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Postcards of Tunisia

What were we thinking?In search of adventure and ceramics, the artist Christopher Corr and I went to Tunisia and tried to cover the entire country in 10 days. This looks doable on the map, which shows a Florida-size wedge jimmied between Libya and Algeria (a geopolitical fact that partly explains the dearth of American tourists). Guidebooks encouraged our madness, stressing short distances between destinations while neglecting to mention the startling changes in landscape, architecture, culture, and people this North African country offers at almost every turn in the road.

Such an absurdly rich variety is wonderful but fatiguing. In a single day, we would encounter well-preserved medieval towns; gaudy beach resorts jammed with scantily clad Europeans taking disco aerobics classes; great salt lakes; mosques and minarets. In El Djem (which is to say, in the middle of nowhere), we explored a Roman coliseum that is one of the largest in the world and better preserved than Rome's. On the Mediterranean island of Jerba, in a beautifully restored synagogue, Jewish relics share a wall with etched silver hand-of-Fatima good-luck charms. And, then, of course, there's the shopping: we saw not only ceramics for sale, but also carpets, glass paintings, spices—and, in the Gabès marketplace, multicolored mounds of henna. Far too much to absorb in such a short time. Daily, we flip-flopped between exhilaration and mind-numbing exhaustion.

Christopher, a big pink Irishman, lugged around a heavy satchel of paper and paints wherever he went. We were unlikely traveling companions: I am a decisive, bossy Virgo, though in a thoroughly nice way of course (friends once dubbed me "the velvet dictator"); Christopher is reserved, soft-spoken, and, by his own description, "vague." He politely ignored me when I harangued him daily about the foolishness of wearing a sweater vest yet going hatless in the desert sun ("mad dogs and Englishmen . . ."). But we had a balance of power—he speaks French and I don't; I drive, he doesn't—and so we managed happily together. In a jaunty green Peugeot, we zigzagged through Tunisia's recognizably Mediterranean north, amid olive groves, vineyards, and picturesque Roman ruins. Then we flew south to the desert and hired an ATV with a jovial driver who looked just like Danny De Vito. The son of an almond farmer, Abdel Kader spoke no English, but we unexpectedly acquired a trilingual traveling companion—Ridha, a Berber college student on vacation—and thus became a fearless foursome for the rest of our trip. We hurtled merrily through the desert, the back of the van filling up with discarded water bottles, orange peels, and mutilated tourist maps. Christopher, in the front seat, sketched incessantly: mountains, donkeys, gas-station attendants. To annoy him, I taught Ridha useful Americanisms, such as, "Oh wow!" and "Far out." An exasperated Christopher finally took him aside and explained that American English is a primitive version of the language, one he would do best not to learn.

An Ancient Shopping Mall
We began, logically, in the capital city, Tunis. On our first evening we drove out to the breezy, white-washed suburb of Sidi Bou Saïd, as chic and beautiful as any Greek island resort. We dined on a terrace overlooking the blue sea, surrounded by jasmine and bougainvillea. The next morning, we jolted ourselves awake with strong coffee and croissants at the sidewalk Café de Paris, just down the block from our hotel on Avenue Habib Bourguiba. (Every town in Tunisia has an Avenue Bourguiba, named for the founder of the modern republic.) Our hotel, a sixties tower called Hôtel Africa Méridien, seemed frozen in time, its service haphazard and indifferent. But the decades-old furnishings, though tattered, seem once again in vogue.

At the end of the Avenue Bourguiba is the entrance to the winding narrow streets of Tunis's medieval medina. The air here is heavy, the smells intoxicating. Our eyes teared and our nostrils stung on a street where chili peppers hung in huge garlands. In the souk of the perfumeries, homemade versions of Chanel No. 5 and Egoïste are sold from gallon jugs. Christopher and I loved losing ourselves in the medina, whose bazaar spreads out from the Great Mosque at its center: tailors, gold merchants, hatmakers, carpet sellers, spice shops, bakeries, olive vendors, book peddlers. The touts called out to us in German or Russian or French, depending on which ship had docked that day. We didn't even mind the tacky tourist shops with their stuffed camels in a dozen sizes.

