Michael Totten

The South Is a Desert and the North Is a Garden

My wife Shelly and I swooned when we visited Tunisia some years ago before it exploded. Below are two short pieces of travel writing I published while we were still there. If you missed my photo gallery of this wonderful country, you can see it here.

The sand gets in your teeth.

This is not the sand you know. Not the rim of pulverized granules of silicon and rock that ring the beaches of the world, nor the finely ground dirt of the Great Basin, the Mojave, or even the Chilean Atacama. This is liquefied earth. It swallows your feet. When the wind blows, your footprints last almost as long in shallow water. It forms into great rolling sand seas – ergs in Arabic – some that are bigger than France and where nothing lives.

The sand particles themselves are not like grains of sugar, but are the size and weight of dusty flour. That sand is everywhere. Between your molars and your toes. In your ears, your nose, in your bed, your shower, and your clothes. It pools in the corners of stairwells. Great tsunamis of it bury towns and villages whole until the wind turns fickle and uncovers them a hundred years later for tourists to marvel at on camel treks. You can climb a small dune and see shadows cast on sharply cut waves of orange toward the horizon, uninterrupted by house, tree, or rock. And to think: it goes on like that for hundreds of miles into Algeria. I don’t believe it, not really, not while looking at it. The mind reels. I need maps to see the truth of this place.

The heat in July is infernal – 120 degrees in morning shade. If you don’t wear a turban, a hijab, or a hat the sun will cook your brain. If you have no water the sun can kill in 12 hours. The desert is also a road killer, breaking the pavement to pieces and burying it in sheets of blowing sand. The ergs are separated by other kinds of seas, flat featureless plains of grit, gravel, and sometimes scrub, rippling with heat and yellow haze. Somehow wild camels manage to live.

Humans live in oases, impossible-seeming places where the subterranean water approaches the surface. Date palms survive and produce fruit here without irrigation. Their roots are unknowingly deep and thrive on water ten times too salty for people to drink. The swimming pool at our hotel is rimmed with a ring of crusted brown salt.

The oasis is infested with wind scorpions – or camel spiders – nasty things the size of my hand that urinate crystals and murder children. The government pays these same children to capture the scorpions with tongs and turn them in to the local hospital for destruction. I have not seen one alive, though I did hear a sound in my room at 3:00 in the morning and couldn’t get back to sleep again for almost an hour.

The contrast with the cities of the liberal Tunisian north is as stark as the contrast between the east and west. There are almost no women down here at all. Or, rather, they are veiled by the walls of their husband’s houses. The few who do venture out are swathed head to ankle in more layers of clothing than I wear when I ski on Mt. Hood in the winter. Some even cover their hands with gloves.

My wife Shelly says she feels like a zoo animal when we venture into town. There are many kinds of deserts.

The town of Douz is scorched, austere, and very Islamic. It’s the most conservative place I have ever been. Our hotel, inhabited as it is by Westerners, is a tiny liberal oasis where Muslim women let their hair out and Western women wear bikinis and sip from glasses of wine.

This is also the most multilingual place I’ve been. Every single person speaks fluent Arabic and French, and most seem to speak a third, if not a seventh or eighth, language of their choice. English is on the menu, of course, though not everyone speaks it. A third of those I’ve met who don’t speak English do speak Spanish so I am still able to communicate. Their Spanish is always better than mine.

Breaking through the cultural barrier is easier than you might think. As provincial, conservative, and backward as this town is, the people of Douz somehow manage to have a cosmopolitan streak in them. They are remarkably open to, knowledgeable of, and curious about outsiders. I have had to turn down invitations to dinner in private houses because – really – Shelly and I are booked solid. We have been more socially active here in the south of Tunisia than we are in our own city. The locals simply insist on it. Once friendships are made Shelly is no longer a zoo animal. She becomes “sister.”

