Allies invade Takrouna … again.

Spring in the air. Out to the countryside, destination Takrouna, a Berber community perched on a hill on the plains above Hammamet.

tak sunset

Takrouna is known as the site of a hard-fought battle for territorial supremacy between German and Allied troops in WWII. Now, sixty years later,  post-Arab Spring, it’s a new wave invasion, backed by the Goethe Institute and co-funded by the European Union. Old enemies are now allies.  The event reinforces the core Tunisian narrative: outsiders arrive, fall in love with the place, set up home, bring new ideas, fight each other, and then leave. Tunisians take the bits they like and wave the invaders goodbye.  So… this the invasion.

Plakat De Colline en Colline (1)

Standout work was the installation by German artist Elke Seppmann.  During the one-day scoping at Takrouna, looking for inspiration, Elke encountered  an abandoned house, all vaulted ceilings,  exposed brickwork, flaking plaster.  The central courtyard open to the sky, a labyrinth of corridors, a honeycomb of smaller rooms.   A villager mentioned a plan to convert the space … and so the artwork Hotel Takrouna was born.

dream hotel 6She invited local villagers (including around 50 schoolkids) to enter this compound  and to reimagine the physical space transformed into a hotel. Using simple black charcoal sticks, they then transferred these visions onto large sheets of white paper, which were then posted around the walls,  at once transforming the area into a living museum.

hotel Takrouna 1

It evoked an architect’s plan, or collages from a designer’s style book. Perhaps most effective was the ‘bedroom’ where light filtered through the white paper with a shadow of a vase and flowers, providing a luminosity to the bed and bedside tables.

dream hotel window

dream hotel bedroom

The artwork managed to portray the ghosts of the past generations,  who had lived, loved, laughed and died in this private courtyard, hidden from the eyes of the outsider.  At the same time, it’s a modern dream:  it captured the aspirations of future generations, and their own vision of a ‘dream hotel’.  Interestingly the vision was far more ‘globalised’ than berber: the hotel look was achieved with classic ‘furniture and fittings  icons from a shared modern visual hospitality vocabulary.

dream hotel 5


The school kids’ contributions revealed a more local and personal vision:

hotel Takrouna2

My house in future very beautiful’  one local artist has written …

my house very beautiful

room number 14

Another youth, a football fan, has written: it’s my number bab jdid (new door) (14) and included the obligatory identity mark: ESS / est .. Ironically this is the very same ubiquitous graffiti that greeted us as we entered the village.  Political slogans come and go…But the football identities remain constant, at the same time uniting and dividing the people.


The same ‘fuck’ global meme was lurking behind another display. An Egyptian  artist  had interviewed local people about their lives, and then transposed ‘sound bites’ onto small pennants, suspended from clothes hangers.

fuck words

It was later explained that these pennants represent ‘identity’ which can be worn like an outfit.  I liked the idea, but not the end product. I’m never comfortable when women artists deliver ‘twee’ product, with flowers and neat handwriting.  Reminds me of good girls sitting quietly and stitching cross-stitch samplers.  If there was a sense of irony, I didn’t feel it.  It was also intriguing that the artist chose not to paint over the graffiti.  She explained that the juxtaposition of the ‘beautiful’ with the ‘ugly’ was the point. I agreed, but from the other perspective:  I thought the graffiti was kind of beautiful. Especially the  specific ‘fuck america’ sprayed in silver on white. Like a good luck message on a wedding gift wrapper.

fuck america

The installation that most grabbed public attention was the one assembled from serried ranks of ‘export quality lettuces’ in the courtyard of one of the few remaining inhabited houses.

lettuce setup51115_n

The artist explained the concept: “The people of Takrouna have abandoned the mountain, and live on the fertile plains, attracted by the opportunity for employment tending vegetables and salad. The lines of lettuce on the courtyard are mirrored by the lines of greenhouses below.”  On the terrace, as on the plains, it’s women’s work.

