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

dee

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.

entry

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.

chickens

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.

Advertisements

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.

bike_lake_tunis05_winkie_web

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:

chikly_3

¡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

chikly_1

Taste of my childhood … in Tunisia

One enjoyable aspect of life in Tunisia is that their heritage of rural life has not been lost. It’s all around to eplore. So, on  Sunday, with Amine from Bin el Widyen (who organised the trip) and Mounir from CMAM

briefing

.. spent the day out on Jebel Sidi Zid (mid-way between Mornag, Hammamet and Zagouan).  It’s a neglected area of mountains / valley / fields where a short stroll reveals traces of different aspects of Tunisian history: roman ruins,

Forwards towards the past

Roman arches

abandoned colonial farm,

Colonial house

Entering colonial housea mausoleum, with the messages written in henna. Interestingly some include phone numbers. Not sure what would happen if the saint wanted to intercede: would he have credit for TunisieTelecom?

mausoleum the rich farming landscape,with acres of grapes, olives and fruit., and stunning views across towards Zagouan (which is experiencing a massive rainstorm as we bask in the sunlight).

sidi zid 3outside mausoleumGreat visit: informed by local guides from this community who take you places no-one else even imagined.  They led us to a network of extraordinary prehistoric tombs all dug out under one huge rock.: a dug-out dolmen residential complex.

Entrance to the main tomb

The doorway to the final resting place

Inside the tomb

View into the spare tomb

Late afternoon, we lunch among the olive trees, prepared by a Berber family who migrated there from the south some years back, and who live off the land using traditional techniques. No electricity or running water, but a fabulous view. This is ‘slocal’ food: slow cooking, locally sourced.

sid zid 4couscous green matcoucous lunchAlmost nothing from outside a 3 kilometre radius. Chicken: tough and tasty (better than tender and bland); wild thistle / cardoons. Couscous from wheat grown on the field nearby.  Ground using a traditional mill, made of stone from Gafsa that, uniquely, leaves no rock residue in the flour.

grinding ; offer of fingerThe photo above includes Mounir,  who has ten good fingers,  being given advice on technique from Amine, whose blood-stained bandage indicates a man who is lucky to have more than nine.

Then, the final flourish: a tray of warm beestings, thick like cheese.

Beesting: the first milk after birthing

So, here we are, out in the middle of nowhere, and I’m having a flashback to childhood, triggered by the taste of beestings. I haven’t tasted this for 50 years – not since we spent out holidays in Whitsend Cottage near Ennerdale in the Lake District. Maggie the farmhand, beefy arms like a butcher, used to deliver it warm from the cow’s udders. Beestings: the first milk of the cow after she has calved.I seek more information…

Beestings: more technically known as colostrum. Crucial for newborn farm animals, contains antibodies, other bioactive molecules including growth factors; a nutritional swaddling cloth, wraps the newborn in goodness. For humans, it had the added value of being lower in fat and higher in protein than ordinary milk. I find the it’s popular with athletes.. not least because it prevents ‘runners trots’ (oxymoron!). But that they are embarrassed to admit that the steal the goodness from the mouths of suckling calves. One weightlifter, accused of ‘imbibing beestings’ responded with outrage: “I’m a normal person who eats normal food … Stop making me sound like a colostrum drinking freak!”

Well, there were 15 ‘colostrum-eating freaks’ out at Jebel Sidi Zid yesterday, and nobody seemed embarrassed.  Tunisian adventures in transition involve going backwards to the past.

whole group

Table for one. Please.

One of the challenges of traveling solo is eating alone. Me, I’m fine about it. Find table back to the wall and a good view. Order food, look around, eat food. If bored, turn on kindle, read. It’s others that have the problem. So I am careful.  I look fierce. Only a damn fool would event think to engage.

dine lone kelibiaBut even the best laid plans…

On my last night in Nabeul Plage I walked along to a seaside restaurant I’d noticed earlier – always packed. OK, it’s packed with men. That’s because they serve alcohol. But the men are also eating, and the tables are littered with fish bones. A good sign. Deep breath, stroll in, sit at table. Check out menu: order grilled calamari and a glass of wine. Am persuaded by the waiter that a half bottle is much better than a glass (as in 2.5 times better to be precise). Why to argue with the waiter? Plus that gets me upgraded to snacks: big fat broad beans encrusted with crunchy grains of salt, tiny olives like rabbit poop.  But much tastier. Relax. Munch. Sip light and flowery muscat wine. Feeling good about self. Look around. Mistake.

Suddenly, a dish of fresh almonds arrives. The waiter indicates that this is a gift from a guy also eating alone. He looks harmless. I raise my glass to say ‘Thank you’; he raises his glass to say ‘Welcome’. He raises hand to say ‘Join me’ and I think ‘What the heck? Why not?’ (complicated hand gesture).  I gather my beans, wine, olives and almonds and move across, expecting light conversation, some shared travelers’ tales.

Ah.  Not so easy.. He’s Italian. He no speaka English. Or indeed French. And no Arabic either. In fact no other language. ‘Senora dina sola – no possiblay’. It was a strange evening. I think I understood that he is a pilot. Here for 3 days to test a small plane. Birds in engine.. engine replaced… test engine. What kind of plane? (‘que tipo avianay?‘ See how easy it is? ) ? VIPER , he replies.. which sounds convincing name for a smooth ride: ‘Ah, VIPER, like a snake? (como serpente)’ I reply to check common understanding. ‘No! VIPAverrry imporrttantte personna. Haha. Then I realize it’s the way Italians say VIP. It’s a small plane for very important people.

