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

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

Not a caravan of despair

Just spotted this yarn-bombed bus. Nothing to do with Tunisia in Transition. Made me laugh. Filed under ‘other stuff’.

Then saw the yarn-bombed bike, just as was about to set off for Tuneasybikes to check out my imminent purchase.

Then at the cafe Salambo, I saw this empty sunshade frame, begging for a yarn-bomb-transformation into whirling-dervish-umbrella.

Watch this space, sisters from Stitch and Bitch Amman

Sufism, Tunisian style

Time for a positive spin. Sufism! The ‘inner mystical dimension’ of Islam. In Tunisia, they don’t have Dervishers, which is a pity, because they look so cool. Well done Turkey. Great PR.

Plus Sufi has great poets like Rumi:

Come, come, whoever you are,.
Wanderer, idolater, worshiper of fire,
Come even though you have broken your vows a thousand times,
Come, and come yet again.
Ours is not a caravan of despair

I love that line: ‘Ours is not a caravan of despair‘. It’s become a bit of a mantra for my adventures in transition.

A while back, I went to hear some sufi singers at Musiqat the annual festival organised by the Centre de Musique Arabes et Méditerranéennes – based in the Palais Ennejma Ezzahra. Great perfomance by Alim Qasimov, a traditional Azerbaïdjani singer, check out his video on the Musiqat site. Some see him as the successor to Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan. At such events (in the absence of spinning-top dancers to watch) I tend to close my eyes and go with the flow. Anyway, when Qasimov  was performing  I got so wrapped up in the trance that I fell off my chair. The mark of a great evening.

When drafting this post, I just followed the thread and checked out Nusrat  and some Divine Dervishers.  But then the youtube loading icon got stuck in a trance  at minute 3.48. where the skirts are swirling like a Dulux colour chart. Still at it 8 hours later. Youtube equivalent of falling off chair. Sufism. It gets to you like that.

In Tunisia, this mystical side of Islam is found in the hundreds of ‘mausoleums’: tombs / burial sites / shrines to various marabouts and ‘saints’, dotted all over the country, and in particular on hilltops. Mausoleum-spotting is becoming a theme of my time here. Sort of symbolic of the end of all transitions. I’m ticking them off like the Munros. Except there are more than 282 mausoleums. This may be a long journey.  Inch Allah.

We often hike up to the Mausoleum at Zagouan, shrine of Sidi Bougabrin, the ‘saint with two tombs’ .Except no-one knows where the other is.

The guardian of the mausoleum is a really happy guy, living with his family up on the hillside, surrounded by nature and cracking views. He explained how in the past, under the dictatorship, there was a representative of the Ministry of Interior (mukhabarat – security) who was posted there to watch over him, watching over the mausoleum. Listening to conversations, preventing anyone engaging. Once the Arab Spring kicked off, the guardian kicked him out. Now the mausoleum gets hundreds of visitors. Not sure what these guys up to, but they look like they having fun and the guardian is with them so that’s the seal of approval.

Although Sufism is alive in Tunisia it is more ‘kicked’ than ‘kicking’. The current tendency towards Wahabism (‘Saudi model of Islam Heavy’ as opposed to ‘Turkish model of Islam Lite’) has led to attacks on these sites.  In particular, the burning of the Sayyeda Manoubia Mausoleum, a 500-year old shrine that pays tribute to a female Muslim saint, reported in English here.

This article (from which above photo taken) explains in more detail that:  For centuries, local women have visited the tomb of the saint to ask for help with problems or to cure diseases, and many poor women seek sanctuary there.

Of course, before we get too outraged, remember back to 1842, when  the British consul to Tunis destroyed the entire Libyo-Punic mausoleum at Dougga. Just in order to remove the stone tablet with the inscription to ‘Ateban, son of Ypmatat, son of Palu‘. Thankfully, the story has a happy ending: in 1910, a French archaeologist rebuilt the mausoleum.

