Part 2: Tozeur
February 13, 2007
Dateline: Tozeur, Southern Tunisia
Latitude at Tozeur: 33.54 N, Longitude 08.07
Today we leave early for our trip south to the Sahara. Our guides made special arrangements for a surprise stop at the American Military Cemetery in Carthage where over 3,500 military men and women killed in North Africa or off the coast of North Africa are buried. The USA has 24 such overseas cemeteries from both WWI and WWII, and like our embassies, they are considered US soil and are staffed by US personnel, in this case a retired Marine officer. We arrived on a eucalyptus lined street with a walled park covered with white crosses and Stars of David to a carillon playing America, the Beautiful, (if that doesn’t put a lump in your throat, nothing will). There was a short service at the chapel courtyard where the bells played the National Anthem and Taps and there wasn’t a dry eye in the house. We actually have 3 WWII veterans in our group, one of whom served in North Africa, and they were asked to sign a special guest book and while they were very modest about the whole thing, you could tell they were pleased and flattered. The cemetery was beautifully landscaped , with a sea of white gravestones inscribed with each individual’s name and date of birth and death. There is one Medal of Honor winner buried here, but many of the graves hold unknown remains and bear the words, “Known only to God”. Approximately a third of those honored here were lost at sea in U boat attacks and their names are inscribed in marble on a wall on what is called the Tablet of the Missing. There is a classical statue of a woman representing Honor with the inscription: “Honor to Them That Trod the Path of Honor”. (Grammatically speaking I think that should have been “ those who” not “them that”, but I was too moved (and still am) to quibble over the small stuff. There is also a row of manicured trees along the wall of names that is referred to as the Walk of Honor which, when you walk along it and hear God Bless America softly played, reminds us all of how young our soldiers and sailors were (and still are) and how far from home they were when they died.
On a much lighter note, we stopped at the cisterns that the Romans built for Carthage, which was kind of an anticlimax after the drama of the military cemetery, but interesting nonetheless. These are huge cylinders – on the ground, not upright and small water tower size in circumference – that had to be built higher than the city they supplied because they were gravity fed from the aqueduct and had a gravity fed distribution system. They’re in pretty good shape considering they’ve been here almost 2,000 years.
We’ve noticed that Munir our coach (a.k.a. bus) driver has red hair and a red beard and we wondered whether he may be descended from Barbarossa, the famous pirate. However, Munir seems to be able to avoid the urge to pillage while left alone on the bus with our personal possessions, so unlike red hair, maybe those pirate personality genes are recessive. The countryside at the beginning of our journey is rolling hills, with olive groves with sheep grazing below them, which give way to plains, with mountains in the distance. The scenery changes a few hours into our journey from olive and almond groves to brushy desert. It looks a lot like West Texas, or perhaps Eastern New Mexico, covered with scrub brush, with a substantial amount of irrigation going on. The further we travel, the less sophisticated farming seems to be, with lots of donkey carts (two wheel affairs, often with car or truck tires) and not too many horses. We are told they need too much water and have trouble finding suitable grazing in sufficient quantities. We American tourists are learning to identify with that problem as we graze the daily buffets in search of edibles.
As we head toward the Sahara we learned several things about several things:
Berbers and Bedouins. The term “Berber” describes an ethnic group that is believed to comprise the original inhabitants of North Africa in an area referred to as the Mahgreb, which stretches from current day Morocco, across Algeria, Tunisia and Libya. They do make rugs, but the Berber rugs we have at home seemed to be borrowed from a pattern, as opposed to being made by Berbers. The rugs here are both patterned and brightly colored rugs. The term “Bedouin” describes a lifestyle – that of the nomad. Bedouins range across North Africa and into the Middle East and can be of any nationality. They are not homeless, as we in the USA know homeless people (American Bedouins if you will), but I suppose there are some parallels, such as when they move, they take their worldly possessions with them on camels or in horse carts as opposed to shopping carts.
Love and Marriage: In traditional Tunisia there wasn’t much (like zero) interaction between boys and girls of marriageable age (which was as young as 11 or 12 for girls, slightly older for boys, which tended, of course, to put a damper on dating. Only boys went to school, and the men bought anything the household needed including food, and of course they would hang out in the men only cafes. In the olden times many women only left their homes twice in their lives – once to marry when they move from a parent’s house to there husband’s house (who by the way they have never laid eyes on before the wedding day) and when they’re carried out to be buried.
The Sahara: We’re told saying “Sahara Desert” is quite redundant since the word “sahara” means desert in Arabic so I’m adopting the local lingo by calling it “the Sahara”. There are basically 3 types of desert – the hamada with big boulders, the serir with pebbly scrub brush sort of terrain and the erg – the stereotypic monstrous sand dunes, some up to 150 meters, which only accounts for 25% of the Sahara. According to some sources, there is also a 4th type, the Chott (salt desert or salt lake, but others say no – this is just a sometimes wet spot/mineral deposit in one of the other 3.) The desert often has dry river beds which are called wadis or oeds (pronounced weds). There are also 3 types of oases in the Sahara – mountain, desert and coastal. The desert is around 5 million years old and around 4 million people live on it in 11 countries on the African continent. The Sahara stretches for 4,800 kilometers from east to west and 1,200 kilometers from north to south. (for those non-metric readers a kilometer = .6 of a mile) One of the chief tourist products of the Sahara are desert roses, found 2-3 meters (again for non-metric readers, a meter is slightly longer than a yard) below surface and hawked to tourists everywhere (and yes of course we bought some). They are usually brown or gray (and occasionally dyed some color not found in nature and I mean anywhere in nature). They are actually mineral deposits of gypsum (calcium sulphate) that crystallize from underground water in the form of a rose, although not a perfect one, it’s not too much of a stretch to envision rose petals.
