On Monday I moved from the pretty Bauhaus house in a more residential area, to a traditional home in nearer the heart of Tunis, in the medina. It is a beautiful home that attracts a steady stream of visitors, mostly writers, historians and artists, but I have also met two women farmers.
One of them arrived bearing honey, honey from bees fed on flowers. Most of the honey here is from bees fed sugar. This farmer also finds time to be an artist and was dressed in a chic Japanesque ensemble. She told me about a bleak post-revolution development in urban life. The new government in its vast wisdom recently decided to empty the jails, of all criminals, and so the country is awash in a crime wave. Apparently there are gangs organized to prey on farmers in very rural areas, stealing livestock and crops after they have been gathered at harvest. This crime is particularly mean at this time as the farmers are also suffering from labor shortages. Despite the steep unemployment rate, it is difficult to find workers who are willing or able to engage in the physical exertion of farming.
I have heard of increased crime in Tunis as well. Yesterday two young local women nearby were held up at knifepoint for their purses. I think I will assume the form of a fat woman when I am out with my camera.
Another farmer is an octogenarian woman. She and her husband are a very elegant couple who practice the Bahá’í faith. I had seen photos of her on a tractor from 50 years ago, so it was great fun when I met her to realize that I was dining next to the photogenic farmer.
On Tuesday evening I joined a new German acquaintance at her tennis club. The way there should be lined with beautifully trees dripping in wisteria-like blossoms, but that day the trees lining the avenue had been butchered. Perhaps in addition to saving money on prisons, the government found a cutrate gardening service.
That night I joined another American on the roof of the Hana Hotel, which has open terrace seating affording a wonderful semi-panoramic view of Tunis. In another country this place would be exclusive, but here they prefer to cater to beer drinkers. I wanted to hazard a glass of the local wine that they served, but was told that it was not available, even though they had bottles in plain site. Apparently the waiters have some bizarre aversion to serving wine. A nice local fellow attempted to explain why it would bother them if others saw me drinking wine and decided to order it also, but I remain mystified.
After Hana we repaired to what was billed as the official communist hangout of Tunis: JFK. It only served beer and smoke. Initially there were only 4 other women to 25 or so men, but as the night wore on the ratio moved closer to a balance, the majority of the women appeared to be foreign.
Before going home, we stopped for dinner at a highly flourescented Tunisienne restaurant, where one of my new local friend’s ate half of a sheep’s head Observing his enthusiasm for this rare treat was enough to keep all obvious comments in check. A !/2 sheep head is not an appetizing item to have on the table. I had to stifle a few grimaces and focus very hard on the vegetables in front of me.
I am off to the desert tomorrow where I expect to encounter all sorts of new and exciting taste treats.
Spent a day to evening in La Marsa and recorded some of the local action. Unfortunately my camera ran out of battery, so I missed some sweet scenes of pretty boxers exchanging kisses at the end of their bouts and boxers in hijab.
SUNDAY_A week without wine
Tunisia is a much more “dry” country than I expected, closer to Algeria than the Levant in terms of culture. In the past week I have sipped wine only once, at a lunch with a progressive crowd; and I drank a demi-cup of beer yesterday with a bunch of expatriots. Alcohol is amazingly expensive here, except for the local wine and beer. Campari is 125 dinars (about $85). Cheap scotch is 150 dinars.
Tunisia is probably good for my health on the alcohol front, but I worry about the quality of certain foods, like milk, which only seems to be available in those cartons that do not require refrigeration. It is nearly impossible to find eggs from properly raised hens. I have no idea what the meat production and vegetable production is like. The local bread is very nice, but most people seem to eat baguettes — very much not their culinary strength.
I am upset at the moment because I have just suffered the crowning blow of meanness to end two weeks of antagonism that I tried to dodge with the most heartfelt gestures. I would adore a glass of wine, but as I do not drink alone… I will drink herb tea from home and think about the many ways I dislike religion.
Lunch was tasty today. The cook is named Maybrouka.
Friday_Salon Nass Decameron, Maison de Culture Ibn Kaldoun
Strong men take order with them, so I frequently hear people note that the streets are dirty, police are scarce and signs of extreme Islamists are coming out of the stonework. It occurred to me the expectation of order from above may be a persistent mental orientation, too difficult for older generations to transcend, so I was fortunate enough to hear about a meeting of burgeoning Tunisian intellectuals. The topic was realism in the American novels of the Lost and Beat Generations. They kicked off with an insipid French documentary featuring a talking head fond of jazz clubs crowing tired cliches about the Beats. One bright young man recited from Kerouac in Arabic in precisely the cadence of Allen Ginsberg.
