Part 4: Djerba to Sousse
February 18, 2007
Dateline: Djerba, Tunisia
Latitude at Djerba: 36.45 N, Longitude, 10.21 E
The island of Djerba is very ethnically diverse. There is a large Jewish population resulting from the Diaspora of Babylon and Jerusalem when Jewish people were expelled from those ancient cities. Also many Jews came here fleeing the Spanish Inquisition. There is also a large population of descendants of African slaves since that “industry” thrived here for many years. There was also a large influx of Indians from Cochin in southern India, as well as significant Christian influence as evidenced by the marble baptistry found here, now in the Bardo Museum. Then the Muslims came along with the expulsion of the Moors from Spain and there were various invasions by Middle Eastern countries including the Ottoman Turks. It is interesting to note that everyone has gotten along on this island for centuries. Perhaps the world should take notes on how it’s done.
Djerba was also home to the corsairs in the days of the Barbary Pirates from the 16th to the 19th century. Corsairs were pirates sanctioned by the government to go out and kill and plunder and bring the goodies home (along the lines of the privateers sanctioned by the British back then), with the baddest of the bad being Barbarossa (Red Beard). Today there are a number of fancy resorts all along the coast of Djerba, but there’s no chance you’ll mistake this island for Monte Carlo. The ocean views are the same but the landward view often has camels grazing on the other side of the parking lot.
There is a ferry to Djerba and also a causeway which was originally built by the Carthagenians and further improved by the Romans (those guys were everywhere) and subsequently named by the French the “Chaussee Romaine”. There are olive trees on the island planted in Roman times that are still alive and producing olives. The island itself is small, only 7 kilometers wide. Djerba is referenced in Greek myth as the Island of the Lotus Eaters (the belief being that lotus eaters are carefree happy-go-lucky types) and since the people they encountered in their explorations on Djerba seemed happy-go-lucky in the extreme, the legend stuck. Some historians believe the source of such happiness was rum, others hashish, rather than lotus blossoms. The other myth portrays Djerba as the Island of the Sirens, whom you may recall sang their songs to lure sailors to their deaths. They were really hideous creatures with scrawny bird bodies and the heads of seriously ugly women. Odysseus, (a.k.a. Ulysses) however was wise to their tricks, being tipped off by Circe, one of the big time goddesses of ancient myth, and he instructed his sailors to tie him to the mast and to put wax in their own ears. When the Sirens got tuned up and began to sing, Odysseus begged his men to set him free, but since they had wax in their ears they couldn’t hear him and sailed on. And of course it is well know that today men have had virtual wax in their ears ever since and to this day cannot hear what women say.
Food in Djerba is the same as elsewhere in Tunisia – yukky to moderately yukky, particularly on the meat. We facetiously commented to each other that there must be a rule that all moisture must be removed before it can be served. Then we learned that strict Muslims believe (apparently written in the Koran) that meat has to be specially prepared to ensure that all blood
is drained out of it by a butcher called in a process called “hallal” which is strangely similar to Jewish Kosher rules. In fact Jews who keep kosher often buy their meat from these butchers who observe the same process. The vegetables are never al dente once they leave the farm and hit the restaurants. I don’t know if limp vegetables are Koranic law or not, but since they serve them fresh in salads I would suspect not. Still I have to wonder what bad things happened to those beautiful veggies in the market before they land on my plate.
But of course, we didn’t come here for the food. We came for the adventure (and thus the title). They do have some good stuff to eat – pastries and baguettes for example (the one piece of French cooking that must have stuck when the French decamped in the early 20th Century. Also the fruit is fabulous – oranges especially. Both of us have commented how our clothes seem to be getting baggier by the day so I’m thinking of investing in a Tunisian Cookbook and market it on Amazon.com as a diet book. They do beautiful leather work here and we’re thinking that what ever leather gets rejected for purses and shoes is sent to the tourist restaurants to masquerade as meat. And another thing, we think meat cleavers must be big here, for as best we can tell, they just remove the feathers, but not skin, bones or cartilage of poultry and chop it into chunks. I suspect they also may actually leave the hide on all the other animals and just dice it up with a cleaver. It’s like Cracker Jacks – you never know what your prize may be in that native dish.
I had gone to bed straight to bed last night with flu-like symptoms and a sinus infection (too much camel dust I suppose) and Gary had the same ailment this morning. I (mistakenly) thought I was well so I took the morning tour and left him in bed. It was nice to see clouds for a change, the first we had seen in over a week. We traveled through groves of ancient olive trees, some dating back to Roman times. It was quite scenic with wild poppies growing in the meadows and underneath the trees. We visited the islands oldest living olive tree which was a young sapling some time in the 5th century AD and yet this tree could have another 500 years or so of life.
