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


.. 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.

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.

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.

Happy hiking .. the world over

I was walking along a road in Cap Bon recently, having just finished a 15 km hike on a lonely track across the cliffs. This was the final stretch, back in ‘civilization’ between the beach and the village to get a bus. A man passed me on a mobylette, stopped up ahead, crossed the road to the central reservation, sat on a wall. Then he got out his dick and started wanking. Haha! so funny. I stood there amazed: right in front of me.. furiously pumping away (left handed!).  I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry. Do guys have any idea how foolish they look in that situation? And oddly enough, how vulnerable?

Anyway, I summoned up the energy to shout: “Haram! Mamnour! Ayb! Forbidden! What the fuck?” He bent over double, turned away his face: “Desole madame” and carried on regardless.

So I kept my head down and carried on walking regardless too.

I told this story to my friend Vanessa when she was visiting. She described how, along with another woman, she was walking in northern Jordan. A local shepherd came and walked with them for a while. Friendly, relaxed. Cultural exchange. That’s what it’s all about. Suddenly she hears her friend comment calmly: “Vanessa, we have a situation here”. She turns to see the shepherd has taken out his penis, and is displaying it proudly, laid across his palm, like an offering. He gestures as if to say: “You want it?”. So they reassure each other, in English, that the situation is under control. Then they turn on the guy and in fluent Arabic give him the kind of tongue lashing he did not expect. Again, it’s the same sheepish reaction: “So sorry”. He shuffled away, hang-dog, tail between legs so to speak, and followed from a distance.

But then another man turned up. That’s when they felt worried: Out with the mobile phone, use the emergency number. Within 30 seconds, they had an English-speaking policeman on the line, taking down their details. They were told there would be a police vehicle there in ten minutes. By then the guys had disappeared. So no need for the vehicle. That’s a result.

Is this a story against Arab men? Absolutely not. ‘B’il axis‘. On the contrary. There are wankers all over the world. As a woman walker, you get used to them. The difference: if these incidents happened to me in Europe, I would be scared. Really scared. As in, ‘not sure I can get out of this situation without severe damage‘ scared.

So, in comparison, Tunisia is a relatively safe place for women to walk, even alone. As anywhere else, you assess the situation, insert emergency number on your mobile, take evasive action. Keep calm, pretend to be much angrier than you are. And learn to shout. Any language will do, they will get the message. Happy hiking.