Probably they just wanted to warm up the camera, but someone from a local TV program asked to interview me. I hoped he was going to ask about the anachronism between references presented in “Sur la Route” and the images those references conjur today (the Bronx, for instance from middle class Jewish enclave to Fort Apache fame). They might also have queried, “do you find it amusing that the conversation about the Beats, a club of privileged white boys, is dominated by the fellows at the table.” Instead they asked me when will we see Arabs presented authentically in Hollywood films. I answered that I held no great expectations for fair depictions of Arabs during my lifetime, since Islam is the new communism, which was the organizing fear factor that contributed to the great conformity that probably helped rouse the Beats, and smart young people today should form a movement to counter the great consumerism that pacifies populations today – when even the fear of Islam can’t keep the masses contained – and is a disgusting force that could use a cool cultural movement to beat it down. Wonder what the movement these smart, young Arabs should create would be called. If any part of my answer ends up in their program, it will be a sound bite of me saying “I hate religion.”
Thursday_17 May 12_Visiting a Private Library
My return to the home of B near Bab Mennar found it quiet with only one young visitor, a university student who is the house photographer. She is assembling a book of all the lunchtime visitors to the library home and has over 400 photos from the past year and a half.
For hours I sorted through boxes of photos and books from Tunisia’s past. Some of the more fascinating subjects were prostitutes. These working ladies were in the tradition of geishas but the girth of sumos. All wore elaborate, complicated costumed and few were slim enough even to model for Dove. They were frequently portrayed with their black serving girls.
Photos of nude Bedouin women surprised me, so I wished their photos came with stories. Many of the prostitute photos were listed with names as these women were recognized for their cultural accomplishment. The most amazing prostitute portraits are gorgeous, slim, very young women who traveled on camel to serve men on oases. These girls apparently worked from age 14 (or so) until age 20, when they would return to their village to become respectable wives and give birth to the next generation of working girls.
I looked through a large body of photos of Tunisia’s first president, Habib Bourguiba. He allowed himself to photographed in all sorts of moods and activities, including various flirtations with young women. He comes across as an extremely confident and powerful man with some sense of humor. As I pored over his photos, I learned that he was so strenuously opposed to the Arabs engaging in a conflict with Israel in 1967 that he closed Tunisia to the Arab world and sought deeper alliances in Europe. I the happy hazy days of post dictator Ben Ali, Bourguiba seems to be enjoying a moment on a pedestal.
I walked to the TGV today, past the embassies of China and Iran, through Belvedere Park under a fantastically sprawling tree that my host calls a cathedral, and up Avenue Liberté with its many fine examples of colonial architecture, I was looking up when suddenly a chilly energy and sticky scent engulfed me and I found myself in a swarm of oil-selling salafists…a post revolutionary addition to the streets of Tunisia. On my way to the train station I snapped a picture of my favorite financial institution, Amen Bank. The last stretch of the route leading to the TGV is lined with flower stalls where some of the men arranging wedding bouquets at picnic tables full of flowers posed for my camera.
In La Marsa I made my regular tour to Saf Saf for brik, and strolled past the live camel to a stand that sells nice fricasse. Saturday afternoon most of the shops were closed and action on the beach was lazy. After a nap in the sand, I started to film the athletic antics going on around me: kayaking, soccer, lovers crouching in shadows, a coed group in an exercise circle, women seduced by the sea swimming in their clothes, and a group of young men taking turns at gymnastic feats. All except the lovers were oblivious of me and my camera.
As the shadows covered my lounging area, I moved toward the corniche to get a coffee and watch the sunset, but a sporting spectacle that was unfolding distracted me. Young women were fencing, dancing, boxing, playing volleyball and doing gymnastic floor numbers. I filmed until my battery ran out and then used my phone to film until the night came fully dark and the games ended.
The fencing girls all seemed to have movie-star good looks, but no one was looking. The crowds were mostly pressed against the stage featuring little girls and big teens in tutus and glitter suits. The attention was probably due more to familial interest than talent – it was typical school recital fare, though some of the dance numbers were rather racy especially in the shadow of conservative Islamists in post-revolutionary Tunisia. The boxeurs also drew a good crowd. It was surprising to see how sweet faced some of the girls were after seeing them engage aggressively in padded fisticuffs. A few of them looked older than their years and could get good work in central casting as tough girls. I was seriously worried about a couple of the adorable fighters, but everyone fought fair and at the end of the match the opponents exchanged kisses then kissed their competitor’s coach (often dad).
