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.
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 othersı
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.
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.
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 manıs 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.
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.
were sure it couldnıt 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.
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.
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, itıs 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.
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.
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.
Kerouan, home of one of the holiest mosques in the Moslem word, we bumped into
a young Japanese couple.
I asked, ³ how come you know about Tunisia?" ³Iım 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."
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 isnıt the
Indy 500, you could easily spend a week or two in Tunisia and only see the proverbial
tip of the sand dune.
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.
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.
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.
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. Bourguibaıs 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.
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.
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.
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 LıOscar), 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).
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.
FOR SFAXIAN HARISSA
reciple comes from the chef at La Perla restaurant in Sfax)
kilo of red chilis 250 grams of salt 400 grams of ground garlic 1/4 liter of olive
oil coriander tuna (optional)
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
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