The Romans called Tunisia their breadbasket. Curtained by the proud shoulders of the Atlas Mountains, the fertile valleys and hillsides of the north are luxuriant with citrus orchards, fig and pomegranate trees, vineyards producing grapes for red, white and rosé, wheat, barley, sugar beets, and almonds that taste like real almonds.
But most of the country is desert, of three distinct types: a salt desert so flat it looks as if it had been planed by a giant trowel, rose beige sand providing a thin cover for the blinding white of the salt. Along the lonely highway, a perfectly even ribbon of shallow water glistens. Once this was the bed of an ancient lake.
The second is the Sahara sand desert: vast undulating dunes, sometimes naked and sometimes dotted with sparse but tenacious gray green brush. Its dunes move relentlessly: dramatic hulks of fine sand able to spring into action at wind’s whim. And windstorms come often. Camels roam, heading for the water they can smell, desert foxes and other mammals run wild, and small rodents and insects leave their crisscross tracks.
Near natural springs, great date palm oases shade the horizon. These are holdings of gold. The trees, with their green frond fans, bring millennial riches. More orderly plantations, called palmeraies, are planted in straight rows. In whichever configuration, each tree—although wind-pollinated in the wilderness—is now more advantageously pollinated by hand, and expert farmers shimmy up the rough trunk to carry out this task. A single male tree can fertilize one hundred fruit-bearing females. The seed clusters are gathered together on the branch until the tiny green pebbles begin to grow into Deglet Noor, Medjool, and a dozen other variations. Then the fertilized bundles burst and the fruit matures.
The third is the rock desert: gaping wide-open mountains and valleys where wild canyons hide isolated stone or adobe villages. Periodic floods have rendered these villages uninhabitable, devastating abandoned troglodyte berms that have become an extension of the rock itself, blending into its jagged folds. The mouths of their windows and doors cast small dark shadows across such resistant land. Nearby, more modern yet simple homes are painted a blinding white. There is always a mosque, and a school, carefully tended. A few worn rugs hang over low walls and a coffee can of rhododendron or oleander registers a culture’s yearning for color.
This small cone-shaped country of eleven million inhabitants, wedged between much larger Algeria to the west and Libya to the east, also has a long Mediterranean coast. What it offers to the world is agriculture, phosphate, textiles, steel, and some manufacturing. A rich mix of ancient cultures and unique contemporary philosophy imbue it with a particular, sometimes contradictory and often surprising philosophy: the spirit that embraced Muslims and Jews living in harmony when expelled from Spain in the fifteenth century and in January 2011 produced the first revolution of the twenty-first.
The tone was set by Habib Bourguiba, Tunisia’s first postcolonial president. At mid twentieth century, when the north African countries began defying colonialist Europe, military men such as Egypt’s Nassar, Libya’s Gadaffi, and Algeria’s Ben Bella shaped their nations’ independence. While these larger North African countries vied for power and influence, Bourguiba understood that his small one would always be militarily weak, and he cultivated other priorities. Education was primary, and during the early years of his mandate 63% of the GNP went to building schools and to staffing them with the best teachers foreign study could buy. In an era of neighboring generals, Bourguiba, a lawyer, paid more attention to social welfare. He made poligamy illegal, raised the marriage age for women, outlawed the burqa and chador, established full legal and labor equality, and indeed asked that the title “emancipator of women” be inscribed upon his tomb.
Today Tunisian women and men earn equal salaries, 46% of the country’s doctors and 58% of its teachers and professors are women, maternity leave is impressive (full salary for the first six months, 75% for the next three, and none for the final three but with job security when returning to work), and abortion is legal during the first trimester. The Tunisian army builds roads, helps harvest crops, and is involved in other communal projects. A year of military service is obligatory for men but optional for women.
Bourguiba is the beloved Father of the nation. He opened the political system to opposition parties. He modernized the country, emphasizing free education and health care for all. And he diverged from most of the other Arab countries by supporting a negotiated settlement between Israel and Palestine. But he also made the mistake so many fathers of nations do. He conceived of himself as president for life. When senility overtook him in the mid 1980s, Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali staged a bloodless coup. At first he continued his predecessor’s democratic reforms and investment in economic growth. But he became increasingly autocratic and corrupt. Opposition efforts were crushed. The president and his family bled a poor country dry.
