Our Tunisair plane was supposed to leave just before midnight
on Tuesday the 22nd, but departed about an hour and a half late.
That meant that we arrived close to 7:00 in the morning rather
than the scheduled arrival time of 5:20 (!), which was an improvement.
dramatis personae of this trip are:
member of my training class, a SED (small enterprise development)
volunteer who lives in Nouadhibou. At 40, she is the oldest
woman in our group. She is very scientifically minded, tech-oriented,
and has a razor-sharp wit.
teacher from the group before ours, is also known by her Mauritanian
name, Bintou. She is the last person from her group to COS,
as she was the cross-culture coordinator for the new trainees.
I worked with her on the cross-culture manual that we revised
for the recent training.
an agroforesty volunteer, also a member of the group before
mine, is frequently called by his Mauritanian name, Bouli. During
the year prior to our leaving on this trip, we hardly had any
opportunities to spend time together.
most common question to us is, "Where are you from?"
There is nothing about our features that can be tied together
to make any conclusions about national origins. On several occasions,
people have spoken in Arabic to Erin, assuming that she is from
these parts. When we ask people to guess where we are from,
they usually propose a long list of European countries. Sometimes
we tell them, "Mauritania."
Upon our arrival here, we began to notice many objects and behaviors
that we typically do not see in Mauritania. There are also many
sights that we do not miss.
What does Tunisia have that Mauritania does not? Here
is a partial list, in no particular order: marvelously cool
and dry air (temperature in the 70's), mailboxes for both deposit
and delivery of letters, charming architecture with a European
ambiance, sidewalk trash containers, plentiful coins for making
change, ATMs, establishments that accept payment with credit
cards, named streets, buildings with street addresses, pay phones,
benches for sitting in public, bookstore with used books in
English, synagogues, highest denomination bill with a value
greater than three dollars, public toilets, buses and streetcars,
topsoil, women police officers, building entrances with wheelchair
accessibility, department stores, sidewalks, designated spaces
for parking, drivers who give pedestrians the right of way,
parks and other inviting public gathering places, parking meters,
bars, shopping malls, wineries, a brewery, elevators, escalators,
men and women holding hands in public.
Here's what it does not have and we don't miss: goats,
donkeys, and stray dogs walking the city streets, aggressive
Senegalese street vendors, oppressive heat, sand, people urinating
in the street, sweating all day, not being able to sleep because
of the heat, people staring at us like we escaped from a freak
show, timing our activities so we can move outside to miss the
heat of the day, police roadblocks, looking for places with
air conditioning and staying there not because we really want
to be there but because it's air conditioned, taking more than
one shower a day, the skeletal remains of vehicles, animal bones,
carcasses, and body parts littering the streets.
apparently been legislation requiring all males above the age
of 16 to smoke. Since Tunisians are law-abiding people, they
are complying with this law. There are also many more women
smokers - something that one rarely sees in Mauritania. Cafes
are popular gathering places, predominantly for the smoking
men. Sitting inside one is impossible for me; even outside,
it is not much better, as there are so many smokers that it
is easy to smell their fumes just by walking by them. There
aren't any no-smoking sections in restaurants. Wherever we go,
there are always many men with lots of free time on their hands
to populate the cafés and keep them in business.
Our first adjustment, as with any foreign country, is to the
money and its value. The unit of currency is the dinar,
which is equivalent to approximately eighty cents. It is distinctive
among currencies in that it is not divided into the widely-used
hundred cents, but into one thousand millimes. Whereas
something priced at a dollar and a half would be written $1.50,
one and a half dinars is written 1,500. There are coins
for 5, 10, 20, 50, 100, and 500 millimes, 1 dinar,
and 5 dinars; just to shake things up, the 500-millimes
coin is labeled "1/2" since it is half a dinar. The
bills are issued in denominations of 10, 20, and 30 dinars.
With all those coins, the pockets can get very heavy!
When we begin the day with a coffee, we have learned to ask
for a café direct, which is the local version
of coffee with milk. Depending on where we take it, this can
cost between 370 millimes to 1,200 dinars, or
about 30 cents to a dollar. Not being used to the money yet,
yesterday I got the whole thing all wrong, counting out 3 dinars
and 70 millimes for the coffee, handing over 3,070 instead
Erin and I are always scouting for vegetarian options. So far
our most prevalent choice has been what constitutes a salad
sandwich: a variety of vegetables on a round doughy bread opened
up like a pita pocket. Another popular favorite is called
lablabbi, which is based on garbanzo beans and comes in
either sandwich or stew form.
The national spice is harissa, which is ubiquitous and
used on almost everything. It is made with ground hot peppers,
caraway seeds, garlic, and rock salt - emphasis on the hot peppers!