lettuce lady 28526_n

The lettuce installation delivered surreal moments reminiscent of ‘happenings’ in the late 60’s. The home-owner was setting up the taboun oven, and crammed it full of olive branches. For a couple of minutes dense white smoke billowed forth and both lettuces and lookers were lost in the swirling clouds.

smoke and lettuces

Suddenly the fuel burst into flames, the air cleared to reveal local youths had invaded the canvas. They were inside the frame, moving the elements, eating the installation.  The artwork simply a backcloth for their endless photos of themselves and each other.

lettuce take photos

The artist valiantly entered the arena, seriously explaining her oeuvre to a bewildered and yet courteous audience.They clapped and continued chomping

artists explains lettucesMeanwhile, round the corner, the chickens eagerly awaited the end of the event and a year’s supply of greens.


Here’s a link to more photos of the evening performances… it looked great.. wish I had been there.  I tend to be a bit sceptical about aid-funded art projects but the images show the extent of local support, how it gripped the attention. Hundreds of visitors put Takrouna back on the map.  For the best of reasons.


Music for our times

February 15th, 2013

Friday night, at the Ennejma Ezzahra Palace: onto the stage strolls a skinny young guy, black trousers, black shirt, no tie. Spiky hair, bit of a beard. Quirky look: could be an activist from Avenue Bourguiba.  A shy smile to the audience, he sits at the piano. Silence… then a single note, simple, urgent, repeated, again..and again.  You knew this was going to be ‘different’.  This was music for the twenty-first century: Young Virtuoso Juan Perez Floristan plays Giorgy Ligeti’s ‘Musica ricercata’. Thrilling.

Floristan 3

Why was it so exciting? Well, first of all, the piece was perfect for the time and place. This is Tunisia in the aftermath of a youth-led revolution that is still a ‘work in progress’.  An event that starts out simple with a single note, attracts more voices, gains intensity, gathers momentum and ends up with all hell breaking lose. Sounds familiar?  Listen to the opening piece (click ‘open link in new tab’ and keep it playing as you read): Musica ricercata.

It’s a composition with eleven short episodes: anger, insistence, frustration, uncertainly, moments of calm, even lyricism, followed swiftly by turbulent periods of intense passion as ideas and identities compete for space.  Aged 30 when he finished Musica ricercata, Ligeti had already ‘lived in interesting times’.


He explained how he felt when he wrote the piece: I was in Stalinist terroristic Hungary, where this kind of music was not allowed. And I just wrote it for myself … when I composed it in the year 1950, it was desperate. It was knife in Stalin’s heart.

It wasn’t just the brilliance of the work, it was also the way Young Virtuoso Juan Perez Floristan attacked the piece. He’s a seasoned performer: passionate about the piano from an early age, he was taught by his mother (herself a concert pianist), and then attended Reina Sofia Escuela Superior de Musica  where he graduated a star pupil. He’s since taken master-classes with the likes of Barenboim, Gutierrez and Yablonskaya, and has already appeared with major orchestras across Europe.

Now Juan is here in Tunisia, leading off the seventh season of the Young Virtuosi at the Ennejma Ezzahra Palace.  He’s only 19, but once he starts to play, you forget his age: he interprets the piece with maturity as if he too has lived through turbulent times. I felt privileged to share that journey.

This is the first page of the score: the insistent opening notes of Musica ricercata:

Ligeti MR 1

If they look or sound familiar, it’s because they have often been used in film soundtracks, in particular to sinister effect by Stanley Kubrik in Eyes Wide Shut.  


In response to the use of this piece,  a reviewer at that time noted:

The piano notes just keep clanging, one by one, a little bit up, a little bit down, … I wanted the music to stop. Sometimes it does. But it always returns. And when I would hear that first clanging piano note, the Pavlovian dread would rise up again. “Oh, no, not THAT music again.”

Clearly, that’s how some of the audience felt too. Several fled the scene (the crescendo sections provided good cover) and there were noticeable gaps in the room 33 minutes later. But those who stayed were treated to a bravura performance.

