travels to Tunisia with Ed
Tunisia has a growing tourist population although, the locals tell me, the English visitor numbers are waning. This is country where white people come to get brown on its impressive, fine-sanded beaches — that is golden sand, by the way, not the black stuff from volcanoes — this is desert-style sand and it borders the largest hot desert in the world: at 3,500,000 square miles it is almost as large as the United States. Of course, only a little bit of this lies in little Tunisia. So sunny sandy beaches sound a great destination for the English? Maybe, but the English soon tire of a tirade of hustlers, scam-merchants and 'haggly-haggly' over prices. Perhaps this explains why less are now visiting — or maybe they don't venture out of their self-sufficient hotels quite so much. Shame, really, there's a lot to see in this country. As for American tourists... well, in a fortnight, I only heard one American accent. But if you're looking for Russians, that's a different matter — although the chill of a new cold-war still seems to be in the air with the English. (What have they told them about us?) Germans? Yes, but our hotel controlled the towel-by-the-pool routine, so this clue was removed to work out how many. And French, of course there are many French. After all, the French 'discovered' Tunisia and made their mark long ago; not least on the language.
Women may find the unwanted attention of Tunisian men an annoyance — others may revel in it, of course — but it pays to go there with an understanding of their culture: especially before you pack your cases, ladies. You see, with a 98% Muslim population that requires their ladies to be demur and covered up from head-to-toe, the sight of European women with acres of exposed flesh does get the male hormones rather racing. Be warned, they're not used to it, girls. Tunisians get their image of the West from television, and they get the impression from its films and soaps that white women are ready to expose themselves and jump into bed at the drop of a hat; so they quite naturally assume any woman exposing flesh is just like that: inviting them to grope. Now don't get me wrong; if you dress sensibly when you're out-and-about you should not encounter many problems; but if you're silly, then expect their attention.
Take 'motor-mouth' at our hotel, for example, in her barely adhered green bikini. She complained that her 18 year-old daughter was constantly followed and men tried to touch her (unnaturally) blonde hair. Well, she wore revealing tops and short skirts, and blonde hair is a novelty in this land of the darker race. Apparently even motor-mouth herself had unwanted attentions from a member of the hotel staff who surely should know better. She told us this in a conversation that lasted nearly an hour, and for the duration of this her weeping, unstrapped bikini top was mainly held in place by good fortune and an experienced hand, but it revealed so much more than a native Tunisian male could withstand; no wonder she had attracted unwanted attention.
Her family had suffered from the usual' food' bug, had visited the doctor for the usual injection and antibiotics to counter their shivering and bathroom-hugging afflictions; but after over a week solidly basking in the sun, they did not even consider sunstroke might have had something to do with their ills, despite the fact it has similar symptoms. As for the food, well it is sensible to avoid lettuce(in case it harbours bacteria through washing, and ice, for it also invites consumption of the local water. Someone said ice was OK because everything was locked into the ice but, hey, didn't they know ice melts? So, from this, it's pretty obvious: don't drink the water; leave that for the locals. Take sensible precautions with food, water, sun and, as I said before, how you dress, and you can survive and live to tell an interesting tale — providing you get out of your hotel, of course.
Survival is not without a certain amount of frustration, however, when you're not used to scams and bartering.
"Hey, don't you recognise me? I'm the waiter/cook at your hotel," beams a young man. This is a typical friendly address. He will beam at you like your long lost friend. Surely you remember him behind the bread rolls? Oh, they are so friendly here.
"Which hotel was that, exactly?" I usually enquired. You need to ask to avoid confusion here, for it seems your hotel must have hundreds of waiters. What do they want? To advise you where to shop, that's what. They're so kind they will probably escort you there. Where? To their shop, of course. So pleased to meet another from your country... again. Their favourite country. Why, it must be two minutes since the last one. (On learning I was English, one said: "I like the English. You're broke like us, not filthy rich like the Germans.") Tact, you see, is their middle name. They want to know where you come from to get pally right from the start. They want to wear down your wariness.
"Hello my friend. You English? Dutch? French? English!" They're so pleased about your nationality when they learn it. "I have a brother in Manchester/London/Brighton." Big smile. Finger to eye. "Just take a look in my shop. Just look!"
