Video of El Ghriba Synagogue in Djerba, Tunisia, home to the oldest Torah in the world. The synagogue was bombed by Al Qaeda in 2002, killing nearly two dozen people and wounding more than 30 others.
Archive for November, 2005
Quicktime VR video of Ksar Ouled Soltane in southern Tunisia.
Video of a Djerba restaurant making me a bowl of chickpea and bread stew, or lablabi, Tunisia’s unoffficial national dish.
To my complete surprise, I had one of my best nights’ sleep of the trip in my cave at the Sidi Driss Hotel. The room never got below 66 degrees, and I had plenty of blankets to keep me cozy. While I wouldn’t advocate staying there longer than a night or two, it was comfortable enough to get plenty of rest.
Tom and Marouen were still asleep when I got up around 7:45am; Chris, meanwhile, had been up for a while, taking advantage of first light with his beautiful digital camera. I stumbled into the dining room in the Star Wars courtyard, eager to dig into a bottomless bowl of French bread and similar quantities of strong coffee, joining a middle-aged Australian backpacker and a young Japanese trekker. Soon enough everyone at the hotel was in the dining room, talking either Star Wars or WSIS – both subjects applied to everyone in the room as far as I could tell. Unfortunately, the guys who had been working at the hotel the previous evening had gone home, so I wasn’t in a position to introduce them to my Star Wars CD. Oh well, maybe next time.
We’d be parting ways this morning: Tom was keen on visiting the oasis of Douz and parts of the Sahara; I, on the other hand, really didn’t have time to visit both Douz and the Berber villages around Tataouine, so Marouen and I made the decision to go our own way that day. Tom caught the 9am bus to Douz while Marouen and I lingered at the hotel a little longer. We went outside and climbed the hill that served as the outer rim to the pit courtyards. I soon found myself in the same spot where Luke’s aunt called out to him in the first movie. “Luke! Lu-uke!” I yelled, doing a rather poor imitation of her; the hotel worker coming out of the kitchen next to the courtyard looked up at me perplexed, clearly not getting the reference.
By 9:30 or so, Marouen and I had checked out of the hotel and walked over to the bus station. The bus hadn’t arrived yet, so we crossed the street and had a coffee at a local café. Nearby, I heard a horrible screeching noise, like an animal in pain; a butcher walked across the courtyard with two chickens in his hands, heading into his shop. The screeching soon stopped. It’s haunted me ever since; I found myself becoming a vegetarian again in an instant, not unlike the trip Susanne and I took to Greece in 2001.
With caffeine in my veins and the cries of chickens in my head, we boarded the bus a couple minutes past 10am. It was a local bus, so we made a lot of stops on the way to Gabes, picking up women going to markets and soldiers going wherever it is soldiers go in this part of Tunisia. The bus driver played traditional Tunisian Berber music on the stereo system; it reminded me of Moroccan Berber music but with simpler drum arrangements.
We touched down at the Gabes bus station just before 11:30am; across the plaza, we found a louage headed to Tataouine, about three hours’ south. Tataouine holds two major claims to fame. Historically, it’s been a base for people wanting to explore the ksour of southern Tunisia. Ksour (singular ksar) are fortified adobe structures built by the Berbers to store their grain. There are around 75 ksour in the region around Tataouine, some nearly 1000 years old. They’re a unique style of architecture that’s emblematic of southern Tunisia, as well as Tataouine’s second claim to fame: Star Wars. Tataouine served as a base of operations during the filming of many of the Star Wars movies – so much so, that the city itself gave its name to Luke Skywalker’s home planet, Tatooine. Several of the local ksour were used in the movies, in particular the dreadful Phantom Menace. In that film, when Obi-Wan Kanobi and friends go to Tatooine, they find the young, obnoxious Anakin Skywalker residing in the local slave quarters. Many of those scenes were film in the local ksour.
Our louage headed south past the towns of Medenine and Mareth, the latter probably best known as being the focal point of major tank battles between Rommel’s panzer divisions and the US army. We were following the main road to Tripoli, Libya; the border was just a couple of hours away from here. The road was lined with kiosks selling plastic jugs of cheap Libyan gasoline, while others had freshly slaughtered sheep for sale, hanging on ceiling hooks.
Further south, we reached a police checkpoint, where we were asked to pull over. Everything seemed to be going fine until they asked to see our papers and noticed I was carrying a US passport. One of the police leaned into the window and said something in Arabic. All the men around me sighed and muttered. We were being asked to get out of the minivan.
