Monday, June 2, 2008

I arrived in Tunis

From the plane; approaching the airport in Tunis. Monday 2 June, 10:00 AM:
Even at 3:00 AM when I left Kuwait it was inhospitably hot. I had a short layover in Doha, Qatar where already it felt as if you could breathe easier. And now in Tunis it's simply a delight. I'm wearing a light cotton sweater in the evenings. The ocean breeze feels good on my skin, and the songs of birds and russling leaves are soothing. There are flowers everywhere: riots of red geraniums, jasmine perfuming my walks, spectacular jaracanda trees dressed in deep purple, multicolored bougainvillea draping most walls and wrought-iron balconies, hibiscus in myriad blue pots... dazzling sensuality after a week of sizzling drought in beige and scarce green.
I'm staying at Mary's house, above, in La Marsa, on the northern part of Tunis. La Marsa was once the Ottoman beys' summer base. It's an exclusive beachside suburb with grand white villas. Last night we walked to the palm-lined Le Corniche, below, and throngs were out and about promenading, sitting in outdoor cafes and patisseries, talking and listening to music: palpabale life out and open and accessible. We dined at a vegetarian restaurant overlooking the Gulf of Tunis, then strolled home and drank hot cups of ginger and lemon tea. Tunis is urban; it's home to 90% of the 10 million-plus population of the country (almost 15% is unemployed!). It was born in 732 AD and became the seat of Tunisian power in the 9th century. In the 19th century the French colonized the country until Tunisia forged independence on 20 March 1956. But it's been a unique "independence": the first "president," Habib Bourgiba, remained in power until 1987 when at age 83 a team of doctors declared him physically and mentally incapable of carrying out his duties. Since then, Ben Ali has served as president. Both have fought fiercely to establish and maintain a secular government, and to give women equal rights. In fact, although they're free to do so, the government has been critical of women wearing head scarves. I get a huge kick out of (re)learning such cultural history while being in the country; it makes books come truly alive!

Below, the beach beyond the Corniche in La Marsa.

More later. I just wanted to let you know that I arrived.

Monday evening...
Niiiiice day: Mary and I walked a lot. First we went to Carthage, founded in 814 BCE. I couldn't believe I was actually walking the streets of such a historical and literary city! Virgil's Dido (remember his Aeneid?) came alive to me again today, and Hannibal, that great military genius who lived in Carthage. Epic. We took a taxi to the Musée de Carthage, which is housed in the former French cathedral seminary, and we saw 5th century AD mosaics and Roman sculptures and fragments of buildings and everyday objects. Above, Mary at the Roman Villas.
Then, we walked to the Roman Villas, the remains of a palm-filled complex of houses where affluent Romans lived. After a late lunch break at a Lebanese restaurant on the Corniche, we kept walking all the way to Sidi Bou Saïd, a hilltop cobbled streets village that glimpses at the azure coast. I took one too many pictures of doors, for example above, and I'll only be able to share a few, because the internet connection is poor, especially at night, and it takes forever to upload. Anyway, I enjoyed this village tremendously; it reminds me of Spain, since the houses are painted in gleaming white, and the window grills are invaribly trimmed in cobalt blue, sometimes with an accent of yellow. Geraniums and bougainvillea drape almost every wall. Tonight while reading Lonely Planet's book on Tunisia, I learned that Sidi Bou Saïd's distinctive architecture is inspired by the influx of Spanish Muslims that arrived in the 16th century. We sat for a very long time at the Café Sidi Chabaane in the center of the village. The café is really a series of layered terraces carved into the steep cliff overlooking the blue-green sea, juttings of Tunis and a marina packed with yachts. Each terrace has railings and bench seats where people gather to sip thé á la menthe (mint tea) and thé au pignon (tea with floating pine nuts)--and to relax. Some sniffed what I later realized are jasmine buttoneers. When the vendor stopped by our bench, I couldn't resist. Mary caught me enjoying, below. Then on the way back down we saw an old man making these fragrant buttoneers, below. (I really like this picture; I think I'll enlarge and frame it.)
Just as you leave/enter the city, there's a beautiful fountain. In the center there are jasmine bouquets.
Below: as we were leaving Sidi Bou Saïd, we saw a woman wearing the traditional sifsari, a long white outer garment with loose folds that covers the head and entire body. It is commonly worn over Western-style clothing.
Hibiscus... for you.

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