Dwight Peck's personal Web site

Tunisia in the summertime, 1981

In a paroxysm of curiosity, in 1981, Mr Peck and traveling companion Jane resolved to go over to Tunisia and find out how things were coming along there. Aware that revolutionary leader and then President (in 1957) Habib Bourguiba's avuncular charm had recently been wearing off, and that serious social unrest had been widespread within the country in 1979, they wished to find out whether matters were as dire as reported. As far as they could tell, at the end of a month's travel there on a budgetary shoestring, matters were not bad at all, given the heat and all the sand -- in fact, for people who like heat, sand, and Mohammed, things seemed to be looking pretty good.

You may not find this terribly rewarding unless you're included here, so this is a good time for casual and random browsers to turn back before they get too caught up in the sweep and majesty of the proceedings and can't let go.

[Historical note 1: in 1987, Mr Bourguiba was asked in a forceful manner to stop being President, and Mr Ben Ali has been President ever since. Mr Ben Ali appears to be very efficient, but he is certainly not avuncular.]
[Historical note 2: in 2011, Mr Ben Ali isn't there anymore either.]

El Djem, the Roman amphitheatre. Whilst taking the car-ferry across the Med from Genoa, Italy, to Tunis, Mr Peck and traveling companion Jane met a German engineer returning from home leave with his big new LandRover, back to his company's engineering project in Libya. Our new friend, the German engineer, took home leave about once a month, flying home via Frankfurt, and each time he came back to work driving in his big LandRover (but never exactly the same big LandRover). And in his leisurely progress from Tunis towards Libya, our new friend offered to drop us off at the Isle of Djerba. Sounded like a good deal.

This is a badly damaged photograph of the incredible 30,000-seat Roman amphitheatre at El Djem, about halfway down the Tunisian coast, between Sousse and Sfax.

El Djem. Traveling companion Jane expressed some doubt about the genuine Roman coin being offered for sale by local boys, found, they said, in the sand thereabouts and now available for sale only to selected visitors for slightly less than one US dollar. Our traveling companion's views prevailed in this case, but to Mr Peck it looked like a pretty good deal, a 2000-year-old Roman coin for less than a dollar!

Djerba. Deposited by their German engineer friend at the outskirts of the Zone Touristique on the Isle of Djerba, the travelers prepared to slip round the chain link fence of the tourist zone of big-group hotels and find out what's going on downtown. 'Downtown', on the Isle of Djerba, near the Libyan border, means Houmt Souk, the only hefty town on the whole Homeric island.

(Legend says that Djerba was the model for the Isle of the Lotus-Eaters in Homer's Odyssey. We saw only sand and a quaint kind of mesquite, very bitter when chewed.)

Houmt Souk, El Borj. Near Houmt Souk, this is El Borj, "the fort", a sturdy establishment constructed by the Spanish in Philip II's time, basically the 1560s, to try to keep piracy down in the Med. Piracy's down now -- the forts and patrol boats are concentrating mainly on asylum seekers.

El Borj, Djerba. Anti-terrorist Homeland Security in the 16th century, with long lines, and everybody probably had to take off their shoes and get wanded.

The Vision of El Borj

The narrator and traveling companion atop El Borj

The scenic view from the "New Hotel" in Houmt Souk into the village square, where all the males congregated to watch TV in the evenings. (No females, of course -- perhaps Islam was intended to spare them from TV.) In the evening, hundreds of males assembled like clockworks to drink tea and talk about things, and then to gaze enrapt at the television set up outside. No Baywatch reruns on this evening, though -- they were watching President Bourguiba instructing them, with props and vigorous demonstrations, on how teeth are properly to be brushed.

From our room at the New Hotel. The price was right (1 dinar, about US$2). No toilets in the hotel were in working order and most invoked the gag reflex anyway, but no problem! The desk clerk simply suggested that we try the facilities in the hotel next door.

Recording the day's events

Where is El Kantara? On the map, it looks like a thriving metropolis at the southeast corner of the Isle of Djerba. The travelers leapt eagerly off the bus, despite the incredulous driver's shaking head, to find -- no metropolis, in fact no anything, just a causeway ('el kantara') to the mainland. As there are no other towns on the island, they set out with waning enthusiasm walking back up the east side of the island towards the Zone Touristique, in hopes of flagging a compassionate motorist.