But without the inscription, which Nessie and Amine are looking for here:

Haha.. it is now in the British Museum. Probably stored alongside other famous ‘protected’ items like the Parthenon / Elgin marbles. For an interesting article on this issue, read: A History of the World with a Hundred Looted Objects. .

The other mausoleum which figures large in my mind is the  tomb of Sidi Amor Abbada, a blacksmith with a taste for prophesy and forging objects on a grand scale: not least the set of giant anchors that were supposed to secure Kairouan to the earth.

Given the heady ambiance of spiritual flights of fancy, the anchors were perhaps essential. This merits a separate post. To be continued.

A fishy tale … life in transition

Out on my bike, cycling the muddy tracks. I am thirsty.  In the middle of nowhere, a sort of futuristic building, big round windows like portholes on a cruise ship.  The door is open, there is someone inside, so I enter the gloomy space. Stainless display units, dusty and litter-strewn. Cats everywhere. Seated at a bench, a Danny de Vito look-alike. “Welcome, join me” ,he invites, with the typical hand-sweep gesture to the chair opposite and the offer of a glass of lemonade. I recognize a bored man with a tale to tell. “So, what’s happening here?”  I ask.   And we have a life story: Let’s call him Mehmed; his is just another story of lives in transition.

So before the revolution,  Mehmed was the manager of this fish emporium out on the lake. Like so many other ‘thriving’ enterprises, it was owned by people close to the ruling regime. They had leased the entire lake for 30 years, and established a fish farm: the usual seabass and daurade but with the interesting addition of eels. Eels.  Something about them makes me squirm. Exported to Italy by the ton in massive containers. You can imagine: tens of thousands of eels enter the container in single file and end up a solid writhing knot of slip-slimey resistance. (Actually that appears to be a false image: there are NO pictures on internet of writhing masses of eels – or at least i could not find them)

Anyway, back to Mehmed’s story: born and raised in a poor community in the north west, he worked hard, studied maritime stuff in Tabarka and then moved on to Sfax to look for work.  I’ve been here long enough to understand that ‘Sfax’ = hardworkers. Sfaxians are  heart of the business community in Tunisia. You go past a factory just about anywhere in the country,  you find it was set up by a Sfaxian.  A Sfaxian will die to get ahead. BUT they won’t let anyone else in. The rest of the population talk about Sfaxians with admiration and contempt in equal measure. So, there’s young Mehmed, stubborn as a mule (his own description) will not be pressured into anything .. trying to get ahead in the closed Sfaxien society.

Well, cut to the chase, he gets a break, arranging supplies for fishing fleets, and he marries a local girl. Then he starts to move closer to home, first Bizerte fish farming, and 16 years later, ends up running this gleaming stainless steel fish market / cafe / fish farm on the lake for the boss ‘Ali’. Things go well. Very well. He manages 20 people, he is happy. He is successful.

Fast forward to the Arab Spring and the rapid exit of President ben Ali and his closest cronies. That’s when the cozy world of business fell apart. No revenue, no money.  No sign of Ali to pay the wages. All the fish escaped into the lake. The winners in this fishy tale.

Meanwhile, Mehmed has taken up residence in the lakeside depot; he’s been living, eating sleeping there for over a year. His sole objective: to prevent the owners from removing the last remaining assets. He has a court case against them, claiming unpaid wages and redundancy; it’s stuck in the system, awaiting judgment. At first all the employees took turns on duty. But they got other jobs, got bored, got wise, or gave up. Mehmed can’t leave, because he has the most to gain… or lose. His old mates call in, bring him a coke,  a sandwich, some cigarettes, and stay half an hour for a chat. After that, he’s on his own again. Nothing to do all day.

He tells me that the owner Ali turned up once at night, and tried to remove one of the huge refrigeration units. Mehmed asked him: ‘Where are my wages? Why don’t you pay me?’ Ali replies ‘It’s difficult, I don’t have that kind of cash’. To which Mehmed  replied: Then you can’t take the fridge‘, and he took out his mobile to call the Customs. Because ‘the society’ owes taxes to the government. It’s also being investigated for falsifying the accounts of amounts exported and prices paid. .

