Glimpses of the World

Everyone knows that the most exotic way to travel is by cruise boat. Imagine waking up in the morning with a beautiful view of the open blue ocean or another country or island you have never seen before!

Wondrous Labyrinths: Tunisia

Medinas with mazes of intertwining streets. Kairouan, the fourth holy city of Islam. Berbers forgotten in the desert. Villages cut into the earth. Ruins of Rome and Carthage. The modern face of a secular country.

Chenini's houses are either carved directly into the rock or scattered inside the castle dating back to 1143 which winds around a mountain in the south of the country. This Berber village was founded much earlier. Despite its remote location, Chenini is still a great Tunisian tourist attraction. Tourists must pay an unofficial charge to enter places of interest, such as the olive pressing workshop and bakeries with tandoori style ovens. Tunus - and Chenini in particular - is not a utopia untouched by tourism. Every corner of Tunisia has something wonderful to offer the traveller.

Very little of the Sahara Desert falls within Tunisia. A salt lake depression, Chott el-Jerid, has a wide motorway on its shores leading to the desert, replacing the once prevalent camel trains. Occasionally one comes across Bedouin tents, camel tenders swathed in desert robes waiting by their animals in the burning sun. Time has turned them into a remnant of folklore. In recent years, the Sahara has become a European motor-cross playground.

The desert is no place for adventure games. Even climbing over a few sand hills is dangerous: desert winds can erase your footprints and your sense of direction can quickly be stolen by the illimitable landscape.

A scene from the streets of Sidi Bou Said. An aged Tunisian sells jasmine flowers to passersby. Like the strangest performer in some fairy-tale, he doesn't speak a word. Jasmine Tunisia's characteristic fragrance is ubiquitous, permeating rooms, bed linen, skin. The capital Tunis' Sidi Bou Said district is world famous for its wonderful white painted houses with blue shutters, serving as an inspiration to several 20th century painters and writers. In Sidi Bou Said time wanders through man like a flowing river.

 

 

 

 

 

A desert Bedouin family lives by the desert road in two houses made of branches, one for winter, the other for summer. The two differ only in the summer house's additional windows. Everyday they travel 7km into the desert to fetch water. Apart from rearing a few goats they produce little food. They earn a few dinar from tourists they meet in the desert, but to our eyes these nomads lead lives free of commerce and deception. The small children of this family were too shy to come out of the house.

A tired evening for Sfax fishermen. Sfax, the most important Mediterranean port of Tunisia, is one of its trade and fishing centres. Much of the fish supplied to nearby tourist centres comes from Sfax. The restaurant's most popular fish dishes are cooked in Sfax style.

Sousse is one of the country's touristic coasts. Concrete buildings resembling those of Antalya await tourists on the shore. Tourism is Tunisia's prime source of income. Last year alone 3,800,000 or more tourists visited the country, contributing 1.5 billion dollars to the state's economy.

At Tunis airport we saw the first of many posters bearing the severe face of President Zeynel Abidin Ben Ali. Our arrival coincided with anniversary celebrations of his coming to power. After living under Roman, Byzantine, Arab and Ottoman dominion, and as a French colony from 1881, the country finally won a long struggle for independence in 1956 under Habip Burgiba, who then bestowed a life presidency on himself. After the economic crisis of the 1980's, he was ousted from power and replaced by General Zeynel Abidin Ben Ali. Due to the wearying effects of Tunisia's neighbors Algeria and Libya, suspicions that the banned Islamic Nahda Party had gone underground and bitter memories of the 1981 uprising, security is very tight. On intercity roads travelers are stopped and questioned by the National Guard every 2 or 3 kilometers. As journalists and Turks we were well treated.

Primary school children from the town of Tozeur founded by an oasis. Their colorful clothes give a festive atmosphere to the evening.

For a good 300 years this country, like all of northern Africa, lived under Turkish dominion, and traces remain in Turkish districts, Turkish villages, Turkish coffee and the rare Turk. The Mediterranean was an "Ottoman lake." Pirates from our childhood with such evocative names as Red Beard had anchored on these very shores. Tunisia has two coastlines, one facing France and Italy, the other turned to the rising sun. Tunisia extends in the shape of a dagger from the Mediterranean to the Great Sahara. In the north is the lofty extension of the Atlas Mountains, but the remainder of the country is completely flat. Steppe extends across Central Tunisia, sloping down to the south. This area, known as Chott, is dotted with salt lakes, the largest of which is Chott el Jerid. Tunisia's desert begins here, eventually merging with the Great Sahara of Algeria and Libya.

Tunisia's population of 8,785,000 consists of Arabs and a Berber minority assimilated under Arab rule around the beginning of the 7th century. In the south, the Berber minority cling to their traditional way of life.

In the city of Touzer the festivities are beyond a simple tourist attraction.

Tunis, the capital, with a population of 650,000 is the largest and most developed city, and at first sight seems somewhat disappointing with its cold, official air and modern, organized structure. But the ancient city, converted into a bazaar for tourists, is not without its charm: narrow streets, each a living open-air museum; the old harbor; Carthage; the holy white district of Sidi Bou Said crowning a hilltop; and commanding views of the Mediterranean and the capital.

A luxurious suburb much visited by tourists has grown up around the ancient city of Carthage. On the road winding down to the sea, we came across the ruins of the ancient city among ostentatious villas. Giant pieces of granite columns gestured towards the city's former magnificence.

