A Tunisian Love Affair
|From Kaleel ftp etc|
Certain trips tease the heart with a promise of love. The sensation doesn’t come from the obviously beautiful like the Swiss Alps, or the awe-inspiring like St. Peter’s Basilica or the Louvre. But rather from an intangible “sense of place.”
Out of her deep blue skies, impossibly translucent light and the medley of her colors, Tunisia offers just such a promise, sealed by the generosity and warmth of her people. The feeling also has to do with the accessibility of the culture and land – the mix of sea, desert, cities and rolling hills. There are few barriers in Tunisia. In spite of its Arab and Muslim reality, you get very close to the land and to the Tunisians. For willing and non-judgmental travelers, the country offers a deep and visceral experience.
Wedged between troubled Algeria to its west and unpredictable Libya to the east and forever married to the Mediterranean, this is not much of a place for the “average” tourists.
Few Americans come here, though lots of Europeans do. Maybe because very little English is spoken – Arabic and French being the two chief languages. However the clever and witty Tunisians will quickly size up the visitor and seduce him or her into conversation (and thence into a shop) in German, Italian, Spanish and even some Croatian…and a smattering of English.
This country is a study in vivid contrasts and juxtapositions – of conservative Islamic traditions and liberal French ones. Of hard-scrabble cities and rough, dusty towns that give way suddenly to flashes of beauty. Of streets clogged with cars and sheep and surreal traffic jams that turn into nightmarishly winding souks jammed with sellers of everything – candy, pots, plates, leather goods, gold, silver, brushes, beads, coral, fezzes, and whatever.
And just when your senses scream with the overload, and you’re hopelessly lost, you’ll stumble into a cool, silent walkway and pass under an ancient archway that opens to the sparkling sea, fringed by green-clad mountains. Big-eyed little kids with sunny faces sitting next to their pet sheep will be quietly watching from a doorway – watching you with curiosity and hoping for a “Bon Jour” or “Marhaba” (hello) so they can begin a friendship and a conversation in whatever languages you can all manage.
Ironically, here in the kaleidoscopic souks (markets) of Tunisia, the good manners and modest ways of the people reveal themselves. The sellers and merchants are never aggressive or in your face. They’ll be persistent for sure, but never hostile. Their imprecations to “Buy here, Madame or Monsieur. These are the very best! By Allah this is the truth,” are laced with humor and wit. And many times when we were lost, someone would appear and go out of his way to walk with us, guiding us to our destination with an quiet and easy patter about where we were from, how did we like their country, what kind of work did we do…and, “Here, Sir, here is the place you’re looking for. “Ma sallema!” Go with peace.
Of History, Conquests…and Women’s Rights
Tunisia is saturated with history. France was the colonial power here until 1947. But before that there were the Phoenicians and Romans; Carthaginians, Byzantines, Arabs and the Turkish Ottoman Empire. Then came the Germans who occupied Tunisia during the war and the Allies who bombed and liberated it.
The country’s first and beloved President, Habib Bourguiba, created his own war of sorts with Arab and Muslim leaders when he defied all traditions and customs: he was the first Arab head of state ever to outlaw polygamy and radically advance women’s rights. Unthinkable actions then – and in some cases, now.
Today, Tunisian men and women – darkly beautiful with liquid brown eyes, and warm, bright smiles – mingle easily on the crowded streets and cafes. They favor the dark, “Euro style” dress of most of the world’s young. Now and then, like bright birds among darker ones, women covered from head to toe in loose-fitting, white robes weave through the streets moving with the crowds of young people. Other, usually older women, wear the colorful Berber dress of reds, greens and blues, their faces marked with the unmistakable blue tattoos of Berber culture.
In an extreme example of “women’s rights” and further contrasts, in the big, southern city of Sousse (and elsewhere I assume) there’s even a government-sanctioned (or ignored) brothel . Rare or at least hidden in most Arab-Muslim countries, these women are hardly dressed at all, standing in their doorways in the shadow of the Grand Mosque, a stone’s throw away, bantering with passersby and waiting for their “Ahmeds” or “Rasheeds.”
But Sousse’s Ribat (fort) is a lot more interesting than the brothel. It’s one of a series encircling the north African coast, and once manned by religious soldiers who fought the Christians. This particular ribat was also the staging area for the little-known Muslim conquest of Sicily in the 800’s. Overlooking the medina or old city, the ribat is elegant in its simplicity. It’s key features are probably the open courtyard and series of small cells where the warrior clerics stayed, the ramparts and the circular tower.
Once upon a time the Germans used the tower to spot allied planes. Today the reward for climbing to the top is a spectacular view of the white rooftops of Sousse, many of them dotted with colorful garments hanging to dry, the Great Mosque, and the port of Sousse where fishing vessels off-load their catch and lounging fishermen keep a wary eye on the various kinds of sea shells they’ve spread out to sell.
