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.
We went downtown for an exhibition of Jewish life in Tunisia. Most of the Tunisian Jews seem to be more on the side of justice then the Israeli political establishment. The exhibition was held in the very elegant stable of a former palace. Many of the artifacts and photos were from Djerba, an ancient center of Jewish life where one of the older synagogues in the world is located. One photo which was simply labeled, “La Femme Tunisien”, was a woman dressed in a keswa smoking a cigarette. A keswa is a traditional outfit of enormous pants woven in silver thread worn by women at weddings (see: Kalthoum Bornaz’s excellent feature film KESWA). It was delightful to be in the medina on a Sunday. The streets that normally team with buyers and sellers were mostly deserted. Until the 70s this neighborhood dating to the Ninth century was still inhabited by the old families, the Tunisois. As wonderful as it is now, it must have been heart-achingly fabulous before most of these privileged characters abandoned it for the newly chic suburbs of the new era of independence.
It was difficult to watch some of the matches, especially the one of the adorable girl posing for the camera with her mitts up. Boxing is a tough sport for such a sweet-faced youth.
Tunisian cuisine is different from other places I have had the pleasure to dine (Syria, Iraq, Lebanon, Morocco, Algeria), where one might expect to find similar fare. A big surprise in the dishes and markets is the complete absence of cardamon, but there are many strange and wonderful spices and preparations to take up the slack for this favored flavor of mine. The height of my day yesterday was a salad of aubergine, tuna and a magic melange of herbs and spices, which was the starting point to a divine 5 course lunch with the sister of my host.
A foodie discussion here concerns the price of tomatoes, a mainstay especially in the kitchens of the working class. The price suddenly is elevated from an average of .6 dinars per kilo to 2.8 dinars per kilo. There will probably not be a protest march, but there is a lot of protesting in the market.
When I came across live turtles in the market, i was nervous for them, but I was assured that they are only kept as pets as they signify many positive attributes to life. My local pet Ms. Tortoise likes to take a tour of my studio everyday, hopefully spreading her good fortune.
The home of my friend and host is a rare Bauhaus house with many of the original appointments from the tile in the entrance to the chandeliers…the style is well suited to the environment. Up the street is a university of agriculture, which has the feeling of an abandoned town. Some of the buildings are splendid examples of modernist Tunisian architecture. A local citizen suggested that the campus may have been given to disrepair so the wife of Ben Ali could claim the well situated grounds for one of her gaudy, self-serving projects. I include a couple of photos of the elegant edifices set in patches of unchecked vegetation.
Off to spend the day in La Marsa by the sea…