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.