Sunday, 28 October 2012

Come with me to the Kasbah

Tunis by night

Well, I’m back!

I came, I saw, I was captivated.  There really is so much to captivate one in Tunisia, a marvellous place with some marvellous sights and even more marvellous people.  It’s certainly true that the country has not quite recovered from the Jasmine Revolution which saw the overthrow last year of the Ben Ali dictatorship, but overall I thought the place more relaxed and less tense than Egypt

There was no evidence at all of the recent fuss over The Innocence of Muslims, apart from the fact that in the whole time I was there I came across not a single American, something quite unique in my experience. 

I did go to Carthage, virtually the first place we made for soon after settling in to Tunis.  I wasn’t completely disappointed, having been forewarned by others that it was all a bit of an anti-climax.  The sites are scattered and there is really not that much to see anymore of a city consumed by a city consumed by a city.  The best part, in the sense of being most complete, was the remains of baths dating to the reign of Antoninus Pius. 

But the most compelling part, for me anyway, was on Byrsa Hill, the heart of Punic Carthage.  Here it was possible to see the fragments left after the systematic destruction of 146BC, an act of vindictive savagery on the part of Rome.  I thought of Hannibal as I saw the scorch marks on walls from all those centuries ago.  Traces in time; I suppose in the end that’s what it all comes down to. 



Carthage is poignant enough but there are far better survivals from the past.  Later we visited the wonderful amphitheatre at El Jem, just as impressive as the Coliseum in Rome.  It’s a testament in stone to the vanished wealth, prestige and power of the Roman province of Africa



Equally impressive – much more so than Carthage – are the remains at Sbeitla, a town to the south-west of the city of Kairouan.  This was the ancient settlement of Sufetula, were history is layered upon history, from pagan Rome to Christian Byzantium.  The forum is a joy to behold, with temples side by side to Juno, Jupiter and Minerva, the trinity of the ancient world. 



As usual I’m rushing ahead, carried away by my enthusiasm, mindful that I cannot possibly include all I saw and did in a manageable blog.  It wasn’t all the past, believe me: there were plenty of excursions into the present for swimming and shopping and generally lazing about.  The seaside town of Hammamet on the Cape Bon Peninsula has a gorgeous beach.  Here we lunched on olives, cheese, dates and figs, all washed down with some delightful Tunisian rosé wine.  Rosé is not normally my wine of choice but it’s highly favoured among the locals, so we were assured by Kemel, our ever dependable guide.  Well, when in Tunisia do as the Tunisians do! 



Oh, I almost forgot to mention my encounter in the city of Sousse.  Here most of the people in my party went off to visit the souk in the heart of the old Medina.  Not in the mood for endless bargaining, I wandered off to have a look at the Kasbah, the early medieval fortress, from the outside.  It was really a measure of how safe I felt.  The men, although solicitous, were not quite as bothersome as those in Egypt.  However, as I was standing and staring, one came up and asked if I would like a tour of the Kasbah.  “Come with me to ze Kasbah” – now my life is complete! 



That same day Kemel took us not to the Kasbah but to the city of Monastir, the birthplace of Habib Bourguiba, the first president and founding father of modern Tunisia.  His memory continues to be revered; Kemel certainly revered a man he described as the George Washington or Mahatma Gandhi of Tunisia

It’s certainly true, up to a point, though I did not think it politic to challenge our guide’s enthusiasm or question Bourguiba’s more dubious legacy.  The simple fact is that he was a decent and modernising leader who created a bad system.  Presidents for life are just not a very good idea; for the Bourguibas of this Arab world have a tendency to turn into Ben Alis. 

Incidentally, the golden statue of the founding father as a schoolboy, located right in the centre of Monastir, is positively the tackiest memorial I think I have ever seen, all the more distasteful in that the school he attended was demolished to make way for its presence. 

Where to now?  Oh, yes, come with me to the oasis of Tozeur, from there to the great salt lake at Chott el Jerid, with mirages dancing on the horizon, and ever onwards to the Atlas mountains and the sweeping sand dunes of the Sahara.  We did it all, on journeys that took us within an inch of the Algerian border, well, several hundred meters anyway, as close to this dangerous outpost as I ever want to get. 



