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Tunisian Mosaic

Last week reminded us of the existence of Tunisia, a small country obscurely located about halfway between Sicily and the Sahara.  It hosted the handball World Championships and fascinated everyone with fervent game and jolly spectators.  For the next two years, this small nation will be known for the fourth-best team in the world.  Two years ago, the national soccer team achieved an even more stunning feat when it won, also at home, the Africa Cup.  In general, though, news from Tunisia is rare, and I certainly didn't know much about it before my sister and I spontaneously decided to spend the first week of February 2005 there.  It was to be my first sojourn in Africa, the first in an Arabic country, and the first vacation among Muslims as well.

Despite traveling on a pre-arranged package we saw Tunisia as few tourists do.  We were lucky to stay in a hotel in Sousse, the third-largest city in Tunisia.  This made it easy to travel and see more than just the beach, which we hadn't come for anyway.  Tunisia is very heterogeneous and looks different depending on your vantage point and certainly also depending on what you are looking for.  I looked for something new every time an impression had taken hold.  Many of my later observations were in stark contrast to earlier ones.  In the end, the different pieces combined into a big colorful mosaic that is probably as good a description of the country as possible given the brevity of our stay.

The first thing I became aware of, and the fact that even the slimmest travel guide emphasizes, is how progressive Tunisia is.  It had general suffrage before the US, women are fully empowered by law, and more young women go to college these days than men.  The country is almost exclusively Muslim, but the very few remaining Jews and Christians are free to live according to their religious believes.  Fasting during Ramadan isn't compulsory – nor is it officially encouraged.  Few women wear headscarves and at least the urban masses lead modern lives.  The press appears free, satellite TV is everywhere, democratic elections are held regularly, and the sun always shines. 

Reading a little deeper one finds that not everything is fine and dandy.  As the Economist put it bluntly:  "It's easy for Tunisia to look good between Libya and Algeria."  The press is far from free, and political opposition barely exists and is hardly tolerated.  The president for the past 15 years puts more nines into election results than communist regimes used to.  He had sacked the president for the 30 years prior and founder of the nation, Habib Bourguiba, when that guy showed increasingly self-aggrandizing tendencies.  Now the current president is accused of the same sin.  Tunisia has an ever-present police force of 130000.  Vehicles can be stopped and searched on any roundabout, which keeps the population under tight control.  When our louage (little van for quick transport) was checked once, we as obvious tourists didn't have to show any papers (which were safely stowed away in the hotel safe), but everyone else was scrutinized in depth.

We arrived at Monastir airport, and it was immediately clear that we had arrived in a very touristy place.  With only ten million inhabitants, Tunisia gets more than five million visitors annually, many of them Germans.  Consequently, the coast is German-speaking.  The souks in the medinas are set up to profit handsomely from clueless tourists, cab drivers never turn their meters on, stores have their signs in more languages than you care to know, and there is even a café in Sousse that advertises "Deutscher Kuchen".  Nothing about this is particular to Tunisia at all.  The large hotels are the same anywhere, as are the tourists.

Our first day hadn't even ended when I had already fallen prey to one of those friendly, confidence-inspiring guys who patrol hotel lobbies.  He seemed to be very concerned for our well-being, invited us for tea, showed us some carpets, leather purses and jackets, and extracted from me the commitment to visit a traditional carpet knotting demonstration the next morning.  I was naïf, I wanted to see time-honored crafts.  Regina knew better (because of Hammamet Yasmine the year before) and warned me, but on my insisting we decided to go anyway.  The next morning a little bus ferried us to the medina.  I struck up a conversation with the guy sitting next to the driver, he saw his opportunity, mumbled something about festival and great opportunity, and dragged us to his shop where we were presented with dozens of beautiful silk and baby lamb wool carpets.  When we had narrowed it down to two carpets and were discussing payment modalities, Regina became increasingly worried about our way out.  In contrast, I took the whole show as a free French conversation class.  When I was exhausted and we had finished the second glass of tea, I stood up, grinned at the guy madly, shook his hand, thanked him profusely, grabbed my sister, and walked out of the store.  And that was the end of our carpet purchasing adventure.

Most tourists spend liberally, though, and the continued influx of cash has stimulated rapid economic growth.  Little French cars of recent vintage dot the streets.  People have the vision and the means to give their kids an education.  It is always crowded around schools and colleges.  All historic sites including the medinas are in excellent condition and are being maintained.

In some respects, development seems to be too fast for people to handle.  Many cities are dirty.  Roads are so dusty that I couldn't drive nearly as fast as I would have liked to the one day we rented a car.  Trash litters railroad tracks and entire poorer neighborhoods.  We passed by a landfill that was so ineptly designed that it was true to its name but not its purpose.  Instead of keeping the trash out of harm's way until it decays to dust, the wind fills the land around it with bottles and bags.  The surrounding olive groves were literally wrapped in plastic.