Which, halfway northward along the coast, they did. A Libyan family picked them up in a station wagon, bound for the Dar Djerba ("Djerba Palace"), the most expensive hotel in the Zone Touristique on the northeast coast, with a dead goat hanging from the roof of the car. They were checking into the Djerba Palace for a holiday and bringing their own dinner.

{Conversation transcript: 1) Do you like Qaddafi? 2) Uuuhh, well, no, not too much. 3) Well, I don't like Reagan either. [pause] But I like you, and you like me!!}

The following day, slipping round the chain-link fence that protects the hotels of the Zone Touristique from all Tunisians not in waiters' or maids' uniforms, the travelers tiptoed unobtrusively past the rows of Germans reclining on the hotel beaches with cool drinks continuously refilled and walked out onto a rocky point to go for a little swim.

Swimming near the Zone Touristique on the Isle of Djerba . . .

. . . was not in the cards. The sea is knee-deep halfway to Italy. About the only thing the seaside seems good for is postcard-writing (above) and reclining on the beach, inside the chain-link fence, with genuine-Tunisian waiters hovering about ready to refill one's cool drink and stick a new little umbrella in it.

So the travelers packed up their kit and money belt and hiked back through the Zone Touristique to Houmt Souk for another evening of television in the town square, featuring Uncle Habib.

Houmt Souk proved a rewarding locus for a lengthy sojourn, with its 16th century castle, its tidy fishing port (where the cannons are put to better use than cannons usually are), and of course its bustling souk, or market, where, at 4 p.m. every afternoon, LandRovers from the Zone Touristique brought excited shoppers out from behind the chain-link fences and turned them loose on the market stalls for precisely an hour. At which time, a whistle sounded, the LandRovers filled up again, and back they went behind the chain-link fences.

Also within a short bus ride from Houmt Souk are a few of the last Jewish villages in North Africa, these dating back nearly 2,000 years. (One of them, alas, the scene of a demento truck-bomb attack on an ancient synagogue in May 2002.)

Leaving the Isle of Djerba at last, the travelers took a bus back to the city of Gabès on the coast, and thence another bus southward to the village of Matmata, where the people live mostly underground. Those holes in the ground are the central courtyards of houses of all kinds, with rooms leading off from them, much much cooler than at ground level.

Matmata: Even the hotels are underground, as this one (with the 'cuisine', or kitchen, on the left. In this former French protectorate, many Tunisians speak French.).

Matmata hotel: The restaurant on the right, and the rooms just up the stairs.

A nearby army post keeps a watchful eye on things. The underground dwellings look as if they've been occupied since the Stone Age, but in fact, until the French brought order to the region and established a protectorate in 1881, warlords and bandit gangs roamed the area freely, and the villagers lived atop these more defensible hills.

A hike up one of those hills proved a daunting job of work in 40°C midday sun.

Matmata, from the top of the hill in the photo below

So this particular peak did not see the entire party reach the summit on that particular day, and the travelers then trod their way back past the army post . . .

. . . and took their leave of Matmata and its camels and date palms. Back to Gabès it was then, and by late night train westward through Gafsa, in the interior, and southwestward to Tozeur near the Algerian border, on the edge of the Chott El Jerid.

Tozeur and Nefta, oasis towns in western Tunisia

And here, from one of the twin towers called the Belvedere on the outskirts of Tozeur, is a look out southward over the Chott El Jerid, a dry salt lakebed as far as the eye can see.

[And in November 2007, the Chott El Jerid became a Ramsar Wetland of International Importance. Not very wet, usually, but all the more important for that in this arid land.]

Our traveling companion on the Belvedere, near Tozeur, the Chott El Jerid stretching out behind. For the first time, the heat began to take its toll, and the travelers decided to upgrade briefly to a two-star ($10) hotel to recuperate . . .

. . . in the pool, before taking in more of the sights.

The edge of the large oasis at Tozeur, with its date palms, and with its wind fences (below right, and everywhere) trying to keep the blowing sand out.