On the way south we also passed through the city of Kairouan, the first capital of Islamic Tunisia and the location of the historic Great Mosque.  The city, so I was told, is the third holiest place in the Islamic world, after Mecca and Medina



One of my more memorable excursions in the south was on the Red Lizard Train from Metlaoui and Redeyef, a journey over a section the Atlas Mountains through some breathtaking gorges.



But this trip was memorable for another reason altogether. In the ticket office I happened to see two men lying prostrate on thin mats, as if waiting in terminal boredom for the next train.  I really only glanced at them from the side of my eye, paying them no mind.  I only found out later from our guide that they were on hunger strike.

This was the beginning of the second week in October.  They had started their particular protest at the end of September, sustaining themselves with a mixture of water and sugar.  What was the reason for their action?  Simply that their fathers had worked for the railway company and this somehow bestowed on them a similar right.  They wanted jobs where no jobs exist.  Apparently their action was reported with some sympathy in the press, though it’s really no more than a kind of moral blackmail.  I can imagine how popular hunger strikes would become if somehow jobs were found. 

I have no wish to sound unsympathetic.  Unemployment is personal tragedy and a moral evil, all the more tragic in Tunisia where there is no system of public welfare.  But I see this as a kind of metaphor, a living example of the country’s dilemma, the reason why the Arab Revolution was always foredoomed to failure, at least in its wilder expectations.  Hopes, sad to say, have a tendency to fall faster than rain. 

I’m straying too far into politics in what I intended chiefly as a travel report.  So back to travel it is, back to one of the highlights of my whole safari – surfing on the dunes of the desert!  The whole thing was such fun, a convoy of 4x4s, driving sometimes at crazy angles or up and down the biggest sand hills I have ever seen. 



Have you ever seen Ice Cold in Alex, the old war film starring John Mills?  If so you may remember the scene where in the process of trying to get the ambulance up the side of the Qattara Depression in Egypt there was a moment when it slipped back down to the bottom.  The jeep just in front of ours made it almost to the top of a particularly large dune, only to reverse back down to take the whole thing again.  Ice Cold in Alex, I thought! 

We made it to the top alright but one of the people in our group went into a complete panic when she saw the descent before us.  She had to be walked down while I urged the driver on.  “We will do it”, I said, “We will get to the bottom, Inshallah.”  We did, well, obviously!  God willed it. 

For me the most romantic part of this adventure was the stop at Onk Jemal – the Camel Head Rock.  It was here, in a desert camp, that Count Almásy (Ralph Fiennes) met Katherine Clifton (Kirsten Scott Thomas) for the first time in the 1996 film The English Patient.  A depiction of doomed love, it really broke my heart when I was saw it in my teens.  It was super to stand there and dream.  For the boys another movie location, Star Wars, was not too far away! 



Romance and dreams and dates and deserts and wine and Kasbahs in the sun, this was my time in timeless Tunisia.  

37 comments:

  1. Interesting story and photos of some of the places you visited in Tunis. I look forward to reading more of your stories.

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    1. Thanks, Harry. It's always great to see you. :-)

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  2. Glad to see you back safe. The trip sounds wonderful.

    For the real life adventure behind "The English Patient" read "The Lost Oasis" by Saul Kelly.

    http://www.amazon.com/Lost-Oasis-Behind-English-Patient/dp/0813342589

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    1. It was, dear Calvin. I will; thank you.

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  3. Welcome back, what an interesting and exciting holiday with all that to see and do, remember that downhill is gravity assisted. While you were away a French woman reporter was attacked in Egypt and the BBC is in a scandal about their pedophile silence. The American presidential elections will be in early November and we will see, we have an early voting option and many people have already voted including myself,is there such an option in the UK ?

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    1. Thanks, Anthony, my friend. I hadn't heard about the woman in Egypt, though I did pick up some of the Jimmy Savile paedophile story from the BBC World Service. Yes, I think Americans here have the option of voting early.