Dates and Olives: There are over 150 varieties of dates in the world, but the very best are considered to be the Deglet Ennour, grown in this region. They are longish (around 2 inches) thumb-sized dates, a translucent golden yellow and are very juicy and sweet. They grow zillions of olives here, but our guide, Roberto revealed that the best olive oil (virgin and extra virgin – as you’ve seen at the grocery store, it appears some virgins are more virginal than others) is from Tuscany, Provence and the Lake district of Italy. It’s not an issue of virtue, but an issue of acid levels and processing techniques. The virgin oils have nothing added to change the taste and texture. The non-virgins may need a little help from added ingredients to taste good. The dry heat of of North Africa makes the olives more acidic and thus non-virgin. So a word to the wise – get your dates here, get your olives and olive oil in Southern Europe.
Movies: A lot of movies have been shot in this area including Star Wars, The English Patient, Raiders of the Lost Ark, Pirates, and Jesus of Nazareth. Where the landscape doesn’t lend itself to the script, sets are often constructed and backgrounds can be filled in (e.g. they built galleons for Pirates with the ocean edited in later by a computer. The Japanese even filmed Madame Butterfly here, but this film was shot in the north where the countryside can pass for Japan (of course, nowadays, with all the Japanese tourists roaming the globe, almost any place could pass for Japan).
Doors: Many of the doors we have run across in Tunisia are brightly painted, with blue being the predominant color, and decorated with a symbol called the Hand of Fatima, a common talisman in Tunisia, believed to bring good luck, to protect and to bestow blessings. Fatima was the daughter of Mohammed and there is a local dynasty called the Fatimids who claim to be descended from her. It’s quite a stylized hand, intricately laced with curlicues, with the thumb and little finger being the same size. Since Muslims do not believe in reproducing a likeness of the human in any form. I suppose this is as close as they want to come to representing the five fingers of the human hand. Five is a symbolic number in Islam with the 5 Pillars of Faith, the prayer 5 times a day and so forth.
Islam: There are two main divisions of Islam, the Shia and the Sunni, separated by a few beliefs so basic, you can’t figure out why they spend so much time killing each other over them. The answer seems to be political control versus religious doctrine. Tunisia is 98% Muslim and those Muslims are 100% Sunni which is considered the main branch of Islam, with Shia believers a distant second, with still several more branches behind them. Here it is the story in a very small nutshell.
The Sunni are followers of the Ummayyad caliphate who ruled Tunisia and other lands as well in the 6th and 7th Century A.D. A caliph (a title in Ottoman Empire days) was a Muslim head of state, and this particular caliph, Ummayyad, had his way of interpreting the Koran that shaped the Sunni way of thinking. Shia regard the prophet Ali – the 4th orthodox caliph (cousin and son-in-law of the Prophet Mohammed, as the true Iman (spiritual leader), virtually God incarnate, who interpreted things in the Koran (or Quran as it is sometimes spelled) differently from the Ummayad. So the Shia split-off is sort of a Muslim Reformation if you will –somewhat similar to the split of the Protestants from the Catholics in a general sense. (or for that matter the Donatists, splintering off from the Church of Rome referenced in Issue 1). From a historical perspective, it seems religion has always been very ripe for splintering.
Another interesting sect of Islam is the Sufi, a group which does not believe the Koran is the holy word of God. You would think these would be “fightin’ words”, much more so than which prophet really has the inside story on Islam, but the Sufis don’t really control any turf or wealth so they don’t get into many fights. Sufis are ascetics, constantly searching for spiritual enlightenment, and so the things they do (e.g. whirling as the dervishes do, walking on hot coals or broken glass, beating themselves bloody, etc) are intended to put them in touch with their mystical side. Sufis also do not believe in the veil for women. The Sufis take on lots of “Survivor” type tasks, such as eating cactus and scorpions, in addition to walking on hot coals or broken glass as sort of a mind over matter exercise as they seek to enter a trance searching for the “Ultimate Truth”.
Both Sunni and Shia share some of the same holidays including the Hejira which is the day in 622 A.D. on our calendar when Mohammed fled Mecca to take up residence in Medina. Both of these cities are in current day Saudi Arabia, which is to the Muslims as Israel is to Christians and Jews – the Holy Land. The Muslims use this date as the first day of their calendar so in their world, it 622 years earlier than dates on the Christian calendar. There are also only 354 days in the Muslim calendar, so they should eventually catch up to and pass the calendar the rest of the world uses (except the Chinese of course).
There are several different terms for Islamic leaders. Both Sunni and Shia have Imams, or spiritual leaders, which is the literal translation of the word. They all believe in submission to God’s will (in fact “Islam” in Arabic means “submission”) The Shia also have Ayatollahs (literal translation is “sign of God”) who are experts in Islamic law and philosophy as the Shia see it. The Shia also have mullahs who are religious scholars who teach in the religious schools (madrasas or medersas). Both sects also have muezzins who issue the adhan (call to prayer) 5 times a day and for the service on Friday, their holy day. Muezzins are most often lay people who take up this duty – it is more like a chant than a song or a statement and is one of the things that really add an exotic note to our explorations of the souks and medinas.