At the same time, many things are still done the traditional way.  Tiny family-owned stores abound.  The shiny new Champion supermarket in Sousse is used like a bazaar where people come to shop but also to meet, socialize and exchange news.  It took us five minutes to find the things we wanted and forty minutes to pay and get out.  In the streets, one can see many guys, even very sophisticated-looking camel-hair suit-wearing urban fellows, sporting sheshias, traditional magenta felt hats.

In other respects, Tunisia is outright undeveloped.  Donkeys pull carts between villages and in towns.  Some streets are lined with workshops where scrap metal is being brought back to life by dirt-covered guys working on prehistoric machines in conditions taken straight from 1850s England.  Other streets house shops where cut meat and the severed heads of camels, cows and sheep hang in the warm and dusty air of a busy city.

The situation of women, on the other hand, is encouraging.  Not many wear headscarves.  I would put the number at no more than 10% in the cities by the coast, those that are most influenced by the Western world, and at less than 25% further inside the country.  Old ladies wear them more often, but young girls do too, and there is nothing fanatic about it.  Mixed groups of hair and scarves are common.  I was more surprised to see all the old men with their heads bundled up.  Mostly, they were covered with a special piece of cloth not entirely unlike a towel, but some wore what looked like regular scarves.  When we and a big crowd were watching Tunisia play Spain in the semis I was certain to have spotted the first lady in a coffee house.  I was wrong, the head wrapped up in happy flowery fabric belonged to yet another old guy, and Regina was, as always, the only girl around.

I see two possible explanations for the absence of females from coffee houses, but first have to say that no one was bothered by my sister's being there.  Both of us were treated to tea by strangers when Tunisia was beating Russia senseless, both of us were invited to coffee by our Tunisian friend that I will introduce shortly.  Maybe there are different rules for tourists, and only local women are excluded from the cafés.  But maybe women simply don't like the smoke from all the shishas, or are not excited about the stares and comments a bunch of females would get (you hardly see mixed guys/girls groups on the streets).

But all this, really, misses the point, which is that Tunisia is synonymous with friendliness, openness, warmth, and curiosity.  One 21-year-old girl struck up a conversation with us when we took the louage back from Mahdia.  She told me about her school where she studies to become an Arabic teacher, showed me her translations, spelled out the entire alphabet for me, and even wrote our names in Arabic.  This was cause for great confusion later in the hotel when we proudly wrote our names and an argument ensued over which was the correctest way.  I guess there is no way around studying this myself.

Another encounter of the third kind happened in Monastir.  We were sitting on a little rock in the ocean when two guys approached us, asked us questions and started talking German to us.  They were both studying at a hotel school to become animators.  They just wanted to practice and would like to invite us to coffee.  Yeah right.  I could hear the alarm bells go off in Regina's head.  Anyway, we went with them, and the coffee turned out to be the best of the vacation.  I must have really shown my excitement because our next stop was at a hole-in-the wall grocery store where we had to buy coffee, black and green tea, and orange flower water.  One of the guys then bought us a little sandwich to eat and we continued walking around chatting.  Regina became increasingly worried.  Where is this going to end?  What do those guys want from us?  At the tail end of three hours in their company, I tried to bail:  Hey guys, sorry, gotta run, gotta catch our train back to Sousse.  They just said:  Oh, OK, bye, have a good trip.  No carpet, no leather jacket, just friendly curiosity.  Regina kept shaking her head for the rest of the afternoon.

Then there was the day in Kairouan.  We arrived at the louage station and were greeted by a friendly guy who started a conversation about nothing in particular.  I was happy to practice my French, but Regina was pulling my jacket.  The wise older brother that I am, I chose to ignore her.  We talked about how important it is for different people to talk to each other, and I was having a blast.  Suddenly, he started talking strange.  The medina was going to be closed for two hours, and wouldn't we like to spend the time with him and have some tea.  Damn, punked again.  We managed to get rid of him quickly, but it reminded me that you never know…

When we stopped a cab to take us to the National Museum of Islamic Art in Raccada, 10 kilometers outside of Kairouan, I asked for the fare.  The guy shook his head and looked at me like I was from the village.  Then he turned his meter on.  He drove us to the middle of nowhere and asked if he should wait.  Hey, of course not, we're here for adventure.  After seeing the exhibition we were walking back on the main road when a van with three guys inside picked us up.  We were immediately part of the conversation.  The guy in the middle started teaching us Arabic, and the one on the right just grinned.  Back in Kairouan we paid them a third of what the taxi had cost and should have probably taken them up on the coffee.  But then we would have missed my favorite little encounter.