A few girls were boxing with hijab under their helmets. None of the dancers or fencers wore the scarf.
As I headed for a taxi, I realized the the traffic was snarling, so I went to the train. It was old fashioned with wooden seats…and I got one. I drew the handle of the sack I was carrying over my inside shoulder and rolled tightly on my lap under the magazine I was reading. At about the 4th stop, I was suddenly yanked/dragged out of the story I was reading and into the train aisle. As I resisted, the sack (a Japanese designer bag) ripped into two. The assailant made it through the door as it snapped closed. Four nice young people helped me collect the bits that had been cast on the floor, then they maintained a protective circle around me until we arrived in Tunis. We asked the ticket taker to call the station where I was robbed, but he just stared at us listlessly.
I was happy to have recovered my camera, but sad about losing lots of other things including a fabulous Japanese scarf. It was inconvenient to lose my phone and the sports scenes from the day, it was an HTC that I had always found wanting as a communication device, but great as a snap camera and menu light.
Yesterday, I began the day at the cathedral in Carthage, which is currently hosting an exhibition of Dutch bikes and the stuff the Dutch make from used inner tubes.
(Pictures to come: after Saturday I was traveling with no valuables.)
Walking from Carthage to Sidi Bou Said should be direct, but as the president’s palace (oxymoron alert) is in the way, I had to climb a few blocks out of my way past a shiny, new mosque with what looked like large bike lights atop each of the posts on the fence lining the road – nearly as incongruous as the bikes in the cathedral. Just past the mosque the wide brick path descends to a gorgeous checkerboard of golden and green fields. I experienced a major “Wizard of Oz” moment, but then the path ended in a drainage ditch and I was back in Carthage.
My friend in Sidi Bou Said took me to a popular hammam in that gorgeous blue and white town. Tunisians use the word “popular” as a euphemism for on the poor side. In this instance it meant authentic. I was waxed – actually honeyed as I lay on a mat in the raised platform of the first room. Before going out my host instructed me that I must wear underwear, bottoms only, for the duration of my cleansing experience. She warned me, “not the string, that would be shocking.” I plan to go every week…hopefully the parts of my flesh that were scraped raw in the scrubbing will be healed by next Monday. A young girl of about 11 years was attending the hammam with her mother for what may have been her first proper visit. As she was scrubbed she screamed for her life.
Next we took our pink bodies to La Marsa for a big Tunisian sandwich. As we were parking we drove over a kitten, drawing sad but understanding reactions from the local observers. There seem to be cats everywhere in Tunisia; I have not seen a single rat — a good tradeoff. In addition to keeping rats at bay, the cats work as trash pickers, like the pigs of Egypt, except they are feral and more picky about what they will eat. Many of the them look like they have fancy ancestors.
The young woman who contacted us to return my wallet is a law student so when we met in near the Carthage train station, I told her some lawyer jokes. As I was proposing that I invite them to a fish restaurant, she told me that her father is a fisherman. So far I have mostly had the tinned tuna for which Tunisia is famous, so it would be nice to dine on some fresh local fish. At home in Tunis we eat only vegetarian cuisine because my host witnessed a lamb sacrifice at an impressionable age.
After retrieving the found items from Saturday’s train heist, I boarded the train home and at the next stop encountered another round of excitement on tracks. This time it was not personal and involved some small explosives and screaming bodies crushing to get off the train. I did not rush to leave the train, nor did I bother going out to look for a taxi as it was rush hour. I did not feel terribly nervous since I assumed that most of the drama was a result of post-revolution nerves. Several people have mentioned to me that they suffer sleeplessness and fear engaging in activities that were normal before, such as walking on the beach at night or driving alone to the desert. Apparently there is a shortage of police protection. The train remained in the station for at least 20 minutes, during which time no official personnel appeared to deal with the disruption. Eventually we boarded and the train lumbered away. The crowd avoided the end of the train that was strewn with glass. As I spied 4 empty seats, I moved to take one, but a shiver of caution caused me to retreat to a spot near the door. A moment later the girls in the next seat fled, one of them in tears. I never figured out exactly what was stirring the erratic behavior, but all that was apparent was a bunch of rascally young men up to a bit of group entertainment. There was a creepy moment when they began making lots of animal noises, but in the end they were drumming on every hard surfaces within reach with a few of the young women on the train zaghareeting along with them. The crowded train filled with smiles.