View from the ruined Berber village of Duiret
Marouen woke up just after 6:30am to rendezvous with his friend Belghesem to find a driver for the day. They returned to the hotel just after 7am, while I was in the hotel restaurant eating breakfast and watching the weather forecast: rain. The streets outside were partially flooded from heavy storms the previous night; now there was just a freezing drizzle.
Having not brought proper winter clothes with me (I thought winters in Tunisia were like “winters” in India – warm instead of hot), I layered up with three t-shirts, a long-sleeve shirt and my thin windbreaker. It would keep me relatively dry, but hardly comfortable. Belghasem, Marouen and our driver were much better prepared, sporting layers of sweatshirts and thick jackets.
Our plan today was to make a clockwise circuit to the west of Tataouine, focusing on the Berber villages of Duiret and Chenini, as well as Ksar Hadada. If we had time, we might go further west to the desert oasis of Ksar Ghilane, where parts of The English Patient were filmed.
Driving southwest, we soon reached a hillside sporting what appeared to be a ruined ksar with a statue of an enormous eagle, reminiscent of the eagle on Budapest’s Castle Hill. “This is Ksar Ouled Debab,” Marouen said. “We can stop here for a little while if you’d like.”
“Why not?” I said. “We should have plenty of time.”
We drove up the hillside until reaching the summit. In front of me stood a gargantuan statue of a stegosaurus, of all things.
“What’s up with the dinosaur?” I asked.
“It is some kind of museum now, I believe,” Marouen said.
We walked to the entrance and discovered that the ksar had been renovated to its original condition and was now hosting a historical museum, covering everything from the region’s fossils to Berber traditions. Peeking inside, I saw the courtyard was full of additional dinosaur statues. T-Rex was just up and to the left, while triceratops could be found to the right. No sign of the brontosaurus, though.
“It will cost nine dinars if we want to go in,” Marouen said.
“Nine dinars?” I replied incredulously. “Is this really necessary? I’m much more interested in visiting actual villages than replicas of one.”
“Can we stay for coffee, though? Belghasem knows some of the people here.”
Coffee sounded excellent, as the hotel’s coffee was the worst in North Africa. I ordered a café Turc while the others got espresso drinks. The bartender explained that the museum had just opened, and would soon sport a luxury hotel. Though most of the ksour were publicly controlled, this particular ksar was a private venture.
Polishing off our coffees, we scurried through the raindrops back into the taxi. The clouds appeared to thin in the northwest, which was a good sign as we were heading in that general direction. The scenery here was very barren and sparsely populated, with crags and mesas reminiscent of the American West.
In the distance, we spotted a white minaret perched on a mountainside. “Duiret,” Belghasem said.
The Berber village of Duiret
Beyond a small, nondescript village, we could just make out the ksar of the Berber village. Adobe structures clung to the hillside, with sturdier fortifications higher above them. The earth-toned colors blended into the scenery, making it hard to distinguish ksar from rock – only the white mosque was clearly definable. In the valley to the right, several old domed buildings dotted the countryside; I recognized one of them from one of our travel books.
The driver parked the car at the bottom of the hill. My first step out of the car caused me to sink several inches in mud. Unfortunately, I was wearing my dress shoes – the only other footwear I brought on the trip was a pair of sandals that were useless in this weather. No doubt these shoes would have to be replaced back home.
We walked uphill towards the ksar. There were several shops inside some of the lower buildings, but they hadn’t opened for the day yet; we had the entire village to ourselves. I shot some video while Marouen and Belghasem went ahead, climbing inside one of the crumbling vaulted rooms. I caught up with them a few minutes later.
“Feel the temperature,” Marouen said. “It is warm.”
“You’re right,” I replied.” It’s much more comfortable inside than it is outside.”
Further up the hillside, we climbed some stone stairs to another level of ksour. Some of the buildings were for storage, but others had been residential; you could see which ones had once been used as kitchens because of the soot stains on the walls and ceilings. Many of the buildings had red handprints on the entrance, while others had crude sketches of fish.