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    2. I meant in UK elections, are they similar to US elections?

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    3. Sorry, Anthony, I misunderstood. Yes, we have a system of postal voting, allowing some people to state their preference in advance of the main event.

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  4. Lovely report, Ana, so glad you're back safely.

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  5. Welcome back Ana!

    To descend from the sublimity of your post to the absurdity of this comment, on my way to LAX this weekend I happened to ride with a Tunisian taxi driver. A very pleasant, thoughtful guy who, in the short distance from Santa Monica to the airport offered a whiff of the ancient, and still robust, civilisation you've just experienced at first hand . . . Thanks for the report and the excellent photos

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    1. Chris, you are such a lovely man! I really warmed to the Tunisians, in general far less frenetic than the people I met in either Morocco or Egypt.

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  6. Sounds like you had a lot of fun Ana. I was particularly interested in your desert experience, because I've always loved the physical simplicity of aeolian landforms (barchans, ergs, yardangs, etc.; the Onk Jemal is a classic yardang).

    How big were the dunes? I ask because I found it impossible to judge scale in a sea of sand, and there were times when I imagined myself to be back home in Langdale or Borrowdale (only in terms of perceived size, I hasten to add). I can relate to your reference to driving at crazy angles, because when I was working in the Sahara I found that the softest sand was always at the lowest point between two dunes, so to avoid becoming bogged down it was necessary to drive across the face of one dune or the other.

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    1. Thanks, Dennis. I was so sorry about you accident. I missed you at BC. It's wonderful to see you back.

      Oh, gosh, some of them were really big, I would have said at least two or three hundred feet, possibly more. That picture does not do justice. The descent on that particular dune was steep but not nearly as steep as the ascent.

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    2. I really do appreciate your kind words Ana. I had a horrible time this summer in the UK. Some more info on dunes: the slip face, which forms on the leeward side, can be close to 35 degrees (the maximum angle before gravity takes over). It takes quite a lot of skill to drive up one, even in a modern 4x4, so you can imagine what it was like in a 1960s Land Rover, with no synchromesh on first and second gear.

      I actually learned to drive in Libya. It happened like this. I flew out to an airstrip several hundred miles south of Tripoli to relieve a colleague. I met him as I got off the plane, and all he said as he got on the plane was: "That's your Land Rover over there. The rig is 70km due south".

      Never having driven a car before, I spent an hour or so driving up and down a new blacktop road that covered the first 10km or so, to kind of get the hang of things. Then I set off south across the sand. Within half an hour I was bogged down up to the axles. By the merest coincidence, a Caterpillar D6 bulldozer happened to be in the vicinity! If you're interested, there's more on my Libyan driving adventures in Learning to Drive.

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    3. Dennis, thanks for this. Unfortunately I can't get that link. I'll try to find the article on your site.

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    4. Oops, no search function! Could you please re-link for me?

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    5. My sincere apologies Ana. I inadvertently used an incomplete URL. Learning to Drive works.

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    6. Dennis, sounds like a scene right out Jack Nicholson's predicament in THE PASSENGER, Antonioni's interesting failed movie . . .

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    7. Dennis, I really enjoyed that. Many thanks.

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    8. But Nicholson didn't have a bulldozer parked nearby Chris, and I didn't steal a dead man's identity (or so I claim).

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    9. Ana, on the assumption that you may not check back, I repeat the advice that I offered there:

      "If you do decide to try driving over sand dunes Ana, my advice would be to find yourself an older vehicle. Modern 4×4s may look flashy, but they lack the sheer grunt of models from 40 years ago. An Australian friend told me of coming across a Toyota Land Cruiser bogged down in coastal dunes. What should be available to pull it out but a Land Cruiser of approximately the same vintage as the one I drove when working in the Outback in 1970. Half the size and twice the power!"

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  7. Wonderful travel report, Ana, inspiring both envy and wanderlust. Good to have you back!
    -Jay

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    1. Thanks, Jay. It's great to see you. :-)

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  8. Una gran Entrada sobre un País que tengo unas ganas enormes de visitar...Con este Cartago impresionante.
    Un abrazo.