Still most Muslims do follow the Koran– which is a collection of suras (comparable to “books” in the Christian Bible) which detail the life and teachings of Mohammed. None of the Koran was written by Mohammed and it is believed he was illiterate. Many myths abound regarding the Koran, and seem to be just about as prolific as urban legends on the internet, including the much bandied about 72 Virgins awaiting martyrs in heaven. (I think some motivational speaker must have thought that up.) Another myth is that Koran requires women to wear the veil. In certain countries where extremists are in control, a group of fanatics (e.g. this is big with the Taliban), force it on women, but in the majority of Muslim countries today it is choice versus a requirement. In Tunisia it is forbidden for anyone who works in public to wear the veil and it is forbidden for girls to wear it in schools. Both Sunni and Shia traditionalists would like to keep women behind the veil (hajib), but increasingly in the moderate countries, women are making their own choices which are more along the lines of Levis and Nike’s, Chicos and Cole-Hahn. Walmart isn’t here yet, but I think its arrival will signify the end all traditional dress once those Tunisian women see those rolled back prices. Another myth is that Muslims collectively support Al Qaeda, want to kill Americans and take over the whole world. While that may be true of a very few wackos on the lunatic fringe, it could not even remotely be considered a widely held sentiment in any of the Muslim countries.
Unlike Christian churches, only prayers and the Friday service happen in the mosques. All other ceremonies (weddings, circumcisions, funerals) take place in other venues. It is not unusual for a wedding to take place at the mausoleum of a revered religious leader. At the risk of making my gentlemen readers squirm a bit – there is also a big party for the circumcision of male children. It is interesting to note how many cultures, even ones who have had no apparent contact over the centuries, as well as those who have had violent contact over the centuries, have recognized circumcision in a ceremonial or sacramental event. In Arab culture, like so many others, it seems everyone is having a good time except the guest of honor.
Education and Religion: Tunisia has taken the rather drastic step of banning the medersa (a.k.a madrasa) as part of a child’s education. Each child (boys and girls) pays roughly $30.00 per year for their schooling and it is all secular until they are ready to go to college. At that time, they can take religious instruction as part of a college curriculum, leading to a degree in theology, so there are none of the hate-mongering mullahs or ayatollahs sometimes televised in the Middle East brainwashing young minds here.
Meat and religion: The eating of pork is banned by the Koran on religious grounds, but the reasons are unclear. Some believe because humans do not eat other carnivores (as banned in the Koran) and pigs are omnivores, that makes them meat eaters and thus on the taboo list. So setting the pork chops aside, there is a lot of lamb and goat, and some camel, and there is some beef and assorted poultry. What really makes the meat inedible to our Western palates is the apparent failure to take the meat from the heat source prior to the removal of all moisture, which again apparently has religious roots. Meat must be butchered in a precise way (much like kosher preparation) and drained of all blood with any remaining blood cooked out of it before it touches human lips. Gary and I are considering making a raid on the hotel grill and swiping a few lamb chops before this happens, but so far we’ve refrained.
The road is 2 lane and arrow-straight, but with enough bumps to prevent dozing off. Roads in Tunisia are built by the Tunisian Army. I’m not sure how this prepares them in case they neighbors (Libya and Algeria) get feisty and decide to invade, but they get on-the-job training for a career after the army. As we headed south, we transitioned from vast plains with sagebrush-like vegetation with purple blooms to serious desert with vegetation getting even thinner as we reached Gafsa, where we stopped for lunch. The town of Ghafsa is built in and around an oasis with over 100,000 date palms. It dates back to pre-Roman times, and of course the Romans, being Romans, built some baths here which are fairly intact, but from a tourism perspective, it’s pretty slim pickings nowadays. The major modern (a relative term here) attraction is a train called the Red Lizard (or Lezard Rouge in the French translation) which runs from the town of Metalaoui (that’s “meta-la-ooh-wee, accent on “ooh”) through canyons of the Seldja Gorge, and continuing through the Atlas Mountains for nine miles. It takes one and a half hours so the trip is pretty leisurely.
We stopped for lunch at the Jugurtha Palace Hotel and what a palace it was – wall-to- wall marble, stained glass, exotic carved wood, ornate upholstery, elaborately detailed woven rugs, gilt furniture, monster swimming pool with encircling moat, tropical gardens and so on. Reportedly a wealthy man who made his fortune mining in the nearby mountains, spent his entire fortune building it. Strangely enough, this mini-Taj Mahal was built in a town full of mud houses. Ghafsa is a stark contrast to the very modern, westernized Northern Tunisia and outside the hotel gates, it’s strictly third world. While it was a fabulous hotel, it was a not-so-fabulous lunch .The food did not live up the architecture – a constant theme in the days to come. At first we thought it could be our Western palates are just not sophisticated enough to appreciate it, but nope, the food pretty much sucks everywhere. The hotel public areas were practically deserted and we suspect guests staying here may have had to take to their beds with gastro-enteritis. The rooms are quite a bargain only 80 dinar ($60 US dollars) per day and all they food you can stomach. As we left, we found ourselves wishing the sulphate magnate who built the hotel would have set aside a few dinars to hire a good French chef, but as we always remind ourselves, we didn’t come here for the food (although a little nibble on a good cheeseburger – or even an inferior cheeseburger is really appealing about now).
