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.

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.

stone_diaries

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.

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

I have a dog

What do you expect? I’m retired, British. I live abroad. I rescued the beast from the countryside. He sits by my bed. Adores me.

I also have a  ‘Madonna without Child’ and a black tanit, several storks, a fish, and a couscoussier.

All from the women potters who live and work in Sejnane, between Tunis and Bizerte.  You don’t see it much in the shops / souqs. Small scale ‘domestic’ production. So it’s still ‘authentic’. Made by local women, using local clay, local techniques, local cow dung and straw.  Local prices too: dog about TND15 (£6)

Another advantage: it breaks easily, so you have an excuse to get back there and re-stock.  Of course, you could buy the same items in the trendy shops of La Marsa; where the couscoussier goes up from 25TND to 60TND. Still cheap. But you miss out on the experience of watching the women make the pots, paint the pots, make dung patties, construct the kilns, fire the pots. It’s ironic: that should enable them to charge more. But they don’t.

Welcome

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.

Art-femme-coucous

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.