Their reward (if they needed more than the Ligeti) was equally exciting versions of classic twentieth century Spanish pieces by Granados, and de Falla. These were followed by the hotter, slightly jazzy ‘Argentine Dances’ from Alberto Ginastera,  first the slower-moving ‘Dance of the Old Herdsman’,  then the more lyrical ‘Dance of the Beautiful Maiden’ and finally the show-stopping ‘Dance of the Arrogant Cowboy.’  Perez Floristan rose to the occasion, following Ginastera’s directions  by playing furiosamente,  violente,  and salvaggio,  attacking vigorously the keyboard for the final coda ffff with a tremendous glissando  to bring the piece, and indeed the performance, to an end.

Bravo Juan.

Interviewed after the concert, he commented on his choice of music:

I knew some of the audience would find the Ligeti difficult. Indeed, my teacher asked me: ‘Are you sure? Really? I said ‘Yes’. I  wanted to present something new, modern, exciting…. I chose it because I love playing it.”

His passion for the piece shone through. That’s what is special about the Jeunes Virtuosi series at the Palais Ennejma Ezzahra: it’s an introduction to new voices, new talents, new experiences: the stars of tomorrow on stage today.  The concerts are a flagship programme of the Centre for Arab Mediterranean Music (CMAM), and also promote East – West musical exchanges. So it’s fitting that the opening concert teamed young artists from Spain and Tunisia.  In the first half, local ud player Nada Mahmud performed classical twentieth century compositions by Iraqi Khaled Mohammed Ali, Tunisian Ridha Kalaï,  Egyptian Mohammed Qasabji and Turkish Masud Cemil bey.


It was an excellent performance.

Apparently she was very nervous. It didn’t show: she looked relaxed and engaging. She was accompanied by renowned percussionist Mohammed Abdul Qader Haj Qacim  (her tutor  / mentor) and they clearly took a delight in playing together, exchanging the nods and smiles of an ongoing musical conversation. Theirs was also a refreshingly energetic youthful performance.  Most ud-led orchestras are dominated by the ‘old men’ of music, who play at a rather sedate pace. It’s like traveling on a slow-moving camel caravan: a soft-shoed plod across the desert sands with the occasional canter. In contrast, this performance was the fast horse version: Nada Mahmoud in the lead, champing at the bit, tightening the reins and galloping off at full tilt issuing the challenge: “Keep up Gharbi”. He did. But he better watch out in the future in case the young virtuoso overtakes.

So, two different performances, but both equally rewarding in their own ways.  You can see  clips of the performances from  Juan Perez Floristan’s and Nada Mahmoud on the Ennejma Ezzahra facebook page.

The sign of a good concert is that the audience goes home wanting more. Well, that was just the first concert of the season.  You’ve missed the 12-year-old Italian pianist: Daklen Difato, but there is still time to grab tickets for:

Friday February 22nd:  Ozan Sari (Turkey), violin and baglama, and then Annika Treutler (Germany),  piano

Saturday February 23rd: Khaled Belheni (Tunisia), qanoun, and then  from Netherlands, duo Daan Boertien, piano and Stefan de Wijs, saxophone

Sunday February 24th: Seifeddine Ben Mhenni (Tunisia), ud, and then Mischa Kozlowski (Poland),  piano

Concerts start at 7pm, at the Ennejma Ezzahra Palace in Sidi Bou Said. Tickets on the door, but they may sell out, so you may want to get tickets in advance.

‘Wanting more’ also means finding out more. For me, I wanted to know more about the Ligeti piece.  A quick search on-line revealed fascinating insights, some of which informed the review above. Do not for one minute think I know anything about the theory of composition or the technique of playing classical music. For me, a concert is simply an invitation to a voyage: I know that both Nada and Juan would be fun people with whom to travel

Talking of fun… I could not resist including this piece of sheet music from another Ligeti piece (cello concerto). Haha.. and the audience at Ennejma Ezzahra thought Musica ricercata was difficult… !

ligeti cocerto for cello

For more background on Ligeti see here and for long interview from BBC – available in MP3 format or transcript. Then  LOTS of references on Ligeti here

The quotation from Ligeti concerning use of his music in Kubrik’s films  is taken from a very short interview from the 2001 documentary: “Stanley Kubrik: a life in pictures” in the segment concerning Eyes Wide Shut. On this version on YouTube the interview comes around the 6 minute mark.  And then to  watch a clip of Eyes Wide Shut that uses the piece to ‘sinister effect’ see here.  I quoted from the excellent review by Sheila O’Malley of Eyes Wide Shut and the use of Musica ricercata

Look here for more on Ginastera’s Argentine Dances.