We then move on to chat about English for Flying, since that’s the area where we have (apparently you would think) some shared vocabulary. He rattles off examples of communication with control tower. The only one I recognize through his thick Roman accent is : ‘I flying 500 feet’. Imperial measures. Imperialist language. America rules the airwaves. No wonder so many bloody pilots crash. He goes on to describe how they say: flight path choo choo for choo’ .. which I take to mean he’s spotted the train line and using it to navigate.. .but apparently it was ‘two two four two’ This described the degrees off the axis of arrival against the crossed threads to guide them in to land. Or something completely different. He demonstrates on the table cloth with knives and forks and spoons to show me how the pepper pot is about to land. .. My wine glass somehow tumbles.. thank god it wasn’t red wine, or this would have been full scale crash. I take this as a warning I have had too much to drink. I smile and look interested.

He’s harmless maybe, but still Italian. Encouraged by my dumb blonde giggles he’s offered to fly me from Enfidha to Tunis in the VIPA plane.. He’s invited me to Roma. … He wants my contact details.. Time to go. He insists on settling the bill. (why do men feel obliged, in this day and age, to play the chivalrous gentleman?) We are talking £6 – so it’s not that grand a gesture. He pays, we leave. Mindful of the need to protect my reputation, I make my goodbyes on the steps of the restaurant: Grazie and Arrivaderci. He turns left, me right. I stumble through hotel gates, up to my room and zzzzzzzzzzz into deep sleep. My dreams peppered with fighter pilots, navigation errors, flocks of kamikaze birds attacking VIPAS, feathers spitting, engines stalling.  I woke at three with a fuzzy head and drank a litre of water.

In later months, this restaurant became my favorite, but I made a deal with the waiters not to accept strange gifts on my behalf. I’m fine dining alone.

dine a,one and out

Tuvan throat singing! In Tunisia?

Just the other evening, I caught a glimpse of a tall guy, wearing little black felt hat, long hair, black cape. Striding along in soft boots. Like a time/ space warp. Weird. Not the way people dress around here. Thought no more about it.

Last night, at Palais Enejma Ezzahra, went to experience cultural fusion concert: Polish / Tunisian musical dialogue. Onto the stage strides the same guy: felt hat, black waistcoat, soft boots. Spooky.

Bart Palyga along with compatriots Maria Pomaniowska and Pawal Betley. Followed by Tunisians: Mohammed Lassoued, Maroua Kriaa, Jihed Khmiri and Sofiane Zaidi. Carrying a whole raft of strange instruments. Let the music commence!

Into the first number and suddenly, from nowhere, a deep rumble and a high whistle. The audience stirs, looking round to see where the heck it’s coming from. It’s the dude with the felt hat. Tuvan throat music. Mongolian overtones… extraordinary style: Matched by trance tones of Sofiane the Sufi singer. Then we got Chopin, Szymanowski, and traditional malouf. Well balanced programme, best of both worlds. Nice moment when Polish Maria led on a modern Polish poem, and Tunisian Maroua replied. Two very different voices, one mature, nasal, commanding, the other young, fresh, breathy. Good harmony, the one complementing the other and blending well. Centre stage, Mohammed Lassoued, master of the two-stringed Tunisian rabab, delivering haunting desert music accompanied by Pawel Betley’s flute and Jihad Khimiri’s drums and rain-maker. All thrashed it out for the final number. GREAT evening.

After the event, Bart talked about his use of Tuvan throat music: ‘I think I must have Mongolian roots‘ he explained: ‘I found it really easy to learn how to produce sounds like that’ He reminded me of the role of the Richard Feynman in popularizing Tuvan music. So, this morning up early and an hour enjoyably spent on YouTube, listening to Feynman.

Loved his challenge: Whatever happened to Tannu Tuva?. Capital city: Kyzyl.

So that’s another half hour well spent.  Part 1 ends with Feynman saying this about Tuva:  ‘we gotta go there of course’.. he drums and then says: ‘oh yeah’. Click on part 2 and then parts 3 – 5.  I remember watching this  documentary on BBC in the late 60s.  Once heard, you never forget him: he has this unbelievable capacity to communicate science.. This is before the world of TED talks. This is a guy who sits there and talks. And you are gripped. Love his comments on how being awarded the Nobel Prize was a disaster.

Feynman had such an extraordinary zest for life, fun, adventure. Captured in his books: Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman! and What Do You Care What Other People Think?. And books written about him, such as Tuva or Bust!.

In his own way, he helped put Tuva and Tuvan Throat music on the map. Others followed. Bart the Throat singing Polish guy had mentioned a film called: Ghengis Blues that came out in 199. I’d heard of it, but never seen it. So, that evening, I thought I’d take a few minutes to check it out.   It follows the journey of Paul Pena, a blind blues musician from the US, who is invited to compete in the annual throat-singing contest in Tuva.

I was glued to the screen for an hour and a half. Absolutely brilliant film. I challenge you not to cry.