Mehmed’s account is that this is the moment where he stood up to the big boss. That all his working life he had been afraid, never asked for better wages because there was always the fear: “They will accuse you of some theft and you are sacked and you lose everything”. Which is pretty much where he finds himself now. But he is resolute: “I’ll never accept that again”.  And he does not say a word against the revolution (and there are those that do).

It must be lonely. There’s a TV but the electricity was cut off when the society stopped paying the bills. A while back, Mehmed noticed a guy collecting trash and bottles and cans, so he invited him to store his stash in one of the units, and then to sleep there. “Now I have someone to talk to in the evening

He keeps wiping his hand across his face, in disbelief that his life can have turned around so badly. Mostly, he talks about the hurt. “I thought they were my family. I gave them everything. I used to get up at three in the morning and drive out to the lake to check all was OK. Now the owner can’t find the money to pay me? I have lost almost two years of my life.  I never go home. My sons have to  pay for the house and  our living expenses. What kind of life is that?”

He speaks about other businesses  that closed after the revolution, but where the employees and owners got back together and said: let’s make this place work. He has heard of a garment factory where the women brought their savings and gave it to the boss saying: “We want to work”. He comments: “If my bosses had been like that, I would have worked day and night for this place. I love work. It’s been my whole life. Now I have nothing”. 

In the local village, I mention this story. “Ah, Mehmed! What a bastard. He used to cheat everyone. He’ll tell you one story, and he’ll tell the bosses another.”  Well, ain’t that always the truth?  We see our lives through our own eyes.  Mehmed is the centre of his own story.  And like everyone else, he’s in transition.  When I travel to the city, whether in taxi or train, I pass in front of his building. He’s still there.


I’ve been thinking about a blog for a few months now. While I was working (in international development), I was notorious for ranting about the state of the universe, and recounting outrageous stories of failed projects. Friends would ask: “Why don’t you set up a blog? People need to hear what it’s really like!” . My standard response: “Tell the truth? Are you crazy! I am a consultant. Clients pay me to tell lies. If I write the truth, the work will dry up. Setting up a blog would be like burning the bridge between me and the bank account”.

Then came the Arab Spring, and my first trip to Tunisia. Rapidly followed by the realisation that there is more to life than writing reports. ‘Keeping the client happy’ pays the bills, but it also deadens the senses, dulls the mind, and leads to the death of the spirit. Life’s too short. Carpe diem and all that stuff.

NOTE TO SELF: Burn the bridge! Blow it up! Get out the matches, light the blue touchpaper, stand back, enjoy the fireworks.

Then it took at least a month to think up a title: Tunisian Times.  Complicated huh?  Now I have no excuse.  So, the first post. My father was an avid reader, but highly selective in his choices. When wondering whether to bother investing  time in any particular book, he used to pick it up, read the 5 middle pages and then decide. His explanation: “The first pages are too ‘crafted’ and re-written. Only in the middle do you get to see that they are really trying to say”. So, let us imagine this is the middle of the blog. You have admired the front page, edited and fine-tuned to perfection; you have already scrolled back through ‘previous posts’; you are up-to-date on my journey. By now you know that I am in Tunisia; that I first arrived here 18 months ago, to work with a group of youth celebrating new-found freedoms after the ‘ousting’ of the dictator Ben Ali; that  I stayed on after the job was over and went walkabout;  that my planned 4-day visit somehow extended and I was three weeks late getting home.  No sooner was that visit over than I was chasing the next assignment. And the next. Seven visits in 16 months, each one involving delayed return flights back home.

In September 2012, I booked a one-way ticket: London to Tunis,  and submitted to destiny and serendipity.  Fast forward to November; by now I am installed in an apartment on the beach in Salambo, just on the edge of Carthage. As I write this post, it’s 5 am. I am drinking coffee as I wait for the sun to rise above the mountains of the Cap Bon peninsular across the bay. I pln yet another day in my own personal paradise.