The Khomsa, or hand of Fatima, and other Berber symbols.
“What are the significance of these pictures?” I asked.
“You have seen the Hand of Fatima symbol in Tunisia?” Marouen asked, describing the downward pointing hand you often see as charms or artwork.
“Yes, of course,” I replied.
“It is the same thing here,” Marouen continued. “The fingers of the hand represent the five pillars of Islam. That’s why it’s called a khomsa – it’s the same as the Arabic word for five.”
“Khamsa,” I said.
“Yes, khamsa. The fish is also a good luck charm. Both symbols are used to ward off the devil from their homes.”
We continued to explore the various courtyards of the village. It was a haunting place, with no one around and the wind howling in the valley. Thankfully the rain had stopped but that didn’t prevent me from feeling chilled to the bone.
After climbing around the ruins for about 90 minutes, we returned to the car and continued onward to Chenini, about 30 minutes north of Duiret. The hills in this region became more common; the road snacked in a large S-shaped path for much of the journey. A few kilometres outside the village, we could see it high on a hillside; its white mosque gave it away quite easily. I could also make out what appeared to be tour buses. I guess our peace and quiet would soon run out.
We pulled into a parking area and left the taxi. Marouen, Belghasem and I walked towards the main road leading up to the old village but were soon stopped by two men standing inside a shop. They started speaking Arabic, talking to us for several minutes. Marouen motioned for me to walk up with him to the village while Belghasem stayed behind.
“They are police,” Marouen said. “They do not want Belghasem to come with us because they worry he is acting as our guide, taking away business from licensed guides.”
“But he’s not our guide.”
“They don’t care,” he said. “They are just making trouble for him.”
Hoping that this trouble didn’t escalate into anything more complicated, we continued walking uphill, where a man directed us to a stone path leading to the main part of the village. Chenini was spread out on the mountain slope, curving along the edge in an L-shaped pattern. This allowed you to see much of the village across the valley and to the left, with the mosque perched in between the two sides.
There were other tourists exploring the village, mostly Japanese, but they were in small groups. A much larger group of European tourists could be seen climbing the far end of the village, following a tour guide holding a closed umbrella.
Chenini had a strange vibe to it. While much of it appeared abandoned like Duiret, it was still a functioning village. Women in bright shawls carried water to donkeys and camels, while dressed in bernouses (cloaks) and qashibiyas (Ben Kanobi-like hooded coats) sat along the wall of a café, discussing the day’s business. They didn’t seem to be particularly thrilled about having tourists traipsing around their village; the men would give us polite nods but not let us take pictures while the women avoided us altogether.
Marouen and I snaked up the hillside, occasionally slipping on damp rocks and mud, as roosters and donkeys called out across the valley. The view from the top of the village was stunning, as you could see the valleys in front of it as well as behind it. No matter how far you looked, you couldn’t see any human settlements in any direction. We were truly in the middle of nowhere.
We followed the upper path just below the mosque to the far side of the village, where a camel and a couple of donkeys hung out in someone’s yard. The camel swayed back and forth while the donkeys barked every few minutes. I nearly slid halfway down the hillside when a wet rock gave way below my left foot; thankfully the only harm caused by the incident was a startled cat darting back into its owner’s house.
Near the bottom of the hill, we found the driver standing in a parking lot, talking with one of the men we’d met earlier. Belghasem was leaning against a wall, looking rather dejected. As soon as we approached they started engaging Marouen in Arabic. It went on for several minutes.
“We have a problem,” Marouen said. “They have taken their IDs and are threatening to take away the driver’s license and throw Belghasem in jail.”
“What the hell for?” I asked.
“Because they are traveling with you and don’t understand why. They think they must be either your paid guides or something else.”
“Who is to say.”
I asked if I could do anything to help the situation, but Marouen said no. “They don’t want to talk to you,” he explained. “They just want to make trouble for Belghasem.”