Once when I looked reluctant, this provoked the response: "Don't worry, we don't eat tourists here, just couscous." (Couscous comes from semolina grains and was the staple diet of the Berbers and is still extremely popular — and tasty.)
His shop was not unique, of course. We'd already seen a hundred shops just like it selling leather shoes, bags, pots, raucously-singing fluffy camels and other delights.
"Just look. Just look." Hand to eye again. "No hassle! Come and look. Cheaper than Asda." They grin with delight when dispensing this kind of insight. They all speak from the same script, there must be some kind of training school, I think.
"Imshee!" It's a useful phrase if you really get bothered, telling them to go away/lay off. Or try: "Barra, Barra!" if you want to be even more forceful. It works like magic.
The 'hat-men' have a picturesque scam. They invite you to take a picture of them wearing their huge hats of flowers, then invite you to take a picture of them with your partner, then to take a picture of you both as you reluctantly relinquish your camera. Then they give you flowers. How can you refuse the open hand after all that? Even young lads go around with a handful of individual flowers to present to madame. They even have psychology on their side. When H refused a flower for the tenth time that day, the handsome ten year-old smiled disarmingly, said it was a gift for madame, then wandered off ever so slowly, looking back with a forlorn look. Of course it melted madame's heart and his palm was crossed after all.
Feigning a foreign language and not understanding them does not cut any ice here, especially with the younger generation who learn a minimum of three languages at school, which they attend 6 days a week! Arabic, French and English are now learned by all, and many of the older Tunisians speak a spattering of these as well based upon a well-worn vocabulary. Children also have two additional language options at school. They attend free schools and, in due course, free university.
This country has a great education system, as you can see. It also now looks after its older generation very well, with female retirement at 55, male at 60, and a 90% pension! Truly! No wonder they love their President, Mohamed Ghannouchi, so much. They show it by hanging pictures of him in their shops, offices, plastering him on roadside posters, generally venerating him. And this is truly a productive country, so don't think it backward just because their shops and trading mentality seem a few decades behind the rest of the world. Yes, 'haggly-haggly', is the preferred way to do business here, so halve their asking prices for a sensible target, and halve that again for a sensible price to start your haggling. Be prepared to walk slowly away in the final instance if you really want to drive a hard bargain. And don't believe the 'fixed price' sign; oh yes, they've fixed a price for you, but you shouldn't want to pay it. In any case, it's probably only on a few cheap goods.
The waiter scam, the haggly-haggly, the strings of blatant lies that form part of the sales patter here, did get to me a little. For such a religious people, how do they justify the fact that best profits in their markets and medinas come from misrepresentation ("yes, it is silver, madame" over the fake Gucci watch) and over-inflated prices (80 dinars reducing to 8 in this example from real life). And be warned, any presents offered and deeds done — like taking a picture of you — come at a price. Having said all this, and given that, like anywhere else, you need to protect yourself against pickpockets, the problems come more from hassle than any physical danger. The people are either naturally friendly or false-friendly (if they have something to sell). But haggling is all part of their daily game, some playing it for a 12-hour day in their shops. Whatever lie is offered during a sales pitch seems not to count as a sin, and fun should be had by all, my friend, with disbelief foremost in your mind. But please don't let this put you off. The beaches are enough to draw you to Tunisia if that is all you want. And if you want more, there is SO much more, as the rest of these two articles will show! For me, Tunisia provided so much interest... although I shall not hasten there again. (But I met countless others who do, many visiting the same hotel twice a year, year after year. Still, you get that anywhere, don't you?)
Interested in shopping? One of the 'delights' of Tunisia is that they are still in a trading time-warp (although I guess we'd better exclude the capital, Tunis, in this). Don't expect stores. Expect tiny lock-up shops with metal shutters. Every little town and hamlet has them, and since no one travels very far to shop, they repeat endlessly. What is nice to see is true craftsmen working in some of these shops making utility items such as beds, doors, and other furniture. The medinas are the place for souvenirs. But you need your haggling-head on!
