Come with me to the Kasbah

Trip Start Feb 25, 2010
Trip End Mar 11, 2010

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Flag of Tunisia  ,
Sunday, February 28, 2010

Crepes, Coffee and freshly squeezed orange juice at Kelsey's favorite café. Sugar crepe, honey crepe and chocolate crepes are the best. Chocolate wins.  Unfortunately, this time someone ordered a harrissa and egg crepe.  We would determine later that was a mistake.  All harrissa is not the same.  This one was hot!

Grab a taxi to the Bardot museum.  The Bardo is an architectural landmark. Originally a 13th century Hafside palace, it has been restored and expanded throughout the centuries to become this superb example of Arab-Moslem 17th and 18th century architecture and decoration with its vaulted ceilings, galleries and cupolas. It also claims to be the finest collection of Roman mosaics in the world.  Acquisitions from all parts of the Tunisian territory have been collected and arranged by date and place of origin into departments corresponding to the main stages in Tunisia's history.  Clearly spoiled by my hometown Washington, D.C. museums and those recently visited in Italy, I wonder if the taxi fare and entrance fees are really will be worth the visit.  This noted destination underwhelms me.

Taxi driver aggressively spots us exiting the museum and picks us up.  Starts heading in the wrong direction.  Does not want to use the meter.  We protest.  He informs us the "tunnel is closed" and we must go around.  We let him know we just came the other way and the tunnel was fine.  The $3td taxi fare to get to the museum costs us $7td to get back an even shorter distance to our new destination.  This must be the taxi driver who did not nail us at the airport.  Despite our daughters explanations in native Arabic of her understanding that we are not going in the right direction, that he is going the wrong way, he takes us on a undesired tour of the seedy backstreets of Tunis.  This is my second strong indicator of a culture which exhibits "moral challenges" that I will struggle with over the next several days.  More on this later.

We navigate the Souk to a blind alley with two doors. Kelsey knocks.  This is the home of her first Tunis family that hosted her for over a month as she attended Arabic school, slept in a small room with the grandmother and bathed in a 5 gallon paint bucket.  This traditional Tunis home was a square donut.  A central courtyard was open to the skies.  A first floor walkway and second story covered balcony provided passage from room to room each with an entrance to the central square.  Our hosts eagerly provided us with a traditional Sunday lunch meal (their largest meal of the day) of the Tunisian specialty couscous (with lamb joint parts), Tunisian salad (each Tunisian salad is different), a strange cupped entrée that I was told contained vegetables and liver and after eating the shell was informed that you don't really eat the shell since it is made of large intestines, chucky, salty milk, the most wonderful figs on the stick, fresh oranges, apples and (of course) asida for desert.  Despite our best attempts in both Arabic and hand gestures to not be served the chunky salty milk, we were provided what it turns out they consider to be a real treat.  The children of the family were joyful at the opportunity to have this and I would have gladly given them mine since one sip was my limit.

Grandmothers are the same all the world over and the grandmother of the family, covered with blue facial tattoos of the Berber culture dipped her hand into the communial bowl to continuously provide me with couscous, vegetables, meat and intestinal casings of liver mixtures (which by the way was tasty).  Grandmother also felt the need to grab Casey’s hands and firmly rearranged all her rings to be on the "proper" fingers.

Casey packed and delivered ½ a suitcase full of gifts for the children who Kelsey came to love during her stay with them.  Our hosts were most gracious and generous with their time, food and also prepared with a lovely gift for Casey of Tunisian silver.

As happens five times a day in this nation, the call to prayer (Salat) sounded near the end of our meal and the man of the house left to wash his feet, hands, etc in order to attend.  There are several versions for the call to prayer, but this is the basics:

Allah (God) is the greatest
I bear witness that there is no deity except Allah
I bear witness that Muhammad is the Messenger of Allah
Hasten to the Prayer
Prayer is better than sleep
God is the greatest
There is no deity except Allah

We agree that we want to see the local mosque.  Although we can not enter, we will view it from the outside.  The brother-in-law agrees to escort us.  We leave and weave our way through the winding and mostly empty alleys of the Souk.  I am really glad the Souk is closed.  This is a narrow, dark and sometimes scary place.  I can not imagine it under the crush of human flesh.  I try to imagine the incident where someone repeatedly tried to steal my daughter’s bag in the darkness of this crowded space.