“But why him and not me or you?”
“They knew we were in Tataouine because they stopped us in the louage yesterday. But then they lost track of you, and now they find you here in Chenini with two other men.”
“Well of course they’re bound to find me here,” I said, frustrated. “Why on earth would anyone bother to come to Tataouine if they weren’t going to visit the Berber villages and ksour?”
“I know that, but they are suspicious that these men are now traveling with you.”
“Can’t I explain why I am here and that Belghasem isn’t my guide.”
“Like I said, they don’t want to talk with you. They just want to make trouble for Belghasem.”
I felt terrible about the situation, but there was nothing I could do. We stood around for 20 minutes waiting for something to happen; the men continued to argue in Arabic, ignoring my presence. Marouen suggested I go wait in the car since it was warmer there; at first I refused but after a while it seemed we’d be stuck there for a while, so I might as way stay dry and out of the way.
Perhaps another 15 minutes passed before the three of them got back into the car.
“Is everything okay now?”
“I think so,” Marouen said. “They are giving back their IDs and said we could leave.”
“Are they making us go back to Tataouine,”
“No, no…. We can go to Ksar Hadada, no problem.”
“But will anything happen to them?”
“Everything is okay with the driver. But they want Belghasem to come into the police station tomorrow and talk to them.
We drove silently for the next 30 minutes on the road to Ksar Hadada. Marouen and the driver seemed lost in thought, but it was clear that Belghasem was very stressed. What could I do? I tried apologizing to him in French but didn’t have the words to convey how I felt. It probably wouldn’t have mattered anyway.
Soon we arrived in the village of Ksar Hadada; the entrance to the ksar was in the heart of town, across from the mosque and several cafes. A sign outside welcomed visitors to the famous ksar used by Mr. George Lucas “in his tremendously successful film, The Phantom Menace.” From what I knew about Ksar Hadada, it was supposed to be one of the most picturesque ksour, painted white with brown and blue accents. It had been used as a hotel for many years, including the time the Star Wars team shot here in 1997; now it was being renovated into a new hotel.
Ksar Hadada. This spot used to be one of the most famous parts of the ksar, but now it’s spoiled by a new tool shed, the wall of which you can see along the left of the picture.
We walked inside past an attendant sitting at a desk. I expected to pay an entrance fee but he waved us through. In front of us, a ksar similar to the ones we saw in Ouled Soltane was occupied by a souvenir vendor, with rugs and knick-knacks hanging on the walls and stairs. Down to the right, we could see the white part of the ksar that was used in the movie. I remembered the scenes quite well, particularly when Liam Neeson’s character asks Anakin Skywalker’s mom about his father (or lack thereof).
The Star Wars section of the ksar was being repainted; white cans of acrylic littered the courtyard, along with rollers, scraps of cloth and the occasional bucket. The location seemed familiar, certainly, but I was struck by how I wasn’t experiencing one of those moments of absolute recognition.
“So this is the place?” I said. Belghasem replied in Arabic.
“He said that the hotel is doing renovation work here,” Marouen explained. “And in the process they have changed it.”
“What do you mean?”
“Do you see this?” Marouen continued, pointing to a new tool shed that had just been installed. “This used to be where people took the photo of the ksar, but now it is gone.”
For a moment I didn’t understand, but then it all came together. I looked at the cover of my old Rough Guide book and saw the same location, photographed from where I was standing. But the beautiful image of the ksar’s steps coming down the building was destroyed when the steps were removed and replaced with the tool shed for the hotel. The renovators had wiped out one of the most enduring and evocative images of southern Tunisia all in the name of progress. I was thoroughly disgusted.
The realization that the renovation work had utterly transformed the ksar ruined the experience for me. Even though the ksar itself – what remained of it, at least – was a fascinating place, I couldn’t help but think about what they were sacrificing here. The destruction had happened in the name of tourism – renovating the ksar hotel – but by doing so they’d taken away one of the primary reasons for visiting this very spot. It simply defied logic.