Oh yes! Doors! They are very strong on doors here, and the traditional design is arched, double doors, with intricate patterns upon them, often including symbology, often for good luck. Typically the door shown in this picture includes the Muslim Hand of Fatima symbol, plus the Christian fish symbol. This explains why so many of the souvenirs feature doors. Gratings often cover windows, and favourite colours here are blue for doors and window, and white for walls. What they say is white wards off the sun (reflects), and blue the mosquito. Yeah, right!
Entertainment — sir, madame? There is the odd casino here and there for the tourist, there are bars, but, in the main, tourists will generally feel more at home in hotel bars and with the hotel cabaret and events. Females, in particular, will feel uncomfortable in the typical Tunisian bar. Women, it appears, are still very much in the background here and, at night, bars and cafés seem to be filled almost exclusively with young men. Alcohol banned? Well, true, 98% of the population are Muslim, but Tunisia is a very free country and it is up to the individual how far or how strict they are with respect to their faith. Coke, of course, is a major player here, as it is in most 'sandy' countries. (And coke, incidentally, is supposed to be a good antidote for jippy-tummies; no surprise, I suppose; didn't I hear the secret formula stemmed from industrial cleaning fluid? (Have you tried cleaning coins with it? They sparkle in moments.)
There is a very prominent police presence in Tunisia. Every other roundabout on its excellent communicating roads and dual carriageways seems to attract police road blocks. They wave through the tourist coaches and locals but regularly stop others to check their papers. Tunisia has sensitive borders, you see: Libya and Algeria. When you enter the country you have to fill out an entry card, and attached to it is an exit card; they like to keep track of you.
Hammamet & Hammamet Yasmine
We stayed in the older part of Hammamet in a hotel complex with beautiful gardens that adjoined a private beach. Our balcony overlooked swaying palms, virulent grass, colourful flowerbeds, bougainvillea, and the nearby azure sea. (See picture to the left for our balcony view.)
Palm-shades on the beach beckoned, and the only disturbance of the peace was the occasional jet-ski and the twice-daily passage of 'pirate ships' with their blaring music and tourists who sail round the bay and then anchor a safe distance away to swim. There is some real character in Hammamet, including the Medina with its protective fort. But if you wish to visit the Medina, and brave the "lookie, lookie" assault of its traders in its extremely narrow passageways, I suggest you do it in the day, when there are many other tourists to divert the attention of its forceful shop-keepers. H and I visited one evening for the first time, and we were one of very few tourist targets; better to be one of the crowd.
Take pictures quickly and with care and consideration. If you are too obvious, you might get objections — although a dinar may well melt these away. Don't attempt to take close-ups of people without their permission or you will get a short response. Crowd scenes are safer.
The wide beach at Hammamet is right next to the Medina, and fishing boats are normally hauled up on the sand here. Further along to the north there is a long wide strip of beach opposite a school. Even further north the beaches are virtually private to the hotels, and that was where we stayed. Delightful! South, buildings intrude onto the coastline until reclaimed at Hammamet Yasmine, the new tourist zone. (It's also known as Yasmine Hammamet — just to make you think you're getting old and confused — unless, of course, I'm just old and confused.) This comprises big and brash modern hotels and is linked to the older Hammamet by land train ('Noddy train' to the English). We used this to visit Yasmine. It was operated by, I took it, its two business partners who tried to out-dress each other in their suits, both looking quite incongruous in their little train cab, one the driver the other the ticket-collector. (Fat-Controller eat your heart out!) In the picture, the Medina at Hammamet is behind you and the Hammamet Yasmine hotels begin to the left of the distant coastline trees.
We bought the proffered return fares for the little train. That was our first mistake. The driver helpfully gave us a piece of paper the size of a postage stamp listing the return times and I tucked it into the safest place in Tunisia: my wallet. Then off we went. We expected a short ride along a promenade by the sea, but not so. The trip seemed endless, draughty, bumpy — and mainly inland. We were glad to finally disembark, and made careful note of where to catch it again in Hammamet Yasmine, where we did a short walk-about. Apart from the beach, a large Medina for which you pay entry, and Carthage Land theme park (not of interest to us), and hotel goggling, there didn't seem much to do other than sit at a café to enjoy a midday crêpe — and the 'present' of traditional mint tea, brought to us in the standard little glasses: a dark brown, sweet liquid topped with a sprig of real mint. (It tastes much like the mint tea you may have made from a tea bag, expect it is much sweeter and stronger.) The hotel waiter scam is alive and well in Yasmine, so don't be surprised to meet your waiter at every turn.