We spent the next 10 minutes or so as police went back and forth from one office to another, carrying my passport around as if it were the most unusual thing they’d seen in weeks. (I can’t be the only post-WSIS American touring Tunisia at the moment, can I?) One of the policemen then began talking to Marouen, who explained in Arabic that we were friends from the WSIS summit, that I worked for a US NGO that works in education technology, and that we were here as tourists. His sincere response must have done the job, because they eventually returned with all of our IDs and asked us to get on our way. Most of the other men in the louage stared at me a while as we departed.
“What was that all about?” I asked Marouen.
“It is nothing,” Marouen said. “They wanted to know who you were, why you were here…. It’s not like you have done anything wrong – they are more concerned about your safety than anything else.”
“They have an odd way of expressing it,” I replied.
We arrived in Tataouine early in the afternoon. It’s a rather nondescript place, built as a French garrison town in the late 1800s, with little historic or cultural significance. I somewhat felt like I was visiting a small town in the rural US – just enough goods and services available to keep things running, but otherwise, not much to write home about. Marouen and I walked a couple blocks from the louage station to the Residence Hamza, which had been recommended by the Lonely Planet. Apart from the friendly service, I’m not totally sure why – the beds were terrible, the halls noisy and the bathroom too ripe for its own good. But at around $13 a night, it was nice and cheap. I might regret the lack of heating, though – clearly I hadn’t packed well for this trip.
Across the street, we got some omelets for lunch and called a friend of Marouen’s father, Belghasem, who ran a small grocery shop on the main street. Marouen thought that Belghasem might have some ideas for arranging transport around the ksour for tomorrow. A few minutes after calling him, Belghasem arrived at the restaurant and offered to join us that afternoon to visit Ksar Ouled Soltane, 20 minutes’ south of Tataouine. He suggested we take a cannionette – a louage pickup truck – then arrange a louage to charter the next day.
We started by talking a walk through the local souk, which was quite small compared to the ones we’d seen in Kairouan and Tunis. Part of the souk was an old synagogue, back from the time of the French; most, if not all of the local Jews had moved to Djerba or immigrated to Israel. Belghasem also had us stop at one of the many pastry shops in town to try a gazelle’s horn, a horn-shaped pastry filled with honey and nuts. Delicious.
We then grabbed a cannionette and drove south, sitting on the padded benches installed in the pickup’s cab. As we drove to the ksar, Belghasem pointed out several ksour along the way, none of which were listed in our guidebooks. They looked like ruined forts on the sides of hills and mountains; in many ways, that’s exactly what they were, since the Berbers built the ksour around former strongholds known as ka’ala, which they used to protect themselves and their foodstuffs from marauders.
We arrived in the village of Ouled Soltane, named after the local Berber tribe. Several old men wearing fezzes and bernouses sat along a bench; they all smiled and gave a warm “Salaam alekum” to us as we climbed out of the cannionette.
“W’alekum salaam,” I replied, waving back.
Belghasem led us around the corner down an alleyway; suddenly we found ourselves in a remarkable adobe courtyard. To the left and right were vaulted ghorfas – grain storage areas – usually stacked two or three on top of each other. Adobe stairs suspended in mid-air led up to each ghorfa, while wood beams jutted out at the highest levels, allowing villagers to bring up goods on pulleys. This was the very image of a ksar that I had in my head; it was great to finally see some of them in person.
Marouen and I scurried up the stairs on different ghorfas, trying to get a better view of the ones across from us. Behind me there was a beautiful view of the rough, barren countryside. The ksar was located on a hillside, so you could see anyone approaching the granary from miles around.
Belghasem had gone off through a passageway into another courtyard behind a small group of Italian tourists; Marouen and I soon followed. Inside was another plaza of ghorfas, but much more spectacular. They were stacked four levels high, dozens of them, with each side of the plaza at least 100 feet long. It was quite a sight. The Italian tourists were having tea at a small café, as a thin young man sold drawings of the ksar.
I followed the perimeter of the ksar, admiring the workmanship of the ghorfas and their accompanying stairs. This particular ksar was over 500 years old; despite being abandoned, it was in remarkable condition.
Eventually, we struck up a conversation with the young man selling tea and drawings. His name was Bashir; his brother was the artist who’d done the pictures. He didn’t speak any English, so Marouen translated for him. He was from the village, but wasn’t allowed in the ksar when he was a child, because the ksar was reserved as a meeting space for adult members of the tribe. They gather in the ksar once a week to discuss community members and socialize. Once he was older, he was allowed to set up a small shop inside the ksar, selling snacks, trinkets and his brother’s artwork.
“Do you get many Star Wars tourists?” I asked.
“Some,” he replied through Marouen. “But not as many as Ksar Hadada.”
“Do you remember when they came here to film Star Wars?”
“Yes, but they were very fast,” he said. “They came in and out; I was studying that day and missed the excitement.”
