Sumo Geishas in Tunisia’s Past Glory Days

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.

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