Postcards of Tunisia

Postcards of Tunisia

All you need to explore the mysterious medinas and shifting sand dunes is a sketchbook and a keen eye

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.

Coastal Disturbances
The Zone Touristique is a depressing strip of garish beach hotels catering to European package tours, set a few miles outside the old town of Mahdia. We stayed at the vast Mahdia Palace, a favorite with German tourists. It wouldn't have been out of place in Las Vegas. The guidebooks give it five stars, but to obtain a beach towel I had to leave a deposit at the front desk, get a receipt, and take it to the health club, where they wrote my name down in a register. Turning in the towel, I had to repeat the process in reverse.

Once we escaped to this bright coastal town, though, we agreed that it would be nice to kick back there for a few days. Strategically placed on a narrow peninsula, Mahdia has a turbulent history of battles and occupations, but today fishing and tourism have replaced war. We sat under Coca-Cola umbrellas at a café in the tree-shaded Place du Caire, just inside Mahdia's medina. Europeans were sparse; they were all broiling themselves at the beach. Christopher drew. Old men smoked chichas and drank tea with pine nuts. Except for a small strip of tourist shops near the entrance, the medina is residential, a friendly place to wander through, peeking into open doorways —which is what we did. Fish tails are nailed over doors as protection from the evil eye. A weaver of wedding shawls showed off his handiwork and invited us for tea.

Around sunset, our stroll took us to an old fort at the edge of town. Nearby was a sprawling cemetery where goats wandered among the white grave markers. Out on the point we could see a small whitewashed shrine and a lighthouse. We thought it was all very beautiful, until some boys hiding in the bushes started throwing rocks at us. We later walked back to the port and found Restaurant de la Medina, where we ordered a good dinner—lamb for me, fish for Christopher—from a waiter with a handlebar mustache and a yellow waistcoat. Christopher drew his picture, and then we all posed for photographs.

Our Daily Couscous
The father of my downstairs neighbor, a Tunisian Jew now living in New York, says the Jews took all the good recipes with them when they left Tunisia. This was my first trip to North Africa and I had taken precautions, packing Pepto-Bismol, Alka-Seltzer, Imodium, and a broad-spectrum antibiotic. But we never needed any of it, and Christopher and I loved the food. Small, firm apricots were abundant in the markets; snack bars squeezed orange juice fresh on the spot. We were both won over by the ever-present brik, a deep-fried yet delicate pastry filled with a runny egg and potato, and sometimes shrimp or tuna, too. We wolfed down chunks of incredible bread (a legacy of the French) dipped in harissa, the bright-red chili-and-garlic paste that appears in a puddle of olive oil with every meal. Couscous is the daily staple, but we began most of our meals with salade tunisienne, made of diced vegetables, and with salade mechouia, a spicy mash of grilled vegetables often garnished with olives and chunks of tuna. We visited the markets at every stop, avoiding the meat stalls where camel heads hung on hooks. My favorite sweet was makhroud, a date-stuffed semolina cookie soaked in honey. Although Tunisia is Muslim, most tourist restaurants serve alcoholic beverages. One night in Mahdia, Christopher generously pronounced Tunisian wine "definitely drinkable" after putting away half a bottle, though I stuck with Celtia, the only Tunisian beer, which is really quite good.

At Home in Tozeur
Some of the houses in Tozeur's 14th-century medina have three knockers on their front doors—a separate one to alert the father, mother, and children, each with a different sound. Thus when a visitor knocks, the appropriate family member can answer the door. An oasis boomtown in the days of the great trans-Saharan camel caravans, today Tozeur is famous for its palmery, where dates are harvested by hand each autumn from almost a quarter of a million palms. On hot nights, the townspeople go into the palmery to escape the heat. They spread out their rugs, drink tea, play music, and talk.

Tozeur quickly became my favorite place in Tunisia, and it's also a favorite of movie location scouts. It lies right at the edge of Chott el Jerid, an immense salt lake, and is surrounded by dramatic desert. Parts of The English Patient and two Star Wars flicks were shot there, and Vanessa Redgrave was in town filming a picture when we arrived.

Tozeur's medina is famous in Tunisia for its sand-colored bricks and relief designs similar to those on local carpets. Our friend Ridha taught us how to read these designs like hieroglyphics. He and his buddy Adel, home on vacation from university, spotted us walking in circles in the medina and offered to show us around. Always suspecting a scam, I foolishly asked, "How much?" I was overly cautious: Ridha gave us an exemplary tour and then took us to meet his mother and sisters, who insisted on cooking us dinner. Ridha's father is a sharecropper in the palmery, and the family lives in a room off a large courtyard, sharing a simple kitchen and toilet with relatives. At night, almost everyone sleeps under the stars. While we dined on couscous out of a common bowl, the TV was on, tuned to a show featuring a popular Egyptian singer. A linguistics major and a great reader, Adel wanted to talk to us about the French Surrealists. Christopher, a vegetarian, only picked at the food, but he drew pictures of everyone and everything. I ate and ate. Afterward, Ridha's mother asked why Christopher eats so little and yet is so big, and why I eat so much and remain so thin.