In the middle of these Tunisian comings and goings – in the drinking of endless cups of tea, animated conversation, easy laughter, and the four-kiss embrace, the birds sense the coming sound first. In a startling whir and flap of wings, they lift off in a flock from the dome of the Mosque (Masjid). A split second later, the air vibrates with the ancient and haunting call to prayer: “Allahu Akbar. Allahu Akbar. La illaha ill Allah.” Allah (God) is the greatest; there is no God but God. The action slows some, a beat suspended in time. Some go to pray. Others like myself grow silent and thoughtful as the timeless call bounces off the bright blue doors and sun-dappled white walls embraced by vivid flowers.
And then it passes; life’s rhythms quicken again. This is still an Islamic country. More juxtapositions.
A Village of Tunisian Delights
Luckily, one of Tunisia’s “must sees” is a fifteen minute and a five dollar ride from the Tunis-Carthage airport. As far as airports are concerned, most in the developing world are grim places, with grim men patrolling with grimmer-looking guns. But this is a cool, airy building with classy shops and a genuinely impressive ormolu ceiling gilded with arabesque motifs – a graceful design carried out throughout the terminals. It puts Logan to shame. The formalities coming and going are a breeze, and a welcomed relief to the jet-lagged traveler.
The village “must-see,” Sidi Bou Said, enjoys a perfect location for first time visitors. It’s manageable – a long walk or short taxi ride ($1.50 US) to Carthage – and a twenty-minute taxi ($7.00) or tram ride ($.50 US) to the capital, Tunis.
Sidi is all winding, cobbled alleyways, colored-tiled archways and blue, blue doors. The town can be walked in fifteen minutes and really consists of a cafe-studded center and some artfully arranged shops. Surprisingly active during the day and early evening with locals and tourists and buying and selling, it becomes sedate and very still at night, a night that belongs mostly to the cats and a few wandering friends and lovers. It’s a perfect way to begin and end a trip.
|From Kaleel ftp etc|
There are two treasures that most guide books scarcely if ever mention in Sidi:
• Never mentioned, and I don’t know why, is the Ennejma Ezzahra, an ornate palace that houses the Center for Arab and Mediterranean Music, a treasure of musical instruments collected in the last seventy or so years. The impressive collection is almost incidental to the beauty of the palace, which is actually a very big, bright white stucco house perched on a hill with sweeping views of the Mediterranean so spectacular as to seem unreal. For those who have seen the Al Hambra, this will feel familiar. Others will be forgiven if they wander wide-eyed through the elegant rooms designed in the style of the Ottoman Empire. Marbled walkways that once funneled water ingeniously from tiled fountain to arched courtyard, and cooled the palace with a aesthetic grace, echo the golden age of Islam in Andalusia, Spain. Why this hasn’t been discovered and overrun with travelers is a mystery. The three dinar admission fee ($2.30 US) buys entrance to this Islamic Camelot and the chance to stand alone on the extensive plaza, next to the richly-scented gardens, and look out at the sea dotted with colored sails
• The other gem is the Dar El Annabi. The Dar (“house” in Arabic) is owned and operated by a young Tunisian couple, and belonged to the husband’s grandfather, who helped create the town – Pasha El Annabi. The couple have painstakingly maintained the house to reflect the life and times of Tunisia under Ottoman rule. Mannequins sit at tables dressed in the appropriate clothing. Cooking utensils, photographs, a library done in the style of the times invite visitors to wander through the Dar and history, then enjoy tea in a marbled, sun-dappled courtyard. Don’t forget to climb to the third floor and look out at the rooftops of Sidi as they tumble toward the sea, their rush broken by Bougainvillea and the characteristic blue doors that are visual oases in the intense sun.
Carthage, Virgil And Child Sacrifices
“Meanwhile they climbed the hill which loomed over the city and Aeneas stood amazed at the great happenings below him.” The Aeneid, by Virgil
|From Kaleel ftp etc|
Moved by the charged commercial and political activities of Carthage, Virgil’s hero, Aeneas, did the predictably male thing and wooed and won the city’s Phoenician queen, Dido or, in earlier versions, Elissa.
The hapless queen killed herself on a flaming pyre when the cad Aeneas abandoned her to fulfill his mission and found Rome. Such is the stuff of legend and myth – or so much for love.
In reality little remains of the incredible Carthage (in Latin, Poeni ) that waged and lost the two Punic wars to Rome in 264-241 and 218-202.
So thoroughly did the Romans devastate it (they even salted the land), there is little of Carthage’s fascinating history to see. What does remain is largely Roman. You’ll have to walk a lot to see the various sites, and it’s possible to buy a multiple entry ticket to the museum and the other places of interest for about $4.00 US.