“Have you seen Star Wars?” I asked.
“He hasn’t seen movies,” Marouen said, translating Bashir’s reply.
“The Star Wars movies?”
“No,” Marouen continued. “Any movies.”
My last day in Djerba: nice weather, friendly people, strong tea. still cant type on an Arabic keyboard to save my life, so hopeully I can plug in my laptop for a while when I get back to Tunis. Stay tuned for some new videos once I have enough bandwidth to upload them: the El Ghriba Synagogue in Djerba; how to make lablabi – bread and chickpea stew; getting shaved by a master barber; helping a camel mow the lawn; and spending the night in luke skywalker’s house. More later…. -andy
Tom snored like hell last night; it drove me so crazy I ended up getting my own room down the hall. It turns out single rooms were just two dinars more than each of our share of the quad, so we probably should have done that anyway. I managed to sleep just fine after that, and woke up around 7am to rouse the others out of bed for a quick breakfast at the hotel.
Today our plan was to work our way to the Berber village of Matmata, perhaps most famous for its underground homes, used most famously as Luke Skywalker’s house in the original Star Wars. Luke’s home was actually a one-star hotel, so we made plans to spend the night there. In the meantime, we’d walk around Mahdia for a bit, visit the nearby Roman coliseum of el Jem, then work our way south to Matmata.
Compared to Tunis or Kairouan, Mahdia isn’t much more than a village in its own right, but that’s much of its charm. An ancient city with a medina located on a long, thin peninsula, it’s a wonderful place to relax when the weather is nice. Unfortunately, we weren’t blessed with stellar weather, but that didn’t dampen our spirits too much. We walked clockwise around the peninsula, watching the waves lap against the remains of Fatimid-era fortifications that were knocked down more than 500 years ago by the Spanish. Legendary pirate Dragut, a protégé of the Barbarossa brothers, had used Mahdia as a base while his corsairs harassed Spanish shipping lanes; the Spanish responded by blowing up the local mosque and knocking down the walls.
As we rounded the end of the peninsula, we reached a large Muslim graveyard. Sheep wandered around the headstones as several cats stood watching, as if they were herding the sheep. One of the cats was very friendly and immediately trotted over to say hello to us; another one came near us but remained somewhat suspicious of our intentions. The sheep even expressed interest in us, but I have a feeling they were just looking for some handouts.
We strolled a short way through the medina but eventually decided to return to the hotel to grab our things and hail a taxi; we’d have a long day ahead of us. The taxi brought us back to the local louage station, where we joined a shared taxi for the 45-minute drive to el Jem. Jem is home to the best preserved coliseums in the world, built in the third century by the local Roman governor. A medium-size city has now grown up around the ruins, but you could still make out the old stone structure from many blocks away as we approached the louage station.
Our first goal was to figure out when the train passed through el Jem, so we could continue to Gabes before catching a short-haul louage to Matmata. At the train station, we discovered the next train wasn’t for another four hours, and we’d only have about 90 minutes of things to do in el Jem, even if we walked at a snail’s pace. So it seemed we’d have to talk louages all the way – at least 90 minutes to Sfax, and probably another three hours to Matmata if we could arrange direct transport. Worse case scenario, we’d have to change taxis in Sfax, Gabes and Matmata Nouvelle before reaching Matmata – a frightening thought.
Even though the coliseum is the largest building for miles around, somehow we managed to get lost trying to find it, winding through residential neighborhoods with all of our luggage in tow. I truly hoped we’d be able to find a safe place to stow our bags; otherwise our time at the coliseum would be quite short. Rounding a corner, I spotted a bit of the ruins the next block away. You could also see a distinct up-tick in the number of souvenir vendors in the street, not to mention restaurateurs calling out to tourists in half a dozen languages. One of them called out to us, inviting us in for lunch; we promised him we’d come back for lunch if he watched our bags; a deal was struck.
We left our bags with the restaurant owner (except my laptop – that’s not leaving my side) while we went into the coliseum. It seemed to be as large as the one in Rome, if not larger, and better preserved. Marouen and I followed the first row of stairs upwards so we could get a high view of the inner ring. Walking underneath countless vaults, we reached the inner part of the coliseum, with a fine view of a group of tourists standing around like martyrs getting ready to be thrown to the lions. You could easily imagine the crowds here – el Jem held 30,000 people, much more than the population of the local community.
Marouen and I then climbed to the highest level, only to find Tom there; somehow he’d managed to get ahead of us. Tom jumped around from one stone beam to another, exclaiming how they’d never let him do this in Rome. With good reason. Winding through the coliseum’s many passageways, we soon found ourselves at ground zero, in the center of the ring. I saw Tom spin around in awe, looking at imaginary crowds.