Dark clothing dominates here in Ghafsa and much of Tunisia, but is often punctuated with really bright colors. The kids look very much like American kids, wearing jeans and sneakers, but with neater haircuts and better fitting clothes, and we saw no tattoos and no cleavage on adolescent girls (or post adolescents either for that matter). There are bicycles here, but are used for transportation of people and goods, versus for recreational amusement. The westernized dress applies to boys and girls alike, so it appears the days of the veil in this country are numbered. The question becomes how can you get them to take the veil once they’ve worn denim? The kids seem to love seeing tourists and all wave to us like we’re royalty.
Southern Tunisia is the poorest area of the country, but has an exceptionally low cost of living (around 5 dinars per day). The big industry here is phosphate mining, but it’s the tourists who are going to bring this area up financially, and the government takes an active role in making that happen. We saw a phosphate train chugging along, looking like something out of the early
20th Century (probably was). We also saw our first of hundred of grazing camels. There are no wild camels here – they all belong to someone, but they graze free range and go back to the tent when they want to. The real name for these 1 hump camels is Dromedary, but the tourists insist on calling them camels so the locals have succumbed to the idea and they call them camels too. Supposedly the real camels are the Asian Bactrian camel (2 humps). They also have another interesting creature here called the fennec (which translates as “desert fox”, which is what Field Marshall Rommel was called (among other things) in WWII. Fennecs are indeed foxes, but with German Shepherd ears, which look way too big for their little fox bodies, but like the wolf impersonating Red Riding Hood’s grandma said, “The better to hear you with”.
There are lots of signs saying “camel crossing” along our route and at a stop we happened upon a camel bone by the road, perhaps the result of an unlucky encounter for motorist and camel alike. One of our group members put it on the bus in the overhead rack saying he could make that into a lamp, however given the Department of Agriculture restrictions on animal remains coming into the US, he was persuaded to relinquish it. There were a number of Bedouin camps along our route. Although some of their structures look pretty solid, they move frequently, looking for water and something edible for their flocks of sheep and goats. We also saw a lot of fences made of dead date palm fronds which function much like snow fences in that their purpose is to prevent drifts, but in this case, of course it’s sand, not snow. They can have brownouts here (versus whiteouts in snow country) which can totally obliterate visibility, as well as the road.
We arrived in Tozeur in the late afternoon and checked into a beautiful hotel called the Hotel Rais El Ain, just at the edge a huge oasis, with uncharted miles of the Sahara behind it. The oasis covers over 8,000 hectares roughly 20 thousand acres) with over 600 thousand date palms. Only about 50 thousand people live here with their homes built around the oasis out in the desert to avoid using valuable real estate for home sites. There are a number of strange sights here. One of my favorites is young people still in traditional dress, but with a cell phone in one ear and an Ipod in the other. Gary hasn’t been lucky in finding any Harley shops or even motorcycle riders here. His “people” (i.e riders of two wheelers) in Tunisia seem to be the mo-ped crowd.
Tozeur is a tourist destination for European snow birds who come here for 5 to 6 weeks at a time. Only French or Tunisian citizens can actually buy any real estate. All other comers can only lease for 99 years. We had a few cocktails which were actually quite good, and watched a gorgeous desert sunset at the hotel pool. We later learned these were $12. quite-good
cocktails and thus we were further enlightened as to one more reason why Muslims don’t drink. The hotel staff is nice, if somewhat inept – we think this may be their first rodeo, so to speak, but tonight we are enjoying sunset at the oasis and putting off the dreaded hotel buffet as long as possible. Our fears proved correct, but still the baguettes, cheese and oranges were good and the cream puffs were also quite tasty even though the 5 meat offerings left a lot to be desired and thus the Quest of the Carnivores continues.
February 14, 2007
Dateline: Tozeur, Southern Tunisia
We had an interesting Valentine’s Day morning in the hotel. While it is beautifully constructed with glass, marble, elaborate plasterwork, vaulted ceilings – the usual dazzling array of architectural delights, there are still a few things amiss. Take the shower head for example. It was mounted on the sidewall rather than the end wall and the bath tub is so narrow you risk a nasal enema if you turn the water on before you can wrestle it to one side. Gary had an interesting episode with the shower head which left him (My Funny Valentine, indeed) in a heap outside the tub tangled up in the shower curtain, the rod clattering to the floor, with water spraying like the dancing waters at the Bellagio in Las Vegas. The Tunisians need to get those Romans back down here to show them what’s what with the plumbing.
And as for the service, we think they would benefit from some remedial hotel/hospitality management classes. The answer is “yes” to every question (a good thing), but I’m, thinking they use “yes” to mean I hear you, versus “yes” we have that and I will get it for you. (e.g., ketchup, towels, the check for lunch, etc.) There are also other fun experiences to be had with meanings lost in translation. This morning at the hotel Gary kept trying to turn on the air conditioner (he was quite warm after his grudge match with the shower curtain), and indeed the fan came on, but only hot air came out. He reported this to the front desk and they said they’d send someone to check it out. When we got back from our morning tour, the heater was blasting away in our room. Apparently they sent “someone” and he simply flipped the fan switch, just as Gary had done. Finally when we got one of our French and Arabic speaking guides involved, they explained to us that (A) the air conditioner is only turned on in the rooms in the summer so now it’s heat only and (B) when we told the desk clerk that our room was hot– he thought we were saying we wanted it hot – so hot is what we got. And then there was the “check please” incident. We had 2 cokes apiece out by the pool, which we intended to charge to our room. The waiter informed us that we could only charge 2 to our room because he didn’t have another check with 2 cokes on it. Those we must pay in cash. (We had to track him down to get change for 10 Dinar and even then had to tip him more than we intended (which was zero) because he only had a 5 in change and he owed us 6. We decided it was more important to get on the bus and see the country and hassle this poor overworked and under-trained waiter so we graciously said, keep the extra dinar (about 70 cents). We have experienced a valuable insight regarding the claim of “English spoken everywhere”. Well, actually it is spoken everywhere – it’s just not understood everywhere.