Our talkative guide informs us he will take us to his favorite café for coffee.  We try to explain that we are full of coffee and only wanted to see the Mosque.  We emerge and view the Kasbah.  My romantic concept of the Kasbah was destroyed.  It turns out that a Kasbah is a place for the local leader to live and as a defense when the city was under attack. A kasbah has high walls which usually have no windows. Sometimes, they were built on the top of hill to make them easier to defend. Having a kasbah built was a sign of wealth of some families in the city. Almost all cities had their kasbah, this building being something necessary for the city to survive.  If you want to rock the Kasbah, bring some big rocks.  Our guide explains to us that it is fine to miss our next appointment.  This is the Tunisian way.  It is fine to be taken someplace we did not want to go.  This is the Tunisian way.  It is expected we will eat and drink items we did not desire because he desires that we have them.  This is the Tunisian way.  I will have to pay because he forgot his wallet.  This is the Tunisian way? 

We awkwardly exit the café in order to make our next appointment with a rejected offer to pay and as we wind our way back from the Kasbah to our hotel room, we go through some of the less tourist traveled areas.  Several of the zones have sidewalks stacked with clothing.  Kelsey informs us she finds the best deals on clothing at these venues.  Evidently, truckloads of clothing arrives from the western world and is sold dirt cheap here.

We meet some locals for late night coffee and snacks.  Conversation turns to the notation that, although they agree that the Jewish holocaust of Nazi Germany did happen, the claims regarding the number of Jews killed can not be reconciled with the facts of the known populations in the affected countries at the time.  It appears their view is we must turn the clock back to the time before WW II and consider some kind of a “do over". Where will all the Israeli Jews go?  I guess they are still working on that.  They have launched a new Facebook discussion board to address this issue.  We excuse ourselves due early due to lack of sleep and a 6 time zone change in our demeanor.

I am informed that Tunisia has the largest middle class of all Muslim nations.  I am reminded in this café exchange of the passion and fervor of some folks I met in the early 1970s who had fat wallets, warm homes, full bellies and spend their free time believing in the cause of organizations such as the SDS and Black Panthers.

The last picture is our triple room at the Hotel Carlton.  After much research, this hotel was selected due to its above average recommendations by visitors and its three star rating.  Evidently, the star rating system in Tunisia has little correlation to the expectations most western nation residents would expect.  I can only assume that the other hotels are so much worse than this one that, relatively speaking, this place is considered top notch.  This hotel lacked basic air circulation causing us to open the window to the central atrium area. During the night the light odor of sewage drifts in the room mixing with the distant sounds of local clubs.  I will come to refer to Tunisia as the land of hard beds.  Mattresses are thin, extremely firm and rest upon on solid wood foundations without benefit of a box spring. 

As I prepare to leave Tunis, I struggle with the fact that I am in an Islamic nation where the population (I am told) is the largest middle class in the Arab world and 98% are Muslim.  I find the all day café culture to be a bit strange.  The cafés are packed all the working day with mostly young men most of whom are employed for hours by babe-watching, drinking coffee and smoking.  Many have no problem cat-calling and making rude and inappropriate comments to my daughter and my wife as I walk with them down the main street of the capital city.  I find this irreligious and disrespectful not only to the women but to the man who is accompanying what are clearly his wife and daughter.  I ponder if this behavior is reserved just for foreigners or non-Muslims or if this is the outcome for everyone and I just don’t see this with others because few women are on the street - ever.

Following independence from France in 1956, President Habib Bourguiba established a strict one-party state. He dominated the country for 31 years, repressing Islamic fundamentalism and establishing rights for women unmatched by any other Arab nation.  In 1987, Bourguiba was removed from office and replaced by Zine el Abidine Ben Ali in a bloodless coup. Ben Ali is currently serving his fifth consecutive five-year term as president.

Despite the unmatched rights of women in any other Islamic nation, the clear lack of women in the café’s and on the streets is striking.  We are informed that most are at home or in the Hammams, which are public steam baths.  Hammams hours for the men are twice per day and once per day for women.  I am informed that the elderly women scope out the young flesh searching for brides for their sons.  At the Hammam, little is left to the imagination.

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