Phosphate miners organized and tried to rebel in 2008, only to be put down brutally. The press and other media were rigorously controlled. It is against this backdrop that, toward the end of 2010, Tunisians lit the spark that would soon enflame Egypt, Libya, Syria, Bahrain and other countries of the region.
The western press—and at first many within Tunisia as well—spoke about an incident between a street vendor and a policewoman who confiscated his scales because he lacked the proper license. In protest it was said that the vendor immolated himself and this, it was reported, set the country ablaze. An international news media, always avid for catchy sound bytes, called it the Jasmine Revolution.
Tunisians prefer to call it the Dignity Revolution. They say its seeds were planted by those phosphate miners several years earlier. When initial public rage around the incident leading to the street vendor’s suicide gained momentum, it was briefly seen as a generating force. Young people—adept at cellphone, Facebook, and Twitter communication—took over. Demonstrations were large and well-organized. There was very little loss of life, and on January 14, 2011, Ben Ali fled to Saudi Arabia.
But when people learned the real story behind the incident between the vendor and policewoman, they stopped referring to it as the incident that sparked their revolution. It seems when the woman took the vendor’s scales he made a remark about using her breasts to weigh his goods. Incensed, she slapped him. He doused himself with gasoline, having instructed a few friends to come to his rescue before he could be seriously injured. Somehow, they weren’t quick enough. Most Tunisians today see the famous vendor as a fool, and one who was disrespectful to women.
On the short flight from Djerba to Tunis, I flipped through the pages of Tunisair’s inflight magazine. The issue’s introductory note caught my attention. I read it and begin to cry. The internal tension created by trying to get a reading on how to juggle widespread revolutionary fervor with the hard cold facts of what has so far been accomplished gave way to a simple delight in the victory won. Despite the less than perfect English translation, the sentiment comes through loud and clear:
The historical wind which blew on Tunisia has well revolutionized the spirits. The people are living a new age marked by a vision liberated from all forms of restrictions. Have we ever seen jasmine flowers open in spring? That was the case in our country with elegance and without too much violence. The jasmine revolution was started by young people, ravaged by distress, against an autocratic power; their claim was not only bread: “but bread in dignity” they were shouting very high. Their cries were relayed notably by other youths politically conscious, hungry for freedom and democracy, and hooked to the global means and methods of communication (Internet, Facebook and Twitter). As a result a new world bravery was born out of the new and unprecedented relations established on the political, economic or social levels, between citizens sharing fraternal ties and happily recovering their most cherished value: freedom.
The dark page is definitely turned over, the people awoke, conscious of the damage inherent to any overthrown regime, ready to start the programs of economic revival with loads of work ahead. But it is not to disturb its certainty because the climate is encouraging and youth is carrying its destiny over its shoulder. This upheaval is from now on engraved in the national and even in the international memory. The tourist, the visitor and the Tunisian people have got many things to share among which freedom of speech with its positive effects of the direct contact without the fear of being bothered or disturbed: the wall of silence, which often separated the visitor from the Tunisian people, was broken.
Conscious of meeting the challenges and putting up with the difficulties, ready and proud to fly even higher, our company endorses its name Tunisair Express and faces the challenges, with optimism and solid confidence. A door opens on luminous horizons, let’s share them.
These words, offered by an airline hoping to rekindle tourism in a country people are afraid to visit, exude so much more than awkward translation. They speak of the relief and joy people feel when they can suddenly voice long-stifled opinions. Fear is gone, and everything remains to be done.
My partner Barbara and I traveled to Tunisia in May 2011 with twelve other U.S. Americans. We were fortunate to have a wonderful guide, a forty-year-old art historian, husband and father of two named Mohamed.
Now, four and a half months after the dictator left, with ongoing demonstrations, some curfews enforced in areas where they have been particularly intense, and occasional acts of police brutality reported, there were few tourists in the country; certainly almost no one from the United States. During our stay we saw a half dozen groups of French and German visitors.