We spent an interesting morning at the Dar Cherait (Dar Means house in Arabic and Cherait is the name of the house) which is a Folklore Museum. Each exhibit has life-size mannequins set in scenes intended to covey the local customs – some so bizarre you’ll think I’m making this up.
Take the wedding ceremony. Year ago brides and grooms never saw each other until the wedding day. They had a “yenta” like person (as the Jews used to do) who arranged marriages, for a fee. Since she was always trying to move the merchandise, the matchmaker would embellish the charms of daughters of her clients from time to time, and thus it behooved potential Mothers-in-laws to visit the local hammams (bathhouses) to check out said “merchandise” (potential brides for their sons). Here the female in-laws can see the goods in the flesh (literally). Kamel tells a story of his Uncle Aboud who married a woman who was apparently not vetted by his mother. How ugly was she? She was so ugly he would only spend time with her in a darkened room. She was so ugly that on his deathbed, after 35 years of marriage and 5 children, when she came to his bedside to see him, he turned his face to the wall. Both the bride and groom have advisers on their “duties” on the wedding night since both are expected to be virgins. Kamel tells us in the not so olden days (1950’s) it was permitted for the groom’s family to kill the new bride if she proved not to be a virgin. As for the man – well that was harder to prove and even in the Arab World the “boys will be boys” excuse seems to be in effect so he was pretty much in the clear no matter what.
Coloring the feet and hands of the bride with henna tattoos is also part of the marriage ritual and is intended to beautify her for her Big Day. It is during this beautification process that she gets “the Talk” from an experienced (i.e. married woman). The groom gets his “Talk” from his barber, who also carries the title of vizier (which roughly translates as minister), who apparently has a side job of sex counseling. If the groom is unable to perform his duties on the wedding night, (which given the fact that he may likely be as young as 12 years old and has never laid eyes on a female, clothed or otherwise) his brother or father may step in and perform the honors on his behalf. Unlike the non-virgin bride, the groom gets another chance later on when he’s less nervous, more grown up, gets a prescription for Viagra, or whatever.
The bride also brings a dowry, as was the custom in so many Western cultures, consisting primarily of jewelry. Men were allowed typically 4 wives, so they could create quite an investment portfolio by marrying well. However, Tunisian law today calls for monogamy only and the men seem to be glad of that. Apparently having 4 wives wasn’t all fun and games despite the trunks full of jewelry.
Today, all this tradition has changed, mostly in the last 40 years. It was the way it was for over 1,300 years, but now women are basically on an equal footing with men in terms of education, jobs, and roles in everyday life. Quite often couples meet in school and decide to marry and so forth. In the Berber regions it’s evolving slower than in the very westernized north, but it’s going to be a generational thing.
We also learned why the dars (houses) have such short doors when the people aren’t particularly short. The answer is that it forces anyone entering the house to duck his head which was thought to show deference to the homeowner. We also learned that the color of the head dress – flowing sheet like things wrapped around the head and neck, like the little pill box hats (chechias) can signify country of origin, e.g. black from Iraq or Arabian Peninsula, white from Algeria or Morocco.
There were also exhibits on 1001 Arabian Nights – The Arab world gives us the stories of Sinbad, the Sailor and Ali Baba and the 40 Thieves, as told by Scheherazade. The King in these times was call Shahryar and Scheherazade was the daughter of his advisor/minister called the Wazir or Grand Vizier. The King had decided that women were inherently non-trustworthy and to preserve his honor, he started marrying young brides and killing them after the wedding night to ensure they didn’t dally with other men and make him lose honor. After about 3 years, the wazir, whose job it was to find young women for the king to marry, had pretty much exhausted the supply and was in danger of getting whacked himself. He told of his dilemma to his young daughter, Scheherazade, who decided she could marry the king and solve the problem by entertaining him with stories each night, but not giving away the ending until the next night. This worked for 1001 Nights, but on Night 1002, she apparently ran out of material or the king got bored and so he ordered “Off with her head” the next day which is why there are only 1001 tales.
After the museum we went to the medina (old city) and the souks (markets) with many stalls in which were sold the “Best Dates in the Entire World, the “Deglet Ennour” . We had the opportunity to buy them by the basketful from turbaned salesmen for only 1 dinar. There was a meat souk which we found both interesting and appetite suppressing. Each stall had their specialties – fish, goat, lamb and camel. Since many in the Berber villages cannot read, written signs to advertise the specialty of a given stall are useless. To solve the problem, the locals simply take the head of whatever animal is the daily special (whatever has just been butchered) and nail it up over their counter, without benefit of taxidermy. It’s not unusual to see a whole carcass hanging up behind the counter and then being taken down to lop off a few chops for a local patron. Probably the most bizarre “wall hanging” was a camel head with his windpipe (washed perfectly clean) brought around and stuffed in his mouth like he was smoking a “hookah” (a.k.a. waterpipe). I think the locals have a little laugh over this, watching the tourists gagging at the scene. We were supposed to go to lunch next, but Gary and I just nibbled on a few oranges and a baguette. I mean the buffet wasn’t appealing before we saw the meat market, much less afterward. We also bought a few desert roses (the clusters of calcium sulfate) in a buy 2 get one free deal from a local merchant. We also bought a small box that I was assured was an ancient treasure carried by a Bedouin, handed down through the generations for centuries, although I did wonder how those Bedouins had managed the liquid solder I saw at the edges holding it all together all those centuries ago. But then what do you want for 5 dinar?