Rug Rats
According to Christopher, shopping for carpets was the only relaxing time we had on our trip. Youssef Chammakhi's shop, Ed Dar, is the best in the Tunis medina. Up on his roof, Youssef unrolled his carpets for us while his son served mint tea. The view was wonderful. I took off my sneakers and walked barefoot on the carpets while Christopher painted a skyline of minarets, whitewashed domes, and satellite dishes. Youssef explained that the carpets are dyed with pomegranate and other natural colors, and that you have to clean them in the sea or fill your bathtub with cold water and dump in a box of salt.

On a street of carpet sellers in Tozeur, Salim Miadi coaxed us into his small stall. Salim, who spoke English and had a genuine passion for his wares, taught me how to read the carpets' symbols, which tell the stories of the women who weave them: whether they are rich or poor, live at the oasis or in the desert, are married or single. His partner—a Tuareg tribesman whose father had performed a scarification ritual on him, carving the family name beside the corners of his eyes—was teaching Christopher the Tuareg alphabet. Christopher found the lesson visually fascinating, and laboriously copied each strange symbol into his sketchbook. I found it to be of no use whatsoever.

Dune Buggy
I worry that the French tourists are still talking about the rambunctious American—that would be me—on the sand dunes outside Tozeur. There they were, up on the crest of a dune while their caravan of white ATV's and drivers waited below—so very chic, so very French in their crisp linen, sipping drinks and puffing on cigarettes as they watched the sunset. And there I was, rolling down the dunes, tumbling and whooping. When I reached the bottom, I ran back up and hurled myself down again. I was so delirious from the beauty of it all—the undulating dunes, the blood-red sun falling fast, the warm sand so fine that I sank into it as if into water—I couldn't behave myself.

The desert was full of wonderful oddities. A hot wind would blow up from the south; the next moment, we'd be hit by a cold north wind. Thousands of feet up in the Atlas Mountains, split boulders revealed layers of seashells. We were warned about scorpions but encountered only camels, donkeys, and goats. In seemingly desolate settings, we found kiosks hawking mint tea, chipped pottery, and toy camels. There are CAMEL CROSSING signs. (Ridha taught us that camels instinctively head west in the morning and east in the afternoon, keeping the sun behind their humps and their heads in shadow.) The severe landscape is dotted with shrines to entombed mystics. People live in the most unlikely places—underground, and in warrenlike villages dug into steep mountain faces. Out in the middle of nowhere, we'd hear the muezzin's call to prayer. Our driver, Abdel Kader, sat behind the wheel uncomplainingly for hours each day, playing the same Michael Jackson tape over and over. He and Christopher and Ridha could eat breakfast and then not think about food for the rest of the day, but I was always hungry. So I sat in the back peeling oranges and nibbling on the energy bars and herbal candies I'd brought along for emergencies.

A Historical Traffic Jam
When we met Ridha's cousin Monia in the medina, she was modestly covered in a black haik, the veiled shawl worn by Tozeur women. But she laughed as she shook it off to reveal modern clothes underneath, declaring that the shawl belonged to her sister, that she liked my blue eyes, and that she would marry me. Yes, she admitted when pressed by Ridha, she was already engaged. But just as soon as she divorced her husband-to-be, Monia joked, she would marry me.

Tunisia is the most liberal of the Islamic Arab nations. Fundamentalism is outlawed. In Tunis, women dye their hair blond and venture with their husbands and boyfriends into the traditionally all-male cafés and bars, where the air is dense with chicha smoke and testosterone. In the desert, Berber women color their hair bright red with henna, and tattoo their chins and hands to ward off the evil eye. The Tunisian island of Jerba is reputed to be the Odyssey's legendary land of the lotus-eaters, and was home to a thriving community of Jews until World War II. There are still signs in both Hebrew and Arabic.

Nobody really knows the origins of the Berbers, the indigenous people of North Africa, but they were here first. Today, Tunisia is predominantly Arab. The country occupies such a strategic spot in the Mediterranean that since the beginning of recorded history it has been regularly pillaged, fought over, coveted, and colonized. Centuries of absorbing other cultures have given the people an insouciant, cosmopolitan air, which translates into a friendly nonchalance. Tunisia is like one of those tangled Los Angeles freeway interchanges, a historical cloverleaf with pileups of Carthaginians, Vandals, Romans, Jews, Arabs, Frenchmen, Spaniards, Turks, Italians, and these days, Japanese and European tourists. All that's missing are the Americans. For once, they've missed the on-ramp and are the last ones to discover such a wondrous destination.

