Tunis: wow!


           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.

          The dramatis personae of this trip are:

           Lisa, a 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.

           Erin, a 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.

           Chris, 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.

           People's 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.

           There has 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 of 370.

           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.

           There are 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.

           The Internet 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.

          Men keep their hair either short or very short. It is unusual to see any Tunisian men with hair any longer than an inch.

          The most 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 teeth.

          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.

          I introduced 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.

          The first 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 evening.

          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.

          Then Aziz 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.

          We found 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.

          Aziz 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.

          Now 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.

          When 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 my way.

          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.

           There is 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 palace.

           Upon leaving 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.

           Under the 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.

           Seating 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.

           Men and 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.

           The walls 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.

           On Friday 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.

          Tunis, for 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.

          The most 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.

           Sidi Bou 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.

          Our next 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.