The tree is hollow in the middle, the trunk split, but each section has remained viable and each half grows like a separate tree. The space in the middle will hold 4 Roberto’s (our svelete Italian guide) or 1.5 not as svelte Gary Palmers. When olive trees get this old they generally stop producing good quality olives, but you have to get government permission to “put them down” since they are protected by law. Roberto tells us that Italy you can do jail time for cutting an old olive tree down. Olive harvest here is December as opposed to October or November in Europe.
We then went to the village of Gallala, famous for its pottery dating back to ancient times. It is the only place on the island where Berber is spoken. The name means “Big Amphora (jug) and I purchased a “treasure” to add to our collection of travel memorabilia. A camel strolled casually through the market where I was shopping, but it seemed only we camera-happy tourists took note. Another item of interest here was the pottery dog house (not exactly suitable for export), but like Snoopy the dog was atop the dog house and no doubt watching for shoplifters and hoping for the odd camel bone to be tossed his way. Leaving
Gallala we saw several “menzels”, which are small self-sufficient and self-contained farms with their whitewashed walled courtyards and buildings which housed both people and animals.
After Gallala we visited the El-Ghriba (the name translates as “the miracle”) synagogue, one of the oldest in the world, dating back to the 6th Century BC. It is decorated with intricate wood carvings and ceramic tiles along with a beautiful Torah cabinet (which houses one of the oldest Torahs in the world) and silver and wood Hanukkah lamps. Djerba’s Jewish community is concentrated in two villages which maintain the Tunisian architecture – palm trees, white houses with blue doors – but on the Sabbath you will see the candles lit in each of the homes, and it becomes distinctively Jewish. The synagogue is the site of an annual pilgrimage every April, with many pilgrims actually staying in the synagogue, but even today women are not allowed to pray in this synagogue. We women also had to cover our heads – scarves provided by the synagogue in case you didn’t bring your own which I did not. I did do a careful inspection for any alien critters that may have taken up residence, courtesy of a previous wearer of the scarf.
Inside the synagogue were several men reading the Torah aloud to themselves, their voices barely audible Although Jews live side-by-side with Muslims, they are forbidden to intermarry, unless the spouse converts to Judaism. Something we learned (but is probably well known in the world at large) is that you are only considered Jewish if your mother is Jewish. We also visited the fishing village of Houmt Souk, which translates as “Market Quarter”, and which is the capital of the island as well as its port. I need to interject a comment on fashion in Djerba. There is a variation from other parts of Tunisia on the local dress. The veil here is called something that sounds like “hurdet”, but I’m not sure of the spelling. It is white with red or orange stripes and is tied around a straw hat. Women here seem to wear more jewelry and make-up than in other places which makes it a little weird to see them balancing 50 pound bags of rice on their heads (an yes it does squash the hat) as they stroll down the cobblestone streets. As in other parts of Tunisia, the young girls go veil-less and wear jeans and T-shirts. Our guides tell us some women shave their heads and wear wigs under their veils and hats, but I’m not sure what’s up with that. This sinus infection could be going to my brain.
The souk (market) was thronged with local people shopping. There were thousands of shoes on display made in such fashion capitals as China, Yemen and Ethiopia. No Paris, no Milan. You may have expected the satin bejeweled pixie slippers featured in the Arabian Nights, but these sandals were pretty standard sandal fare (more Teva than Manolo Blahnik). There were also of
course truck loads of produce – onions, carrots, artichokes, turnips, apricots, melons, apples, pears, dates, bananas. There were mounds of freshly ground spices of every sort. There were tables full of straw and wicker and racks of leather goods, clothes and low-end (and low tech in many cases) electronics. There were also a number of pottery shops selling amphoras (for home use for storing olives and wine) and special clay pots called “ajim” which are used for catching octopus and squid. We also saw a number of the “fondouks” which were built as inns for traveling merchants during the Ottoman era. Other points of interest include a fortress called Borj el-Kebir built in 1289 AD, which was taken over by a pirate (a.k.a. corsair) named Dragut in the 16th Century who reinforced the walls and expanded the structure. Dragut also was responsible for a rather gruesome landmark, now replaced by an obelisk, called the Monument of Skulls. It was originally a 36 ft high pyramid of human skulls belonging to Spanish Christians who were killed by Dragut in 1560. Finally in 1848, sanity prevailed and the remains were buried.
We had the afternoon free, but both Gary and I took to our bed with our respective respiratory ailments. For dinner we got take out pizza from the hotel which amazingly enough was pretty tasty – especially considering there were no pork products on it.
