EXOTIC CHARMS OF TUNISIA
by Judith Fein
photos by Paul Ross
It was mid-afternoon and we were lost in southern Tunisia. There was a long stretch of barren countyside around us and the only sign of human life was a robed shepherd on a hillside. We trekked up to meet him, showed him our map, admired his sheep and goats, and, on a whim, I asked him where his wife was. He pointed to a small, low, brown and red woolen tent in the distance and beckoned us to follow him.
As we approached the tent, a tiny, delicate Berber woman emerged. She wore a tattered red robe fastened with two large silver pins covered with talismen that protected her from the evil eye. She looked at me. I looked at her. We fell into each others¹ arms, pointing to our hearts. She beckoned us into her tent and proffered a simple potato and chile stew in a blackened pot. Then, grinning with delight, she served a small round bread that she had baked directly on the ground over a small fire. The dough was soft on the inside and, on the outside, dotted with desert sand.
After the impromptu repast, the gentle shepherdess painted henna onto the palm of my right hand and over my fingertips. Then she swathed the hand in a long strip of cotton, covered the whole thing with a black plastic bag, and gave follow-up instructions, which our guide translated: ³Do not use your hand for twelve hours until the henna design has really set. The decoration of your hand will act as a good luck charm.” As I held my bagged hand aloft, our Berber hostess introduced us to her children and her newest baby goat. Except for the plastic bag, it was like being transported back into some obscure passage of the Bible.
When we left the Berber woman, we were sure the moving encounter had been a mere mirage in the desert, a strange anomaly. To test the hypothesis, we asked directions of another shepherd on the road to Matmata. This time, the man¹s whole family suddenly materialized, his wife grabbed me by the hand and led me down a narrow passage into her troglodytic home–a multi-chambered underground cave carved into the hillside stone. Once again, we were offered the traditional bread and olive oil and then given a tour of the cooking area and the secluded nook where the parents slept away from the curious eyes of children.
Excited and charmed, we pressed on to the hilltop Berber city of Chenini. For the price of a tip, a local guide offered his services. The young, red-headed Berber boy with blue eyes led us through the dusty streets of the ancient stone village as he talked about his dreams and his frustrations. Then he led us into a grotto where a camel was turning the stone wheel of an olive press to extract oil.
We were sure it couldn¹t get any more friendly or exotic–until a day later, when we woke up in Douz, went for a run through the silky-soft Sahara sand dunes, and then headed for the famed Thursday market. Surrounded by mounds of henna and spices and perfumes and blankets, we were back in the Bible again. Robed and turbaned shepherds from all over the Sahara region came to buy and sell goats and sheep and donkeys and camels. The Berbers and the Bedouins, friendly and talkative, were glad to explain the ins and outs of selling animals. A grinning shepherd even offered us a great deal on a dromedary. For a mere $600, plus airfare, the humped one could frolic through the urban streets with me as I did my shopping. My spoilsport husband talked me out of it.
In Medenine, out of the sands, rose the ancient ghorfas–multi-storied, soft, rounded, stone granaries where camel-driving tribes lived and stored their food supplies. Even today, architects gasp from the sculpted simplicity and functionality. ³Come in for tea, please, come, sit,” begged the man who is restoring the ghorfas to their former condition.
By this time, we realized that none of our experiences were anomalies. Tunisia really is one of the most hospitable, intriguing, exotic places on earth. It is also safe, clean and virtually unknown to most non-European travelers, who confuse it with Tanzania, Algeria and Timbuktu. If they have heard of the north African country at all, it¹s because Star Wars and The English Patient were filmed there. Europeans know about Tunisia, but they mainly fly there to grill like sausages on the gorgeous Mediterranean beaches. Some of them venture to the ruins of Carthage, the legendary Punic empire that spawned Hannibal, produced fine gold jewelry, pottery wheels and ovens, had elected officals, practiced child sacrifice, and eventually fell under the merciless blows of Rome. Other European tourists wander through Dougga, the most important Roman city excavated in North Africa, where visitors can stand on the plaza where ancient diviners stood, surrounded by the signs of the twelve favorable and unfavorable winds. They also marvel at the intimate details of Roman life that are left in stone–twelve co-ed toilet seats in a public latrine, a bordello, a prison with a ³Death Row” area, and a bathhouse.
For those more interested in modern baths, Hammamet boasts the world-class Hasdrubal Hotel, a spa which offers Thalassotherapy using salt water pumped in from the nearby Mediterranean. For a nominal daily fee or about $800 a week, the ultimate indulgence includes five separate spa treatments a day. The consensus of the French women visiting the spa was that they most enjoyed the ³lobster pot” (their nickname for a steam roast in seaweed), and the relaxation room where each client is stretched out on a private water bed, given aromatherapy, goggles with flickering lights and a soothing visualization/relaxation tape. My own favorite was a light massage under roving shower heads that rain down warm salt water.
³Are you from France? Germany? Italy?” the sweet young curists (therapists) asked. Like most Tunisians, they are curious about where visitors come from, and what their home countries are like.