The view to the left from my apartment on the beach at Carthage.

Later today, I will go with friends to Lake Ichkeul a unique eco-zone: a lake which is sweet water half the year and salty the other half. Apparently the fish get really confused. So that will be a later blog. Below, an image to whet your appetite: perfect day, calm and clear. .

Now, it’s catch-up time: a summary of the repeated themes of this blog:  People, places, activities, stuff and other stuff:  Adventures in transition.

People: What to say? Tunisians are extraordinary. Ten and half million of them, and so far,the vast majority of those I have met have been welcoming, open, trusting: engaged and engaging. I have had more interesting conversations with taxi drivers here than anywhere in the world. In a short period of time I have made friends who are teaching me, entertaining me, and leading me places I could never imagine visiting.

On the way up Jebel Rassas with Amine and Majdi, my hiking and adventure friends

With Vanessa (bird of passage), Mounir and Amine visiting Sidi Amor eco centre, just north of Tunis.

I have met extraordinary characters, each with a unique story of their own adventures in transition. After an hour trekking through dense scrubland, we met an 84-year old man called Sifi, one of the last ‘hermits’ of Tunisia, living off the land, alone in the mountains for 30 years. I’ll tell the full story in a later blog.

Sifi the hermit, at the foot of his summer tree house

On the way to Ishkeul, we met the men who operate the last chechia (fez) factory’ in Tunisia. Powered by water mill, the machine battens thump at the fabric; the whole building vibrates like a dance floor. We rocked with it.

Felting worker at the last remaining chechia (fez) factory in Tunisia

These are just a few of the the people whose stories led me to write ‘Tunisian Times: Adventures in transition.’

Places: Tunisia is blessed with sights. OK there is the usual sun, sea sand of the  resorts from Hammamet to Djerba, which (out of season) are lovely. But that is the LEAST of what Tunisia has to offer. The archaeological sights alone are world class (eight on the UNESCO Heritage List). The highlight is the Phoenician / Punic village in Kerkouane, its bathrooms overlooking turquoise waters off Cap Bon. Two and a half thousand years old: seems modern  with zen-like simple mosaics and the perfect tanit with its pure line.

The tanit at Kerkouane: mosaic perfection

The Roman Amphitheatre in El Djem…

Evening sun at El Djem, where Russel Crowe strutted his stuff in Gladiator.

the Antonin Baths and Roman Villas in Carthage,and some great sculptures

Roman villa at Carthage

Dougga with its non-linear layout and jumble of dwellings

Dougga, a quirky mix of punic and roman styles.

Bulla Regia – the upside down houses, with the living quarters deep underground to escape the grueling heat of summer: and the most intricate mosaic ‘carpets’.

Mosaics in the ‘basement’ floor in Bulla Regia

And then fast forward to sights of 20th Century and the exquisite Ennejma Ezzahra Palace. Nestled on the hillside of Sidi Bou Said, a gem of orientalist design, home of painter and musicologist Baron Rudolphe d’Erlanger. French-born, naturalised British, married to an Italian princess, seduced by Tunisia.  Fairy-tale setting, you can’t make this stuff up.

Palais Ennejma Ezzahra, Home of Baron d’Erlanger, Sidi Bou Said

Interior in Palais Ennejma Ezzahra

Activities: This has been the revelation for me: over the last 18 months  I have walked, hiked, biked, climbed, spelio-ed jumped, balanced on a strapline, and flown on a zipwire. Sometimes alone, but increasingly with good companions, I have wandered through mountains, valleys, cliffs, caves, mines, beaches. Still to explore,  deserts, oases, chotts, salt lakes.