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  9. Vivid scenes, well
    written, enticing pictures
    I have passed on the Leibster Award, just answer as much as is comfortable, no pressure
    http://motherofnine9.blogspot.ca/#!/2012/10/first-i-must-thank-patricia-needham-for.html

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  10. It's a wonderful trip. Reminds me my traveling to silk road over 25 years ago.
    Ancient European and near east history is just fascinating (and confusing!), diverse cultures, too many competition, which were what China lacked at the time. Carthage was a city of Phoenicians - the earliest sea people, am I right? I admire their adventurous spirit.

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    1. Yun Yi, yes it was wonderful and yes you are absolutely right about Carthage. :-)

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  11. Welcome back, Ana. I was beginning to worry that something awful had happened to you!

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    1. Thank you, Seymour. I'm indestructible. :-))

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  12. Ana, I'm glad to see you made it back from North Africa intact - things are pretty grim over here in the Colonies. Shortly after we learned that members of the Administration (at least 300 people received [w/in two hours after the START of the seven hour long attack] an internal email containing the truth) have been lying for weeks about the cause of the rape and murder of our Ambassador to Libya, we were hit by the "Storm of a Lifetime"

    What WAS called Hurricane Sandy killed 69 people in the Caribbean, 1 more on the way up (w/the sinking of the HMS Bounty off the coast of North Carolina), and then 17 more when it turned West into the coast of New Jersey. The bizarre but deadly combination of a Tropical Storm, and two Arctic Cold fronts (one from Canada, another from Greenland), has caused many new weather-related records to be set, people to die, and hospitals to be evacuated. Power was lost to 7M+ people, and the New York Stock Exchange will be closed two days in a row for the first time since 1888!

    Fortunately my brother (who lives in NYC) is safe, and didn't even loose power. In my own case, it is like a force-field was around our county, as heavy winter storms surrounded us on three sides, yet we never lost power! The last time we had such a storm, we lost power for three weeks. Even the Tropical Storm force winds stayed on the other side of the river! I feel a little silly that we now have a lifetime supply of flash-light (torch) batteries, bottled water, and prepared food. :-P

    BTW, since you have been gone, Mitt Romney has now pulled ahead in about every political poll that matters. You might find it interesting how in the (relatively) short time you've been gone that the American political landscape has COMPLETELY changed. Between the political effects of the First Presidential debate and "Benghazi-gate", Obama is going to have a difficult time (if ever) regaining his lead.

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    1. Thank you, CB, my dear Colonial friend. :-)

      The final days of the Obama presidency, portents and all, might provide material for a play by Shakespeare! Seriously, I'm so glad you and your family weathered the storm, so to speak. I was reading about Sandy this morning. It looks pretty bad.

      I did catch some American news when I was abroad, including part of the first Presidential debate. As I said elsewhere, I thought Romney gave Obama a good drubbing. It's heartening to know that there has been a sea change. I'm much more hopeful than I was before.

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  13. And never say about anything 'I shall certainly do it tomorrow.'

    Unless Allah shouldst will. And remember thy Lord when thou forgettest, and say 'I trust my Lord will guide me to what is even nearer than this to the right path.'

    (The Holy Quran. al-Kahf [The Cave]: 24, 25).

    Welcome back dear Ana. Wherever you may lead me I come with you:

    Ted Hughes used to say that whenever he entered the library he got an erection. The two splayed wings of the building, the vaginal entrance and the phallic tower had some complementary suggestiveness. What a tribute to the power of books.

    (Daniel Huws. Memories of Ted Hughes 1953 - 1963. Richard Hollis, 2010. 18, 19).

    The Fata Morgana is one of the most exciting wonders of nature. I am also interested in the quagmires of Hell and phantom ships I have written about elsewhere.

    Should I watch The English Patient?

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    1. Thanks, Rehan, my dear friend. :-) The English Patient is one of my favourite movies, hauntingly beautiful at points. In a way it's also quite poetic. I think you might enjoy it.

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