“Having a Russell Crowe moment?” I asked.
“Actually, yes, I was,” he replied, almost instinctively gripping an imaginary short sword.
Marouen and I then found a flight of stairs to the underground passageway below the center ring. It suddenly got quite dark, with just enough light to prevent us from splitting our heads open on a wall of cracked marble. Further ahead, we could see more light, so we followed it; we were now in the main passageway running the length of the ring. Shafts of light came through the grating above us; we passed unnoticed below several Italian tourists. To our left and right, dark niches held memories of the wild beasts once kept there, or perhaps the criminals or Christians as they collected their thoughts before being sacrificed for the thrill of the crowd.
Tom entered the underground chamber just as we exited; we met him at the center point of the ring, peering down at him through the metal grating. Along the edges of the ring you could see a few fragments of marble left; at one point marble covered the entire faćade. What a sight it must have been at its peak, 1700 years ago. Leaving the coliseum, we returned to the restaurant as promised and ordered lunch. Tom and I got to have our first briq – a folded, crispy crepe with a lightly cooked egg inside. Tunisians try to eat a briq without dripping any of the egg on themselves, so it often requires a lot of slurping. Fortunately, mine was cooked well enough that this never became an issue for me. Meanwhile, we watched the restaurateur trying to lure in customers by calling out the names of various politicians from their respective countries. He managed to get a Greek couple to sit down, but otherwise most people were going next door.
After lunch we caught a louage to Sfax, getting there around 2pm. We had hoped to take a louage all the way to Matmata from there, but people told us that we’d have to talk the more roundabout route of going to Gabes and Matmata Nouvelle first. A louage driver approached us and offered to let us charter his taxi for 60 dinars, which seemed excessive. We bartered back and forth for a while, eventually getting him down to 45 dinars. It would be a bit more than going the usual way, but would probably save us at least 90 minutes along the way. The rest of the afternoon was spent driving through rainy coastal Tunisia. Marouen slept much of the time while Tom and I continued to talk politics.
By 4:30pm, the terrain became very barren and hilly – lots of sand and clay and scrub brush, with the occasional date palm in the distance. A few miles before Matmata, we passed our first camel, nibbling on some bushes beyond a Berber tent. We were definitely no longer in urban Tunisia.
A few minutes before 5pm we arrived in Matmata. We pulled up in front of the Hotel Sidi Driss, aka Luke Skywalker’s house. From the outside, it looked like nothing special; just a squat building with some souvenir vendors out front. But as we entered, it instantly transformed into another galaxy, far, far away. Carved into the countryside, the hotel is entirely under ground. The reception area was basically a cave with somewhat claustrophobic ceilings and countless Star Wars stickers along the wall. To our right, an enormous Darth Vader tapestry hung on the wall, while to our left was a passageway to a courtyard.
We followed one of the hotel staff into the courtyard. It was like we were entering the center ring of a coliseum again, but in miniature. The walls of the courtyard shot up at least 20 feet upward, with arched passageways leading to more caves and corridors. For a moment, I forgot I was underground; the very top of those soaring walls were actually ground level, meaning that we were literally standing in an enormous pit. I immediately recognized the location. This may or may not have been the pit used in all the Star Wars shots of Luke’s house; either way it was certainly in the same style. I didn’t see any props along the walls, though, so this was probably just a run-of-the-mill troglodyte pit rather than a George Lucas set.
I was then shown to my room – a cave with seven beds crammed into it with a single bare lightbulb and no lock on the door. Charming. I guess I’d be carrying around my laptop again tonight. We dropped off most of our belongings then went upstairs to go for a walk.
In the reception area, we went passed the Darth Vader picture and found another courtyard. This one was decorated with large plastic facades covered in weird knobs and metallic objects. The palm tree in one corner of the courtyard was hidden under a long plastic tube designed to look like some space-age duct. There was no doubt about it; this courtyard was the main pit used in the first Star Wars movie. The three of us went around inspecting every corner of the courtyard. The plastic set pieces were very flimsy, clearly designed to be filmed and not touched. It was quite astonishing that so much of it was still in place; I would have figured most of it would have been boosted and sold on eBay by now.
Stepping out of the hotel, I was then surprised to see Tracey Naughton of the WSIS media caucus standing by her car with her partner Chris. I suppose I shouldn’t be too surprised to bump into WSIS colleagues here, but it was still one of those “What the hell are you doing here?” moments. Tracey and Chris checked into the hotel while Tom, Marouen and I went in search of the Hotel Marhala, another Matmata pit house. The Rough Guide claimed that the hotel was used for “the Star Wars disco scene,” which I assumed meant the Mos Eisely cantina with all the funny aliens in it, where we first encounter Han Solo. I was under the impression that this scene was filmed on a London sound stage rather than here in Tunisia, but in case I was wrong, I’d hate to miss out on seeing the famous cantina.
