Tunisian Travels, Part I

Recently Wanda Waterman spent several weeks in Tunisia, where she crossed half the country, visited several cities and villages, and stayed with a traditional Tunisian family. This article series chronicles her adventures and experiences in the Maghreb.

Arrival in the Capital

In Tunis the night air is an energizing sea breeze from the nearby Mediterranean, a fragrance free of noticeable pollutants. There’s also a distinct aroma hard to pinpoint but which I later come to believe is the smell of concrete, or rather the difference of scent between my world of wooden structures and this one of clay, marble, sand, and cement.

It looks like southern California, all palms and glamorous cafés and pretty people. But the contrasts of Tunis are evident: there is an old colonial section, traditional and somewhat dilapidated, and a newer, more posh and modern district catering to the shelter, food, and clothing needs of politicians, diplomats, and bankers.

Going South

As you drive from the capital toward the south you encounter more and more sand as the green bunches spread out. Olive groves are a common feature of the landscape, but in the desert regions the olives are smaller and they (along with their oil) have a more pungent flavour due to the hotter, drier climate.

The highway traverses the plains, hedged in by the edges of the Atlas Mountains. The peaks are imposing, stony, and bleak, as bare of vegetation as the surface of the moon. Tunisia was in fact the filming site of all but the fifth Star Wars movies, and fans often take the ?Star Wars Trip? to visit the various film locations there.

Initially along the highway you see a lot of Renaults, Citroëns, and Volkswagens, as well as many scooters (mostly Peugeots), some carrying a husband and wife and even one or two children. After a couple of hours, however, traffic thins and you encounter carts drawn by donkeys, mules, and the occasional horse.

Cacti have been planted as windbreaks along the highway. A blasé approach to public garbage collection has left the bags to fall apart in the elements with comical results; the thorns of the cacti are often decked with white and blue plastic bags that tremble and twirl like flags in the wind.

Some of the concrete structures have been abandoned and are slowly caving in on themselves while others are in the process of construction. As a result, much of the countryside?for all its beauty?looks like the calm aftermath of an aerial bombing, with goats, sheep, camels, and horses peacefully grazing nearby.

At Home

In Gafsa (340 kilometres south of Tunis) we enter a typical concrete house, elegantly constructed with balconies, marble, ceramic tiles, and a small courtyard containing lemon trees, mint, and fava beans. The upper storey is the home of the eldest son, who for the time being is working in France. It appears to be a simple thing to build one of these houses and also to add to it, raising stories and adding extensions in any direction without ruining the proportions. The interior is cool and clean, with high ceilings, beautifully furnished but with little adornment.

We are embraced by family members of all ages, none of whom appears shy except for the littlest, who stares but doesn’t approach, and the man of the house, who conducts himself with dignity and reserve.

Cuisine

We eat sitting on the floor in the living room, around a small table. The whole family is not together at once, only those who wish to eat now. The food is exquisite, with fresh ingredients expertly cooked and seasoned. Pains have been taken to spare the tongue of the Canadian guest, and so I’m told which dishes ?sting? (or pique in French?the Tunisians are known in the Maghreb as ?the people of the piquant? because of their fondness for very hot foods). Platters of couscous appear, garnished with vegetables and mutton and a rich tomato sauce. we’re also served briks (a phyllo pastry stuffed with a kind of omelette), a basket of bread (baguettes as well as flat Arab bread), salad, and a bowl of olive oil for dipping.

The Tunisians look to olive oil for the same range of purposes for which my Irish grandfather would recommend whiskey?good for sore throats, wounds, skin problems, and the flu, among other things? but It’s also a delicious and very healthy accompaniment to every meal.

Food is taken separately to Baba (Dad) in another sitting room and to the 98-year-old Dada (Grandma) who’s being cared for in a nearby bedroom. Two or more people will eat from one platter. I am continually urged to eat more. There’s a lot of joking and laughter, and many questions about Canada.
Political discussions are avoided at the dinner table, but crop up later in one-on-ones.

Afterward we have the choice of strong mint tea, strong red tea, or very strong Arab coffee, made by boiling very finely ground coffee beans in a small pot. I remember soldiers returning to Nova Scotia from the Middle East talking about this coffee and wondering where they might buy such fine grounds, so later I go with my hostess to find out how It’s done. First we visit a nearby shop?one of many windowless closet-size businesses with doors open to the street?to buy a bag of coffee beans. Then we take this bag to another shop that holds nothing but a counter, scales, and a number of human-sized mills. A young girl puts the beans in a large hopper and grinds them to a dust, then bags them and carefully weighs the bag. When it comes up short she goes back to the machine to scrape out the last vestiges of coffee.

When It’s time to sleep the unmarried women congregate in one room, the unmarried men in another. We are handed big fluffy blankets and pillows and each person takes one of several large comfy day beds or camps on a mattress on the floor.

(To be continued.)

Wanda also penned the poems for the artist book They Tell My Tale to Children Now to Help Them to be Good, a collection of meditations on fairy tales, illustrated by artist Susan Malmstrom.

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