A hotel where we spent several nights near the Libyan border also housed refugee workers in their tan vests with UN stamped on the back in pale blue. Norwegian relief workers from some sort of Christian aid organization were in the dining room at breakfast. Tunisians themselves, poor as they are, were collecting truckloads of food and medicines. One day we saw 15,000 tons heading east.
Bearded and turbaned white-robed men from the United Arab Emirates roamed the lobby of that hotel, often accompanied by medical personnel in blue surgical scrubs. We learned the former are financing the camps (there were 330,000 Libyan refugees in the country the day we arrived; two weeks later that number had risen to 440,000).
An interesting aside regarding the United Arab Emirates’ use of their exuberant oil economy to support the refugee camps: even as it does so, it has invited the U.S. paramilitary company, Blackwater, to establish a mercenary army within its borders. This army seems to be filling with Colombian recruits, and the usual suspects—retired British, French and U.S. officers—are its advisors. Clearly, the UAE wants to be prepared for any threat to its own system of autocracy. When I voiced surprise at this seeming contradiction, Mohamed said he didn’t find it at all contradictory. “One policy has to do with human rights,” he explained, “the other is an attempt at preserving a political system.”
At Tunisia’s great archeological sites—Carthage, Dougga, Kerkoune, Sbeitla—we roamed alone, often for hours, without running into another foreigner. Roman influence dominated, although we also saw the contributions made by Phoenicians, Greeks, Vandals, Byzantines and Sicilians. We were grateful for the rare opportunity to experience these places without crowds even as we felt for the country’s loss of needed revenue.
Dougga was my favorite, situated as it is among green fields, with olive groves and a profusion of wildflowers. The vast site includes a well-preserved theater, baths, communal latrines, a large forum, housing blocks, and a gorgeous temple to Jupiter, Juno and Minerva (the Roman trinity). On the esplanade near this temple I could just make out the immense sundial-like circle called Wind Roses. Twelve directions of wind are still faintly engraved upon its face.
Tunisia is a Muslim country. Ninety-nine percent of the population identifies with Islam, and an hour a week of religion is included in the public school curriculum (non-Muslims may opt out of the class). But in some ways separation of church and state seems more respected here than it is these days in the United States. For example Sharia law is not observed. Alcohol is sold (Libyans drive across the border to buy it), and many Tunisians drink and smoke. At the resorts, discos are hopping all night long. Although, if asked, the vast majority will say they believe in the Koran, people seem pragmatic and practical. They live their faith in diverse ways.
As in all Muslim countries, the call to prayer rings out across cities and towns—beginning an hour before sunrise. One of the five pillars of Muslim religious practice is to pray five times a day. But only on a couple of occasions did I see someone stop what he was doing to fulfill this obligation. The attitude toward another pillar, making the Haj or traveling to Mecca at least once during one’s lifetime, also seemed to be regarded quite casually. When I asked Mohamed if he intended to make the trip, he said “Well . . . maybe . . . but there’s always something one has to spend one’s money on: buying a house, a car, maybe something for the children.”
In the holy city of Kairouan we visited a mosque, where Mohamed had arranged for us to meet with a retired imam. The man would answer any questions we had about Islam. Muslims know there are many misconceptions about them in the West, and this would be a chance to hear the truth from an official source, so to speak. The imam greeted us and said we should go around the circle and not be shy. For every answer he consulted a copy of the Koran, which he had in a bilingual edition so that Mohamed could read us the translation. By the time it was my turn, I realized our questions were political and the Koranic answers were religious—something of a disconnect—so I passed.
Then it was Barbara’s turn. She asked if the imam would mind if she stood, and then addressed him very respectfully. I noticed several in our group gasped audibly; it was clear they thought she was going to ask about homosexuality. But this wasn’t what she had in mind. She stated, very simply, that she is an atheist and also a moral person who wants to do good in the world. Her question was: What does the Koran have to say about someone like me? Our travel companions breathed a sigh of relief. The imam searched for the appropriate verse and had Mohamed read it. Nonbelievers cannot go to heaven, the Koran says, but Allah himself may decide if such a person may escape hell. Barbara thanked him and sat down.
It was obvious that the imam was intrigued by Barbara’s question, and several minutes later he had more to say on the subject. And then, as we were leaving he called her back for a few final words, looking with kindness into her eyes. He told her she is on a journey, to take her time and persevere.