February 19, 2007
Dateline: Sousse, Tunisia
Latitude at Sousse: 35.49 North, 10.36 East
Neither of us felt up to par today but we had to drag ourselves out of bed and onto the bus for the next destination. We noticed the GenArt group had caught up with us as we left the island of Djerba on the ferry. Right next to the bus was a man astride a moped wearing a djellaba and a motorcycle helmet, puffing away on a chicha (waterpipe). Once ashore, we traveled north up the coast (the Sahel) to Gabes. We then continued north to the city of Sfax (pronounced just like it sounds – a hissing sound followed by the word “fax”) which is the second largest city in Tunisia which dates back to Carthagenian times as a commercial center. We actually had a fairly decent lunch and really good cream puffs at a hotel called Les Oliviers de Sfax that caters to business people and also had the best toilets in Tunisia in my book ( i.e. all the toilets had seats and they supplied soft toilet paper on a roll and had soap and hot water to wash your hands with. It was a nice break from the typical BYOTP (bring your own toilet paper) venues.
Business persons aside, Sfax is a traditional Arab town with a mosque at its center (medina) surrounded by souks which are grouped according to merchandise within the Kasbah walls. There are also several bath houses (hammams) which offer haircuts and massages as well as steam baths and nearby there are thriving sponge businesses selling sponges harvested from the nearby Gulf of Gabes on the Mediterranean. The hammams have separate hours for men and for women. In traditional Muslim homes, the men do the shopping and the women stay home, but as in Tunis, the city is becoming more and more Westernized. No camels, no veils, very few djellabas.
As we left Sfax driving toward El Jem, our next stop, we noticed one tradition in particular that still endures – the butcher shop. If you fancy any forbidden flesh (e.g. swine) you better plan to bring your own pork chops and forget anything except well done with regard to how it’s cooked. We passed butcher shops all along the route with a freshly slaughtered carcass hanging up to drain, with live animals of the same species nibbling the greenery nearby. You’d think they’d notice the unfortunate demise of their flock-mates and bolt for the nearest open field, but they just seem to stand there awaiting their turn, thus illustrating the phrase “like lambs to the slaughter”. Once we left Sfax proper we also saw the roll out gas pumps that were popular in the more rural areas.
After lunch we traveled to El Jem, the site of an ancient Roman amphitheater – very much in the style of the Coliseum in Rome, smaller but much more intact. Our route takes us through thousands of acres of olive trees as far as the eye can see, 15 million of them in the Sahel Region (in which we are traveling) alone. A bit of trivia here: the name coliseum comes from the Latin “place where the colossus is” – a colossus being an oversized statue. It was common to put a huge statue of one of the gods, and or the current emperor on the grounds of public buildings. This larger than life statue business is a tradition that goes back to Egyptian times when one of the several kings named Ramses ordered huge likenesses of himself placed in a temple called Abu Simbel near the Nubian border, the idea being that the invading Nubians would take one look at the statue and conclude that these Egyptian dudes are all that size and thus way too big to conquer and they would slink back home to Nubia.
With regard to El Jem in particular and coliseums in general, we learned some interesting things:
Ben Hur and other movies with a Christian theme made it seem that the playbill called for Christians to fight and ultimately be consumed by wild beasts such as lions, leopards and tigers. However, the entertainment in the form of fighting took place among the gladiators, either man against man or man against beast. Most of the gladiators were paid performers. There were martyrs fed to the lions and other wild animals, but it was more to persecute them than to entertain the masses. There were also no chariot races inside the Coliseum – it makes a good backdrop for a movie, but there is no room to get a good gallop going, nor get an opportunity for shearing the wheels off other contestants’ chariots. The charioteering was done at a large track called the Circus Maximus ( roughly translated in Latin – The Big Circle) although it was not so much a circle as an oval, but that is neither here nor there. (Amphi means 2 in Latin and since theaters were shaped in semi-circles, you put two theaters together, you get the elliptical shape of the coliseum).
In Carthagenian times there was a city where El Jem is today call Thysdrus which declared itself on the side of Rome during the Third Punic War and was rewarded by Rome by being allowed to become a Roman Colony in the 3d Century AD. The coliseum was built between 230 and 238 AD, just over 100 years after the original one in Rome. There is some evidence to suggest that it was a work in progress with some carvings left incomplete, caliper holes not filled and so forth. It is the 3rd largest Roman Amphitheater in the world and would have held over 30,000 people.
Unlike Rome’s Coliseum, many of the walls are still standing and the underground chambers are intact. The upper seating area actually had the forerunners of the modern day skybox where the VIP’s could enjoy the action. The arena floor was covered in sand and had vents in the floors for the animals and humans kept below. The arena walls were marble (the better to keep the lions and leopards from climbing into the audience and attacking the spectators.) The “cheap seats” were actually ringside where one might actually suffer, if not animal attacks, then certainly splatters from the action.