We hiked our way up and down the hills that make up the village, past a few cafes and souvenir stalls. There were very few people around; clearly this wasn’t a busy time of year for tourists to be traipsing through. Many of the local men, young and old alike, were wearing what I could have sworn were Star Wars Jawa outfits – those little creatures in the brown cloaks that go around saying “ooh tee dee” a lot. The more I saw them, the more I realized they were also the same cloak worn by Obi Wan Kanobi himself. I’d always figured those outfits were just a figment of the mind of George Lucas or his costume designer. I had no idea they were traditional Berber cloaks. It would take me a while to stop thinking about Jawas each time I saw someone wearing one of them.
It was just before 6pm, and it was pitch black outside. Somehow, we managed to find our way to the Marhala Hotel. We planned to get a drink at the bar, but it wasn’t open yet. We stuck around long enough to ask the hotel workers if any scenes from Star Wars were shot there. Marouen expected them to say yes no matter what, since that would be good for business. “Leh, leh, leh,” they replied, shaking their heads. Nope. No Star Wars scenes filmed here. Cleared up that myth, I guess.
We walked a little further to another hotel with an open bar; Marouen drank coffee while I add some Muscat wine and Tom had a Celtia beer. The local restaurants didn’t open until 7pm, so we then decided to return to the hotel and see if Tracey and Chris would like to join us. They’d already ordered dinner at our hotel; once we heard that was possible, we decided to eat in as well.
Matmata wasn’t the type of town that had much of anything going on after sunset, so I suggested that we all watch Star Wars. I had the DVD with me, and the Sidi Driss seemed like the best place in the world to watch it. By the time we sat down for dinner, we’d found a group of around eight people wanting to watch the movie.
Dinner at the Sidi Driss was surprisingly good, certainly better than the run-down accommodations. They served briq as an appetizer, with copious amounts of fiery harissa sauce and French bread, then lamb couscous with bowls of extra tomato sauce. The sauce in particular made the meal memorable; sometimes the couscous here can be a little starchy, so the sauce makes it a lot more enjoyable to eat.
After dinner, we tried to plug in my laptop in the dining hall, which would have been perfect since it was actually used as Luke’s dining room in the movie. Unfortunately the one power outlet in the room was high on the wall, and every time I plugged in my laptop, the plug fell out of the wall. So we searched around and found another room, just above and to the left of the dining room. It was still in the main Star Wars courtyard with all the set pieces, so that’s all that mattered.
I set up my laptop on a long table, with everyone spread around the other side of the room. It wasn’t easy to watch, and the sound wasn’t great, but it was still better than nothing. I imagine the movie has been played here before, but who knows. Every now and then the staff came by to take a quick peak, but they never lingered. Afterwards we asked them about it; they said they’d never seen the movie. I wish we’d known that; we would have insisted on showing it to them. I then offered to play the Matmata-related scenes the next morning if they were around the hotel.
I headed for bed around 11pm. The room was surprisingly comfortable; even though it was in the 50s outside, the room was closer to 70 degrees. That’s cave living for you. It even attracted some guests, including a large dung beetle that crawled along the floor. I gave it a gentle lift with a small plastic bag and tossed him out of the room so I wouldn’t step on him at night, then climbed into one of my seven beds before calling it a night. I just wonder if this was the bed that Luke used. With my luck, it was probably his Aunt Veru’s bed instead.
I slept in later than normal today, getting up around 9am for a nice breakfast at the Kasbah buffet. I really didn’t have much planned for today since Marouen Mraihi and Tom Dawkins were coming down around lunchtime to join me during my travels around southern Tunisia. After breakfast, I took another walk through the market, where I managed to get a few more photos of people. One woman insisted I pay here one dinar after I took her picture; so far she’s the only person that’s requested money here in Tunisia.
Around noon I went back to the hotel to give Marouen a call and see if he was on the bus yet. He said they were at the bus station waiting to depart Tunis, which meant I wouldn’t see them for at least another two hours. Knowing that I’d have a draining week ahead of me, I decided to chill out by the hotel pool, reading my newly acquired French travel guide to Tunisia. I managed to make out a lot of it, probably because I already knew much of the Lonely Planet Tunisia guide by heart.
Marouen and Tom arrived just after 2:30pm. They asked if it would be alright to walk around the Medina before leaving Kairouan; I said I didn’t mind, since at this rate we probably wouldn’t reach our next destination until sunset anyway. Marouen suggested we stay in Sousse, but Tom and I recommended Mahdia, since it was smaller and more laid-back. Marouen seemed okay with that.