For more on the ud pieces see: Iraqi composer Khaled Mohammed Ali;  Egyptian composer Mohammed Qasabji and Turkish composer  Masud Cemil bey

Biking with the bad boyz

clear mind of can't.2Ten pm, January 2. 2013… oh my god.. when did my life get to be so exhilarating ??? Adrenaline coursing through my veins, my whole body twitching, steaming sweat, exuding endorphins from every pore. So wired I can scarce write this piece: just got back from my first velorution ride.. Two hours non-stop energetic cylcing alongside a posse of young guys, one with loudhailer strung on his back, pumping out rock music, whooping and wailing like a police siren.  A band of bicycling bozos zooming round the streets, blocking the roads, generally causing confusion and mayhem. Five circuits of the roundabout and all the cars get blocked, and drivers go crazy. What a rush. The power of the pack. The buzz factor: totally anarchic.. a chance to team up with a crazy Sardinian to lead the pack and zoom up one-way streets the wrong direction, down back alleys, up curbs, over pavements.  Even with only eight to ten riders the power of the pack meant we could simply ride across main streets and stop the traffic… no argument. Such a powerful sensation… all it takes is the political will.. and a sense of agency. Velo-rution like revolution. All about creating critical mass. .. velorution 1Of course, in Tunisia the whole thing takes on the added allure of the current political context: how to operate without leadership? If three political parties can’t manage an economy, can a bunch of cyclists get from A to Z by the most indirect route? Fantastic ‘headless chickens’ milling about moments as some shouted ‘left’ .. others ‘right’ and the rest ‘straight on’.. Not helped by fact that Enrico (having successfully navigated himself round Tunisia in three weeks) revealed that, for him, ‘left’ meant ‘straight on’ … Then there’s the false friends (and who needs THEM on a critical mass style ride?) ‘right on’ and ‘right’ .. tout droit / a droite … For those who prefer to talk like an Egyptian, then ‘dughri dughri’ gets you nowhere and even alatool becomes dimatool. But dialect doesn’t matter because no-one takes any notice. Anarchy on the streets of La Marsa. Love it.

In the west, the joy of critical mass rides is to fight against the machine, challenge blind faith in the future of four wheels and to act against the rules of the road that favour large vehicles over small people. Hell here, most drivers ignore the rules of the road anyway. You could even argue in favour of Critical Manners Meetings with riders encouraged to be outrageous and obey all traffic laws such as stopping at red lights, signaling, enforcing one way systems, halting at pedestrian crossings. Steady… Tunisia may have launched the Arab Spring and ousted a dictator… but a mass movement to impose motorway manners?! Mustakhil walla yomken… Are you crazy? THAT would be dangerous: if everyone suddenly started obeying traffic codes, no-one could predict what’s going to happen. So, much safer to join the crazy system, and make its madness apparent. Plus… it’s wildly exciting.

velorution 2We are a motley crew, mainly male .. well actually all male apart from me. Mainly  young .. well again all young apart from me.  Some feisty young dudes on whippy little thin-tyred racers executing spins on the rain-slicked tarmac, and generally causing traffic mayhem. And all with that communal style that keeps it civil and engaging, hello, welcome, state name, shake hands. Oh apart from the guy who made the ‘hand-on-heart’ polite refusal (which is fine by me). It made me smile: seemed kind of incongruous from a biker. So much for my prejudices. .. here’s a nice photo to challenge my world view.

hijab cyclcitBut hey, no more incongruous than a ‘hug-refusing’ sixty-year old western witch pretending to be a teenager on a BMX. So here’s another image to challenge:

old woman onn bike 1In fact, the guy was rather cool, with an extraordinary helmet that made him look like a piratical Darth Vader. At the end of the night, he was on escort duty, a break-away group taking me safely from La Marsa across the ill-lit by-pass behind Carthage, alongside the Punic Port and down to the beach at Salambo. Real life ‘dialogue between civilizations’: diverse voices united by common vision: (yes.. I used to write stuff like that in grant proposals).

