August 20, 2005

Receiving Mail in Tunis

Overall, it's been pretty easy to receive mail in Tunis. There's to-your-door delivery and mail takes about 10 days between Tunisia and the U.S., going either way.
You can buy stamps from many little newspaper stands all over.

However, being functionally illiterate in Tunisia, I did have some trouble figuring out how much postage I needed to put on my letters. For several weeks I was sticking 1.300TD, or about one dollar, on my letters. It turns out the real rate is about half this, .700TD. Letters cost the same.

Next I sent several postcards out with insufficient postage, due to a miscommunication. Someone had explained the price to me in French, which I don't really speak. It was something like "sette cent" which I thought meant 600. (In Arabic, the word for "six" is "sitta.") Today somebody explained it to me in both French and Arabic, and I realized my mistake.

Receiving packages is slightly more complicated. These are not delivered to your door, but held at the post office for your signature. You also have to present your passport. In the summer and the month of Ramadan the post offices keep reduced hours, open only from 7:30am to 1:30pm.

In my situation the process was complicated by the fact that by the time my package arrived in Carthage, I had moved to Tunis. Due to my class schedule, the only day I could make it out to Carthage before the post office closed was Saturday. Today I finally got my package, and am now off to the beach to read Harry Potter!

The Tunisian Blogosphere

I have to admit, when I started this travelogue, it never occurred to me that Tunisians would be interested in reading it. In fact, I was pretty certain that my only visitors would be family and friends from back home.

So, it's kind of cool to see the comments from Tunisian visitors which have popped up on the site in the past week, thanks to links from a couple of local bloggers (in French and English).

I think Karim2k pinned me pretty well with this description:
Those bloggers are posting everything around, as it seems strange and new for them : from their biggest joy to the worst dramatic events, I've appreciated their appetite for discovery, like babies, they are tryring to touch and taste everything around...

In fact, it makes perfect sense that Tunisians would find this stuff interesting, just as Americans still read the classic 1831 travelogue of Alexis de Tocqueville, a Frenchman visiting America.

I just wish I spoke French so I could read more of these local blogs!

August 19, 2005

Arabic Textbooks

I’ve written some other comments about the Bourguiba Institute in general, but I thought I would say a word or two about the textbooks in particular, for people interested in Arabic language instruction. I can’t comment on the texts used in the advanced courses, but I’m now familiar with the beginning- and intermediate-level books.

The beginner’s text is a workbook entitled “Al-Arabiyya Al-‘Aslat.” (That’s an imprecise transliteration of the actual title, which is in Arabic script.) I’m actually quite impressed with it. It’s a workbook of some 225 pages, which uses dialogues, exercises, and a lot of pictures to teach everyday vocabulary, basic grammar, and general conversational fluency. It’s completely in Arabic, using pictures, symbols, and context to communicate the meaning of the words introduced, rather than translations. This makes it ideal for the Institute’s classes, which are composed of students from all over the world with no other language in common. All the texts are voweled, and you learn to describe people and objects, talk about family and work relationships, describe daily activities and foods, explain your symptoms to a doctor, make travel plans, etc.

The ISBN number is 9973-17-177-2, and perhaps you can buy it from Amazon, or I imagine you could contact the Bourguiba Institute about ordering copies. It’s actually authored by Zahia Gafsi, who is the director of the Bourguiba Institute. The book assumes a basic knowledge of the Arabic alphabet. If you are looking to learn Arabic on your own, for conversational purposes or as a beginning to more advanced study, this might be a good book to use. However, it doesn’t come with tapes, so you would need to find a native speaker to help you with reading and pronounciation (and conversational practice).

The intermediate text begins with dialogues, but then moves into short texts, many of which deal with Tunisian history, sites, or cultural activities. As in the beginners’ workbook, each has accompanying exercises. The texts are mostly voweled, but not completely… the book seems to be weaning the students away from needing the vowels to be indicated, by not voweling familiar words, or endings which should be obvious according to grammatical rules. However, most of the vowels are indicated on the assumption that students might not immediately recognize the word and be familiar with its pronunciation. This book focuses less directly on teaching vocabulary. You will need quite a bit of vocab already under your belt, plus a teacher or a good dictionary to figure out the words which are new to you. I found the texts included in this book to be less than riveting, but considering the shortage of intermediate-level instructional materials available with voweled texts, this might be a useful tool for some teachers. Unfortunately, this coursebook does not have a ISBN number indicated.