Tom had expressed interest in buying a carpet; he was certainly in the right place. We walked around the medina passing various carpet shops, but decided to grab a quick bite to eat at a restaurant first. We ordered omelets, which came with beans, French bread and a Tunisian salad – quite delicious.
The three of us then backtracked to one of the carpet shops, where we first asked to climb up to the terrace first. Unfortunately, the terrace wasn’t that spectacular, but we were still obliged to shop around for a few minutes. Tom didn’t want to spend more than 150 dinars on a carpet, which pretty much meant he’d be looking at ones that were two square meters. The owners of the shop pulled out carpets that were tagged at well over 300 dinars, but that was just a negotiating tactic. With some language assistance from Marouen and a healthy dose of haggler’s skepticism, Tom eventually got the carpet at less than 150 dinars.
By the time we got to the louage station, it was around 4pm; we’d be lucky if we arrived in Mahdia by 7pm, since we had to catch a taxi first to Sousse and then change for another taxi to Mahdia. The process was simple enough; we’d go to the station, call out where we wanted to go, and would be directed to the right minibus. We’d then wait until the bus filled and then hit the road. Pretty straightforward.
Marouen slept most of the time while Tom and I talked US politics; for an Australian he knew a hell of a lot about what was going on in US policymaking. We reached the Mahdia louage station around 7pm, then caught a taxi the last few kilometres to the medina. He charged us three dinars -we definitely got ripped off, but were too tired to do much about it. We found ourselves on a chilly, quiet peninsula jutting out in the Mediterranean, standing at the edge of a medina alleyway. Ahead of us we found the Hotel Al Jazira, our home for the next night. Two song birds greeted us as we went inside; the owner gave us a quad room for ourselves.
After dropping our bags, we walked through the peaceful medina past a few cats and not much else to the Restaurant de la Medina, where we ordered their fish couscous special. The fish (mullet) was okay but the sauce on the couscous was excellent. Meanwhile, the local cat parked himself between Marouen and me, waiting to be fed. I didn’t know the local protocol for feeding cats, so I resisted giving him any fish. Clearly, this wasn’t the right thing to do, because the cat kept trying to claw his way into my lap. The restaurant owner seemed to get a kick out of my predicament. Just another night in Tunisia, I guess.
After a quick breakfast at the Diplomat, I hailed a taxi and went straight to the southern bus station. It was 8:40am, and I was hoping to get the 9am bus to Kairouan, assuming that’s when the next bus left the station. Fortunately, I arrived with just enough time to buy my ticket for nine dinars and get on the bus, which left three minutes later. There were less than 10 of us on the bus, so we had plenty of room to spread out. Interestingly, the bus was one of the WSIS delegate buses – it still had the WSIS hotel route sign on it. The driver went around the bus and asked everyone’s destination. No one said they were going to Nabeul, usually the first stop on the bus, so we made a direct line to Kairouan, arriving in just over two hours rather than the usual three.
The Kairouan bus station was a swirl of dust, with nary a taxi in sight. I grabbed my bags and hiked a few meters outside of the station, hoping to hail a passing taxi. It didn’t take too long; within five minutes I had a ride to my hotel. Soon we pulled up to what appeared to be a medieval sandstone fortress; indeed, it was the Hotel La Kasbah, my home for the next night. The Kasbah was the medina’s former military stronghold, but it had been converted beautifully into Kairouan’s classiest hotel. Normally a room during the high season could easily fetch well over $100 a night, but I managed to get a room for closer to $50.
After tossing my belongings into my room, I grabbed my daypack, camera and Lonely Planet guidebook so I could explore the city. I’d been waiting for years to do this, ever since becoming interested in genealogy. You see my name, Carvin, was originally spelled Karawan, a name associated with a family of Tunisian rabbis who lived in medieval Kairouan. Even though there are few, if any, Jews left in Kairouan today, it was once an intellectual powerhouse for Talmudic studies, rivaling the colleges of Babylon back in the 10th and 11th centuries. According to legend, a group of four rabbis left Babylon on a mission to the Mediterranean; at some point in their voyage, their ship was attacked by pirates, and the four rabbis were initially taken as hostages, sent to four different cities, including Kairouan. Eventually, they were allowed to settle in those cities, becoming the basis for what would be a thriving Jewish community. Who knows if there’s any truth to the story, let alone my actual genealogical connection to Kairouan. Either way, it’s still a possibility, so my visit here would give me a chance to reconnect with my supposed heritage.