In the busy medinas and souks, where shops sometimes offered beautiful handmade native crafts and sometimes hawked Chinese fakeries, vendors were clearly eager to sell but never insistent. Their dignity overcame their desperation for a sale. Walking through Tozeur’s medina, Mohamed said both his parents had grown up there. He told us the stories he heard from them, of a time when the narrow streets were spotless and covered with rugs where children played, women cooked food for an entire neighborhood, and communal life was slower than today. He told us about his grandmother, who was forced into an arranged marriage at the age of eleven—only realizing she was married when, at sixteen, she had to go to live in her husband’s home.
One of the two double doors leading to each walled home still stands slightly ajar, an invitation to passersby to enter the shelter of a vestibule always present between the street and the house’s inner doors. In that vestibule one has access to cool water, sometimes even food. Visitors may also spend the night. Customs that speak of a different time, and a culture born of desert’s harshness but still practiced today.
Crafts of different sorts are in evidence throughout the country: fabric, ceramics, leather, silver and gold jewelry, and the ever-present mosaic—with its rich presence in the ancient ruins to modern workshops that produce so much of what decorates many Tunisian homes and public buildings. The Bardo Museum in Tunis is breathtaking, both in its building (a stunning renovation of the 19th century harem of the Beys of Tunis) and its contents. There, in the most beautiful natural lighting I have yet to encounter in a museum, walls, floors, and even ceilings are covered in mosaics large and small, many dating back to centuries before our era.
Each tiny cut of marble, with its unique color, came from a different part of a world long gone; the yellow was local, the pink and green were found in what is now Italy, the black white and red were from Greece and elsewhere in the Mediterranean and North Africa. Considering how long it took, centuries ago, for shiploads of these different stones to arrive at an artist’s shop, the artistry and craft are nothing short of astonishing. Those visionaries had to conceive of their images with the complexity of sources and ancient trade routes in mind. The smaller the individual chip of stone, the finer the overall mosaic.
The art of mosaic continues today, and we visited a small workshop where a dozen young women were engaged in the craft—in this case following prescribed patterns used in tabletops, trivets, wall pieces and other commercial variations. Despite not sharing a language, some of the young women and I joked around. I took pictures and they wanted to see them on the camera’s monitor and to select which they felt I should keep and which erase.
At one point Barbara had quite a conversation with two of these women. They asked to see her earrings—also made of mosaic turquoise—and she took them out to show. They examined and then insisted on replacing them themselves, at the same time placing a red carnation behind her ear. When one of them noticed her ring and asked if she was married, Barbara said yes. The woman then asked to whom. Barbara pointed to me. All the young women seemed deeply shocked. One quickly hid her face behind her scarf. Others turned away. I’m not sure if Barbara gave them something useful to think about, or ruined their day. We have been holding hands on this trip, and generally acting as we do at home, although being careful not to deliberately offend a cultural sensibility very different from ours.
It wasn’t until I’d been in Tunisia for a week that I realized there are no McDonald’s in the country, the ubiquitous golden arches nowhere to be seen. Coca Cola is sold, though. Tunisia has its own fast foods, most of them liberally saturated with harissa, which is a spicy paste present at every meal. Harissa is made from red chile, garlic, salt, olive oil, coriander, caraway seeds and cumin.
There’s no Tunisian Disneyland, either, although in the seaside resort of Hammamet we saw a Carthageland, complete with Hannibal mounted on his elephant.
The country does, however, have a strange little personage, seen prominently in almost every town and village through which we passed. It stands upright and is modeled after a caricature of a desert fox, although its ears are longer, it wears a baby blue suit and has something resembling a school bag slung over its shoulder. The chest of its suit has a badge with carrots and other vegetables. Sometimes a second smaller fox, the main figure’s sidekick, stands beside him. Mohamed told us these odd statues symbolize Tunisia’s new environmentalism.
Tozeur is a city of yellow brick. Forty percent of every new building must be faced with these bricks: a way of keeping people working. Here we visited one of the hundred or so men who labor to make this building material, digging local clay, mixing it with water and sand, removing small stones by hand, forming the bricks in wooden forms as people have for two thousand years, covering them in ash, drying them in the sun—ever hopeful a hard rain won’t ruin weeks of production—and baking them in crude ovens.