August 18, 2005

Wedding Customs, Part II

So, the last time I was at Moussa and Leila's home, they showed me the album and video from their wedding.

Today, when Cari and I went over, before we left for the hammam, they pulled out a DVD of a relative's wedding done in the more traditional style. This wedding took place in the South of Tunisia, in their families' hometown near Tatooine.

The bride wore a traditional dress, of brightly colored red robes, sonewhat similar to the one in the picture to the right, but more ornate and glittery, and a ton of gold jewelry. In fact, all the female family members there, including Leila, wore these fabulous colorful traditional outfits and were bedecked in gold.

There was a lot of dancing, and a traditional band playing on drums and a eerie-sounding wind instrument that looks somewhat like a recorder, except with an oboe-style reed.

Also, this part is really cool, they had a dancing horse! A beautiful black hissan, trained to prance around with its tail high in the air, and decorated with beautiful bright robes and ribbons.

The entire town is invited to the celebration, and you could see mountains of couscous being served, prepared under a traditional Berber-style tent like the one we slept under when we went camping on the camel trip. The family goes dancing through the streets to celebrate their happiness, and let everyone know about the wedding and the feast.

Pretty cool.

Turkish Bathouse

So, the last time I visited Moussa and Leila, I had mentioned the adventure that Cari and I had the last time we tried to go to the hammam, only to realize once we got there that we had no idea what to do and completely wimp out! Leila was quite amused, and promised to take us sometime and show us the ropes.

Today we went, and it was fantastic. The place itself reminds me of a cross between a German-style schwimmbad and a high school locker room. You strip down to your underwear in a communal entry-room, then pass through some doorways to a steamy open tiled space which huge marble-tiled benches, warmed by subterranean heating. You put all your things (soap, shampoo, etc.) into a bucket, and grab a bunch of other buckets and a dipper and claim a spot. You fill your buckets with a combination of hot water (from a trough) and cold water (from a tap), and start getting wet and sweaty.

The main focus of the hammam process is the scrubbing. This is accomplished with a small, rough glove called a kursee, or something close to that. This feels almost like sandpaper, much rougher than anything sold in the U.S. In the wet heat, I imagined that it feels something like a camel tongue might, but Leila told me that traditionally birch bark was used for this purpose. You scrub all the dead skin off you body, asking a friend to get your back. Then you soap up, shampoo, and scrub again, all the while rinsing off with buckets full of hot and cold water. When you're clean and thoroughly relaxed from the steam, you wrap yourself up in a warm dry towel, and go back to hang out in the entryway until you dry off and your body adjusts back to normal temperature.

The travel guides describe the hammam as an "exotic, sensual experience." And that's definitely true. The sensation of splashing hot water, then cold water, then hot water, than cold is fantastic. Plus, although I would never have guessed it, the rough scrub-down produces the same intense physical pleasure as the guilty rush you get when you scratch a mosquito bite, except all over your body! But, you have to have a sort of Girl Scout-camp appreciation of the sensual. The concrete floor is dotted with hairballs, there's mold growing in the cracks between the wall tiles, and people spit their toothpaste (and phlegm) right on the floor. But if you're not prissy, it feels fantastic.

After weeks of feeling self-conscious about my body from so much unwanted male attention on the streets, it was really relaxing and nice to get casually naked in an all-female environment. The hammam is intended to be a social experience... you go there with friends and joke around and splash each other, or a big party will go with a bride the day of her wedding. In fact, it can even be a family outing. While we were there, three generations of one family came in: the mother, the grandmother, and four little girls between about three and eight years old, who seemed to think the two American girls were quite interesting.