We waited an hour for our return Noddy train, constantly consulting the tiny timetable in its absence. What had happened? Where was it? Several other Noddy trains came and went — all refusing our return ticket. Separate businesses, you see: competitors. That's why you shouldn't buy a return: it doesn't even save money and it certainly increases hassle and inconvenience. After that long hour we were looking at the tempting taxis that are always drifting past and honking their horns for business. On the spur, we finally gave up and boarded a rival Noddy train and paid up the single to get back. On the way we saw our expected Noddy train on its way; clearly they had missed out one trip: maybe for a spur of the moment siesta. C'est la vie! So we bumped our way back to Hammamet proper, wishing we had taken a taxi.
Taxis are cheap, after all. A ten minute trip costs around 2 dinars (say 80p UK / $1.50 US). Check their meters are working as soon as you start out or ask if they are before you move — or negotiate/suggest a price. The taxis that were running some scam that involved not starting their meters were quite happy to take your fare at an agreed price (once you know what that should be); I guess this gave them 100% commission of the fare! Someone told them the meter made a mysterious jump of 4 dinars when they started out, so watch out! It's the principle really, isn't it? Honesty?
Now, while the hotel pools and beaches provide the means of whiling away the hours, I thoroughly recommend you take a couple of trips to really get to see the real Tunisia. See your tour/hotel rep. Here are details of three we took; all were interesting and worthwhile, and the guides of the Saphir Voyages were knowledgeable and restricted themselves to English; there are cheaper trips by other providers, of course, but check about the language situation on them, for if you are in the minority, by the time you get to hear about what you are passing it has long since passed!
Driving? I guess you could. In fact, I was surprised by the standard of driving; it really seemed quite slow and good., although I wasn't too impressed by the multiple occupancy of some of the little mopeds. Dad with two young children was quite a common sight but although crash-helmets are required by law, most people didn't bother. The worst case I saw on a moped was two adults and two children: the youngest just grasped alongside by the rear passenger! Life, it seems, is cheaper in Africa.
I prefer the guided tour myself; that way you pick up so much you would otherwise never learn. The guides we had were all excellent, and their English very understandable — although they also seemed to learn English from the same course because pronunciation errors were carried across the board, eg 'bookses' for 'books', 'bathses' for 'baths', etc. Quite endearing, though.
The 'Secret Gardens' Tour
This tour covers the Cap Bon peninsula north of Hammamet and south-east of Tunis. It gives you a good insight into the country, but don't expect to see any 'gardens'. This title simple refers to the fact that many of the crop-growing fields are sheltered by trees: therefore hidden. Get it? Good. Just don't expect flower gardens, right?
The typical road scene travelling through Tunisia is good wide roads with graveled side-strips for the local transport of donkey/horse carts or tractors, alternating semi-desert and fertile olive groves, wandering shepherds with small, calm, tame flocks of sheep or goats, straight from the pages of the Bible, and flat-roofed dwellings in the fields, of varying affluence. Every tiny hamlet has its café for siesta/evening entertainment and relaxation, often with a dead sheep or two hanging by one leg ready to be butchered, or maybe just the skin remaining, drying in the sun. Meat gets eaten quickly here, my friends, so don't worry about that. (Sometimes you see a few sheep waiting their turn, poor things. It seems no one pulls the wool over their eyes here.)
They don't really do fences here. You can see a shepherd with a half-dozen or so sheep almost anywhere — in the wilds or on open plots between town buildings; his sheep or goats know better than to stray into the road. Like many European countries, such as France, when a family member dies the owned land is then subdivided amongst the children; this often explains their version of hedges using dense prickly pears to separate little strips of land. (Think 'giant cactus' if you're not familiar with the prickly pear.)! It is also a useful and effective barrier for small olive groves, although most are open to the roads.