The National Museum, on a hilltop and next to the huge cathedral, may well be the best and only stop you’ll need to make. It’s an outdoor and indoor site with some Carthaginian ruins, good Punic displays and a memorable view of modern Carthage and her famous ports.
Today Carthage is a wealthy suburb of Tunis and home to many diplomats and businessmen. Still, the imaginative traveler can well enough visualize how once upon a long time ago, these quiet and calm waters housed some 200 warships, the basis of her extraordinary power and wealth.
• In an early trip to Carthage, some twenty-five years ago, I experienced the Sanctuary of Tophet on Rue Hannibal as an eerie place. It was here where so many children were sacrificed to the bloody Carthaginian god, Baal Hammon, between the 4th and 2nd century when Carthage was in desperate need of help from the gods because of its many wars and conflicts. Today, it’s still a forlorn and desolate place in spite of the fact that in reality it’s a barely excavated pit with free-standing stelae. But the vibes are real – not surprisingly since the stories of the murders are intense in the extreme – and it’s worth seeing regardless that most guide books advise skipping the site.
Sheep, Cities and Contrasts
We would have traveled south, my wife and I and two grown daughters, to spend time in the Tunisian desert with its dramatic landscapes and camel-trekking around Douz, the best possible Saharan experience. But we were told by the locals that the winds were blowing and were advised not to do it. Heading north to Tabarka, merely three miles from the Algerian border (which I had to see), is all together another Tunisia, culturally and physically. The road –sometimes very good sometimes simply a sketch – is a metaphor for the contrasts of the country. It passes through some of the most woebegone towns, all dust and heat and gerry-rigged causing serious eye sore and an irrepressible need to get out. Sheep are everywhere, in the streets and walkways. The sheep markets themselves take place in dusty, barren town centers where hundreds of lambs, sheep and goats are eyed by potential buyers in dusty robes and dusty vehicles. You know the sheep know where they’re headed. You can see it in their eyes. Cars are parked randomly and no place offers a decent meal. Very dreary. Yet, a few miles out, and there you are, literally in the middle of the deepest green fields, bright yellow and white flowers, streams, and surrounded by tree covered mountains. You’ll likely think it’s a mirage.
Where Are All The Women?
Not a lot of tourists come this far north. We were probably the only foreigners then, and certainly the only Americans in Tabarka. Within an hour everyone knew we had arrived, and because it’s so small, we saw the same people over and over again.
Tabarka’s back is to the mountains; it faces the sea and is watched over by an old Genoese fort from the 1540’s. There’s no trace of the Barbary pirates who cruised the coast in their corsairs. And there’s very little evidence of women in the town either. The three women (my wife and two daughters) were quite stressed at how male-dominated life in these towns is, so far from the big cities. They missed other women to relate to. It’s the men who sit in the coffee houses and cafes all day and night (presumably not all the same men, although unemployment is very high) playing cards, drinking tea or coffee, engaged in animated conversation, laughing and smoking – either cigarettes or the chicha, the ornate water pipe.
|From Kaleel ftp etc|
The good news is that the men enjoy a deep camaraderie, thoroughly enjoying each other and themselves – with no alcohol or TV. There’s absolutely none of the boisterous, aggressive energy, none of the loud voices and raucous behavior typical of clubs in the States where people go to get drunk and “have a good time.” These men seem almost innocent in the simplicity of their joy and the ability to have a good time just being with each other and a deck of cards. The females in my family were never made to feel uncomfortable in these cafes when, after much initial resistance, they decided there was little sense in not having a cup of tea in the only places possible. Of course there was curiosity and surprise when we sat at a table, they were after all the only women in a hundred or so men. But the men resumed their games and talk quickly, and we easily became part of the scene. At the Cafe Andalusia, a truly unique Turkish-style coffee house done in deep brown woods, Ottoman bric-brac and fading photographs, our waiter enjoyed bantering with the ladies and showed the utmost courtesy and respect. But where were the women? “Home,” was the answer. Or “In the fields. Working.”
Tunisia’s like that. It inspires conflicting emotions: Frustration and joy; impatience and appreciation. The desire to stay forever…or to pack bags and leave at once. Come to think of it, that sounds a lot like being in love!
Toilets of Tunisia…BYOP
It’s on every traveler’s mind: How are the toilets?
They’re available everywhere, and virtually all the merchants or cafe owners will gladly let you use the facilities – a marked contrast to the attitudes here in the States. What the facilities are like is another question.
The good news is most toilets are sit-down affairs with working flushes and are quite clean. However, there is never any toilet paper, except of course in hotels. Instead, there’s a slim hose attached to a spigot for cleaning which, when you think of it, is more hygienic and effective than using paper. Be that as it may, the lack of paper will still leave you a bit wet. So, be advised: BYOP…bring your own paper.