People here are extremely friendly with liberal smiles and “bon jours” and then when they figure out we are English-speaking, there are lots of “allos”. They have an interesting marketing technique, which we’ve noticed is somewhat universal in our travels to (A) get your attention and (B) promote their wares. You will, at various (short) intervals, hear “Allo carpets”, “Allo dates”, “Allo jewelry” “Allo desert rose” as you stroll the souks.
We took a horse drawn carriage tour of the medina (old city) where people still live today and then through the oasis which was really fun and very educational. One of our stops on our carriage ride was the Botanical Garden and Zoo inside the oasis. I had always thought an oasis was a little pond with a trickle of water supplied by a well, surrounded by a few scroungy palm trees. This oasis is actually naturally occurring and is fed by ground water, natural springs, although supplementary wells have been dug. The Bedouin have adapted the oases to a large degree by first cultivating and ensuring irrigation for the date palms and then planting an under story of fruit and nut trees – almonds, pistachios, apricot, pomegranate, citrus, pear and fig, and below that, planting gardens to grow all sorts of vegetables. They grow the usual stuff – onions, tomatoes, and carrots, but also semolina, which is ground up to make couscous, the national dish.
Even though water appears to be plentiful in the oasis, they still have to conserve water and people can only irrigate their crops on alternate days. There is currently a big controversy at the oasis since a developer is building a golf course which will create jobs, but which will require lots of water. It looks like the developer is winning this one.
At the Zoo our guide was Achmed, the zoo keeper, who loves his job and is on a personal mission to entertain tourists. We saw a small pack of fennec (those little foxes with the German Shepherd ears) and Achmed actually let us into their enclosure to get a good picture. Imagine that happening in the US. There is a lot of wildlife in Tunisia addition to the fennec such as gazelles, hyenas, mountain goats, jackals. There were also several birds of prey, such as falcons, hawks, vultures. Falconry is very big in the desert and reportedly originates with the Bedouins of the Sahara
Achmed loves playing tricks on tourists, particularly with his collection of creepy crawlies including a scorpion the size of a small mouse that he put down on the ground right at our feet for us to admire. The scorpion has his own “garage” which was a cigarette pack in another life. He also has a pit viper whose bite will reportedly strike you dead within mere minutes. Achmed apparently revels in scaring the bejesus out of tourists, as evidenced by the revealing of his prized cobra in a rather dramatic fashion (i.e. flinging it into the crowd). Gary went from peering into its enclosure to taking refuge behind some elderly retirees who couldn’t move as fast as he could as the “Michelin Cobra” exploded in our midst. The Michelin Cobra is actually a torn rubber inner tube, but it was quite effective in scattering the onlookers. Achmed was laughing so hard he was choking and I thought we would have to pound him on the back to restore his ability to breathe and speak.
We also saw a Barbary (Atlas) Lion, a species which is almost extinct. It is smaller than the East African Lion with a darker mane and coat and the only ones left in the wild are in the Atlas Mountains in Morocco. These were the type of lions used in the Lions vs. the Christians competitions in Roman times. You would think that this would present more of a fair fight since these lions are more the size of a grown human than their East African counterparts. Nevertheless, these small lions still amassed an impressive “Won-loss” record.
Perhaps the star of the zoo is Ali Baba, the Coca Cola drinking camel. He actually starred in Coke commercials in the 1980’s and is now retired in Tozeur. I don’t know if Ali Baba notices, but I suspect Achmed actual waters down his Cokes since they are quite pale in their plastic Coca Cola bottle, but I guess with all the tens of tourists coming through, Ali Baba could get way too hyper on all that caffeine.
We also saw a local variety of monkey called (in English) a macaque (pronounced mah-kak with the accent on “kak”), but in Arabic it’s called “macaca”, as former Senator George Allen well knows (or at least now he does) and is in no way complimentary when applied to humans. Our friend Achmed still had a few tricks up his sleeve. After we saw the Coca Cola drinking Camel – Achemd asked for cigarettes and several were contributed. We fully expected to see the macaca smoke a few. However Achmend tucked the smokes in his pocket and told us smoking is bad for the monkey and the cigarettes were for him – he thought we knew.
Later in the day we visited a brick factory which on the surface sounds about as interesting as watching paint dry. However, these bricks are made by hand, 2 at a time in a process that has not changed over the last 1,000 years. We met Mr. Mabourk who runs the brick factory with his brother. He is 53 (doesn’t look a day over 75 – brick making in the Sahara ages one rather quickly I suppose). The bricks are made from a combination of clays and are shaped by placing them in a mold by hand. They are fired in a hand-dug kiln, whose temperatures reach a couple of thousand degrees and are fueled only by burning dead date
palm fronds. The kiln is tended 24×7 until the bricks are done and then cooled. The choice bricks are white- the not so good are pink which means they didn’t get quite as much heat. Mr. Mabourk has a government contract and sells everything he makes. The government could buy elsewhere, but they are trying to preserve the ancient crafts. He is concerned about the future of his business since young men around Tozeur want to go to Tunis and get an education instead of firing a furnace in the Sahara 7 days a week. So what is it with these young kids and their work ethic? It looks like it’s gone to hell in Tunisia as well as the rest of the world.
