#7 Tunisia, October 31, 2005

Dear Everybody,

The bus ride to Tozeur from Douz went across the Chott El-Jerid, a huge salt lake that stretches well into Algeria. This, too, was used as a setting in “Star Wars” when Luke Skywalker saw two moons. We were on a causeway that crossed the northern part of the lake for about 15 miles. There were statues of animals made of salt and the landscape was weird.

Tozeur has a unique architecture from the 14th C. —many buildings made of a yellow brick with elaborate designs built by having some bricks protruding from the surface. It’s all very geometric and pretty. It also has its own hugh palmeraie (date palm orchard) fed by springs, and Tozeur’s dates are supposed to be the best! I’ve been eating TOO many—they’re just being harvested now.

The first morning in Tozeur I awoke to rain—what a surprise! That’s the first time I have used my jacket. But by noon the sun was shining again. I visited the old town (14th C.) where the palace of the governor was said to have been in “The English Patient.”

A young woman from Canada and I met over breakfast and so we teamed up for a couple of days, going to three mountain villages—Tamerza, Chibiki, and Mides. Mides is on the Algerian border and sits atop a dramatic gorge, also in “The English Patient.” I’ll really have to rent that movie when I get home and look for all the places in Tunisia that I’ve been told were filmed.

The next day I took a louage to Metlaoui to have a ride on the Red Lizard, a restored train that was built in 1910 and used by the bey of Tunis. Now it runs an hour’s route out from and back to Metlaoui. It has lovely wood paneling with wood insets, the original light fixtures, mirrors, windows, and was fun to ride with piped music to entertain us—would you believe “Ghost Riders In The Sky” and the theme from “Bonanza” among others?

On Friday I took the bus to Kairouan (car’-ah-whan)—some say our word ‘caravan’ comes from the name of this city since it got rich off the caravan trade since 694 A.D. when it was founded. It was the first Islamic city in Northern Africa and is one of the seven holy cities of Islam.

The bus ride was satisfying as I saw at least 50 wild camels in the desert along the road. They have ‘camel crossing’ signs like our ‘deer crossing’ signs—-only with a picture of a camel. Just on the out-outskirts of Tozeur I caught a glimpse of about two dozen distinctive Berber tents. I knew these to be Berber as I had seen one in a museum. I wished I had known it was there as I would have loved to have visited their encampment. I also saw lots of goats and sheep being tended by a lone shepherd with her dog in the middle of nowhere.

In Kairouan I stayed the first night at a hotel north of the medina but when I walked back after dark having eaten dinner, the area between the medina and the hotel was so spooky that I decided to change hotels. On top of that, they weren’t serving the normal ‘petit dejeuner’ (continental breakfast) that always comes with these cheap hotels and during Ramadan there is no opportunity to buy a breakfast as the locals are fasting after sunup. So I changed to another hotel that seems much better and overlooks the medina. This hotel costs $10 a night—bathroom down the hall but a sink in my room.

I went sightseeing—an 18th C. house of a former bey, now restored. Talk about lavish decoration. I didn’t know where to look first as everything clamored for my attention. Beautiful teak and cedar, marble, painted ceilings, lights—the whole nine yards. Kairouan is the carpet capital of Tunisia and now this house is a carpet sales enterprise but we couldn’t agree on price.

I did happen to wander into the Souq el-Bhaghiija which I realized was what I had read about once I was there! It seems that on Saturdays between 11 and 1 (which this happened to be) the Berber women sell their carpets at auction. Men were bolting up and down the souq with 9 X 12 carpets over their shoulders, hawking them and pushing everybody out of the way. There were no tourists in there so it was fun to observe. What a raucous, frantic scene. I suspect these women who make the carpets get a pittance for them compared to sales prices to the tourists. So it goes. I did buy a small rug from a dealer there who had a little booth.

And am I clean?!! I went to a hammam on Saturday afternoon. After the steam room a powerful 40-ish woman used some cream and then cleaned/massaged me all over with a stiff, scratchy bathmitt called a kassa which I apparently bought as they sent it home with me. Rolls of dead skin came off! I also had a shampoo and lots of washing and rinsing with waters of different temperatures. It was really quite nice and the cameraderie and the ambience were pleasant. Some of the activity regarding the other two dozen women in the hammam stopped so they could watch me—I don’t think they get many (any) tourists.

Sunday in Kairouan I did the tourist tour, but on foot, starting with the 9th C. Great Mosque—clearly worthy of its name.The huge marble courtyard was a water collecting device for a cavernous cistern underneath.

It all sloped toward the center to a decorative marble drain designed to filter out the dust. The marble wells in the courtyard had three-inch grooves worn in them from ropes pulling water up over 13 centuries. There were hundreds of recycled columns salvaged from Carthage and Sousse.

The Bir Barouta is a very holy well within the medina that religion says is connected to the Zem Zem well in Mecca (!) It featured a live camel going round and round, powering the drawing of the water for any who wanted to drink—I demurred.

The Aghlabid Basins were stunning. These are 9th C. cisterns built to hold water brought by aquaduct from 36 km away. The water flowed first into a small settling basin and from there into a big circular stone basin that is 16 feet deep and 400 feet in diameter.

Then the low-light of my trip so far—I visited the Zaouia of Sidi Sahib that is the tomb of a companion of Mohammed’s. It is beautiful—acres of tile, marble and columns; but it is the site of the religious torture of circumcision. There were four or five parties—some arriving, some just leaving with the injured and stressed little boy (they seemed to be between 3 and 7 years old) being carried away by his father. One of the parties arriving had several women ululating (sp.?) making that dreadful noise, with a woman beating a drum. The little boy with henna-decorated feet in gold slippers, wearing an ivory caftan and little red fez walked along, looking apprehensive (no kidding!) What a downer—. I rushed away to avoid hearing the little boy cry.

So for therapy, I went to the five-star Hotel Kasbah to use their pool and relax. All the pools here are VERY cold but refreshing. I was pretty warm from so much walking in the sun. After swimming I had thought to drown my sorrows in some wine (they had none!) or at least a beer (their beer was sans alcohol!) so I just ‘pooled’ and then regrouped and had a beer at a hotel in my neighborhood before going to dinner.

This morning (Monday) I’m heading to Sbeitla and some more Roman ruins.

Carol

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One Response to #7 Tunisia, October 31, 2005

  1. Sandy Behrens says:

    Loved your Tunisia report also . . . this is on my list of places to go as soon as I can figure out airfare.

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