A mosaic of Tunisia

The salesmen in the souks of Tunisia have been blessed with the gift of gab. The vast majority of them are multilingual and will try to snare potential customers by attempting to guess his or her nationality. The official language in Tunisia is Arabic, but I’ve heard them prattle on in English, German, Russian, and Czech, and probably a few other languages I didn’t recognize. More often than not, it’s French though, as Tunisia is a former colony of the Republic and ties remain close. As such, due to its hot, dry climate and mile after mile of sandy Mediterranean real estate, Tunisia is an attractive and fairly common tourist destination. And, as any Tunisian salesman will exclaim, “C’est pas cher!”

The Euro to Tunisian dinar exchange rate is of this writing a very favorable ratio of 1:2; that is, approximately, 1€ will get you 2 dinars. Goods and services are generally cheaper than elsewhere I have experienced, although the quality varies. In a souk or bazaar (is there a difference or two words for the same thing? I don’t know!), everything is negotiable and it’s a game to see who will get the better deal. As it happens, my girl attended law school, and always negotiates shrewdly.

We have visited Tunisia for the last two summers. For our first tour, we stayed in the costal town of Sousse on the eastern seaboard. From there, we took multiple excursions to the capital city of Tunis, the ruins of ancient Carthage, the port town of Sidi Bou Said, the holy city of Kairouan, and El Djem, which is home to the remnants of a Roman Amphitheater where gladiators once fought. This past July we stayed on the southern island of Djerba, which is a short ferry ride away from the mainland.

As I alluded to in my previous post, the relatively small island of Djerba is famous for two things besides being now filled with resorts: one is that it is considered to be the mythic island of the Lotus Eaters where the Homeric hero Odysseus somehow ended up after the sacking of Troy; much more recently, the Djerban town of Ajim served as the movie backdrop for the notorious spaceport city of Mos Eisley, a seedy place that noted Jedi Master Obi-Wan Kenobi suggests is a “wretched hive of scum and villainy.” That could very well be true. We passed through there on a bus. To me, it mostly looked quiet and dusty, although you could see a few instances of the bubble-domed residences and mosques the region is known for.

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On this trip we took only one excursion that took us to the village of Matmata, known for its troglodytic cave-dwellers and sublime views of the mountainous desert spanning as far as the eye can see. Further along the route, the mountains gave way to fine-grained sand that piled up in dunes. Wild camels browsed along the side of the road like stray cattle, munching on hearty desert shrubs. At one point, our bus driver had to slow down to avert a camel that was taking his time crossing to the other side. Our destination was the city of Douz, known as The Gateway to the Sahara. Douz itself is within an oasis and there were entire fields of humungous palm trees. There in Douz a camel ride was optional, but we declined, having ridden upon their humped backs the year before.

Those who chose to participate (after paying a fee, of course) were swaddled in heavy linens and a blue turban and sent out into the otherworldly desert heat. Our tour guide informed us that the weather that day was a balmy 45°C (113°F), but regularly climbs as high as 57°C (135°F). Readers who live in southwestern United States can probably appreciate those extreme temperatures. Some folks like to suggest it’s not so bad since it’s a dry heat, which lacks the typically midwestern humidity that causes the condition that some of my former FedEx Freight colleagues like to call “swamp ass.” Well, I can tell you right now that is complete nonsense. High humidity does indeed suck, however, Saharan heat is no joke. It seems to have an almost physical presence. The sun overhead radiates and glows and I can admit I felt glad to be onboard an air-conditioned bus that did not suffer the misfortune of a breakdown in the middle of nowhere.

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The star-crossed Arab Spring originated in Tunisia in December 2010 when an unemployed young man named Mohamed Bouazizi was selling fruit from a wheelbarrow. A passing inspector came and confiscated all his wares. Subsequently, he doused himself with gasoline and lit himself on fire. One can only imagine the humiliation, helplessness and despair he must have felt to do that. His actions and death soon sparked nationwide outrage and protests that culminated in the toppling of then-president, Zine El Abidine Ben Ali.

This and all that followed in Tunisia and throughout the Arab world has been thoroughly covered by journalists and is still ongoing, as can be evinced by the ongoing civil war that has torn Syria apart over the last two years, or the violence that threatens to plunge Egypt into a civil war of its own. I can still recall the kindling sense of hope and optimism that pervaded those initial weeks before that innocence was lost.

A little more than a year after the overthrow of Ben Ali, we stood in front of the Ministry of the Interior building on Avenue Habib Bourguiba in Tunis, where the protesters marched and participated in a 30 day sit-in. At the other end of the avenue, we marveled at the arch-shaped Porte de France. Akin to the Champs-Élysées in the Paris, the Avenue Habib Bourguiba is wide and lined with trees and shops, including several lovely looking buildings and an obelisk-shaped clock. It was hard to believe a year before the streets were alive with calls for revolution. But on the day we visited, all was calm. People were out enjoying a sunny day while we browsed a bookstore.