Four wheels bad… two wheels good.

Velorution rocks.

voiture no future

Arafat Ben Marzou, Tunisian solo-cyclist

Cycling Knights. Lords of the Road.  My nomination for honours here in Tunisia: Arafat Ben Marzou, a 30 year old who cycled solo from Turkey to China last year. turkey china ride You just don’t often meet solo Arab travellers, cyclists, trekkers, back packers. Well at least not off the beaten path. So it was worth a trek of my own  to Tunis on the TGM to visit to hear him speak. !00 + signed up on Facebook… and inevitably there were only about 15 people in the room at 5pm Centre d’Etudes de Carthage.  When  the introduction began: ‘Est-ce qu’il y a des francophones dans la salle?’ … I proudly raised my hand… and everyone looked pityingly at me… Then I realized she meant: ‘Does anyone here not understand Tunisian Arabic?’ … because this talk would be local dialect. But then I thought, hell, this young guy managed 10 months across to China, where presumably he didn’t speak the local languages. So ‘meo wunti’  I stayed.

Voyages-340x170 Which was a good decision. First of all, he was engaging: a natural story teller, with a tale to tell. Put simply: graduate in engineering, good job (teaching at university if I understood right) but seeking more in life… Resigns job, sells everything …. sets off on a backpacking sub-Saharan adventure Tunisia, Algeria, Mali, Burkino Fasso and Senegal.. hitching lifts, local transport, traveller stuff. He gets the travel bug. And the idea of Turkey to China … by bike. laden bikeClearly this is not a guy who plans, makes lists, organizes, ticks off the items on the checklist. Which is probably why he arrives in Turkey to find his first section of ride is through snow several metres deep. For which he is totally unprepared physically, psychologically and sartorially. But he cycles onwards. And 25 photos and about 45 minutes talk later he is in China (by which time the audience has also grown to about 45). Hurrah.  OK, what was funny was that I really have no clue what he said.. but then that made it all the engaging. Along the line, prompted by one of his friends, he told a good story (which I have retrieved from his facebook page). He’s in Afghanistan with these dudes:

guysThey offer him some local speciality.  Initially he refuses (rule #1 keep a cool head) but then he accepts (Rule # 2: surrender) and drifts off into delightful dope-driven dreamy haze. Wakes up to ‘scary moment’ as they insist on him opening his metal safe box, where he keeps  important stuff (passport, visas, camera…oops money…). Nervously, he opens the box …

“…  and suddenly silence reigned ……… for me this was one of the strongest moments of the trip, to see the magical effect of the Koran on these people, and to see the incredible change in their behaviour. It was strong and it lasted several minutes, enough time for each person to take Koran  in his hands, open the book and kiss it.”

I put myself in his place and wonder…  apart from the kindle… what would be my book in the box? Of course, if it was the bible, the story might have a totally different outcome. As in The End. Because if there is ANYTHING that would piss off the locals it’s an English-speaking bible-bashing biker, laden with kit, brandishing a GPS and assorted maps, claiming to be on a journey of self-discovery. So, I’ve already discounted Turkey-Iran-Afghanistan from the mental map.  Nicely told though. A real audience pleaser.