The young man showed us each step of his laborious process. He fires up his kiln with dry palm fronds, also from the area, and the only way he can be sure it has reached the necessary temperature of 900 Celsius is if it is packed with exactly 10,000 bricks; there is no thermostat. The palm fronds are balanced on an interior floor with holes that allow the heat to circulate. A few bricks will come out red, but most will emerge dull yellow like the desert surrounding the town. This is backbreaking work. In the 120- to 130-degree summers this man may labor twelve to eighteen hours a day. The cold winters, when it rains, can devastate production.
Entering the town of Kairouan, the country’s rug-weaving capital, we passed a monument four stories high depicting intricate rugs rendered in mosaics. Entering other towns, equally large monuments advertised their specialties: one giant bowl of bright oranges, another huge ceramic pot.
Rug-weaving is a Berber specialty, an age-old tradition. In contrast with Egypt, there is no child labor here. Adult women do most of the weaving in their homes, and each family has its traditional designs. Centers seem to use the old U.S. American Southwest’s trading post system, whereby looms and yarns are provided and the rugs purchased outright. Examples range from the crudest weaves, with 10,000 to 40,000 threads to the square meter, to the finest silk with a million threads in the same amount of space.
In Kairouan we had lunch at the home of a local family. The mother and father have two grown sons and a daughter. An 84-year-old grandmother also lives with them. Our language barrier kept us mostly silent during the hearty meal. Then, over mint tea, we relaxed and, with the help of Mohamed, began to ask a few questions of each another. Their first question was how we had the courage to come, when so few from the United States are doing so. We wanted to know what each of them does, and learned that the father worked in copper until the price of his raw materials became too high. He brought out a few beautiful hand-hammered pots and platters for us to see. Now he and his sons run a coffee shop at the street level in this building where they live. The daughter is still studying. The mother stayed home. Our attention turned to the old woman. She was feeling ill and one of her grandson’s lovingly stood behind her chair and massaged her shoulders.
Someone in our group asked what they think about what is going on in Libya. They got excited as they expressed their disdain for Gadaffi, their sorrow that there has been so much bloodshed, and their hope for a rebel victory. “Gadaffi is a fool,” one son said, and took out his cell phone on which he had recorded a new rap song mocking the dictator. Then the other son turned to the grandmother, obviously urging her to show us something. Amid laughter she retired to a bedroom and soon reappeared dressed as Gadaffi—the turban, dark glasses, and a white towel her props. She waved the towel in true dictator style as she repeated an Arabic phrase we couldn’t understand.
We learned she was playing with words from a recent Gadaffi speech, the one in which he vowed to go “street by street, door by door” until every so-called agitator was routed out. Despite not feeling well, she was obviously enjoying herself tremendously. Mohamed told us that before the Libyan uprising her favorite impersonation was of Michael Jackson.
At the beginning of this trip, flying from Paris to Tunis I noticed there would be an hour’s time difference. But wait. It would be an hour earlier in Tunisia, despite that country being one time zone east of France. Shouldn’t it be an hour later? I asked the flight attendant, who explained that France observes daylight savings while Tunisia does not. I sat and thought about that for a while. Wouldn’t this then make it two hours earlier? Or the same time? I went around and around with this but couldn’t make it work. I went to Air France’s inflight magazine and searched for the world map. As I suspected, it included the time zones. Tunisia: to the east of France. No way I could make it come out right.
Time itself, the essence of time, seemed to accompany me throughout this trip like a great rubber band, stretching and contracting. With so many out of work, the cafes were filled with men of all ages, sipping tea or drinking beer, gesticulating in a language I don’t know (Arabic or French, sometimes in symbiotic combination), playing cards, occasionally smoking from a hookah or water pipe. Women, as everywhere, walked arm in arm, whispered to one another, carried bundles, shopped, took children to and from school. But their pace seemed slower than in other places I have been. The heat of summer was still a couple of months off. We were told it routinely reaches 120 to 130 Fahrenheit in August and September.