A little goes a long way and leaves the tongue tingling for
several minutes after the meal.
many shops with signs advertising "fruits secs," the
direct translation for which is "dried fruit." What
I would expect to see in places like these are raisins, dried
apricots, and other types of, well, dried fruits. I walked into
one of these places, saw only jars of nuts, and asked if they
had any dried fruits, to which the proprietor pointed out all
the jars of nuts.They do have raisins, but "dried fruits"
here evidently means nuts: walnuts, pine nuts, cashews, roasted
garbanzo beans, pistachios, hazelnuts, etc.
is most frequently referred to as Publinet and is not prevalent
as it is in other countries, which makes it the only "modern
convenience" that seems to be hard to find.
The prevailing clothing fashion is Western. It is possible to
see only the occasional male wearing anything other than standard
Western trousers and shirts. One sees very few women wearing
scarves. Any departures from Western toward traditional attire
is among older people.
their hair either short or very short. It is unusual to see
any Tunisian men with hair any longer than an inch.
common traditional garb for women is a large ivoryt-colored
shawl that is worn to cover the head instead of being draped
over the shoulders. It is drawn tightly to the face, giving
a nun-like appearance. As of yet, nobody has invented a clip
or other implement to keep the shawl closed, which gives women
two main alternatives: either they keep one of their hands in
the area under the chin or, my personal favorite, they gather
a piece of it from each side and keep it drawn tight with their
My first order of business as I strolled around Tunis was to
find the synagogue. I had done an Internet search and found
that there was one (Grande Synagogue de Tunis) on one of the
main streets. When I spotted it, I could see that it is guarded
on both sides by police, and there are barriers that prevent
anyone from parking in front.
myself to one of the police and told him that I was visiting
from the United States and would like to be able to worship
on Friday night. Did he know if there would be a service? He
asked to see my identification, and I handed over my passport
so that I could prove who I was. Another officer disappeared
with the passport for a few minutes.
policeman introduced me to a person who worked in the synagogue
who, in turn, took me down the street to meet the kosher butcher
and the person who was going to lead the Kol Nidre service.
The butcher was disappointed that I was a vegetarian, but they
were otherwise pleased to meet me.
When I went
back to the synagogue from the butcher's, the first police officer
wondered if he could ask me a question. Sure, I said. He wanted
to know if I thought that Iraq or the United States was "right."
I told him that I thought that they were both wrong - that fighting
a war does not solve any problems and that our civilization
will not advance if people kill each other that way. He shook
my hand and I walked off, saying that I would see him on Friday
On Thursday, Lisa and Erin went shopping and Chris wanted to
take a nap. I didn't want to do either of those things, so that
put me on the streets of Tunis by myself. I have been enjoying
this city, which is very easy to negotiate.
At one point,
I took out a map to check my bearings. After I put it away,
I made a turn down the street that I wanted. A man about 40
- 45 years old started to walk beside me and said, "Avenue
de Madrid," the name of the street. He must have seen me
looking at my map. He introduced himself as Aziz. In our first
few sentences, we agreed that peace is better than war, and
that all people should be able to get along better.
told me that it was a special day for him, as his first child
was born that morning. I thought that he was a bit old to be
having his first child, but dismissed that thought and congratulated
him. He said he was on the way to the hospital to see "madame"
(his wife) and the baby, and he would be delighted to invite
me for coffee before he went back to the hospital.
a café, Aziz paid, and we talked. As he drank his coffee
and I drank my Tunisian mint tea, he told me that it was customary
to buy a cake on the day that the baby was born, to celebrate
a sweet life. He said it was a girl, named Mariem (Arabic version
of Mary), and that he would very much like to send me a piece
of cake as a gift from Mariem. He asked me where my hotel was,
which was a red flag to me, and I told him the name of one where
I was not staying. He then said that he would have his brother
send the cake to the hotel that night.
told me his address, which I didn't even try to remember since
I had no intention of visiting his house, and was just starting
to get suspicious, wondering where this was all leading. As
we were finishing our drinks, he said that he wanted to stop
and buy flowers for "madame," and that they would
cost about 8 to 12 dinars ($6 to 10), and he asked me
if he could borrow the money until that evening, when he saw
his brother, and his brother was going to bring him some money.
I understood the whole thing - the reason for being invited
to coffee in the first place! I went into the café (we
had been sitting at a sidewalk table) and asked the waiter how
much the coffee and tea cost. The waiter told me that my friend
had already paid for it. I said yes, I knew that, but just wanted
to know the price. He said it was half a dinar.