Dumped by the van we were strolling along looking determined despite being clueless.  It was our survival strategy to march fast so people wouldn't think we're lost, ask us questions and pull us into their store.  We were lost.  But walking briskly.  These three guys ahead of us had just left the mosque on the left side, and now we were passing them.  One looked exactly like I imagine a holy warrior.  White kaftan, white cap, and the full black beard of an extremist.  Smart and dangerous.  He started talking to me, but I couldn't immediately tell whether it was Arabic or French.  At some point I understood français and said, non, allemand.  Turns out the second guy had worked in Hamburg for the last 17 years.  Now I was talking to two.  The fundamentalist started teaching me prayers and told me about God and Muhammed, all in his weird mix of Arabic and French.  He was grinning all the time.  This guy was hilarious.  Suddenly, the fellow who spoke German asked me where we were headed and was all perplexed when I said medina.  Oops, completely wrong.  He grabbed my shoulders, turned me around, explained the directions, and off we went.  We left behind three simple, friendly, hospitable Tunisians, and once again our approach of giving everyone the benefit of the doubt had rewarded us with an unforgettable situation.

On our last day, we rented a car because we wanted to see the ruins of Dougga, a Roman city that is spectacularly preserved.  Driving in Tunisia deserves an extra paragraph.  It is dangerous and fun (two adjectives that seem to be made for each other).  In the city, Tunisians invariably meander along in one squiggly line, no matter how wide the road, or how many lanes there are.  At the same time, they always drive side by side as well, constantly passing and cutting in, no matter how narrow the road.  This was fun to watch from the eigth-floor balcony of our hotel, but it was even more fun to take part in.  Outside towns, roads are abysmal.  Most are so narrow that two cars barely fit, and an oncoming truck is reason to dive into the ditch.  The surface is patched, uneven, has deep holes, and is covered with sand.  There are no lines.  Turns are often abrupt, reflective markers are almost always missing, and frequent bridges add more bumps and even narrower sections.  Traffic isn't very dense, but the range of speeds is large.  There are donkey-drawn buggies, mopeds and decrepit trucks that move really slowly.  I, on the other hand, always drove fast.

On the way to Dougga, we picked up Ezzedine, a cook who was hitching a ride home.  His French was as good as our Arabic, but he was very keen on communicating.  When we had reached his city, he took us out for coffee and showed us pictures of ruins.  Then he mentioned us to take him someplace else.  We had no idea where but trusted him.  He had time, and we had time.  He led us to Thuburbo Majus, another Roman city that is partly excavated.  For the next hour, Ezzedine was our guide and photographer.  We had no idea what he was saying, while he was having fun with my camera.

Since we wanted to see Dougga, we needed to move.  So we took Ezzedine home.  Right up to his house.  His eighty-year-old dad came out and invited us in.  He entertained us with countless stories of how Rommel turned the desert upside down in Wold War II, and how he lost his patella in the battlefield.  All in Arabic, of course.  The only thing we really understood was that we were very welcome.  We had tasty coffee, a fresh egg, and got a little tour of the house.  The TV was showed off and turned to BBC, and a inspired rant against Bush followed.  All the while, Ezzedine's wive was cooking lunch.  Eventually his brother, a cop, showed up as well, and we were finally able to put some sense to all these words because Hedi spoke decent French.  We could have stayed forever, no one had anything to do.  Unfortunately, our vacation was only one week, this was our last day, and we wanted to see Dougga.  We had to say good-bye.

Dougga was mighty impressive, a Roman city that is still in such a good shape that one can vividly imagine life there.  There is the huge open theater, many temples, roads where you can see the tracks left by carts that went by two thousand years ago, and foundations of hundreds of houses whose design is still very clear.  It seems that the largest part of Dougga is excavated, but this might be deceptive.  A local farmer we talked to and who lived almost on site pointed in every direction saying there's more.  Parts of Dougga still lie underneath a meter of soil on which olive trees grow happily.  Around the trees excavations have started, and the roots now seem to stabilize not only the trees but the Roman walls underneath as well.

But all the spectacular history in Tunisia doesn't compare to the interactions we had with regular people because we decided to look behind the façade that is being put up for foreigners.  In the tourist centers one has to ignore locals and reject contacts.  We started out in a 'less compromised' city in the first place and left the beaten path early and often.  We traveled with open minds and full of educated ignorance, or naïveté by choice.  We took everyone as friends until it became blatantly obvious that they weren't.  That cost us a few extra Dinars here and there, but left us with priceless memories.  What a lovely vacation.  What a lovely country.

March 2005