After passing through the busy administrative capital of the area, Nabeul, and stopping to see local pottery and a weaving factory, our first free walkabout stop on this trip was at the little township of Menzel Temime and it local lively market. This is a real market, not a tourist one, and the general hubub as Tunisians sell and buy their goods is quite a site. The market was huge; individuals sell their home-grown produce and buy other goods, both new and second-hand. It seems nothing is thrown away until it is broken, and I saw everything from rusty padlocks to pre-worn shoes on sale at the stalls, right up to designer name clothes; whether the designers ever saw them before, of course, is another matter.
This market was heaving with interest but tourists really do stand out. Parked on its outskirts was a pickup truck with half-a-dozen sheep dozing on their way to goodness knows where (best not tell them), a donkey with its cart beneath a shady tree (unlike many who do not get treated quite as well as this). The donkey and a small variety of horse are a major forms of transport here. Check out this picture. How many people can you get onto a standard Tunisian cart? (Answers on a postcard, please!)
Next stop was the site of ancient Kerkouane, listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. This was originally a Punic 'seaside' town constructed around 6BC and abandoned around 3BC. Today you can see the outline of the stone buildings with walls reduced to a few feet high. Here you can find some early, primitive mosaics made from three colours, and the small sit-down baths that the better houses boasted in their pink cement bathrooms. Some of the houses here were very large, and a sanctuary and large temple was sited at the centre of town. The best houses were located on the cliff overlooking the tremendous ocean and harbour view — but the harbour has long-since disappeared beneath the waves. The town was well defended by a double ring of walls.
an interesting museum on the site gives a glimpse of daily life in this ancient community, thought to have a population of around 2,500, largely engaged in the profitable task of making the fabulously expensive Tyrian purple dye from shellfish; it was the lengthy extraction process that made it so expensive.
Child sacrifice was part of everyday life in the time of the Phoenicians. Here, and at other locations such as Carthage (see following article), evidence of this has been revealed by countless small stone caskets containing the remains of small children. It is believed that the first-born male was sacrificed at around 3 years-old, and a ceremony is illustrated in this picture from the museum, where the family members are seen going to the alter, previously used for an animal sacrifice. The spirit of the child ascending with wings can be seen in the picture. Some tell you it was only children who died naturally who were so sacrificed; others tell it differently. Believe what you wish, but I know what I believe, given the quantity evidence.
A little town that is very popular on the tourist route is Sidi Bou Saïd, and this was the next stop. The town got its name from a Muslim religious figure who lived there, one Sayyid Abu Said Kalafa ibn Yahya al-Temimi al-Beji. (Thankfully, they abbreviated it.) Apparently he stopped here on the way back from Mecca and was believed to be able to cure poisonous scorpion bites and rheumatism. He liked it and stuck around. A community developed around the tomb where he was buried. By the 19th century the French began to build villas here because of the splendid sea views. Then an Englishman, Baron Rondolphe d'Erlanger, who hailed from a famous French banking family, came to town, built a cliff-side palace and gardens called Ennejma Ezzahra, and eventually managed to obtain a ruling that the only colours that could be used to paint the outside of houses were blue and white. (He hated anything to clash with his, you see.) His villa now houses the Centre des Musiques Arabes et Mediterranéennes, a museum of Arab musical instruments, paintings, and a private hammam, or Turkish bath.
Sidi Bou Saïd's blue-and-white prettiness makes it a place that pulls in all the tourists, of course, and given there is only one main street, it does get somewhat busy. Basically it is a park and walk exercise, and the walk is up a steep hill. The town has great views and the reason is its hill! But keep walking upwards for ever better views!
Sidi Bou Said has a reputation as a town for artists. Many famous artists lived here, or visited, it to take advantage of its clarity of air and vibrant colours. Most famous is probably Paul Klee. Other European artists include Gustave-Henri Jossot, August Macke and Louis Moillet.
An interesting house open to the public and once occupied by the leader of a mosque gives you a good insight into how simple and stylish living can co-exist. The picture to the left shows a bedroom. That to the right shows some waxworks depicting a girl getting ready for her wedding celebrations. No in-and-out registry-office shenanigans here: the celebrations go on for six days, and the bride has to wear a different beautiful gown each day; thankfully for her Dad, they can be hired! (I never did figure out where they put all the dowry camels while this was going on.)