I got outside, Aziz was standing, getting ready to leave. "How
about that loan?" he asked. I told him that I was waiting
for money, too, and had to get to the bank later to pick it
up. For the time being, I told him, I just didn't have any money
to lend him. I gave him a half-dinar coin, shook his
hand, wished him all the best with the new baby, and was on
We spent much of the day Friday in Carthage, which is adjacent
to Tunis. The Roman ruins there are impressive. I found myself
imagining what it must have been like to live in those times,
and wished that I could have seen some of the daily life.
a museum with some fine mosaics and other artifacts, a cathedral,
a theater, ampitheatre, remnants of a spa, and other sites.
The president of Tunisia lives in Carthage in a well-guarded
Carthage, I headed for Tunis and the neighborhood of the synagogue.
I ate dinner and then attended the services. The building, while
impressive from the outside, was even moreso in the interior.
dome, which I figured to be maybe five to six stories high,
is the central open area, approximately fifty feet square, with
flooring of marble tiles. Where a central aisle would be, there
was a long table surrounded by teenage boys and young men who
were already chanting. There were a few older men in the group
of twenty, but not many. The table was piled with prayer books.
At the far end of the table was a curved pulpit, its platform
one step above the floor, the open side facing the long table.
On the other side of the pulpit, there was a space of maybe
five more feet and then five steps that led to the bimah,
which spanned the open area under the dome. In the center of
the bimah were five additional steps that led to the
ark where the torahs were kept.
was in eight rows of large wooden chairs that were attached
five abreast. From the large central chamber, there were two
steps up on the north and south sides, then two more rows of
seats that faced the large central table. In the northeast corner
was a chapel enclosed in glass; in the southeast corner was
an unenclosed chapel area.
women sit separately. Several of the men tended to their children,
many of whom were toddlers who circulated freely around the
building, enjoying the many stairs, chairs, and enclosures as
their playground. While the men also roamed freely, both carrying
and leading their young children, the women sat still on their
side of the building.
leading up to the dome, and under the dome itself, had a salmon-colored
background covered with designs in red, orange, blue, and gold
paint. There were large stars of David and a variety of stripes
and forms that bordered on being Art Deco - not an unusual design
choice, since the building was constructed in 1938. There were
three large stained glass windows on the north and south walls
of the building. Stairs led up to the unused seating, with space
available just below these windows.
Seven torahs came out of the ark, were paraded around the shul,
and then placed upright on the pulpit. Everything was in Hebrew,
which I do not understand. While at home I could hear English
explanations and interpretations of all the possible sins I
probably committed during the previous year, here I had to be
content with absorbing the atmosphere and communing with the
worldwide Jewish population on this important day.
evening, Kol Nidre, I stayed for an hour and a half. I spent
most of the day Friday in my hotel room, and then returned to
the synagogue for the closing of services at sundown. When I
arrived at the building I was not interrogated or searched.
Inside, on both occasions, I was largely ignored, except for
one man on Friday who shook my hand when he greeted somebody
sitting in front of me and one on Saturday who was sitting a
few seats away from me and beckoned me over to talk to him.
In describing the sights of Tunisia, I am going to make comparisons
to other locations where I have traveled and with which readers
may be familiar. I can't make such comparisons with Mauritania,
as it is truly unlike any other place where I have been. But
Tunisia invites many comparisons.
example, has many streets that are reminiscent of Paris: there
are wide boulevards, outdoor cafés, tree-lined streets,
and similar architectural touches on many buildings. I wouldn't
call it a cosmopolitan city, in that there are not constituent
elements from all over the world. But it most decidedly has
a European flavor reminiscent of France, Italy, Spain, and Portugal,
on the other side of the Mediterranean.
popular attraction in Tunis is the medina, the old fortified
city. It is crawling with tourists. Even though there are many
cafés, food vendors, and shops that cater to locals,
there is a huge number of stores that sell only the kind of
useless crap that tourists seem to favor, which makes the experience
look more like an Epcot Center display than an authentic experience.
That being said, its labyrinth of streets, alleys, and passageways
do have their charm, and it is one of Tunisia's eight UNESCO
World Heritage sites.
Saïd is a small town north of Tunis. We stopped there first
on our way out of the capital on Sunday morning. It is hilly
and has lots of arts and crafts, along the lines of a Sausalito
or Carmel. Once again, it is lousy with tourists.
stop was the area around the seaside village of Rafraf. This
region looked remarkably like Central America - complete with
donkey carts and people who even look like Central Americans!
We were finally away from the other tourists.
Though Erin, Chris, and I would have been content to do our
traveling by the efficient public transport system, Lisa wanted
to rent a car, to give us more flexibility. I made it clear
from the very mention of renting a car that I had no intention
of driving, which was fine with Lisa, who misses driving and
was looking forward to it.