A short walk down in the oasis of Tozeur

Tozeur old and new. The photo on the right was originally entitled "Two Donkeys" but has since been renamed "Traveling Companion in Front of Esso Station, Tozeur".

The old days of the muezzin seem to be long gone, when some sorry chap climbed up there at 5 a.m. or thereabouts and started singing out about mandatory prayers, etc., etc. Now, the sound of a skipping record comes over the loudspeakers for about 15 seconds, then the call to prayer, then a thwup thwup skipping sound, and then somebody abruptly turns it off. Throughout most of the day and well into the night. A powerful lot of praying going on over there.

On by bus to Nefta, perched precariously upon its oasis near the border with Algeria. Nefta encircles on three sides a deep sand pit, at the bottom of which lies the water and whatever can be made to grow with it, namely date palms. The sand, which is otherwise ubiquitous, also seeks to fill up the pit, and if it should ever make any progress at all, Nefta is no more.

Young guides preparing to lead the travelers down into the oasis for the Grand Tour

Traveling companion Jane and the guides view the oasis at the bottom of the pit.

Work gangs from the town labor right round the clock, night and day, to keep the channels free of sand.

Jane and the guides passed any number of work gangs in their explorations -- the water channels are the only passage through the palm forest.

Looking up out of the oasis, the marabout on one side of the circle

The Vision of Nefta

Nefta: The oasis, and the surrounding town

Waiting for a bus on a hot afternoon in western Tunisia

The 11 p.m. train leaving Tozeur for the coast -- it stopped for a few hours in the middle of the night to wait out a very gritty sandstorm, and then carried on to Gabès. The train trip across the country cost the equivalent of a couple of US dollars at that time.

Seeking more islands in the Med

The Kerkenna Islands, by ferry from the city of Sfax, with growing tourism now but back in 1981 mostly just fishing. Here, the boats were coming in at evening, seen from the beachside hotel, which made up in scenic views for what it lacked in cleanliness.

Another Spanish fort, this one on the Kerkenna Islands, and in worse repair than El Borj at Houmt Souk. Our companion can be seen waving as if Barbary pirates had been sighted on the horizon.

The lookout on the Spanish fort

Traveling companion viewing fishing boats getting ready to head out in the morning, Kerkenna Islands, 1981

Moving northward, the travelers stopped in to see how the rabat in Monastir has been holding up over the years. This is the birthplace of Habib Bourguiba, so it matters.

And then westward again -- public transport in Tunisia, at least in 1981, might as well have been free -- to the Grand Mosque at Kairouan, which is, like, the fourth holiest mosque in Islam (after Mecca, Medina, and Jerusalem). (Seven visits to Kairouan = one visit to Mecca!)

Another photo of the Grand Mosque at Kairouan, founded in A.D. 670. The new holy benefits of having made the pilgrimage have not yet taken effect at this point, and the travelers considered whether it would be more economical, rather than to come back here seven times, just to go along to Mecca once. At least for a look-in.

And then, the travelers made a dash back to the coast, to the 8th-century rabat (fortified monastery) at Sousse . . .

Where's Waldo? The narrator can be seen somewhere here, in the rabat at Sousse.

A sneaky view down into the mosque at Sousse

The medina and the kasbah, Sousse

And then the travelers darted northwestward to the Roman ruins of Dougga, one of the best preserved Roman sites in the region.

With the narrator defiling its flooded mosaics with his powder-blue Nikes

In the municipal heating system

Another of Dougga

And another of Dougga, the civic library

Back to the coast again, just north of Tunis, traveling companion Jane and the ruins of ancient Carthage, looking down towards its two ports on the sea, the commercial port and the "war port"

The floor plan of ancient Carthage

One's month in Tunisia having run out, the travelers reboarded their ferry in Tunis and journeyed back to Genoa, Italy, and thence to Switzerland, where they tried to cross the Rawilpass in a freak July snowstorm.

Feedback and suggestions are welcome if positive, resented if negative, . All rights reserved, all wrongs avenged. Posted 24 June 2002, revised 21 September 2007, 26 September 2014.

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