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.
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.
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.