July 25, 2004

A Photo Tour of Tunisia


Here is the North African coastline along the Gulf of Tunis as seen from the cliffside seaside village of Sidi Bou Said. In the days of Carthage the pagan God Baal was worshipped in a sanctuary atop the larger mountain Djebel Bou Kornein - the “two-horned hill” in Arabic.


I have never been to Greece, but I felt like I was there in Sidi Bou Said. This was the most pleasant place we visited in Tunisia. A riot of vegetation tumbled down the cliff toward the shimmering Mediterranean. The streets are finely cobbled, the restaurants elegant, and the walls perfectly whitewashed. Here you’ll see as many women as men. You’ll also see couples holding hands. It’s a long way from the deeply conservative, seemingly all-male, offensively hot south of the country.


The most intoxicating place is the haunting and labrynthine old medina of Tunis. You can avoid getting lost if you stay on the main paths. But what fun are ancient twisting streets if you don’t get lost in them? Pick a side street and start walking. You won’t truly feel like you’ve travelled far from home until you think you’ve tresspassed in someone else’s neighborhood and you don’t know how to get out.


This is the view across the street from our hotel in Tunis. The name of that tower, the Hotel Africa, seems wrong somehow. Is Africa really this prosperous? Well, yes, at least one part of it is.


Here is my wife Shelly at breakfast on the terrace of the Hotel Carlton where we stayed for three nights. The street below is the Avenue Habib Bourguiba, named after Tunisia’s own Kemal Ataturk. The ancient medina is only a few blocks away.


150 miles down the coast is the smaller city of Sousse. Like Tunis, it is a relatively liberal and cosmopolitan place. A lot of tourists from Europe visit Sousse. Most go to the beach. I preferred the medina, which is what you see in this picture from above.


And here is a photo of the inside of the medina. The medieval wall you see on the left was built when the Arabs conquered Tunisia.


I was tempted to use up an entire memory stick on my digital camera taking pictures only of doors. Even the poorest Tunisians have a nicer door than the one on our house. We really do need to upgrade.


Here is a picture of me on the medieval wall at the top of the Sousse medina. The Mediterranean keeps this place cool, at least when compared to the Sahara.


This ribat is inside the medina. It, too, is medieval as you can see by the look of it. Its purpose was purely military. Ribats like this one were closely spaced along the North Africa coast and were built to watch out for Crusaders. When ships were spotted a signal fire was lighted at the top of the tower. This set off a chain of signal fires along the coast from one ribat to the next. Tolkien geeks will remember seeing something a lot like this, only on mountain tops instead of along the sea, in The Return of the King.


Here is where you’ll find most of the tourists in Tunisia. The beach is pleasant enough, if rather ordinary. The beach looks and feels more like Miami than the Middle East. Even so, the Pacific in our Oregon is far too cold for swimming, so we couldn’t resist spending one day in the sea. No regrets.


You don’t have to venture very far inland before Tunisia changes dramatically. 50 miles from the sea and it no longer looks like Mediterranean civilization. For one thing, mosques are made of mud instead of marble.


You know you’re far from home when you see buildings that look like this one. I don’t know how to “read” this, and that’s exactly what I’m looking for when I travel.


Exotic as the interior is, you can still find places that look familiar and “Western.” The temperature was more than 100 degrees when I took this courtyard photo, but somehow the architecture made me feel cooler. I suspect it may have been designed for that purpose.


Before I went to Tunisia I didn’t know how to tell a Berber from an Arab. I knew the Berbers were in North Africa first and that they have their own traditions. But I wouldn’t have been able to tell on sight what was Berber and what was Arab. So let me help you out and give you an example of the difference in style. This is a picture of an Arab bar. (Yes, this is a real bar. They do drink booze in Tunisia.)


And this is a picture of a Berber bar in the same town of Matmata. This place was tunneled into the ground. The Berbers went underground more than a 1000 years ago to escape the infernal heat of the Sahara. You would, too, if you didn’t have central air. You would tunnel into the walls with your hands if you had to. Trust me. It’s f-ing hot there in July. But these “troglodyte” houses are a cool 75 degrees at midday.

The Arab bar is more formally “nice,” but the Berber place was a lot more fun to hang out in.


Here is where we slept in Matmata, at the Hotel Sidi Driss. This place won an award for the world’s “loopiest hotel.” This was also where part of Star Wars was filmed. This was where George Lucas filmed Luke Skywalker’s homeworld of Tatooine.


This is what it looks like when you drive into the Sahara. The sky is as white as the background of my Web site in this picture, even though it was a perfectly clear day.

The desert isn’t all a sea of sand. (If it were there would be no roads.) Most of it is scrub and gravel plain bisected by mountain ranges and rock. All of it is hotter than Hell. I just can’t say it enough. That place is hot, the hottest place on the Earth during the summer.


