a three-wheeled cab to the border, and walked across. You could only cross the border on foot. And you had to clear customs by sundown. Two Austrian hippies ahead of us were giving the Indian customs official a hard time, just because he was a customs official and because they could. The sun was dropping lower and lower.

We started to worry that we wouldn't make it by sundown. But the Austrians finally got through and so did we, and we took a second-class train to New Delhi. We smelled marigolds on the station platforms, watched the green plain roll by, arrived next day at a crowded station. Our car was jammed with passengers and with huge cloth-wrapped bundles, some crammed into luggage racks, some blocking the aisles. As soon as the train stopped, before the passengers had gotten off, other people started crowding on, pushing up through the doors, climbing in through the windows. Once we reached the platform, desperate hands reached for our luggage.

We took a taxi to a hotel that we had picked, sight-unseen, from a travel guide. That night, we went downstairs to the hotel restaurant. We entered from the back. There was a low bandstand at the front. The menu was European. We ordered the soufflé. Our obsequious waiter literally sprang to our table every time we looked as if we might want something.

On the bandstand, a trio of Indian musicians was playing tame arrangements of big-band-era music for what seemed to be Australian tourists on the dance floor. The middle-aged bandleader played guitar. The music wasn't very good. And it clearly wasn't what those musicians wanted to play. From the way they handled their instruments, we could tell that they were really jazz musicians, just doing it for the money.

When they took a break, I walked up to the bandstand and talked to the guitar player, who told me about his daughter in San Francisco. Hey, I asked them — figuring I knew the answer — can you play "A Night in Tunisia?" Their faces lit up. They clearly took requests, but this could well have been the first time anyone had requested something they liked. You bet they could. I went back to my table.

They started their next set with "A Night in Tunisia. " They were obviously happy. Nobody danced. We finished our dinner. By the time we left, the Australians were on the dance floor again.

The next day we hired a car and left early for Agra, to see the Taj Mahal. On the way, we stopped at the intricately worked red sandstone of emperor Akbar's tomb. In Agra, of course, we saw the ethereal white dome of the Taj floating above its reflecting pool. On the way home, our driver insisted on stopping at a roadside tea house. It served perhaps the worst tea I had ever tasted. Remarkably stout chunks of tea stem floated in our cups. I imagined them as the sweepings of some warehouse floor.

By the time we got back to our hotel it had been dark for hours. We wanted to shower and change our clothes (Actually, we had been traveling so long that we would have been happy to throw our clothes away — as Barbara eventually did, dumping her drip-dry dresses in the trash as soon as we got home.) But the restaurant was about to close, so we headed straight to dinner.

We walked in as before, from the rear. The same musicians were playing the same regrettable tunes, and what looked like the same Australians were dancing.

The musicians must have been watching out for us. When we came through the room, they stopped what they were playing in midstream, leaving the dancers marooned on the floor, and launched into "A Night in Tunisia. " Just for us. At that moment, it really became our song.


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About the Authors & Contributors

Daniel Jack Chasan

Daniel Jack Chasan

Daniel Jack Chasan is an author, attorney, and writer of many articles about Northwest environmental issues.