“Curiosity killed the cat, but satisfaction brought him back.” Proverb
The land of Tunisia, on the North African Coast, sandwiched between the giants of Libya and Algeria has long been on my bucket list of countries to visit. Why? Because of what I’ve read of its history and heard of its culture. I have friends who have spoken glowingly of the weeks and months they’ve spent there. And the fact that of all the countries that experienced the Arab Spring, Tunisia is the only one seeking political change that has at least partially achieved it.
Now that I’ve finally been there (for ten days at the end of October and in early November) and experienced the country personally, I’ve been sorting through my impressions and trying to decide what I really feel about what I’ve seen, heard, tasted, and done. On the plus side, I recall some favorite moments:
spending two hours in the Bardo Museum, eating some delightful meals . . .
shopping in the medina . . .
being in awe of the interior of the Baron d’Erlanger’s mansion, attending a film festival, talking with ordinary Tunisians about their lives . . .
and reflecting on shared experience with my travel companions.
Of my ten days in Tunisia, I was on my own for only four. I had chosen to approach the country as part of a tour sponsored by the Friends of the American Research Institute in Turkey (FARIT), one similar to others I had joined over the years to different destinations in Turkey and elsewhere. On this occasion, I might have had a better result traveling on my own. The downside of any tour is that you are following an itinerary other than your own. This can be a good thing in countries where you can speak no common language or where the infrastructure is weak and what is seen is strange enough to need explanation.
Tours need to be guided, and the quality of the guide or guides is key to their success. I’ve joined FARIT tours exactly because their guides usually excel at giving information and stimulation far beyond what guidebooks provide. Unfortunately, on this tour it was not the case. Our guide had no fluency in English and seemed uninterested or unable to deliver more than ordinary facts and insights. FARIT members are, for the most part, a highly educated and exceedingly well-traveled group, and we want more than basic information. We also need a guide sensitive to the fact that we are mostly an older group that moves slowly in some situations and needs occasional toilet breaks on long drives.
Lest I sound like my disappointment with the tour was all about the guide, I want to make clear another point that has to do with the itinerary. I began this by stating my interest in
Tunisia’s history. For over more than 2,500 hundred years this land has been invaded and settled by nearly every Mediterranean civilization. Stories of the Punic Wars with Hannibal taking his war elephants across the Alps to attack Rome from behind are legendary. Rome’s annihilation of Carthage and its resettlement as the capital of an extended colony is a major chapter in the history of its empire. Then, there is the arrival of Islam when Muslim forces swept eastward across North Africa in the latter days of the 7th century, founding cities, building mosques, and converting populations voluntarily or by force.
The problem is that in Tunis itself, beyond the amazing collection of Roman mosaics in the Bardo, there is very little that reflects this history, except for the presence of Islam and its mosques, of course.
Of Carthage, a trading giant that once controlled the entire western Mediterranean, including the islands of Sicily, Sardinia, and Corsica, there is practically no trace. (Note: There is a Carthage Museum, but it was closed for renovation at the tie of my visit.)
Even though I knew this in advance, it was still disappointing to stand on the brow of Byrsa Hill, once the spiritual center of Carthage, and see nothing except a UNESCO plaque and the excavated foundation of a Carthaginian residence that had been buried by debris. There is scarcely anything more left of ancient Rome. On the seaside below Byrsa Hill the ruins of the Antonine Baths still exist, but that’s about it.
The hinterland is a different story. Our tour took us to the extensive remains of a Roman city on a hillside above the town of Dougga. The weather was fine, and the view over a valley of olive groves and grain fields was splendid. Wealthy Romans had lived there. They had a 3,500 seat theater, a complex of fine baths (Thermes de Caracalla), and a principal temple dedicated to Jupiter, Minerva, and Juno known as the Capitole. There was even a brothel accessed for privacy by a hidden passage. Compared to other Roman towns I have visited elsewhere, Dougga’s ruins are remarkably complete. As good as they are, though, they are essentially no different from the many ruins of Roman towns I’ve seen in Europe, the Balkans, and Asia Minor.
The same is true of the great coliseum in the town of El Jem. It’s one of the biggest, but after having been to the ones in Rome, Verona, Nimes, Arles, and Orange, it held no novelty.