For dinner we went to a place called Planet Oasis – sort of a Planet Hollywood with a Bedouin twist. Our greeting at the gate was really spectacular with a freshly groomed camel in all his finery who allowed us to pet him and have out picture taken with him, all sorts of musicians playing that snake charmer kind of music, fire-eaters and gymnasts. We had dinner in a huge tent, starting with a surprisingly okay soup (they do soup fairly well here), but the main dish was a huge cauldron of cous cous (which needed some sauce), with perhaps an ounce of some sort of meat. We were told it was beef, but it had been cooked several degrees beyond the jerky stage. There was a painfully long show with belly dancing and more very loud snake charmer music, and believe me – a little goes a really long way. And of course they want the tourists to belly dance too, so of course we Palmers indulged their whims and were quite a spectacle ourselves. But the star of the show was Frank, well into his 80’s, veteran of WWII who danced with all the belly dancers and never missed a beat. We also noted the guy playing the Cobra Flute (he actually had a cobra he charmed and smooched – although it was lighting fast) who looked very much like John Candy’s Bedouin cousin.
After dinner there was a riding exhibition with 2 beautiful Arabian horses, but unfortunately one of them had a bad hoof and had to retire early. It was interesting to see the riding tricks were very similar to trick riding U.S. rodeos, but of course the costumes were very different. The stars in the night sky here are spectacular and there are millions of them. With no humidity, air and light pollution it is quite an amazing sight, and aside from the camel up close and personal, it was the best part of the evening.
February 15, 2007
Dateline: Tozeur, Southern Tunisia
This morning we headed west toward the Algerian border where the Atlas Mountains peter out into sands of the Sahara. We abandoned our coach for 4 wheel drive vehicles with our driver Lasa. We found our vehicle with the windows down to catch the cooling breezes, but also allowing several thousand (or maybe it was only two dozen) flies to stow away, so enroute we found ourselves swatting flies and keeping score an impromptu competition with the other couples in our vehicle. Lasa decided Gary needed to sit in front with his being a “big guy” and one couple was elderly so they sat in the backseat with the other big guy, slightly smaller than Gary so I was in the very back with the wife of second biggest guy, who fortunately was also agile enough to negotiate the climbs in and out at the frequent stops, so we were always loaded in first and out last, the only advantage being we had more time to destroy flies. A major disadvantage was that here in the Sahara, there is no turning on the engine until you are ready to move – I guess overheating radiators is the concern. So needless to say, it was often quite toasty as we were waiting for the rest of the 4X4 to get loaded up for departure. Since Vantage (our tour company) provides water on all tours, we always made a stop at a grocery store for bottled water. Given the number of people in our caravan (39 total, plus guides) we often had to stop at multiple stores (think more like 7-11 than Publix or Kroger) to get enough. We drove west toward the mountains, our destination being 3 mountain oases (as opposed to Tozeur which is considered a desert oasis), adjacent to the Berber villages of Chebika,
Tamerza and Mides. In Roman times, there were forts here to guard against invasion across the desert and in later years, as late as the 1800’s, these oases were part of a caravan route between the Far East and the western coast of Africa. In 1942 Rommel’s Afrika Korps came here as well, and in fact, built the road on which we traveled for their Panzers to defend the Kasserine Pass.
En route we saw a number of camel herds, many with babies. Again, they are not wild, but their Berber owners allow them to roam free to forage for food. Kamel tells us that camels are much more attached to their owners than horses and thus they always come home. Instead of brands, they wear ear tags to identify them (something cattle ranchers should really consider since it is much more human I would think, but then again also much easier for potential camel rustlers to remove). But here’s another deep thought – whereas cattle thieves could easily remove a tag, camel rustlers would have to get a ladder (or convince the camel to either lower his head or kneel for them) to remove it. And besides that, the penalty for stealing in Muslim countries is pretty severe (like anything from limb amputation to death) so theft isn’t too much of an issue here.
All three of the villages at these oases had been devastated by a catastrophic flood in 1969. Since all the houses were mud brick, there wasn’t much to keep them from being swept down the nearest wadi. The government of Tunisia came in and rebuilt the towns – off of the floodplain this time – and relocated everyone in new cinder block and stucco houses within 6 months (maybe we need to hire them to fix up our hurricane damage).
Our first stop was Tamerza where we walked along a natural stream coming out of the mountains with waterfalls – small, but especially enchanting, particularly considering the surrounding desert terrain. Several scenes from The English Patient were shot here and at neighboring Mides, which has several steep gorges that provide a dramatic backdrop. They call it the Grand Canyon of Tunisia, but it’s more of a Mediocre Canyon when compared to the one in Arizona, but scenic nevertheless. Chebika was our last stop and their claim to fame is the being the destination for the Lezard Rouge (Red Lizard) train described
earlier. At Chebika, the oasis dwellers still use an ancient, yet fairly sophisticated for its day, irrigation system to distribute water to garden plots throughout the oasis. They would use an “hourglass” consisting of 2 large jugs hung from a rope and water was poured from one jug to the other. Based on the time it took the lower jug to fill, an attendant would open gates to send water to different gardens in rotation.