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The fine old Tunis medina is an ancient maze of twisting streets, carpet stalls, cafes, shuttered windows, arched passageways, minarets, hanging baskets, gypsum lamps, scavenging cats, and secret paths. Western rap music battles it out with crooning exotic Arabic melodies. Middle aged men suck the hookah pipe while younger men strike metal with hammers and wood with chisels making the crafts sold in souk stalls. If you take a walk at just the right time you’ll hear the haunting muezzin’s call to Muslim prayer from the stunning, towering, arching Great Mosque in the center. This is the East in its glory.

Leave the medina through the arch to the east and you’ll find yourself in the Cité Nouvelle. In the space of 100 feet you can walk from the Middle East to France, and you can do it without leaving Africa.

The French were here to stay. Block after block after block was lifted straight from metropolitan France and dropped wholesale just south of the ruins of Carthage. The windows of fancy apartments open onto streets above sidewalk cafes, patisseries, chic clothing stores, and brasseries. The building stock is unmistakably French, and it’s in better condition than much of Marseilles and Paris. Some former French colonies are Third World disasters, but Tunisia is rich. If it lags behind Europe, you’ll hardly know it. Tunisia doesn’t have much oil, but what it does have is worldliness, sophistication, smarts, and an acute business acumen.

You will see some women with a hijab on their heads, but they are distinctly in the minority. Unlike in the Sahara you’ll see women in the cafes, sometimes with husbands and at times on first dates, often with girlfriends and sometimes alone. These are partly, if not mostly, liberated women, and you’ll feel a lot more at ease here because of it. The streets full of men in the south have an edge.

Walk to the end of the Cité Nouvelle at the edge of Lake Tunis. Catch the light rail line at the Tunis Marine station and in just 20 minutes you’ll be whisked to the ruins of Carthage, now a bedroom community for wealthy Tunisians who built an enormous marble mosque that will stop your breath.

Keep going past the “Carthage Hannibal” station and get off at the cliff-top seaside village of Sidi Bou Said. The streets are finely cobbled, the walls washed in white, the doors and window trim painted with blue from the sky. Now you’ll think you’re in Greece and will be forgiven if you forget that you haven’t left Africa. Every Mediterranean civilization has landed here in Tunisia adding to the stonework, the psyche, and the bloodlines.

Find yourself a cafe. Feel the cool wind off the sea to the north. It will massage the fury of the Sahara out of your muscles and back. Gaze across the shimmering turquoise waters of the Gulf of Tunis to the twin-horned mountain that was the ancient home of Hannibal’s pagan god Baal. Put some jasmine behind your ear. Go on. You can buy it from one of the boys in the streets for a dinar. The Carthaginians did the same thing right here 1,000 years before the rise of Islam, before the Romans sacked Carthage, before the Arabs built Tunis, before the French came and built the cafe you’re now sitting in before they went home to nurse the wounds of their loss back in Europe.

Women don’t cover their hair here. They dye it, at least some of the younger ones do. They might even pierce their nose and offer you a cigarette. They wear fashionable Western clothes and hang on the arms of their boyfriends. You would think them Europeans if you were led to this place with a blindfold, if you could not hear the Middle East on their tongues.

Tunis is surrounded by fields of green. To my Sahara-scorched eyes and skin it looks like a jungle and feels like Canada. What it’s actually like is the South of France with its rolling green hills watered with rain, its trim farmhouses shaded by trees, and more vineyards than you would ever expect in a Muslim country. Most Tunisians live here in this garden landscape with its climate fit for human beings and other living things. The connection to Europe is obvious, the connection to the arid conservative south a lot less so.

As an insult to Spain, some in France used to say Africa begins at the Pyrenees, that craggy chain of mountains amputating Spain from the rest of Europe. This is a lie. Africa does not begin at the Pyrenees. Nor does it begin at the Barbary Coast – or at least it does not in Tunisia. Africa begins at the Sahara, a day’s drive south of here. The narrow shelf of green between the small sea of water and the great sea of sand is a place all its own.
Civilization both ancient and modern burrows deep into the soil and the souls of those lucky to live here.

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