One afternoon, we found a café well situated at an intersection of the busy medina. Settling back to observe the flow of humanity, I sipped from a shot glass of mint tea so strong and heavily sugared that I believed my guidebook's tale of tea poisoning. Christopher took out his watercolors and paper. A human drawing machine, he takes in everything, recording it all on paper almost instantaneously: a veiled woman buying a chicken; a runaway goat chased by schoolchildren; the café proprietor stoking a chicha, or water pipe, with a chunk of glowing charcoal.

A Therapeutic Pummeling
Public baths came to Tunisia with the Romans, who named the country Africa—an appellation that was eventually applied to the whole continent. Later, the Turks barged in, and added their own considerable know-how to the art of public bathing. For modern Tunisians the hammam is used for many functions: ritual cleansing before praying at a mosque; socializing; and, for those without home baths, a regular scrubbing.

I thought a shvitz and a massage would cure my persistent jet lag, so I dragged Chris along to the Kachachine Hammam, one of the many bathhouses in the Tunis medina. But our visit turned out to be more stressful than relaxing. The hammam's domed ceiling dripped water, and green paint was peeling off the walls. Having no idea what to do or even what we were paying for, we let strangers lead us around and tried to follow their mimed instructions. There was a confusion of connecting rooms, open taps, and water splashing on marble. Modesty prevails in a hammam, and the men were all wrapped in dingy, sari-like cloths. They hopped in and out of baths, pouring buckets of hot and cold water over their heads. Some were shaving, letting their whiskers fall to the floor, which was slippery with unpleasant puddles. A man sitting next to me spit. I stepped around discarded razor blades and was grateful when another bather offered me a pair of sandals.

Then we had our massages. I went first. The masseur, a skilled torturer who, I was convinced, hated Americans, twisted and jerked my limbs in agonizing, inhuman ways, slamming my body onto the marble until I saw stars. I thought my teeth would chip and my bones would crack. I wasn't truly alarmed, though, until I glimpsed the terror on Christopher's face. Finally, it was over. The masseur scrubbed me down with a rough-textured glove, removing layers of dead skin, which he triumphantly dangled in front of me. Then it was Chris's turn. It was even worse for him because of his British reserve, but I'll admit I enjoyed watching him suffer. Gluttons for punishment, we visited another hammam the following week in Tozeur and endured it all over again.

Miss Tunisia
There are a variety of pottery styles in Tunisia, some that crisscrossed the Mediterranean, others part of a Berber tradition that stretches across the Maghreb, a swath of northwest Africa which includes Algeria and Morocco. The Romans brought firing and glazing techniques that are still used today, as did the Andalusians. Chris and I saw pottery for sale everywhere: utilitarian terra-cotta; green-and-yellow glazes that could easily be mistaken for Provençal; blue-and-white; lots of schlock made for tourists.

The very best pottery in Tunisia—in our educated and biased opinion—is Sejnane. So, in our dusty Peugeot, we drove a few hours northwest of Tunis to the rural village of the same name. Sejnane is home to Berber women who hand-shape primitive bowls and ceramic figures. Using brushes fashioned of goat hair, they decorate their pots with symbols and patterns, then low-fire them in earthen pits packed with twigs and dung.

Though Christopher had sworn that he was a trustworthy navigator, we missed our first turnoff just outside Tunis. I drove while he drew, the road map upside-down at his feet. Then we missed another turn, finding instead a chaotic roundabout jammed with trucks and donkeys. "Christopher! Christopher! Is this the right road?" I shouted frantically, sweating in our non-air-conditioned rental car. He looked up from his sketchbook and replied dreamily: "It's possible."

Hours later, tired and hot, we arrived in Sejnane, which looked like the Tunisian version of a Texas panhandle town. It's famous not only for its pottery, but also for the gawky storks that roost around the village. We bought honey and bread for lunch, and then, in the company of two helpful locals, found our way to the home of Jemah, a Berber potter whom Christopher later nicknamed "Miss Tunisia" when we discovered her picture in all the guidebooks. (We certainly weren't her first visitors. Jemah shared with us her vast collection of letters and snapshots sent by admirers around the world.) She was so sweet, we bought some of her pottery without bargaining at all. Wherever we went in Tunisia, we found Sejnane pottery for sale, and we both returned home so loaded down that taxi drivers, airport check-in agents, and flight attendants all winced when they saw us coming.

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