After his talk, the questions (mostly from females) tended to focus on: ‘Why? What made you? What you escaping from?’ Like all good questions, they reveal more about the askers than the repliers. A better question might be: Why don’t we do it? What are all the reasons we give ourselves for not seeking adventure? The obstacles we create were all there: How much did it cost? Where did you stay? Did you miss your friends / parents / loved ones?  His answers: not a lot, wherever was cheap, no…. Someone asked: All that intense experience, who did you share it with? His response a whispered, loving: ‘ma bicyclette’ …

stripped down His FB page has the above image of his love, stripped down a bit: and inscribed in Arabic which Google translated nicely as: Delirious Bisklat Chrat equitable Bay … Paved Asia from Istanbul to Beijing … And Taadat on Tehran and Kabul!!  Hi Tu returned to Tunisia!  I always used to think of mine as: mon velo. From now on, it’s  Delirious Bisklat.  

Looking back on the evening, and trying to put together this piece, I am struck by the lack of ‘guy’ stuff that usually pepper these presentations. Facts, figures, distances, times, numbers, the absence of the usual organiser’s checklists. I got the impression he was wonderfully unprepared. That’s an adventure. He looked like a nice guy you could hang out with on a bike. His facebook page is called Tabba3ni / (follow me !!) .. so I was inspired to do just that… and celebrate the new year with a quick exploration north and west from Salambo. Okay, it’s not a major ten-month trek from Tunis to Timbuktoo … but it’s a start. The new year started well: January 1st. 7 am sunrise over Salambo beach…

sunrise jan 1By 7.15  Cap Bon visible over the bay.

sunrise jan 1.2 Time to get out.. Next posting…. Cycle ride to Gammarth and beyond.  Preferably eyes open.


Wiggo – cyclist with style

As a follow-up to my cycling post this morning:

wiggins-showIn praise of Wiggo..UK Sports Personality of the Year!

‘In Britain’s greatest year, Wiggins won support of the public with his self-effacing charisma as well as his phenomenal achievements…Described at various stages throughout 2012 as le gentleman, the modfather and the banana with sideburns, the epithets he received were bestowed upon an idiosyncratic yet very ordinary man who has achieved extraordinary things.’

What a cool modaluscious groovy guy.  I’d follow him out to Chikleh any day. Not a glimpse of spandex to be seen.

Eat your heart out Armstrong you smug sanctimonious doping cheat.

Wiggins:  king of the road

Cycle to Chikleh

Chikleh: Rich Roman’s holiday home, Hafsid Sultan’s camping ground, Spanish fortress, leper colony, quarantine quarters, restored historic monument. Chikleh: You name it, Chikleh has been there, done it, got the T shirt … and survives.

This was my first real cycle ride in Tunisia – after hiring a good bike from Dominique at Tuneasybikes. Looking for adventure. Since I live out near near Lac de Tunis, then the the first idea is to do a circuit. Probably about 40km. OK, it’s 3pm so maybe not. But if not round, then maybe across? I have seen this causeway, which starts in La Goulette, and reaches out into the lake, beyond the spikey wooden fence.

vague causewayAnd the other day, while exploring right on the other side of the lake, near to Tunis, I also spotted this building.

800px-Chikli_Island_-_Lake_of_Tunis. smallSo maybe the two can be connected. Literally and historically. Time to find out….. Easier than you might expect, although not exactly an appealing entry point. As usual, across the waste land, through a rubbish tip, negotiate the dogs and the ‘no entry’ signs, over the bridge, and then start to cycle.

entrance chiklethrough gates to bridge

track aheadIt’s a surprisingly long ride: probably about 4 km, over crunchy chipping track, with good mud / puddles / small lakes on the route. All along the track, the fishermen’s shacks. There are good stocks, not least since the fish farm was abandoned, and the fishes given freedom:  winners of the Arab Spring. Plus the fishermen.  The track seems to go on forever. There’s one guy knee-deep in the shallows, pulling up mounds of mud and weeds. Presumably he is after eels. Can’t imagine what else could be lurking. Unless he’s a ‘treasure seeker’ .. of which there are many here (and a future post?). But then by the time we are three km from the entry to the causeway, even the fisherfolk have petered out: it’s an empty winding track ahead. At times, it’s hard to imagine there IS a final destination to this journey, but at last, Chekla Island comes into view. With the fortress.