• Yes, there are a still a number of stand-up toilets in use, so be prepared.
As far as cleanliness goes, there are dirtier toilets in Boston. So go with confidence…and some agility.
The Food of Tunisia
This could be the second most important question: What do I eat and what do I drink?
Unlike Morocco or the Middle East, Tunisia’s cuisine is not especially varied. There are a handful of choices, but not much beyond grilled chicken, fish or lamb (remember those markets?). Coucous is the national dish, of course, and it comes well prepared though minimally spiced with, you guessed it, chicken, meat, fish or in this case, vegetables. The Tagine is nothing like the tagine of Morocco. Tunisian tagines are loaf-like quiches filled with, again, chicken, meat or fish. It’s unlikely you’ll spend more than $3.00-4.00 for dinner. Beer or wine is rarely available except in the obviously more “classy” restaurants. There are very unobtrusive stores that exclusively sell beer and wine. Ask around…wain moomken ishtiri biere ow shr’b?
• The fresh orange juice is simply the best and a glass will set you back forty cents. Oranges and lemons crowd the markets and the land and are delicious.
• Outstanding are the Tunisian sandwiches available at street-side stands everywhere. These are soft, moist Tunisian loafs stuffed with anything you want like tomatoes, cheese, eggs, French fries, tuna, meat, chicken, fish, lots of greens and so on. For a buck, you’ll think you’ve gone to lunch heaven.
• The soups are a specialty and they vary daily. Served in earthen-baked bowls and filled with broken pieces of bread, these are fifty cents delights.
• Brik is national dish of sorts and it’s like a crisp crepe, golden brown, flaky and filled with cheese and other savory things.
• I drank water from most of the taps. No problem. But bottled water is readily available.
A Favorite Tunisian Recipe
Even if you don’t like “hot” you’ll love the Harissa. This crushed red pepper sauce is used to flavor just about everything, and comes to the table as a separate condiment with a little oil, a few olives and a topping of tuna fish.
If you love it – and we did – make it yourself.
• Hot, dried red chili peppers
• 6 or more Garlic cloves
• 4 tablespoons of salt
• 6 tablespoons coriander seeds. Also cumin seeds
• Much olive oil
Pound the garlic and the salt and set aside. Remove the chili seeds and soak in hot water until soft. Crush the chilies and add to the garlic. pound to a powder the coriander and cumin seeds, and add them to the mixture. Add the olive oil and mash until the sauce is blended.
Serve on anything…or dip some Pita (Syrian) bread in the mixture and enjoy.
|From Kaleel ftp etc|
The Bardo Is Brilliant
Tunis has a world-class museum in the Bardo. Located a few miles from the city center, a two dollar taxi ride, or a quick tram ride to station Le Bardo, the name of the neighborhood. The first palace built on the site dates back to 13th century and was the residence of the Husseinite beys. The present building goes back to the end of the 17th century.
The Bardo is organized around clearly marked rooms covering the Carthaginian, Roman, early Christian and Arab-Islamic eras. The Roman mosaics are reputed to be the best in the world with highlights being the 3rd century mosaic of Virgil writing the Aeneid attended by two muses. There’s a mosaic of the Greek myth of Andromeda being rescued by Perseus, and a powerful depiction of Ulysses resisting the Sirens’ song.
Each room leads to a better and more interesting one. There are well-displayed Islamic treasures like early Quranic texts, Iznik jewelry, costumes and weapons.
You’ll be fatigued before you’ve seen the whole thing, so don’t try. A couple of hours will be enough. But don’t miss it and don’t miss the Mahdia rooms containing the cargo of a 1st-century shipwreck discovered in 1907
Open Tuesday-Sunday 9 am to 5 pm. Three dinar entrance fee.
Unfortunately Tunisia’s web site is not very well organized. There are different sites for different components of the trip.
• www.tourismtunisia.com/address will take you to a list of tourism offices around the world, including of course the US
• www.tourismtunisia.com/hotels will give you a good hotel selection, some with images and some with e mail addresses.
• tourismtunisia.com/restaurants will guide you to various places to eat and some information about each. Just do a general search and follow the links
• Insight Guides: Tunisia as usual is full of rich photographs and solid information, much of it historic and cultural. Available in most book stores and amazon.com
• Lonely Planet’s Tunisia (1998) is slightly dated but full of practical information
If You Go
• Several airlines fly from the States with changes in Europe. Lufthansa, Air France, Swissair and Alitalia. I prefer the Alitalia flight connecting in Milan with time enough on the return to have lunch in Milan (free train in to Alitalia passengers) before returning home.
• Languages most spoken: Arabic and French. More and more, English is gradually being used
• Safety is a non-issue. Streets, parks and walkways are safe at all hours. However, use common sense.