We stopped at a vineyard on the return trip, and I was amazed at the wide variety of different wines it produced, including a very smooth and inexpensive dark-red called Magon; nicer, I thought, than their special, 8-year-old vintage. (But then what do I know? I don't even make wine from my vine.)
The 'Carthage' Tour
The importance of Carthage is that the archeological sites comprise three bytes of ancient history, layered like a cake. They span belief systems that range from child sacrifice to Christian worship. The bottom layer is Phoenician (Punic), like Kerkouane, dating back to 6 BC. The Romans built over this around 4 AD, attracted to the region by its rich olive grove sustained prosperity. The top layer was laid around 6 AD by the Byzantines and their Christian remains are to be found. It does not take a genius to realise that digging to the lower layers on the sites at Carthage destroys the upper layers, but such is the price to pay. Fortunately the areas are so large that the graduated site permits you to see the layers of the cake on a slope. Adjacent to this, incidentally, is the Presidential Palace with its walls and armed guards. (Don't take photos of guards, uniformed men, official buildings or even airports in Tunisia, by the way, or you might get an automatic rifle up your nose. It is not done!)
Carthage has a sea-scape setting. It is actually a prosperous suburb of Tunis these days and the expensive residences of the rich rub shoulders with university buildings and heritage sites. The central attraction is the remains of the Roman baths although, I must say, I greatly prefer the more intact Roman remains at Pompeii.
The remains of some 15,000 child sacrifices were found at Carthage! Poor little souls. The Phoenicians. were, at least, sacrificing their first-born sons as part of a belief-system — as opposed to the Romans who took life for entertainment. More of this in the following article and El Jem.
From Carthage, we travelled around the outskirts of Tunis, a mass of dual-carriageways like any major city in the world. Clearly Tunis does not represent the rest of Tunisia. Our destination on this complex route — you really wouldn't want to drive here as a stranger — was the Musée National du Bardo: to see the mosaics. Now, we might think our generation is bright with its digital picture technology, but let me tell you, pixilated pictures were invented long ago by the Romans. What else are mosaics but pictures with large pixels? True, we might like 300 dots per inch (dpi) for quality in our modern pictures, and the Roman mosaics might only be around 2 dpi, but they are easily discernable and a heck of a lot more durable. So durable they actually let you walk on some of the plainer ones in this museum. (Well, they've got so many they don't know what to do with them.) How many of our pixilated pictures will survive a couple of millenniums in all their glory?
Tunisia, you see, was the training ground for Romans studying this art of 'chipology'. And when the chips are down, there are no finer examples of Roman mosaics in the world than in Tunisia. This museum is a world treasure, in my opinion. Many mosaics revealed at Carthage were taken up piece by piece, transferred to this museum where they were reconstructed and fixed to its walls and floors. They are not all entirely intact but many are almost entirely intact. It really is surprising how many are 95%+ complete. In fact, Tunisia can boast having discovered over 6 acres of Roman mosaics! And it seems like there are acres of them in this museum, from small ones like this masterpiece depicting Virgil with the muses of history and tragedy— no prizes for guessing which is which — to ones covering the floor of large rooms. The size and number of the mosaics here is quite mind-boggling. Their value, of course, is also in the wealth of information they portray of Roman lifestyle. There were three kinds of craftsmen involved in the mosaics: the artist, who visualised the picture, the people who fabricated the mosaic chips in their many hues, and the craftsmen who painstakingly built-up the jigsaw. Can you imagine ordering the parts for a mosaic from the local craft shop? Wow!
After that, it was a bus ride back to Hammamet.
Back in Hammamet, we whiled away time in the little café huddled beneath the Medina fort. Surrounded by relaxed people sipping mint tea, real waiters, coke and hubble-bubble pipes, cool in the shade of palm umbrellas, azure sea lapping nearby, pirate ships thankfully quiet while their crew swam a little out to sea, life resumed its usual leisurely pace. But eventually we had to leave that haven of peace and tranquility.
"Hey! Recognise me?"
I span on my heel. "I know, I know, of course. You're my waiter! So go do some waiting. Somewhere else!"
It was inevitable. I was bound to snap in the end.
Click the 'right-arrow' below to read on about my desert escapade in Tunisia!