But the time issue seemed to embrace centuries. The ruins of Carthage, for example, blend almost seamlessly with the present-day busyness of a modern capital. Around the Gulf of Tunis, 3,000 years of civilization—Phoenicians, Romans, Vandals, Muslims—lack the continuity of documented history due to the fact that the Romans, after destroying and before rebuilding the city, did away with important sources. The story of Queen Dido told in Virgil’s Aeneid may be more about attitude than accuracy. Kerkoune, a 2,300 year old Phoenician ruin with the Mediterranean lapping its low stone walls, is unique in that every house had its own private bath: a time warp if ever there was one.
Most of the hotels where we stayed, if they had WiFi at all, had it only in their lobbies. One morning, very early, I sat in the reception area of one, using my laptop. The night watchman rose from a couch where he had spent the night, stretched and gave me a shy smile. Then he came over to where I was working. “Are you writing to the United States?” he wanted to know. When I told him I was, he asked what time it was there. I explained that mine is a large country, with several different time zones. The concept didn’t seem to register. “But what time is it where you’re writing?” he asked again. “Eleven-thirty last night,” I replied, before realizing how absurd that sounded. “I mean it’s still yesterday where I live.”
The man was incredulous. Clearly he could not conceptualize it being yesterday somewhere in the world when here it was already today. The people of Tunisia, who through largely peaceful protest have just changed the course of their history, must play a new game with time. How long is too long to wait for change? How will memory deal with past abuses?
Time also has a different history in the small village of Testour, in a lovely valley above the Mejerda River. There, the square minaret of the oldest mosque bears the imprint of a clock whose numbers run backwards. As with any modern timepiece, the twelve is at the top. But the one is to its left rather than to its right, and the rest of the numbers continue counterclockwise around the face.
This minaret, which also displays eight Stars of David, dates to 1609, when Muslims and Jews—expelled from Spain together—settled here. They longed for their Andalusian homeland, and this backward moving clock symbolized that longing. Unfortunately, the clock’s hands are missing, so I had to imagine a movement of time, which may or may not have been mechanically possible.
We saw the Star of David often, on ornate doors, in the beautiful tile work on so many mosques and other buildings, even on signage. Tunisians seemed proud and at ease with the Jewish presence in their country. Early in our visit we had lunch at Mamie Lily, a small family-run establishment in Tunis that we learned is the only remaining kosher restaurant in the country, possibly in the entire Muslim world. Two women prepared a meal of barley soup, salad and lamb. Then Mamie’s son Jacob, the place’s gregarious owner, gave a short talk about the history of Jews in Tunisia—from their sixteenth century arrival, through most of them leaving for France after post colonialism gave them (and all Tunisians) French citizenship, to today’s paltry population of around 1,500 who live in productive harmony with the overwhelming Muslim majority. Jacob had an incisive sense of humor.
Later, on the island of Djerba, we visited a very different sort of Jewish site. Djerba is often referred to as the island of diversity. Among its 90,000 inhabitants, Christians and Jews mix with Muslims. Even once-defined ghettos have disappeared, and they no longer speak of a Christian quarter or Jewish neighborhood. At Djerba we visited La Ghriba Synagogue, in continual use since 586 BC. The small, richly tiled place of worship is said to contain in its foundation stones from the Temple of Solomon.
In 2002 Tunisia suffered its own Al Qaeda attack, when a suicide bomb detonated near a bus of German tourists at this site, killing seventeen plus their local guide and driver. Today security is rigorous. Next to the synagogue a large hotel welcomes Jews from around the world. Although they may stay at any hotel on the island, this is where they can meet friends and family members, and where a kosher kitchen caters to their needs. In the synagogue itself several elderly men were reading the Torah, seemingly oblivious of our presence.
In other Muslim countries, such as Egypt, Jordan and Turkey, I remember being shown a synagogue, often in disrepair, as evidence of “different religions living together in peace.” Most often these were more museum or monument than place of worship. In Tunisia, and despite the very reduced number of Jews still living in the country, I had a sense of mutual respect and fellowship.
The Berber village of Chenini is a short drive from Tataouine, originally a prison site—thus the French phrase “Go to Tataouine!” meaning “Go to hell!”—and then a center for nomadic tribes. Now Tataouine is a city, not far from the Libyan border. Along the highway: small stands sell smuggled Libyan gasoline, much cheaper than that found in Tunisia. Headed inland we saw many elegant cars belonging to the wealthier Libyans who are not confined to the refugee camps.