We spent another 30 minutes or so exploring the endless rows of granaries at the ksar, but I couldn’t stop thinking about the foolishness of their renovation work. I started wondering if the same was in store for Ksar Ouled Soltane. Hopefully not, since it’s still a living, breathing village, while other ksour are largely abandoned. Still, there’s got to be a better way of striking a balance between development, responsible tourism and cultural heritage. They certainly weren’t striking it here at Ksar Hadada. Maybe I’d feel differently once the renovation work was completed, but who’s to say if I’ll ever have the chance to come back here.
Leaving the ksar, we stopped at a café across the street, where our driver had just bought a piece of cake and some tea. We stood around at the bar drinking tea and noshing on our own snacks, including a dessert called sweet harissa – a syrupy sponge cake that had nothing in common with the harissa pepper sauce served throughout Tunisia. I asked if they knew why they shared the same name. Everyone shrugged.
Back in the car, we returned to Tataouine. It was only mid-afternoon at this point, but the day had been draining. Belghasem appeared to be in a better mood, but he still wouldn’t really talk to me. I felt terrible. I was still furious with the police in Chenini for putting him through hell just so they could find out about who I was and what I was doing there. Hadn’t it occurred to them that they could have simply asked me?
We spent much of the afternoon at the cybercafe, catching up on emails and writing our blogs. I also went by a shop to buy myself a qashibiya, the hooded brown coats worn by men in southern Tunisia and made most famous by the Jawas in Star Wars. One shop in the tourist area had quoted an absurd 70 dinars for the qashibiya, but a second shop owner asked a more reasonable 20 dinars. He also had a fine collection of bernouses; I tried own a dark brown bernous, its cape stretching down all the way to my feet. Marouen and the shop owner showed me the various ways of wearing it while an elderly man wandered into the shop and looked on approvingly. He and Marouen chatted in Arabic while I worked out my purchase; I decided to get both the qashibiya and the bernous, while Marouen got a blue bernous, in the style of those worn in the village of Ghomrassen.
“The old man asked me if you were Christian or Muslim,” Marouen said as we left the shop.
“What did you tell him?” I asked.
“I thought it was best to change the subject.”
At some point late in the day I realized it was Thanksgiving back home in the US. I figured we wouldn’t have much of a chance of finding a proper turkey here in Tataouine, but I suggested that we at least go a little bit more upmarket for dinner – upmarket being anything more than the usual three-dollars-a-person we’d often spend on a meal here.
Next to our hotel, we found La Gazelle, a restaurant and hotel that seemed a few steps classier than our current accommodations. The restaurant’s decorations were more French than Tunisian, as were the prices.
“Too expensive,” Marouen said dismissively as we looked at the menu.
“More expensive, yes,” I agreed. “But it’s Thanksgiving. Dinner’s on me.”
We skimmed the menu, trying to figure out what would be most appropriate for a Tunisian Thanksgiving. “This is your turkey, is it not?” Marouen said, pointing at something on the menu.
“Dinde escalope?” I said, reading it outloud. “I’m not sure what Dinde is in French. It might be turkey, but it’s been a while since I’ve studied French menus.”
“Yes, I am sure of it,” Marouen continued. “Dinde is your turkey.”
“What does it say in Arabic?” I asked, pointing to the opposite side of the menu.
“Dinde escalope,” he replied.
The Tunisian waiter, speaking in an exaggerated French accent, confirmed for us that dinde was turkey. Images of a proper Thanksgiving turkey swirled in my head as we feasted on a sloppy order of briq (egg pastry) for an appetizer. Of course, I shouldn’t have been surprised when the turkey arrived as a plain, unseasoned piece of breast meat with a garnish of wilted lettuce. Not exactly the Thanksgiving meal I was used to, but at least I’d managed to find perhaps the only restaurant in southern Tunisia serving turkey. Bonne Thanksgiving…. -andy