A word of warning though... I'm not sure if this an Arab universal or specific to Tunisia because of the French influence, but local standards for the cuteness of lingerie are much higher than in the U.S. Everyone at the hammamm, from the teenagers to the old ladies, was wearing black lace or at least silk. So break out something nicer than your standard cotton undies if you don't want to be underdressed!

August 17, 2005

Part V: Tatooine

Tatooine is more famous as the home planet of Annakin and Luke Skywalker. And although the Star Wars planet's similarity to the Arizona desert has been noted by other travellers, its real inspiration is the village and surrounding countryside of Tatooine, Tunisia.

This area is in the remote, mountainous southern region of Tunisia. In terms of isolation, low population density, and rugged lifestyle, it's a close cousin to the Wild West of the U.S., or perhaps the Australian Outback.

And once you visit the real Tatooine, you realize that it is really the inspiration for this strange desert planet. The film was shot there, rough-and-tumble frontier character is entirely authentic to the place itself.

The strange beasts of burden are modeled on a camel's bone structure. Even the alien architecture is actually just traditional below-ground Berber homes with slight modifications.

In fact, we spent the night at a place which was once a Berber residence, then used to shoot the scene of Luke Skywalker breakfasting with his uncle at their Tatooine home, and today is a hotel.

It's definitely a cool place to spend the night, but when the parade of Westerners traipses through your (shared) bathroom as you brush your teeth in the morning, you realize the downside of sleeping in a tourist attraction. And, perhaps, get a depressing sense of how the local Tunisians must feel.

My favorite part was that while showering, I could see in a corner crack the nest some small animal had made out of the hair people leave in the shower. All part of the experience of sleeping in a hotel that's a cave, I suppose!

The surrounding town itself is small, and although full of modern conveniences like cars and restaurants, also firmly reaches back to echo more timeless aspects of Middle Eastern civilization. From now on, when I picture biblical scenes, Matmata will be in my head.

(photos courtesy of Nora)

August 16, 2005

Part IV: Camel Safari

So, the biggest thing I wanted to do while we were in the South was make sure I rode a camel. We asked around, and ended up booking an overnight camel ride/camping trip out of a small town near Douz, I think its name is Zafhaz, for about 40TD ($25).

Our camels were led by this delightful old man named Aoud. At one point we stopped in the desert to stretch our legs and explore the dunes, and I got to talk to him a bit.

He told me he has seven kids, and has been guiding camels for fifteen years without an accident. He also seems to have an appreciation for music, and sang a few songs on the trip, and seemed very amused when we tried to return the favor with some Simon and Garfunkel classics.

Camels are really bizarre creatures. Their feet are really cool... two fleshy toes, and the whole foot kind of padded with fat so that it spreads out in the sand. Also, their back legs have five joints instead of four like a horse, which looks really weird (I think the beasts of Tattouine in Star Wars were modeled on this), especially when they are lying down and their back knees bend backwards. Plus, they have some interesting habits you might not know about from National Geographic... like when they lie down, they like to roll on their back and kick sand on themselves to knock away the bugs. A good thing to know if you're going to hang out near a camel!

You've probably never thought about how someone gets on a camel. They're too tall to get up on with stirrups (which in real life are used only on racing camels, so the jockey can stand up and not get completely thrown around). I remember being at a zoo as a child where they had camel rides (or was it an elephant?) where you climbed steps up to a platform at the same level as the animal's back. But obviously this would be impractical in the desert. The way it works is that the animals are trained to lie down on command, making them only about four feet high, and possible to climb on. However, a camel lumbering into standing position is quite an awkward seat, and you have to hold on tight!

The saddle design probably hasn't changed in a thousand years: blankets filled with sand to form some padding, strapped to the camel with rope. Some weird-shaped things (probably camel bones) are laced together at the front to form a combination saddle-horn (for grip) and hook for your baggage. Simple but effective technology. A camel is much wider than a horse, so your legs are spread more, and it's gait is much more awkward so you get tossed around quite a bit. But I can definitely see the magic of riding in the desert... it's quiet and peaceful, cooled by the free-blowing winds, and I think at night under the stars, being part of a camel caravan would be just about the coolest thing ever.