In Kerouan, home of one of the holiest mosques in the Moslem word, we bumped into a young Japanese couple.
³Hey,” I asked, ³ how come you know about Tunisia?” ³I¹m a travel agent,” he said, grinning. ³Can you believe no one knows about this? They confuse it with its neighbors, Algreria and Libya. This country is amazing. A total find.”
Tunisia is a small country, and if you sped from one end to the other, you could probably make it in eight hours. If, on the other hand, your idea of a vacation isn¹t the Indy 500, you could easily spend a week or two in Tunisia and only see the proverbial tip of the sand dune.
One of the charms of each city is its souk, or marketplace. In Gabes, for example, the specialty is henna, but you can buy (³buying” means bargaining, which means knocking off about 75 per cent of the asking price) bagpipes made from sheep horns set in a goatskin, saffran, leather goods, dresses, slippers and tchotchkes of every size and stripe. In Tunis, the capital city, the crowded, bustling souk snakes endlessly through the medina (the old city) and you can spend your dinars on water pipes, copper goods, rugs, pottery and Berber jewelry. ³France? Germany? Italy?” the vendors call out. As soon as you announce your country of origin, they tell you that you are welcome in their country.
On hot summer nights, everyone heads for Sidi bou Said, which is about half an hour from Tunis. Dubbed ³the Beverly Hills of Tunisia” because of its chic wealth, it outclasses its American counterpart in charm, style and mood. Perched above the glimmering lights of a Mediterranean port and paved with well-worn cobblestones, it offers a smorgasbord of galleries, shops, restaurants and water pipes with tobacco that rent for about $2.00.
For an excursion into Tunisian life a few millennia ago, El Jem boasts a coliseum that is slightly smaller than the one in Rome, but in much better shape. The underground chambers which housed the poor men who became wild animal fodder are really chilling. A slow walk from this subterranean hell through the halls to the coliseum floor recreates the glory and the gory that were part of the massive Roman presence in north Africa.
Long after the Romans had gone, the followers of Mohammed made Tunisia their home. Mosques and marabouts (white, onion-shaped tombs for great teachers, sages and holy men) are everywhere. In Monastir, the highlight is the mausoleum complex, which houses the earthly remains of Habib Bourguiba, ex-president and ³father” of the country. Bourguiba¹s tomb sits alone in a marble and carved-plaster chamber. All day long, an imam (priest) sits beside the tomb, reading out loud from the Koran; to untrained ears, it sounds like divine music. At the present time, three imams are on call, praying in shifts. The sounds of the Koranic verses rise up and fill the chamber, and the holy tones would make the hair stand up on the arms of even a confirmed atheist.
In coastal Mahdia, near Monastir, ancient traditions are everywhere and literally fill the air. A mysterious thumping sound led us to the edge of the sea where robed women, moving their tongues and emitting rapid, high-pitched sounds (called ululating), were beating wool with palm fronds. They explained that they were preparing the wool to make a mattress for a young woman who was soon to be married. And they were ululating because they were so full of joy. ³Want to come to the wedding?” they asked.
In Sfax, when we complimented the chef at La Perla restaurant on his harissa (a red chili paste which is the portal to every meal in Tunisia) he pulled us into the kitchen, demonstrated how to make harissa (see recipe below) and then wrapped up a pound of the mixture for us to take home.
As if all of these experiences were not surprising enough, our sox would have been blown off, if we were wearing sox, on the island of Djerba (which can be reached by ferry or by driving over a bridge). There, in the middle of Moslem Tunisia, is what is arguably the oldest Jewish community in the world. They are highly traditional, very observant, and they get along well with their semitic neighbors. Many of their whitewashed houses are adorned with bright blue fish and hand symbols to protect them from that omnipresent evil eye. They just opened a new kosher restaurant (called L¹Oscar), and they make unique, affordable, hand-crafted silver jewelry which they sell in tiny shops in the Houmt Souk market (check out the shop of Hai Haddad, the Bijouterie Berberes and Bittan-La Coupole).
At the present time, the best way to get to Tunisia is by non-stop connections from London, Paris, Frankfurt and several cities in Italy. Paris, for example is two and a quarter hours from Tunis. For easy communication, dust off your high school French. When we asked our guide if most of the tourists he had hosted over the years liked Tunisia, he winked and replied,” When are you coming back again?” Apparently, once tourists go there, they are thoroughly smitten.
RECIPE FOR SFAXIAN HARISSA
(This reciple comes from the chef at La Perla restaurant in Sfax)
One kilo of red chilis 250 grams of salt 400 grams of ground garlic 1/4 liter of olive oil coriander tuna (optional)
Select your favorite red chilis. Remove the seeds, wash and drain. Grind in a hand grinder. Wash garlic cloves to remove their odor, grind and mix with olive oil. Add coriander to taste. Combine all ingredients and add flaked tuna if desired. Spread on bread and enjoy.
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