la tunisie – part 1

badi picked us up at the airport on april 7, 2007. it was wonderful to see him after so many years. he looked good. he took us to a hip little restaurant in gammarth for lunch. gammarth is a quiet suburban town by the sea, about 20 km from downtown tunis. after lunch we left for sousse to visit badi’s mom in kalaa kebira. we stayed at hotel el-mouradi palace where badi’s ex-wife and kids were also spending the night. badi had offered to take us out for coffee or shisha in the evening but we were tired from all the traveling (more than 12 hours from toronto to milan to tunis) and decided to crash after dinner. the next day badi took us to port el-kantaoui in sousse and then on to his house. his mom had prepared a sumptuous seafood lunch – there was grilled tuna and sardines and harissa (hot chili paste) and couscous (that tasted a lot like chicken biryani less the rice plus the couscous) and pasta for the kids and mussels (which gibran discovered and devoured with relish). it was a grand old feast. badi’s youngest sister sausan was there and so were his brothers nizar and saif. we had tunisian mint tea (which is intensely sweet) and talked about our lives. sausan spoke fluent english – she and i acted as translators whenever needed. my son played soccer with all the boys and managed quite well with his 6th grade french.

badi introduced us to our chauffeur/guide later that afternoon and we were off to the south of tunisia. we stopped at el-djem to see one of the best preserved roman amphitheaters. it had already closed down for the day so we couldn’t go inside but it made an impression anyway. late at night we reached matmata and stayed at a hotel i had read about on the internet, “les grottes de matmata”. it was supposed to be “cavernous” (like the caves matmata is famous for) and have a local feel but what we found was that it was simply run down and rather dirty. thank god we only spent a night there! the next morning we went to see the caves. for thousands of years these underground caves were used by berbers as homes and for safely storing their possessions while they were out on mercenary missions. subterranean homes stay cool and are obviously very useful in the desert. these are built around artificial craters 5-10 m deep – it’s a virtual moonscape.

after exploring the caves of matmata we began our journey to tozeur. en route we stopped in douz. we got a chance to ride camels at ofra (one of the country’s largest and most accessible sand dunes) for about an hour and a half – not the most comfortable of rides. the kids loved go-karting in the desert. we had lunch at hotel saharien in douz and then left for tozeur. on the way, we were amazed by the brackish water of lake chott el-jerid. it was pink on one side of the road and a rich turquoise on the other side. there was absolutely no vegetation anywhere – not even a lonely cactus or two. it was easy to see how the steamy heat from the sun could beat down on fine desert sand and create a mirage. we experienced a few ourselves.

tozeur has its own distinctive architecture. rectangular yellow brick is used in all construction and arranged in beautiful geometric patterns. we checked into hotel palmyre – a terrific hotel in the middle of the desert. the kids jumped at once into the hotel’s dreamlike swimming pool – a huge bean shaped pool surrounded by palm trees and overflowing with sparkling blue water.

in the evening, we took a horse and buggy ride through tozeur’s green oasis. 400,000 dates palms, pomegranates, bananas, peaches, apricots, citrus fruit, figs and fragrant arabian roses in a 2600 acre oasis irrigated by 200 springs and artesian wells. water is shared by different land holdings under a system developed by imam ibn chabbat in the 13th century. our “caleche” driver and guide told us how female date palms have to be pollinated with flowers from male trees – share croppers climb the long palm trunks barefoot and pollinate about 30 trees a day. he also pointed out the marabout of sidi aguili (shrine to a holy man), an important tozeur landmark. the oasis is lush, lavish, luxuriant and (unfortunately for me) abuzz with the whining sound of hungry mosquitoes! we had to get out of there, fast!

our next stop was chak wak, a historic theme park. this is their spiel, in their own words: “marchez sur les traces des ancêtres de l’humanité, au coeur de tozeur, dans la plus grande palmeraie de la planète. du big bang, au hommes préhistoriques, jusqu’aux grandes civilisations, vous allez redécouvrir le mystère des grandes religions. un voyage qui vous fera parcourir des millénaires d’évolution hunaine, dans le cadre enchanteur d’un jardin botanique oasien”. the kids enjoyed the giant dinosaurs. before returning to our hotel, yasin took us to the local bazaar. i looked at some rugs (the store manager was particularly ingratiating, starting and ending each sentence with “dear gentlelady”). i bought a beautiful berber rug. my daughter was feverish so we decided to call it a day and not go to the dar cherait museum.

tozeur brickworktunisian rugs

why tunisia – let’s talk turkey

in april 2007 we went on a weeklong trip to tunisia – stunning country. it’s got history (going back to the 2nd century BC – does hannibal/carthage ring a bell?), it’s got the mediterranean sea, the lake of tunis, and then it’s got the sahara desert filled with lush green oases (if you don’t believe me, read this ny times article on “how green is the desert“). not bad for a relatively small country (area = 63,000 sq miles) with a population of 10 million.

why did we just up and go to tunisia, many have asked. simple answer: i have a friend there. his name is badi ben mabrouk and he’s tunisian. i met him when i was 15 (he was 16) for a week, in turkey. what were we doing in turkey? the turkish government had organized an international competition to celebrate the creation of modern turkey by its founder mustafa kemal ataturk.

i wrote a lengthy poem in french (it’s called “le lever du soleil” and you can check it out by going to my writings page) and badi wrote one in arabic. all the winners were invited to turkey as state guests for a week. there were winners from france, great britain, belgium, tunisia and of course pakistan. we went to ankara, istanbul, izmir, and buyukada (one of the princes’ islands in the sea of marmara). we met governors and government officials. we sang on turkish radio and were covered by turkey’s most popular newspapers. we even got gold medals from the turkish prime minister (bulend ulusu in those days). we gorged on turkish food, luxuriated in turkey’s natural beauty and her rich history and culture, and we made friends for life. or at least i made a friend for life. badi and i wrote to each other for over 20 years – this was before the advent of email. over time we both graduated – i got an MBA, he bacame a corporate lawyer. we both got married. we both had kids. we swapped pictures. we upgraded to email. it was time for us to meet again – life is too short to hesitate.

and you know what, that was the best thing we ever did! my family loved badi. he has grown into an absolutely charming man. he’s soft spoken and warm and generous to a fault. he has 2 beautiful sons and a wonderful extended family. like he said, “la tunisie c’est pas l’etranger – vous etes avec moi”. that’s truly how it felt – very comfortable and cozy and safe. it warms my heart to think about it…

the blue mosque