arrive spanish fortCross over the muddy access track, round to the left and then follow the outer walls of the fortress. It’s impressive: grand scale, pale stone, beautifully restored and inviting.

entranceI am alone: the solo cyclist. I am ready for adventure… but I am not stupid. So I don’t enter. Outside, I imagine what goes on inside. That evening, back home in Salambo, I read up the ‘who / what / why / where / when / how? on google and wikipedia. First: location, out on the Lac de Tunis:

chick from air 2Next,  the name of the Island: Chikly / Chekla / depending on which derivation you prefer: Some say it’s Chekla based on the Arabic Chekila, which means coquette. Others, including Marcel Gondolpho who’s written a short story of the island prefers to imagine that it’s Italian, and is a distorted version of Sicily. (haha.  Sicily: a tiny island. Home to cosa nostra, where mafia corruption runs riot! Chikleh a distorted version? Are we talking worse?).

800px-IleChikliLacTunisOne of first textual references is by El-Bakri to the eleventh century who described the island. “To the east of the city of Tunis, there is a large lake which has twenty-four mile circuit in the middle is an island called Chekla, which produces fennel and contains the remains of an old castle.”  And then Abu Fadl Allah Al-Omari (1337-1338) described it as “a picturesque place and one can admire the surroundings of the lake and surrounding gardens.” Apparently, Hafsid sultans visited the island to fish, settled in tents and stayed there for several days, engaging in leisure activities and entertainment. Frankly, if you’ve visited Chikleh, this idea of ‘several days’ sounds far-fetched. Given that most contemporary documents also refer to the Lac de Tunis as a stinking, brackish stagnant bog, maybe the idea of a summer camp is less than attractive. (Unless you are a Brit brought up on Butlins maybe?)

When I first heard about this place from Europeans, it was referred to as ‘the Spanish Fortress’ elsewhere, in wiki, it’s also referred to as St Jaques fortress. Maybe it’s also important to distinguish between the island itself (eternally and totally Tunisian) and the edifice-upon-it, which, like most infrastructure here, reveals traces of centuries of to-ing and fro-ing of various forces.  The mosaics and remains of a villa attest to Romans. The must have swum there in a straight line – because the causeway is far too dog-legged for marching centurions. The next important change of use was under the bey Hammouda Pacha

Hammouda_BeyHe established a leper / Lazarus colony there, probably towards end 1700s. But by the mid 1800s the fort was abandoned, to be reactivated in the 1900s as a quarantine for travellers arriving by ship in Tunis Port, having travelled through the Suez Canal.

So, enough history. Back to the present. By now, I am totally alone in the wilds with the wildlife, which, given the isolated location, abounds. Especially birds of which there are, allegedly, 57 varieties. (And thus inspired a Heinz slogan) .Plus there are interesting habitats: this looks like some sort of earthship.

earth fort chiklehApparently, the egret is most common. The other visible birds, bigger and noisier, are the constant stream of aircraft landing at Carthage International. From Chikleh you have an amazing view of the undercarriage. And indeed, as informed by my ‘Pilot Family’ friends, it’s a reference point for landing. Lying on my back, in the sand, I watch it fly over: belly on display, strangely vulnerable. If I were writing a modern spy novel, this is where the ‘good guy’ would hole up, to emerge at the last-minute armed with a shoulder-held RPG, and blast a 747 out of the sky, killing the ‘bad guy’ and thus averting world war III. Who the ‘good guy’ and ‘who the bad guy? Like the naming of Chikleh, it all depends on your point of view. So, write your own narrative; To get in the ambience, come on over.

Together we can explore the fortress in all its glory. Built between 1535 and 1540 on the orders of Charles V, who quickly realized the potential role of the island as a forward defense in the protection of the city of Tunis. It’s Spanish style, built on the ruins of a castle that fell into disrepair towards the end of the era of Aghlabites. So spanish-style becomes ‘Spanish Fortress’.