The Tunisian mosques we saw on the tour were another matter. The Muslim city of Kairouan is said to be the fourth holiest place in Islam after Mecca, Medina, and Jerusalem. For my companions and me, coming as we do from Turkey where we are accustomed to the highly decorated imperial mosques of the Ottomans, the Great Mosque of Kairouan with its plain, bare walls and its lone, square minaret seemed spare and ascetic. The Aghlabids, who built the mosque in the 9th century, were an austere bunch, and their mosque reflects their character.
I found another aspect interesting, as well. The pavement of its courtyard slopes downward to the intricately formed cover of a water catchment basin underneath. The shapes of the cover are designed to filter sand from the scarce rain that falls. Since the time of the Carthaginians until now water conservation has been a survival issue in many parts of the country.
The subject of rain brings me to the reality of the second part of my trip. Although the weather was fine during my days with the group, it changed in the days after. I regret the choice I made to take an internal Tunisair flight south to the island of Jerba on the eastern coast. I believe I was oversold by my guidebook’s rapturous description. Legend has it that Jerba was Homer’s “island of the Lotus Eaters” where, once they had eaten of the plant, Ulysses and his men had no desire to leave and even forgot their way home.
I saw no lotus flowers. During my two days there I didn’t even see the sun, and the night was filled with lightning and thunder. By morning, some of the roads without storm drains were flooded.
I did have one fortuitous encounter, though; it was the kind one has when traveling solo. After lunch on my first afternoon, I set out on foot to find El-Ghriba Synagogue. It was not far from my hotel in the village of Erriadh whose name seems to be a corruption of Hara Seghira or Little Ghetto. I didn’t know what the synagogue looked like and I walked past it. When the road ended in a T, I asked a passerby where the synagogue was, and he pointed back the way I had come. As I turned around, a young woman in a white car motioned for me to get in. This is how I met Sahar, a gynecologist from Tunis who was also looking for the synagogue.
We drove back, parked, made a donation, and spent the next fifteen minutes looking around an interior filled with painted blue columns supporting arches. Although the current building dates only from the early 20th century, there have been Jews there since before the birth of Christ.
Sahar and I chatted easily in French. Leaving the synagogue, we drove into the main town of Houmt Souq where she wanted to taste the brick from a certain shop she claimed is famous for it. It would be my first taste of this Tunisian snack. We found the shop in a dingy, poor quarter. As we waited for the deep-frying oil to reach the right temperature, we were accosted by two policemen, one in uniform, the other in plain clothes. They announced that photography in that quarter was forbidden and wanted to assure themselves that we hadn’t taken any shots. Later, Sahar explained that it was a Jewish quarter and that the prohibition against photos was a security measure. The Jewish community is a target of anti-Semitic radicals.
I watched the cook prepare our brick: He took a piece of soft pastry the size and shape of a tortilla, spread it with a thin layer of pureed potato mixed with a bit of harissa, added a raw egg, sprinkled it with salt and parsley, folded it over, and added it to the hot oil. It was ready in five minutes. He removed the fried brick, drained it for a minute and handed it to us in a piece of paper. Although the white of the egg was set, the yolk was still runny. It was tasty and made me think of an empanada.
The following day, due to return to Tunis on a night flight, I came down with a touch of stomach virus. My 45-minute plane was to leave at 9; we delayed for four hours. I finished the book I was reading and sat grimly in the soulless airport waiting room thinking about how wrong things can go.
Tunisia was a French colony for more than 100 years until 1956. Unlike the bitter and brutal war that ended the French presence in nearby Algeria, they departed Tunisia peacefully enough. Besides some cooking methods and a pretty well developed wine culture, the French legacy is language.
The Tunisian’s mother tongue is Arabic, but French is taught in school, and most people speak it to a greater or lesser extent. Not only did my fluency in French help me navigate my way around, it allowed me to feel secure and be able to chat with people. Although many of them are quite poor by western standards, I find the Tunisians to be warm, friendly, and helpful. They certainly were so to me.
I came to Tunisia with a great curiosity, and that, at least has been satisfied. I find it to be a safe country despite the occasional terrorist incident like the suicide bomber that blew herself up near the French Embassy during my visit. I hope to return one day, either solo or with a friend, maybe even with Kay.