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Avenue Habib Bourguiba, Tunis

Fast forward thirteen months and unrest still lingers. There is a sense that the political leaders are like those idiots in charge at your job. All the everyday Joes see the problem and everyone seems to have an opinion on how to fix it, but yet nothing of substance gets done. Two days before we were to leave, the leader of a Tunisian opposition party, Mohamed Brahmi, was assassinated outside his home. This threw the travel plans of many into disarray, as flights were canceled and the country went into a national day of mourning.

As a fair-skinned Westerner traveling to this stark and arid land, I felt distinctly out of place. Of course I looked like a tourist, with my general wardrobe consisting of a brightly colored t-shirt, shorts, sandals, and a straw fedora. In addition to my beige satchel and a camera never far from hand, it was little wonder the salesmen were quick to jump on us like shark bait. Of the places I’ve visited in Europe thus far, I can generally blend in and go native. This was especially easy in the Czech Republic since I have Slavic features, and I can’t tell you the number of times I was stopped by some passing tourist in a place like Vaclavski Namesti for directions. But I give away my identity very time I open my mouth. Even in France, where I now speak a passable, if not fluent, amount of French, my Midwestern accent stands out more than Pinocchio’s nose. Inevitably, someone asks, “American?” and I smile and say, “Oui.” In Tunisia, I felt a bit self-conscious about my Americanness since, as far as I could tell, I was the only one there. And every time I spoke, it was like my voice was a honking horn on a quiet street.

This usually played out interestingly at the market. As we ambled down the dusty street, the vendors would start their multilingual guessing game and my girl would respond, “Française.” Let the haggling begin! In the Djerban city of Houmt Souk, we encountered a young tattooed Rastafarian seller of spices. The market that afternoon was fairly sparse and he had set up shop some distance away from the others. His portable stand had the usual multicolored assortment of spices – curry, cumin, paprika, cinnamon, saffron, curcuma, harissa, and other mixtures and concoctions. Earlier in the day we had already bought some cinnamon from a spice store in the center of town, but we were drawn in by this man’s charisma and friendliness. He spoke rapidly and it was difficult for me to follow all he said.

My girl engaged in banter, taking in his spiel about the price of saffron and how it’s good luck to put grains of black cumin in your pockets, similar to the ritual of throwing salt over your shoulder. He gave us each a pinch of black cumin, which we dutifully slipped inside a pocket. He’d take little samples of this spice or that for us to smell, and they all smelled wonderfully. on occasion, he’d slap my shoulder and say something about how crazy my girl is because she drives a hard bargain. Due to my silence and sunglasses, he took to calling me “chef,” which is French for chief, as if I had some say in this transaction! We eventually made a deal for cinnamon laced with a hint of vanilla, some curcuma, and the orange-yellow wünder-spice saffron. We had wondered afterwards if we got that at a good price. The next day, at another market, we talked to another spice vendor who asked us if we were interested in some saffron. When we said we already got some, he then asked how much we had spent, perhaps thinking he could offer a lower price. Upon hearing our figure, however, he gave us a smile and said we made out at half the normal rate!

One thing to be wary of around souks are scams. One particular scam that appears to be prevalent throughout Tunisia is what I’ll refer to as the “I work at your hotel!” scam. Hotels in Tunisia are noted for offering an all-inclusive experience, but one of the drawbacks to that is upon check-in, you’re branded with one of those snap-on bracelets you usually receive at a nightclub. In order to receive your all-inclusive perks though you must wear it throughout the duration of your trip. To scammers and con artists, this bracelet might as well declare you as Grade A meat. What’s more, each hotel has a distinctive bracelet, making it easy for a scammer to guess your hotel and build your trust.

My girl and I had ventured into the center of Sousse during our second day in town to explore. The medina of Sousse has a very medieval feel to it. The streets twist and turn and it’s easy to get lost. With my leather satchel and khaki slacks, I imagined myself as a modern day Indiana Jones hopelessly chasing after Marion and her chimp. In fact, Sousse served as a film location for the film Raiders of the Lost Ark, representing Cairo. One of the things we wanted to see was the ribat – a large fortified structure, part minaret, part watch tower – which, in Sousse’s case is one of the oldest and best preserved in North Africa. The direction from our hotel to the medina was straightforward; essentially, just head in one direction, staying parallel with the sea. Although we had decidedly reached the center of town, just where the hell was the ribat?