A convenient choice of history on which to focus, since the Spanish then worked with the Tunisian government on a program of restoration and development of the island, which started with this:

chikly_2and ended with with this:


¡Felicitaciones y muchas  gracias a los españoles! ¡trabajo bueno!

Rumour has it that the Trabelsi family were planning to open a night club there.(so maybe the ‘distorted’ version of Sicily was appropriate).  I can just imagine drunken revellers from elite social classes stumbling back along the 4km route at three am, wind whistling, waves crashing. As if.

If you read Wikipedia, it will inform you that: Tthrough this project, the fortress has regained its previous form. To the chagrin of Tunisians, this island can not be visited. Well clearly that’s changed. That is NOT me on the roof (not my style of shorts) .. so others have been here.

chikly bike on roofIn fact.. that photo is of / or by Fabore Oo (regularly active on VelorutionTunisienne)

Bring your passport just in case


Books.. the true love story of my life

Once upon a time, boy meets girl.  Fast forward, they are in bed, having sex:

Boy to girl: ‘Would you rather be reading  a book?
Girl to boy: ‘Yes… would you rather be listening to music?
Boy to girl: ‘Yes’
Boy rolls over, finds headphones, turns on stereo
Girl reaches under bed, retrieves book, turns the page
Happy ending

There are those who escape by immersing themselves in the silence between the notes. And those who are transported by black lines on a white page. I’m from the latter species. That’s me reaching under the bed.

I grew up in a house where we read books. Every Saturday morning, my parents would take us to Swinton Library. Up the steps of the Victorian red-brick mansion, down to the children’s section. Even now, more than fifty years on, I can still see the shelves and the pock-marked ox-blood lino on the floors. We took our full allowance of six books; most weeks we read and returned them all. Books were respected; they lined the walls of our house. Maybe you can’t judge a book by its covers, but we certainly judged harshly those who didn’t even have the books in the first place. In later life I signed up to the famous John Waters philosophy:

tomorrow-started-john-waters-quote-booksOne of the challenges of setting up home in a new place is the loss of the accumulated library. It represents my life: decades of buying books in airports, train stations, charity shops, boot sales. Thousands of books, testimony to hours spent waiting for flights, sitting on planes. At the end of one particular project in China, I took the slow route home, by train from Beijing to Ulan Bator to Irkutsk to Nizhny Novgorod and on to Moscow. Alone in my first class carriage, I reclined on the day-bed, looking out over endless barren steppes and  snow-tipped silver birch forests. On that five day journey, I read 15 novels. Each time I reached the last page, I opened the carriage window and hurled the book to the winds, imagining some Mongolian horseman scooping it up, discovering the joys of Ian Banks’ Crow Road, Annie Proulx’s Shipping News, Sebastian Faulks’ Birdsong, Laura Esquivel’s Water for Chocolate. 1993, a great year for novels.

My biggest fear lay in the risk I might consume all my stocks before arrival in Moscow. One day to go, and I was down to my last book: The Stone Diaries, by Carol Shields.


Even now, almost twenty years on, I can remember trying to slow down, savouring each word, reading aloud, forcing myself to look up and daydream. Anything to avoid the prospect of reaching ‘The End’ before reaching the end.

So here I am in Tunisia;  with my Kindle. It’s changed my life. The library comes with me, as I learn to expand the e-book horizons, allowing myself to read several books at the same time. It’s become my browser, delivering intense hits of literary brilliance. This post was inspired by  reading just the first few pages of Glyn Maxwell’s ‘On poetry’. Without my kindle I would never have entered his world. But there it was – somebody’s ‘book of the year’..with a great review. I saw it, checked it out, downloaded it. Immediate gratification.

It’s a sign of old age, the addition of poetry to the library. Oh God. It’s yet another sign that I have become my mother. When she was about 90 years old, living alone (still near Swinton) she got mugged while waiting for a bus. The guy grabbed her handbag. When she told the story, what upset my mother most was not the shock of the attack, the blow to the arm, the cutting of the strap on her shoulder bag, nor the theft of the money in her wallet. It was the loss of her library card. Ticket to another world.