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 July 9, 2004 4:53 AM
Winner, The 2007 Weblog Awards, Best Middle East or Africa Blog

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