We rode about two hours out into the desert, toward a small greenish space where a permanent campsite (complete with showers and cooking facilities) is set up. Ironically, that was the most comfortable night's sleep I've had in almost two months. We had simple beds under an old-fashioned tent, and with the wind blowing over the desert landscape, it was the coolest I've been since coming to Tunis... at one point close to dawn, I actually pulled my thin wool blanket over me. Delicious.

Part III: Sandstorm

So, while we were in Touzer we thought it would be cool to get a ride out to the desert to watch the sunset from the sand dunes, something recommended by both The Rough Guide and The Lonely Planet.

Actually, I'm pretty sure they recommend you get a ride in a four-by-four. But we were operating on a budget and coordinated our ride through a guy who knew a guy with a Honda. For future reference, don't do this. Especially not in May-September, which is the season of sandstorms.

We followed the highway out almost to the Algerian border, and turned off on a rough road. At the time, I thought it was hard-packed sand. But in retrospect it was probably a paved road with a good amount of sand already blown over it.

As our little Honda rumbled out toward a little shanty in the distance surrounded by a bunch of camels, I joked to my traveling companions, "How often do you think a car like this just gets stuck in the desert?" At the time, we all had a good laugh.

When we got out to the shanty, we piled out of the car and were struck full-force with flying sand. The wind was up. We clamored into the shanty to wait out the gusts along with the guys who earn a living selling camel rides to tourists. We were assured the wind would die down in about ten minutes or so.

While we waited we practiced our Arabic with the camel guides, seated comfortably on stacks of camel feed, getting up close and personal with the dung beetles (from the camels). Even inside the shelter, a fine layer of sand was settling in the hair on our arms, the folds of our clothes, and in our eyes and mouths. (Note, the scarf is wrapped around my head to keep the sand out of my eyes and mouth, not for cultural reasons.)

As it turns out, the sunset was nothing special. With so much sand in the air, you basically see a fuzzy ball of light dip to about 15 degrees above the horizon, then become indistiguishingable. It's not yet dark, but the horizon is so obscured by sand that you can't see the sun there.

After an hour or so, the guide seemed eager to load us back up in the car and get back. So we piled in, and headed back in the direction of the highway.

By this time, the road was buried under a significantly deeper pile of sand. In fact, it was almost impossible to tell where the road was. Gradually, we could feel the car slowing down ominously, drifting a little bit as if on a wet road, and then, it just stopped moving. Our guides suggested the car would move better with a little less weight. So we piled out and stood in the sandstorm as they tried again. But the wheels spun in vain.

Next they tried to dig beneath the tires down to the road below, but about six inches down it became obvious that we weren't on the road. After digging in a few other places, we figured out that the road was about four feet to the car's left.

Fortunately, we were still close enough to the camel hut that they could see our distress. A 4-by-4 full of tourists who had paid for the proper mode of traveling in the desert came by to try to pull us out.

A length of nylon rope was produced and stretched between the cars. The 4-by-4 pulled, our driver laid on the gas, and.... the rope snapped. The process was attempted again with the same result. At this point it occurred to us that our guide's car might be permanently stuck in the desert.

As a last-ditch effort, the two American girls hitched up our skirts, and along with Nic and our guide, pushed with all our might as the 4-by-4 pulled with its last bit of rope. Miraculously, the car started to shift. Then, it started to roll a bit, and we managed to push/pull it back to the road, where the car was once again able to travel on its own power. Hooray!

August 15, 2005

Part II: The Garden of Eden

Somehow my image of an oasis is like a pond glimmering in the desert, surrounded by palm trees, waiting to be discovered by lost travelers. I think this came from Saturday morning cartoons as a kid.

There are a couple things wrong with this image. First, desert oases are not sitting around waiting to be discovered... if there's water somewhere in the middle of the desert, chances are the place has been inhabited by civilization for hundreds of years, if not thousands.