Parts of El Jem were destroyed in 1695 in a political a conflict between the Ottoman Turks and the local ruler and then a later in a conflict between the Berbers and the Arabs, but the most interesting event causing destruction occurred when the king (bey) at the time had taxpayers refusing to pay their taxes herded together and blown up in a cannonade at the Coliseum. Needless to say this place has seen plenty of bloodshed over the centuries. Still most of the damage has been done by the wind on the sandstone. The Italian government has actually paid for much of the restoration as a penance of sort for joining the wrong side in WWII.
In the late afternoon, we arrived in Sousse, a seaside city, the third largest in Tunisia, for two nights at the Orient Palace Hotel. It is a very beautiful hotel, but alas with the same food. We were hoping to maybe find a McDonalds, but learned Mickey D has not made his debut here. If and when he does, we feel certain the lead item on the menu will be called McLeather.
February 20, 2007
Dateline: Sousse, Tunisia
No excitement today. Both Palmers are down with fever and sinus infections that are threatening to turn to bronchitis. We missed the seaside resort of Monastir where we hear there is a fabulous tomb of former President Habib Bourgiba. We also missed several other highlights, but being bedridden did afford us the opportunity to notice that on the ceiling of our hotel is a little sign/sketch pointing the direction to Mecca, just in case we needed to know. We also missed the evening’s event, dinner in the home of a local Tunisian family in our case, the home of our guide, Kamel. Our fellow travelers raved about how good the food was so we have come to the conclusion that hotel buffets are intended for the sole purpose of the torturing the tourists
February 21, 2007
Dateline: Sousse, Tunisia
Still under the weather, we dragged ourselves out of bed today to visit Kairouan, the first Arab city built in Tunisia and the 4th holiest city of Islam (after Mecca, Medina and Jerusalem). It has over 150 mosques, including the Great Mosque built in the 7th century, the oldest in Africa, although most of what exists today goes back to the 9th century. Many of the mosque building materials came from Roman sites. We were able to see, but not go into, the Prayer Room of the Great Mosque since it is closed to non-Muslims. This was the man’s prayer room. The women have separate prayer rooms, and as mentioned previously the
mosque is only for prayer – no ceremonies, no sermons. There are only 2 church officials, the muezzin who calls the faithful to prayer from the tower of the minaret, and the Imam who leads prayers. The muezzin is usually a lay person. Contrary to popular belief, prayers do not have to be said in a prostrate position. If in the mosque at prayer time, the people will face Mecca, as indicated by an altar called a “mihrab”
We also visited the medina (city center) which is still walled as it has been for centuries and the obligatory markets (souks) which were fascinating , with street after street filled with bargains, particularly on rugs and carpets. We also visited a carpet factory to see a demonstration of how rugs are still hand woven, but we were starting to relapse by this time so it was back to sick bay by lunch time with no more adventures to report. Unfortunately there was an aerobics style exercise class every couple of hours at the pool complete with a booming sound system, (of which we could only hear the base) reminiscent of the reverlry of Hector, the Social Director at a resort we once visited in Mexico. With little sleep and even less rest, we arose at 0:dark-thirty and dragged ourselves onto the bus for the trip to the airport for the flight to Paris and then home.
Thus our Tunisian Adventure concluded with more than a whimper than a bang, but on the flight home we were able to reflect on two of our most memorable fellow travelers including Katie and Dick:
Katie is a pistol of a grandmother, standing 5 foot nothing and probably 100 pounds soaking wet. She was a Marine in WWII (always will be a Marine she says) and ex-school teacher who is now 84 years old. She has traveled literally all over the world, (journeys on yaks across Nepal, rafting in Borneo with headhunting tribes, camel trains across the Arabian peninsula, a train trip across Kazakstan – she’s done it all) but she tells me the only place she has not been is Cancun for whatever reason. She quit skiing and bowling at 80 (arthritis), but she hangs in with the youngest of the group (which happens to be us). She asked me one day whether my hair was real or a wig. I was trying to decide whether I should be insulted, but I allowed her to tug on it and she said it looks so good she thought it must be fake. Here next words were “So is that your natural color?” Here I had to confess to a little help with my “natural blonde highlights”. She also said she wants to get some young looking jeans that don’t make her butt look flat. I guess when you’re 84 you can get by with anything.
Another single traveler Dick (probably late 60’s) is also very well traveled, and he and. Katie compared notes one evening, leading us to the conclusion they have each individually been to twice as many places as we have. He retired from the airline industry and could match Katie story for story, whether it was stampeding Cape Buffalo, cannibal tribesmen of New Guinea, or KGB encounters in the former USSR. While they varied widely in what was the “best” in the world, both concurred that the most horrible the smell in the world is the smell of burning yak fat candles when over-nighting in Tibet.
As it turned out meeting these two experienced world travelers, in addition to entertaining us throughout the trip, has also further inspired us to go to those remote, off-the-beaten-path places where they have been and to have those same adventures. Okay, we may opt to skip the yak fat candles, but as for the other stuff, we’re ready.