Carthage was of the most important Phoenecian settlements on the African coast and by 6 century BC had evolved into a state comprising much of present day Tunisia. Carthage came into conflict with Rome, the super power of the day, in its struggle for control of Mediterranean trade. Under Hannibal, the Carthaginian army - complete with elephants - crossed the Alps and routed the Roman army as far as Rome itself. In retaliation, Carthage was devastated by the Romans in 146 BC. The city was rebuilt and subsequently became capital of Tunisia.

Second World War clashes reached Jebel Chambi. A group of American foot-soldiers relatively uninvolved in the war lost their lives here at the hands of the Germans. Accordingly, Jebel Chambi is one of the places visited by American tourists.

In Tunis there are many sights to see, but Sidi Bou Said is one to be experienced. Many thinkers and artists spent part of their lives here and drew inspiration from the beauty of white painted houses joined with arches, beautifully worked iron and wooden doors, verandahs bursting with flowers and simple windows out of a child's painting. Andre Gide, Foucoult and Klee were among those to linger in this dream world of secret labyrinths.

Returning to Tunis we found none of the same atmosphere in the enviably planned city. Even the most lively area, Burgiba Avenue, empties by 9 p.m. as if people are driven into their homes by an invisible stick. There is no curfew but police presence is as effective as prohibition. Even in the capital bars and cafes close at 9. We hunted for night life in vain.

Although not to the same extent as Sidi Bou Said, the old city (Medina) of the capital founded in the Arab era is a surprising and interesting place. The Medina consists of a maze of narrow streets and buildings opening onto each other, all of which lie ensconced within walls like a medieval city. Almost every Tunisian city has its Medina, and although the capital's is comparatively dilapidated, it still serves as the artery of the city's trade as it has for some time. 140,000 people live in the Medina of Tunis, each family cramped in a room.

Toujane village, one of the most precipitous, accessible corners of Tunisia. Toujane is an old Berber village nestled within dramatic peaks. Only the adventurous visit this isolated place. The mountaintop settlement has been abandoned in favour of a new village at the foot.

Finding small change to give to beggars is a problem, as 1 dinar is worth more than a dollar. In spite of the dinar's value it would be a mistake to conclude that the Tunisian economy is developed. Supported mainly by service industries, agriculture, small industry, petrol and phosphate production, serious unemployment has surfaced as the consequence of development over the last few years. Tunisia is not as blessed with oil reserves as other North African countries but does possess the richest phosphate beds. Its roads teem with a surprising number of luxury cars while workers and public employees exist on the lowly wage of 250-300 dinar.

Leaving the capital, we headed for Tozeur, an important tourist center and gateway to the desert. Even the giant hotel complexes could not disturb the harmony of the beautiful buildings with decorated facades. In the past, Tozeur was an important commercial city on a caravan route to Algeria.

Setting off by jeep on the desert road, we came to Nefta, the town chosen as a base by Sufis. The Sufis, who renounce all worldly possessions, are regarded as saints. Although Sufism was once widespread throughout North Africa, all that remains today is the prefix "Sidi" in place names.

Inhabitants of the Sufi centre, Nefta. The garments worn by this order considered innocuous by the secular administration differ little from those worn by the average south Tunisian.

 

After Nefta we suddenly found ourselves in the desert among countless waves of sand. The horizon obscured, we are left with a sensation of complete isolation from the world. The next stage of our journey was to discover the colorful world of the south. The first stop in our rental car was Hammamet, the monstrous tourist center on the coast. Only the narrow labyrinthine streets, white walls contrasting with blue doors and windows and happy population of its Medina provided escape from the real world.

Resolving to avoid Hammamet on the return journey, we headed for the holy city of Kairouan (El Keyrevan), fourth in importance after Mecca, Medine and Jerusalem. Near the gateway to the Medina is one of the greatest works of Islamic architecture: a mosque with praying space for 9,000 built in 670 sporting a mixture of marble and granite columns and capitals from the Roman and Byzantine eras. Its rectangular minaret was the most beautiful we saw in Tunisia.

Kairouan's importance as a trading, religious and learning center dwindled as a result of Bedouin raids, but the city continued to be a living example of traditional Islamic life. Its simplicity, honesty, compassion and naturalness still remains unaffected by the hordes of visiting tourists. The coffee houses are filled with idle water-pipe smokers, and the shopkeepers serve their customers without rising from their seats. We left for Matmata and for a seemingly long-forgotten time, the heart of traditional Berber life where houses are carved out of a landscape of crater-like earthen mounds. The only news of civilization is brought to the Berbers by visiting tourists. The area appeared in two science-fiction films : "Star Wars" and "Raiders of the Lost Ark." Matmata and the surrounding region has many such settlements

Tunis. Almost 30,000 spectators fill the tribune to witness the meeting of the capital and the country's two most important clubs: Club African and Tunis. Here, the football spectators are just as ardent as their Turkish counterparts. Tunisia does not send as many players into the European league as its neighbour, Algeria.

After taking in the sights of Matmata, we headed up through deserted mountainous country for Toujane. We made the mistake of following the road signs and found ourselves completely lost. A Berber came to our rescue, offering directions in perfect French. Although the official language of Tunisia is Arabic, French is widely used and taught from primary school level, possibly the most positive legacy of French colonial rule. The new independent state sought to reverse the backward nature of its country and made education a priority, building many schools. In spite of scant resources, thirty percent of the budget was reserved for education. Great advances have been made in this field since independence in 1956 when only five mathematics teachers could be found. The position of women has made parallel advances over the last 40 years. They have begun to find their place alongside men in the production process as well as in the framework of the state.

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