1. The Tozeur oasis
2. Makhroud, a date-filled, honey-soaked semolina cookie that looks like a Fig Newton
3. The sand dunes outside Tozeur at sunset
4. Harissa, the hot chili pepper-and-garlic paste (great for dipping)
5. Brik, an egg-filled pastry
6. The coastal town of Mahdia
7. Strong, sugary mint tea
8. The Roman mosaics at the Bardo and El Djem museums
9. The crumbling, fortresslike Berber village of Chenini at dusk
10. The lush palmery in Tozeur

Getting There
There are short (under three hours) connecting flights to Tunis from most major European cities, including London, Frankfurt, Paris, and Rome. Although many travel agencies in the United States can book tours to Tunisia, most aren't familiar enough with the country to be of much help. Atlantis Voyages in Tunis (216-1/703-236, fax 216-1/713-171; E-mail helped us plan an itinerary, booked our hotels, recommended restaurants and shops, arranged for our driver and ATV in the south, and patiently answered our endless queries. We dealt with Christina Hila, an American who's lived in Tunisia for decades, but everyone at the agency is helpful. (Amelia International, the company's U.S. counterpart, can be reached at 800/742-4591;

Getting Around
Rent a car in northern Tunisia, where signage is very good (even if you don't speak French or Arabic), the roads are in excellent repair, and the drivers are less aggressive than in much of Europe. Buy a good road map before you leave the city, though, as they're hard to find in-country. In the south, where the desert is unforgiving of wrong turns, hire an ATV and a driver from a travel agency. Make sure the driver speaks English; otherwise, bring along a guide, too.

With few exceptions, luxury hotels in Tunisia cater to European package tours: hordes of Germans, French, Brits, and Italians who come for the sun and sea. This means comfortable, clean rooms, spas, and swimming pools, but mediocre food and indifferent service, sometimes maddeningly so.
Hôtel Africa Méridien 50 Ave. Habib Bourguiba, Tunis; 216-1/347-477, fax 216-1/347-432; doubles from $100. A slightly disheveled tower with temperamental showers, but a superb location and a wonderful view from the higher floors. A short walk from the medina.
Hôtel La Maison Blanche 45 Ave. Mohammed V, Tunis; 216-1/849-849, fax 216-1/793-842; doubles from $133. Luxurious rooms, but inconveniently far from the medina.
Hôtel Abou Nawas Tunis 355 Ave. Mohammed V, Tunis; 216-1/350-355, fax 216-1/352-882; doubles from $170. The newest—and considered by some the best—luxury hotel in town.
Mahdia Palace Zone Touristique, Mahdia; 216-3/696-777, fax 216-3/696-810; doubles from $110. A sprawling resort hotel on the beach, with swimming pools and bad service. Overflowing with package-tour Germans.
Dar Charait Zone Touristique, Tozeur; 216-6/454-888, fax 216-6/454-472; doubles from $160. Tasteful rooms with opulent public spaces and grounds. If only the food were better and the staff more accommodating.

The tasty street food is completely safe, and there are cafés and snack bars everywhere.
Restaurant Dar el-Jeld 5-10 Rue Dar el-Jeld (in the Tunis medina); 216-1/560-916; dinner for two $58. Considered the best Tunisian restaurant in town, in a former private house with a beautiful courtyard and dining rooms.
Restaurant Essaraya 6 Rue Ben Mahmoud (in the Tunis medina); 216-1/560-310; dinner for two $58. Tunisian cuisine served in an opulent restored palace with traditional décor.
Restaurant de la Medina Place 1er Mai, Mahdia; 216-3/680-607; dinner for two $8. Very good Tunisian food, but no alcohol, on the market's edge in the port of Mahdia. The staff of this modest restaurant is exceptionally friendly.
Le Petit Prince El Berka, Tozeur; 216-6/452-518; dinner for two $15. Tunisian and European food prepared for tourists. Charming, with an open courtyard, right at the edge of an oasis.

Ed Dar 8 Rue Sida Ben Arous (in the Tunis medina); 216-1/561-732. Museum-quality antiques, ceramics, and carpets beautifully displayed. Set prices. The owner, Youssef Chammakhi, is a pleasure to deal with.
Antiquaire Bijoux Berber Place du Claire, Mahdia. A small, jam-packed antiques shop across from the main square's café.
Artisana Mammedi Hard to find on Tozeur's narrow street of carpet sellers, but well worth the effort. The young owner, Salim Miadi, speaks English and will explain the lore of carpets.

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