Some of the Sahara looks like this. This is the Chott el Jerrid. Don’t try walking across it. It’s a dried-out ancient sea bed, cracked by heat and encrusted with salt. If you do walk out there you had better cover your face. A hat isn’t good enough. Sunlight bounces off the surface and will burn you from below.


I took this photo after a ten minute walk from our hotel in Douz. The dunes there are low and white. They manage to be pretty without being spectacular.


The dunes around Ksar Ghilane are spectacular. We paid a guy a handsome sum to drive us deep into the desert and hook us up with another guy who took us into the dunes on camels. It was a physically brutal experience in the blistering heat of July, but we got to sleep outside that night and Shelly thanked me for dragging her out there. How could anyone take a look at this view and wish they were anywhere else?

Posted by Michael J. Totten at 8:51 PM | Permalink | Comments Off

July 24, 2004


We're back and it's hot. I could hardly wait to escape the world's largest heat trap and return to the soothing Pacific Northwest. But noooooo. Instead we come home to a two-day record heat wave. Sheesh. Can whoever is in charge please lower the thermostat at least below 95? I'll settle for 96. Thanks.

Will post pictures and blather soon.

Posted by Michael J. Totten at 6:27 AM | Permalink | Comments Off

July 15, 2004

The North is a Garden

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 stike 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 enourmous 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 torquoise 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 Carthaganians 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 obviouss, 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 Pyrennes, that craggy chain of mountains amputating Spain from the rest of Europe. This is a lie. Africa does not begin at the Pyrennes. Nor does it begin at the Barbary Coast, 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.

Posted by Michael J. Totten at 10:25 AM | Permalink | Comments Off


Thanks for checking in with the blog while posting is slow. Stay tuned for another travel piece about the relatively liberal and relatively green north of Tunisia.

Oh, and please do not feed the trolls in the comments section. I've deleted the troll posts in the past couple of threads. I will not have my comments section become a platform for neo-Nazi Euro-trash, which is unfortunately what had happened while I was conveniently off the map. If you do respond the troll posts, be aware that your comments will later look strange when they are stripped of their context after the troll posts are deleted in the future.

In the meantime, keep an eye on America for me. And have a great weekend.

Posted by Michael J. Totten at 6:54 AM | Permalink | Comments Off

July 9, 2004

The South is a Desert

DOUZ, Tunisia – 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 seveneth 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. No one has tried to convert me to Islam, but 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.”

If you fear Islam, if you feel threatened by the Middle East, you must come to Tunisia. The people here are our friends. They will tell you so the instant you leave the airport. Don’t be shy. Tell them you’re an American if that’s what you are. They put their hands on their hearts when they say “welcome.” In some ways, the south is no kind of desert at all.

Posted by Michael J. Totten at 4:53 AM | Permalink | Comments Off

July 5, 2004

On the Edge of the Sahara

I am writing on an alien keyboard so I will have to keep this brief. Half the letters are in the wrong place and typing is hard. I may be able to write more easily in a few days when I get back to a large city. Also, you see all these hyperlinks in the text? This computer added those. I did not, and I cannot get rid of them.

I am slightly amazed I can blog at all from where I am. My hotel is 100 feet from the edge of the Grand Erg Oriental, one of the two great sand seas of the Sahara. Out my hotel window are camels and dunes to the horizon. Ohmygod is it HOT here, so hot you have no idea. Of course I knew North Africa would be toasty in July, but this place feels like the blast furnace planet Crematoria in The Chronicles of Riddick.

I have not seen any American tourists, but there are quite a few Europeans who came down here as I did from the capital of Tunis in the north. The difference between the social behavior of Europeans and the social behavior of Arabs is absolutely incredible. Tunisians are without a doubt the kindest, sweetest, most hospitable people I have ever met. It is overwhelming. I can hardly move without being invited to sit down for tea. I have been invited out to dinner, to a Bedouin wedding, and also into the home of an English teacher to watch soccer and practice speaking Arabic. The Europeans, who seem to be mostly French, come down here and turn up the sneer volume to eleven. I am sharing a hotel with them and they refuse even to look at me. I am a ghost to them, I do not exist. They do not know I am American, and it clearly is not personal. They are treating each other this way, too. But it takes great effort to be so antisocial. I do not understand how these people can be in such a warm and friendly place and go for days in a row without looking their fellow human beings in the eye. I watch them in the souk. They are not a fraction as nice to the shopkeepers as I am. One of the merchants actually complained to me about how rude his previous French customers were. I wonder if they ever get invited to sit down for tea.

I feel far more welcome here in the Middle East of Africa than I ever did in Europe. And truth be told, my dear fellow Americans, they are a lot nicer to us when we visit their country than we are to them when they visit ours.

(Oh, and obviously I am not referring to Mr. Mohammad Atta here, but instead to the way the average American treats the averge visiting Arab, and vice versa.)

Posted by Michael J. Totten at 2:07 AM | Permalink | Comments Off
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