The mountain oasis villages have the obligatory tourist souks, as does every town we visit and we soon learned the truth of “Same souk, different day” or however that goes. At Tamerza we did buy a small drum for our library at home made of olive wood and camel hide. As soon as we get one of the little flutes, we’ll be working on our snake-charmer routine and invite everyone over for a performance. We’ll work on getting a few memorable tunes such as “Midnight In the Oasis” and “Rock the Casbah” to set the mood. As we traveled from oasis to oasis, I couldn’t stop humming one of my personal favorites – Garth Brooks’ “I got friends in low places, Think I’ll slip on down to the Oh-whoa-asis . . .” . Of course Garth’s oasis is the name of a bar, but when you’re thirsty in the desert, it tends to all make sense.
We also learned that Tunisia has a gas pipeline – a joint venture between Algeria (where the gas reserves are, Tunisia (where the gas pipeline has to cross), and Italy, (the main consumer). On our way back to the hotel we saw a cloud of dust and a procession of Range Rovers approaching from our right. Our entire caravan came to a halt to let them onto the road ahead of us. Our driver gave a derisive snort, and explained they were Saudis hunting in Algeria and were driving back through Tunisia. They hunt desert gazelles – a tiny little Bambi-like animal, smaller even than the Thompson’s gazelle in East Africa – roughly the size of a large Chihuahua. (Do they have no shame?) Our driver says they’ve already killed all the gazelles in the Saudi peninsula and Morocco and they are not allowed to hunt in Tunisia, but Algeria lets them hunt their in exchange for however many zillions of barrels of oil they provide. They also apparently speed a lot and wreck their vehicles quite regularly, so the drivers in our group always give them a wide berth.
After lunch we took a 4-Wheel Drive Tour – Gary and I were the only ones of our group of 6 who were capable of getting into and out of the back seat so we volunteered. We drove northwest out of the oasis and into the desert several miles, passing more “drift” fences made of dead palm fronds. Our first stop was a Berber’s home, who also happens to be a Bedouin (nomad) although his residence seemed to be about as mobile as a double-wide with the
wheels gone. The home was humble to say the least, but absolutely fascinating. We were greeted by a flock of goats and sheep running toward us like trinket vendors spotting a cruise ship. We finally figured out what the deal was, which is, when the tourist show up, the local family puts out snacks for the sheep and goats so there are plenty of kids and lambs around for us to ooh and ahh over. The residents of this particular nomad “camp” were a man and woman and one of their 5 children. They had a new colt, whose mom they used to pull a two-wheeled wagon to go to the oasis for water and any thing they needed to buy or
trade for. They also had a moped they used for quick trips (i.e. they had just been down to the oasis and picked a bunch of clover which was tied to the handlebars. I have to assume it was for the horse since they tend to be pickier eaters than goats or sheep. They also had chickens, turkeys and ducks of all things, which was pretty bizarre since it was a good 20 miles to the oasis and there was no on premise pond for them to paddle around in, but perhaps desert ducks have a different standard
of living. They had several different pens for chickens and lambs
and kids too young to be on the loose. They also had a lot of loose chickens, so I think maybe the pen was for laying hens as opposed to naughty chickens in “Time Out”. The house (part tent, part date palm frond enclosures), was made up of several “rooms”. One of these rooms was where they cooked on a brazier, and as we arrived, the lady of the house brewed tea for her guests, which we felt was amazingly hospitable, particularly under the circumstances. There was an open courtyard which encircled the Bedouin tent, made of camel hair, smelling lot like burlap, but very tidy. When the nomad phase kicks in, they can move the tent and most of the animals by herding them along, except those chickens turkeys and ducks are not going to be the least bit amenable to herding and will have to be carted. Just before we left, the man of the house brought out a newborn lamb (only an hour old and still sporting a coating of whatever that was sticking to his coat left over from being born) who was despite being something less than fluffy, was absolutely adorable, which confirms my avowed aversion to eating lamb for dinner as being soundly based.
From there we went 4 wheeling, out over a dry salt lake called Chott El Gharsa ( “chott” being the Arabic word for salt lake). There is no water in the lake so it’s a hard salt pan with odd sandstone formations lining the banks and sticking up out of the sand. The sand is full of mica chips and in the afternoon sun, they glint like diamonds (okay well maybe rhinestones). Parts of the The English Patient were also filmed here in 1997 (for those who have seen it, this is the place where the plane crashed). We drove to mountainous dunes and climbed up and slid down hills in our 4X4. The road got quite bumpy in places so
we declared a spontaneous potty break and several people trekked around behind a dune to “make their business” as our guide, Kamel terms it. Our last stop was the set for the first Star Wars movie built in the 70’s. This set was Luke Skywalker’s hometown and was the scene of the bar with the bizarre inter-galactic creatures partying the night away.
We came back home and were having some Tunisian wine (the only kind they serve here – red, white, or rose) by the pool chatting with another couple who have retired in Florida. We had another round to gird our loins (and bellies) to go eat another meal from a 50 foot long buffet offering very little you’d want to put a fork to. We were enjoying our wine (it’s really okay, all things considered) as a whole caravan of around 20 4-wheel-drive vehicles arrived, apparently leased by an Italian company called GenArt. They had come to Tunisia to film either a documentary or a commercial, depended on whom you asked and how they translated what they’re doing into English. Whatever they were doing, they were a large group of 20-to-30- somethings, traveling in vehicles with their corporate tag line “Only the Brave” We decided the rest of the tagline is understood by all, which if expanded would read Only the Brave eat at Tunisian Hotel buffets. We noticed they dug into the buffet with great gusto, so it must really appeal to the younger generation or else they just appreciated the quantity. Tomorrow, we cross the desert to Douz, quite literally, the end of the road (the paved road that is).