Leaving the hotel, I walked across the road to the local market. It was jammed with vendors and shoppers haggling mostly over produce, particularly peppers, oranges and pomegranates. Other vendors sold dates, fennel, chickpeas, dried fruits and nuts. The vendors would call out their produce and the price associated with it, hoping to attract new customers, so the market had the sound of an agricultural stock exchange.
No one seemed to mind I was there; as far as I could tell I was the only non-Tunisian in the market. People occasionally said bonjour or marhaba to me, but otherwise they went around their business, as did I, taking photos along the way. I asked several people if they minded having their pictures taken, and fortunately no one objected. Further along the market towards the southwest gate of the medina, I passed along a series of vendors selling shoes and clothing. This area was particularly crowded, with women in hejabs and jeans alike looking for bargains.
Beyond the market, I reached the old stone gate to the medina. Numerous vendors had set up shop for tourists, selling souvenirs and postcards, while others sold mobile phone accessories and music CDs. I walked along Avenue 7th de November, the main road through this part of the medina. You could tell that this was a major destination for tourists given the number of carpet shops along the strip; Kairouan is famous throughout Tunisia for its carpets. I wasn’t in the market for a rug, though, so I declined the numerous requests to come inside and have a look. I’d read that carpet vendors were extremely persistent here, but generally I didn’t find that to be the case. Frankly, the souvenir vendors in the Tunis medina made a harder sell than the carpet guys along the street here. The medina had an odd familiarity to it; I’d been told that some of the scenes from Raiders of the Lost Ark had been filmed here, so I’d have to take some pics and compare them with the movie when I got home. Most of the buildings were whitewashed with light blue accents; once you headed north away from the main drag, you could really appreciate the brightness of the place.
I wandered upward through the medina, in the general direction of the Great Mosque, the holiest Islamic site in North Africa. There wasn’t a direct route to the mosque, per se; instead, you had to weave through the alleyways, using your inner compass and your map as a guide. The neighborhoods were residential, with people coming and going from place to place on bicycles and motor scooters, boys kicking soccer balls against the walls. Still no signs of other tourists, amazingly; it was as if I had the entire medina to myself. Soon I reached the southern wall of the mosque. I followed it west another block or two, reaching a dense spot of souvenir vendors; this must be the main entrance. Walking through a large wooden door, I paid the 5.2 dinar entrance fee, including a camera fee. Inside, I found a group of two dozen Spanish tourists and their guide, standing in the enormous courtyard. Far to my left, the mosque’s ancient minaret soared upward, while to the right, the domed prayer hall. The mosque was first constructed in the late 7th century, though most of what’s scene today dates from a couple hundred years later; either way, it’s one of the oldest mosques in the world and an important pilgrimage site.
I strolled along the courtyard as the sun bore down on me. It was only in the low 70s, but the light colors of the stonework made the light reflect from the ground. Even with sun glasses on I had to squint much of the time. The perimeter of the courtyard was lined with hundreds of columns, all much older than the mosque itself. They were taken from Roman and Punic sites across north Tunisia, including Carthage. Because of this, no two columns were alike.
I walked over to the prayer hall, waiting a little while for the Spanish tourists to get out of the way so I could have a look for myself. Non-Muslims aren’t allowed inside, but you could stand at the doorway and appreciate the view. The interior was decorated by elaborate chandeliers and columns, the floor covered in carpets from wall to wall. A small number of men prayed inside, but otherwise the prayer hall was almost empty. From there, I crossed the full length of the courtyard, which sloped gradually to a central point, allowing rainwater to drain into a cistern.
I stood below the massive sandstone minaret, peering upward. The lowest levels of the minaret date from some of the earliest constructions of the mosque; in fact, several of the stones used in the construction featured Latin script from the Roman era. The people who built it probably must not have spoken Latin; one block had the words appearing upside down. I sat along the edge of the courtyard, basking in the sun and reading my guidebook. I shot some video as well, hoping to make a brief video blog about my visit to the mosque. After a while it got too hot sitting there, so I departed the mosque and started to retrace my path through the medina, intent on having a late lunch somewhere near Ave de 7th Novembre. Along the way I stopped at a snack shop to grab a bottle of water – man was I parched – and continued through the covered souk, where I was invited to climb to the terrace of a carpet shop to enjoy their view of the medina. From the roof, I could see minarets in every direction, the blue sky and puffy white clouds perfectly complimenting the blue and white colors of the medina.
Leaving the shop, I continued through the souk, where I was briefly stopped by a man who spoke in French for a couple of minutes about the beauty of Islam. I couldn’t understand most of what he said, so I smiled a lot and nodded my head politely.