The landscape in this region is dotted with hundreds of villages like Chenini, but none more beautiful. Their old uninhabited dwellings, unseen at distance, are carved into mountainsides the same color as their eroding stone. But Chenini is unique. Partially, perhaps, because it is so large. The old city soars up a mountainside and beyond, creating a skyline reminiscent of some of the Hopi villages but a hundred times larger and more ornate. Few people still live up there since a flood in 1969 washed important pieces away.
Below is the new Chenini: freshly whitewashed homes with their proverbial blue doors and window frames. About halfway up and already in the older section, is a white mosque. The bright blue sky was studded with high cirrus clouds; we call them mare’s tales. The entire tableaux was a sight to behold.
We hiked up a steep and winding stone pathway as far as the mosque. At one point Mohamed told us the story of The Seven Sleepers, a sort of religious Rumplestiltskin. “This is in the Koran,” he said, “but . . . well . . . I will tell it as a legend” (his first admission that he regards at least some of Islam’s holy scripture as stories rather than the word of God.) The tale is about seven Christian men who went to sleep in a cave, only to wake up centuries later as Muslims. This is supposed to have happened in this village.
On our way down, Mohamed asked if we would like to visit a friend of his, a woman in her eighties named Miriam. She lives alone in her small house in Chenini’s ancient heights, although a granddaughter comes to stay with her every night. Miriam showed us through her tiny cave-like rooms: one for sleeping, one for weaving, another for cooking. When some of us, conscious of her extreme poverty, offered her half a dinar (roughly thirty five cents), she seemed grateful. One in our group gave her a silver dollar, apparently believing he was bestowing a special gift. Quietly Miriam asked Mohamed if she would be able to exchange the strange coin “for something useful.”
Throughout this vast rock desert, situated for visibility and protection atop mountain ridges, are the 17th century ksars or storage warehouses where nomadic tribes kept foodstuffs and other necessities. The women and children remained wherever the community was camped, while the men divided themselves into groups and rotated, one staying behind to defend the ksar while others traveled in every direction in search of grains, beans, olives and olive oil, dates; even tiny sardines from the coast which were dried to last through the harsh winters.
These ksars are huge complexes, often four or five stories high, made up of small rooms with low doors, no windows, and a web of winding staircases leading to the upper levels. From the very top of each stack of rooms protruded a sturdy stick, much in the manner of Amsterdam’s narrow many-storied houses: to help in hauling goods to the top.
My favorite of the several ksars we visited was Ouled Sultane. It is an architectural wonder. I could have spent hours just photographing its elegant angles. Barbara could have spent hours sketching it. Two other ksars were used by George Lukas as destinations in his Star War films, a fact of which Tunisians are proud—although few of them seem to have seen the blockbusters.
From the rugged Atlas mountains in the north, across great deserts that left me gasping at the power of landscape, through cities and villages where we saw vestiges of cultures that have shaped one another for centuries, at archeological ruins where we were the only visitors, on the still embattled streets of Tunis, in cottage industries, mosques and a synagogue, I received a taste of what Tunisia is today.
Only four months prior to my visit, the country made a dramatic change, one that must be defined and sharpened for it to truly make a difference in people’s lives. Enthusiasm for the revolution is palpable, from big cities to the smallest village. Broken shop windows, graffiti on many walls, and continuing demonstrations all attest to an ongoing process. In many places the number seven had been ripped from a façade or monument. This was Ben Ali’s favorite number—he assumed the presidency on November 7, 1987—and it became a symbol of his regime. Now it symbolizes corruption. I noticed that paper bills in Tunisia also bear a very large seven in the upper right hand corner. “Will you also be printing new money?” I asked Mohammed. “No,” he laughed, “we are not rich enough for that.”
In this North African country time and memory converge in ways that run from the surreal to the deeply pragmatic. If I return in a year or two, I believe I will find progress—whatever that may mean. And I will find, again, a country of rich history and culture, warm hospitality, and enduring dignity.
—Margaret Randall, May, 2011.