Second, the water is not sitting on the surface glittering in the sun. If there was surface water, it would be evaporated in two minutes flat. Rather, a place is considered an oasis if there is enough water beneath the surface of the land to support green vegetation (in contrast to the completely brown land around it.)

The oasis of Touzer has been around for a long time, a stopping point on desert trade routes as well as a flourishing city (however small) in its own right. And if you're there, you should definitely get a guided tour of some oasis gardens.

These are irrigated areas, marked off from the dry land around them with waist-high fences weaved from palm fronds, which serve both to mark property divisions within the garden, and to keep the sand from blowing into the garden and burying everything carefully nurtured there.

We met a guy who knew a guy with a car who agreed to drive us around the more touristy garden area of Touzer. (There are also horse-drawn carts that travel the path if you can get yourself to the entrance.) Inside, we visited a garden plot which is open to tourists.

The highest level is palm trees, which provide shade for the rest of the garden (and dates, harvested in the fall.) It's like a supermarket of greenery. You can walk around and pluck grapes from the vine, figs, pomegranates, and dates from the trees, at the lower level you can see roses, hot peppers, mint, and other herbs all thriving there.

It seems miraculous that such a lush setting should exist so close to the (by comparison) wasteland of the desert, and my appreciation for the story of Adam and Eve has been completely changed. Now I see what it really means to the cultures receiving this story to imagine banishment from a beautiful garden to the hostile lands around it, the harsh life that follows the transgression and the comparison to the easy bliss of inhabiting a oasis garden built for two.

...Totally lost on a kid used to green suburban lawns.

And, I think, on most of the great artists of the European tradition, who had never seen deserts. I think what is truly salient is the Garden of Eden imagery is the contrast between the ease of life in paradise being cared for by God, to having to toil, struggle and suffer in the bitter desert. But I have yet to find a painting of this scene that captures the quality of paradise as a place of cool shade and easy food.

Here's Michelangelo's from the Sistine Chapel...

Part I: Into the Sahara

Thursday right after class we trekked to the louage station and caught a van for the eight-hour ride south. A "louage" is the local term for a sort of small-scale inter-city public transport system: vans with room for about eight passengers run routes between the major towns, with fixed tariffs. Oh, and no air-conditioning.

My traveling companions are Cari (see the link to her travelogue to the right) and Nicolas, a good guy from the Maltese army whose job is to keep the two of us safe from harm, and do the talking when we run into sketchy men whom Cari and I would rather not interact with. This, actually, goes quite well over the course of the trip. (Moreover, I learned quite a lot about Malta, and in Nic's honor I will at some point in the future condense this into its own point.)

This is what it feels like to ride into the Sahara:

First, you're hot. Then you get hotter. Then your body starts to pour sweat. You reach for your water bottle to take a sip, and realize that it matches the temperature at which you normally prefer to take your morning tea.

Then you reach the point at which the desert is so hot, that you no longer feel hot. You think you have stopped sweating, but actually it is so hot and dry that the sweat is evaporating instantaneously, so all you notice is the smell and prickly feeling of the steadily accrueing salt and acid on your skin. I had actually read about this in geography textbooks as a child, and it was kind of neat to experience it first-hand.

At a rest stop I bought a bar of chocolate, but the last bit of it had to be drunk rather than eaten. Also, in the course of 12 hours, I drank about 7.5 liters (almost two gallons) of water, and only needed to make one pit stop. Eventually, however, my body did acclimatize, and I only drank about one gallon per day.

Our first day's journey brought us into Touzer, a good-sized town built around an oasis in the desert. The picture of me (above, left) was taken there. Oh, and the town's name means "scorpions" in Arabic. Fortunately, we did not meet any of the town's namesakes. Tomorrow I'll describe the oasis gardens, and getting our car stuck in a sandstorm.

Here's a picture of the city, courtesy of Nora...

The Tunisian Outback

Hey, I just got back from a whirlwind five-day tour of the Tunisian South: the Sahara, desert oases, camel riding, camping in the desert, Berber villages, some intense scenery, and Luke Skywalker's boyhood home.

Highlights of the excursion will appear in a series of installments over the next few days...