A few minutes later, I was back along the main avenue. I knew my Lonely Planet guide had several local restaurant suggestions, so I pulled out my daypack to take a look. The outer pocket was open; the book was missing. I paused for a moment , somewhat confused; I rummaged through the other pockets but couldn’t find it. Had I been pickpocketed, perhaps while being lectured by the man in the souk? That didn’t seem likely, because nothing else was missing.
Retracing my steps northward through the souk, I stopped at both the carpet shop and the snack shop; no sign of the book. I continued all the way to the mosque, which was closing its doors to tourists for the rest of the day. I went inside and met an old man who said the mosque was closed, so I struggled to explain in French that my book was missing. The fact that I was flummoxed by my book disappearing made it harder to get my words right.
“J’etait ici a une heure,” I struggled. “Avec une libre touriste Tunisienne. Mais maintenant Je ne trouver pas cette livre. Peutetre j’oublie ici?”
The man replied to me slowly, but I couldn’t make out much of what he was saying. It sounded like he was telling me to go to the tourism office to buy a book.
“Non, non, monsieur,” I replied. “Je ne besoin pas couper un livre.”
He continued to explain to me what he was trying to say, leading me out of the mosque while walking my bike. I started to get the sense that he had actually found my book and sent it to the tourism office. He told me the office closed at 3pm, and gave me directions to walk there. I just hoped I understood what the hell he was saying.
I walked for about 30 minutes towards the office; why I didn’t hail a taxi is beyond me. I then reached a large building that appeared to be the right place; inside I found two women who spoke a little English.
“Is this the tourism office?”
“No, this is a ticket office,” one of them replied. “The tourism office is closed today.”
“Closed?” I said. “That doesn’t make sense.”
“I lost my guide book today when I was at the mosque. A man at the mosque said he had found my book and brought it to the tourism office, and gave me directions that led me here.”
“This is not the tourism office, but it is close by,” she continued. “But still, the office is locked today, so it is not possible he could have brought your book.”
It seemed quite clear that my Lonely Planet guide had become a casualty of my trip to Tunisia, at the worst possible time since I hadn’t really gone anywhere yet. There wasn’t much I could really do except give the women my contact information in case the book turned up; they wrote down my hotel and room number but the look on their face said quite clearly they thought the whole exercise was pointless.
So here I was on the first day of a week-long excursion in Tunisia, without a guide book. Needing some time to think, I went to the city’s one Internet café, a Publinet centre at a local hotel. A young teenage girl set me up on a PC, charging me about a dollar for an hour of Internet access. They had DSL, so the connection wasn’t too bad. I also checked to see if my WSISBlogs.org website was blocked, as had been rumored at WSIS; it wasn’t. I also updated my blog with some journals I’d written on my laptop as saved on my USB key; this was a lot easier than struggling to type on an Arabic keyboard, with multiple keys in all the wrong places (wrong to me, at least).
I stopped at the hotel and asked if there was a bookstore in town; the receptionist told me that I could find a couple of books near the far end of Avenue 7th de Novembre. By now, it was late in the afternoon, the sun getting low in the sky. I strolled the shops, looking to see if I could find a bookstore; eventually I reached the eastern gate of the medina, not having passed a single one. I then tried to find one in the newer part of the city, outside the medina walls. I had no problem finding an ATM and a dozen places to buy shoes, but still no bookstore.
It was just after 6pm; the sun had set and several planets flickered in the sky. Feeling somewhat dejected because of my failed book hunt, I decided to find a place to get some dinner. A few doors down passed the gate, though, I suddenly noticed a row of shops with hundreds of books in the window. They must have just opened for the evening. I went in one shop and asked about tour books; they had a couple English-language books about Tunisian history, but no English guides. However, I managed to find a French guidebook; skimming through it, I figured I could work out the details since my reading ability was a hell of a lot better than my speaking ability.
With my new book in hand, I stopped at the Restaurant de la jeunesse for dinner, where I had a fixed-price meal for eight dinars. The first course, a Tunisian tuna salad, was delicious, but the second course, a Tunisian tagine, was a bit much for me. I’d forgotten that tagines here were different than the stew-like tagines of Morocco, so I ended up with a fried square of quiche. I ate a few bites of it but otherwise filled up on bread and olives. They then brought over a small place of the local delicacy, honey-soaked pastries filled with minced dates. They looked almost exactly like Fig Newtons but were 10 times sweeter, so there was no way I could finish the five pieces on my plate.
Back at the hotel, I wrapped up my evening sitting in their café, an extraordinary place in a dark, vaulted part of the kasbah. I smoked a shisha and drank some mint tea while writing my blog; the evening call to prayer rang out in the distance as the Chemical Brothers’ “Galvanize” played on the stereo system. Yet another instance of the old colliding with the new here in Tunisia.