With Vanessa, Amine and Narjess from Sfax, down in the underground river and cave systems of Siliana

Reaching the top of the col at Jebel Rassas

Stuff: In the main souqs here, you see pretty much the same old globalised ‘tat and crap’ you would find in any tourist destination anywhere in the world. BUT if you look carefully, and get out into the countryside, there are extraordinary hand-made items, some of which I’ve never seen before. Already my space is filling up.

‘Stork’ bowl from Sejnane, the best of women’s ‘domestic’ pottery in Tunisia.

Bliss. Surrounded by a mass of products, hand-made from ‘halfa’  grass used for everything from carpets, to lampshades and baskets.

Then for the day-to-day stuff that I buy, it’s all about ‘la frippe’. I’m a recycled clothes addict. From jumble sales of childhood , through charity shops, carboot sales, auctions and more recently, rifling through skips and the local dump. I scarcely ever buy new clothes. So the whole ‘baleh’ markets of the region are where I spend my consumer time. I arrived her with one small suitcase (three pairs trousers, two pairs shoes, two T shirts and the ‘black jersey dress in case’. Since then I have kitted out a two-bed apartment and filled a wardrobe. No item more than £8 (6 metres of heavy duty, lined, plain cream cotton curtains). On my bed, a top-of-the-range goose-down- filled sleeping bag (New £200; frippe £6); on my back, a Schoffel jacket (new £400; frippe £6). Eat your hearts out consumer junkies. There will be regular postings about my finds. With photos.

Local food also comes under ‘stuff’. Since I used to run ‘souq al ard’ (local  produce market) in Jordan, I am as interested in the process and the producers as well the product.  Most memorabe so far: Staying at Khalifa’s house in Siliana, watching Abu-Khalifa slaughter and dismember the goat, listening to Umm-Khalifa sing traditional songs as she prepared dinner (bringing  tears to our eyes) and relaxing with Rafikha (Khalifa’s wife) as she welcomed us into the kitchen, where we watched her prepare and then serve the couscous (one shared bowl, communal style eating).

Umm-Khalifa and Rafika prepare the dinner for us in Siliana

Pomegranate seeds glisten like little rubies on the dish of couscous.

Then snacks that taste best in fresh air.

Figs, honey, olive oil, fresh bread. Perfect breakfast al fresco.

Stuff is turning out to be a BIG category. It includes all the stuff I see, want, but can’t have. That includes ancient ceramics, calligraphy and other ‘things in museums’. Photos of which the blog does not want me to upload.. so that will have to wait.  Then there is  modern art: this was one item in the  famous ‘art exhibition that caused a riot’ last year.  Loved the imagery: woman as domestic goddess, rubber gloved and producing perfect couscous. Going to buy a postcard or poster.


Other stuff: This blog is called Tunisian Times: Adventures in Transition. This is the place where the Arab Spring kicked off in January 2010, where a dictator was ousted in less than a month. It’s definitely a country in transition – political, economic, social, cultural; on every front there is dramatic change. Plus a high degree of uncertainty, and in many quarters, fear and frustration.

Much of my blog is about adventure, environment, seeing stuff, buying stuff. The tone is resolutely up-beat and positive. My choice is NOT the caravan of despair. But, I also realise the seriousness of the situation here in post-revolution Tunisia. So, obviously, there will be reflections. Not least to develop the theme that: ‘We are all in transition’ .

Out on Lac Tunis I met a guy who used to be employed as manager of a multi-million dollar fish farm. After the revolution, like many such enterprises linked to the old regime, the business collapsed.  For the last 15 months he has lived 24 / 7 in the empty shell without electricity or water, ‘guarding’ the remaining assets so they can be sold to pay his wages once the court case is settled. He explained how he invited a plastic bottle scavenger to live in the store-room: ‘Now I have someone to talk to at night‘. From big boss, to unpaid security guard. Life in transition.

The events in Tunisia are mirrored around the region and beyond: we are all coming to terms with a future we had not planned, with changed circumstances. We adapt. We make the most of the situation. Then we realize how good it is. Maybe even better. This blog is the story of my own personal adventure in transition.