Enter a middle aged man with a thin face and mustache and wearing a white short-sleeved button down t-shirt, jean shorts, and leather sandals. He approached us like a friend. At the time, we looked pathetic and conspicuous, seated along the sea wall near what in memory was either a statue or a fountain and looking at, of all things, a map. He asked if we needed help. We said we were looking for the ribat. He said he would show us. We hesitated, distrustful despite his apparent good intentions. He said something like, “I work at your hotel! In the dining room. Hotel Mövenpick, yes?” At that, he motioned at the thin gray plastic around our wrists. I quickly cycled through the innumerable faces I had seen since our arrival. I couldn’t be sure. It seemed possible that he worked there. We glanced at each other and followed. He led us among a series of side streets and backgrounds, past the city’s train station, and into the old town. We caught sight of the ribat from a distance, trailing our guide by a few steps and quietly questioning whether or not we made the right move by trusting him. Along the route, he showed us a little silver hamsa, which is a hand-shaped amulet with the image of an eye in the palm. Other names for it include the hand of Fatima, the hand of Mary, or the hand of Miriam, depending on one’s religion. It became clear that he was gearing us up for a sale of some kind. Sure enough, we were soon led into a small jewelry shop with the glass display cases lining the walls, argued momentarily with the proprietor and our “guide,” said we weren’t interested in buying anything and left right away.

As it happened, just around the corner we came to the ribat.

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The ribat of Sousse

We took a few photographs. An older man who was sitting near a sketch artist offered to give us a small tour of the area and we obliged. He was rather informative about the history of Sousse, the local architecture, and so on. He spoke some English too for my benefit. Near the end of our little tour, he led us up the stairs of someone’s home that doubled as a local pastry business. They had a number of sweets, pastries, cookies and cakes being made from scratch. Several things were glazed with honey or filled with dates or topped with powdered sugar. There were sugared almonds and a green colored confectionary made from pistachios. A huge bowel of pastry dough being prepared for a fresh batch of baklava. A family run operation through and through, at least three or four generations of Tunisian women turned the dough and ran the till. We received several free samples of sweets. All of it was sweet and delicious but also super rich. It would be impossible to eat a lot of that kind of dessert at once. Afterwards, our guide bid us adieu and we compensated him (and by extension the wonderful pastry ladies) with a few dinars to show our gratitude.

On the trip to Djerba this year, not long after we had bought spices from the Rastafarian vendor, we were passing through a large tented market of used clothes. Imagine a yard sale containing the entire town’s clothes. A young man attempted contact.

“Hey! I’m a waiter at your hotel!”

“No, you’re not.”

“Oh, you know that trick?”

“Yes.”

“Sorry then. Have a nice day.” We had learned our lesson.

Economically speaking, Tunisia is relatively poor. Unlike some of its neighbors like Libya, the country doesn’t have vast oil reserves, and although the economy is diversified among a number of different industries, corruption has left a marked gap between the haves and have-nots. This economic equality is one of the primary drivers behind the revolution and the subsequent liberalization of the economy that is now in progress.

It’s common to see piles of rubbish along the side of roads. When taking taxi rides from one town to the next, it seemed like every block or so there would be a building that had been abandoned in the middle of construction. Typically, there’d be the finished concrete frame and stacks of red ceramic bricks that appear to be integral to the construction of every building in Tunisia. These neglected buildings look like hollowed husks. Homeless people and beggars sleep on benches or under palm shade or between two parked cars. Poverty there is pervasive and disheartening.

Tunisians are kind and proud of their rich heritage, which goes back to the era of antiquity. Nomadic Berber tribes first settled there at the beginning of recorded history. The Phoenicians populated the coastline as far back as the 10th century B.C., founding the city of Carthage and eventually giving rise to the Punic Wars, Hannibal, elephants marching over mountains, and all that.

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Ruins of ancient Carthage

Following the Battle of Carthage, the area of what would come to be known as Tunisia fell under Roman rule where it flourished economically and culturally. By the time of the middle ages, around the 7th or 8th century, Arab Muslims conquered the region and founded the city of Kairouan, the first Islamic city in North Africa, and a UNESCO World Heritage site. We took an excursion there where we visited the ancient Mosque of Uqba, founded in 670 AD, and an unquestionable masterpiece of Islamic art and architecture.

Mosque of Uqba

Mosque of Uqba

The second half of this excursion took us to the town of El Djem, with its aforementioned amphitheater. Beforehand, however, we dropped by the El Djem Museum, which had a large collection of mosaics dating from the Roman occupation. The artistry was mind-boggling – both on a macro and micro scale. Mosaics composed of tiny multicolored stones formed tableaus of characters from Roman mythology faded from sun, wind, and time. Some covered entire floors. Another wing of the museum displayed a partially reconstructed Roman villa covered in shade. Nearby flowers, shrubs of jasmine, and olive trees filled in the scene. The moment there was a cool reprieve from the blistering heat that had already turned us into lobsters.

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This has been a scattershot overview conflating the experiences of two separate vacations into one article. The flavor of each trip remains distinctive yet similar. The blend of several cultures over such a long stretch of time has resulted in this unique country stuck between history and the future. Poverty and paradise there seem interlaced or entwined like a Berber’s rug. Here, mere hours separate the soft sandy beaches ultramarine waters of the Mediterranean from the dunes and hills and rocks and shrubs of the Sahara. Each are breathtaking in their own particular way.

 

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