Tag Archives: Tunisia

In Which we Are Accosted by Scimitar-Wielding Melon-Salesmen

20 Nov


This is post #3 about my high school trip to Kairouan, Tunisia. See the previous two posts for the full story!

Our last day in Tunisia was our most exciting. But not necessarily for a good reason.

We headed out to the camel market on our final morning. No, we were not looking to buy a camel, but we were searching for an authentic experience in Tunisian life – for this market, or bazaar, was a place of vast proportions and numerous opportunities.

Picture dusty rugs on the desert ground – aisle after aisle of them – with vegetables, fruits, trinkets, pots, pans, pottery, spices, leather goods, and drinks for sale. There were animals, too: goats and sheep and, I suppose, camels, though I think they were in a different part of the bazaar. I bought a baggie of saffron for my mom. I knew it was supposed to be the most expensive spice in the world, but here it was dirt cheap! I wish I had such a good source of saffron now.

It was hot in the open-air market, and aromatic. Cinnamon and peppers and sweat filled the air. And it was full of noises. Bleats and baas, the sounds of goat milk streaming into metal cans. The call of merchants selling their wares, the din of old and wrinkled women gossiping, of young men jesting, of children laughing and crying and playing in the aisles.

We walked down row after row, being jostled and beckoned to, and then, almost as if we’d planned it, all of us stopped – after being persuaded to by the vendors – to admire something that looked like cantaloupe.

My best friend and I stood at one rug, talking with the vendors. I say “talking with” but really it was more “talking at” – they didn’t understand us and we didn’t understand them. I think the phrase “James Bond” might have arisen. Other than that our communication was by smiles and gestures and thumbs up.

The rest of our group stood not two feet away from us at the neighboring rug.

We watched as the vendors cut into a melon with a scimitar – using that long, curved blade to slice through the melon as smoothly as if it were butter. We laughed and they laughed and we did our bit to promote good will and international peace.

And then, suddenly, one of the laughing and smiling salesmen at our rug jumped up and grabbed my friend around the neck. He held his scimitar to her throat – the tip just millimeters from her skin – and, unbelievably, laughed.

No one in the souk looked up. No one worried or noticed or troubled about the gullible Americans and the scimitar-wielding melon-salesmen.

I stood, immobile, terrified, tongue-tied. The man smiled on and on, his gold-toothed grin so wide that I could see where his molars ought to have been. His friends, too, grinned and guffawed.

It felt like minutes passed but I suppose it was only seconds. Next to us, our traveling companions were unaware that anything was wrong, so mesmerized were they by a slick little melon-cutting exhibition going on at their rug. Bits of sweet, orange flesh flew in all directions.

And then, all of a sudden, the man released my friend. Spewing out words we did not understand, he pulled away his sword, still laughing, still flashing those golden teeth. So much laughter! So many broken melons.

It wasn’t until we headed back to the hotel, sometime later, that my friend’s aunt realized her wallet had been stolen.

It was all a diversion. And we fell into their trap perfectly.

But it makes for a great story.

Tomorrow: Thanksgiving on foreign soil…a pilgrim in a very unfamiliar land.

Caves, Colliseums, Indiana Jones…and Me!

15 Nov

This is my second post about my Thanksgiving experience in Tunisia many moons ago. Five American women in Tunisia…made for some interesting moments…

Every morning in Kairouan, Tunisia, we woke at approximately 5:00a.m. as the muezzin’s call to prayer echoed through the neighborhood. Turns out, the minaret in Kairouan is the oldest in the world. I neither knew nor appreciated that then, though the sound of it did add to the feeling that I was living in an Agatha Christie novel. Or a Mrs. Polifax, maybe.

A wee bit of the souk in Kairouan.

Our second day in Tunisia we chose to go to a souk. I didn’t know it at the time, but this bazaar was the exact same bazaar where Indiana Jones up and shoots that overly-zealous, black-clad, scimitar-wielding ninja-esque guy in Raiders of the Lost Ark.* When we were there, there were no ninja guys to be seen. Instead there were pottery merchants and food vendors and carpet sellers, who lured us into their shop with the promise of tea and who were rather cross with me when I chose not to buy a carpet because it would cost me all the money I had and then I wouldn’t be able to buy anything else for the rest of the week. Let me just say: I’d have been better off with the carpet. Far better. I could still be walking on it, or admiring it hanging on my wall. Instead I bought classy things like a clay camel bearing jugs of water and a tiny wall hanging and a tea set (okay, I still like the tea set). Live and learn, eh?

I bought this in Tunisia for my mom way back in 1987. Service for 6!


From the souk we went to El Jem, a Roman coliseum, complete with lion enclosures down beneath the floor of the arena. I shut my eyes and tried to picture the Christian martyrs, to hear their murmured prayers despite the roars of the lions in their ears. Mostly I just smelled hot, dry air and saw sand. In my memory there was hay on the floor of the crumbling lion stalls…but it’s possible that was only in my mind. Unless, of course, they brought some in to stimulate the imagination of gullible Christians like me.

The Roman coliseum at El Jem.

We kicked ourselves a couple days later when we found a brochure for Carthage in the hotel lobby. Apparently none of us had done our homework to realize that Carthage is in Tunisia. Oh, well. At least we saw one Roman ruin, albeit a lesser-known one. Perhaps it was for lesser-known Christians. The non-vocal martyrs of the Roman age. Either that or the ones who would produce less of a spectacle while being eaten by lions.

The next day we saw the fourth most holy Moslem place in the world, the Great Mosque of Kairouan (after Mecca, Medina, and Jerusalem). This is the oldest Moslem place of worship in Africa. Apparently seven trips to this mosque equals one hajj to Mecca. We walked around the courtyard, but we didn’t go inside. I mostly remember blue mosaics: beautiful color in that dusty land.

Tiles at the mosque.

Courtyard of the Great Mosque

Later we saw a “Camel Drawing Water from a Well” – which, in retrospect, I have no idea why it was a tourist-draw, I just know that it was a “must see” we were told. More like a “must-pay”.  (The picture in this link is an actual camel drawing water from a well in Kairouan!

We took a bus into the Sahara Desert one day for lunch at a Berber hotel. And when I say “hotel” I mean cave. Or, rather, series of caves. We walked through a dark and sloping tunnel to a coutyard, open to the sky. Surrounding us were cave openings, dark and doorless, each entered by way of a ladder propped against the walls of the cavern.**

Similar to the place we ate…


They led us to one of the biggest openings and we climbed the ladder to find a long table waiting for us. Lunch was ready. We ate meat – goat, I think. And flat bread and vegetables in a stew-like dish. I’m an adventurous eater, so I tried everything. I don’t think I left exactly full, but I left satisfied and intensely interested. I mostly remember how dark it was – such a contrast to the incandescent world I lived in. I remember looking out of the unlit cave into the bright, desert light. Everything I saw out that cave entrance was tan-colored. Everything. It was sandy. It was hot. It was far, far away from home.

No, I don’t think I was homesick…but I was intensely aware that the world I lived in, the world I knew and understood, the world I complained about and criticized like any other teenager, was actually far from the norm of all teenagers the world over. I’m not saying I realized I was blessed – for who’s to say that a Bedouin teenager living in a cave isn’t equally blessed (It’s not all about STUFF, right?) – but I’m saying I realized I needed to be more thankful.

And, in the season of Thanksgiving, to a self-centered 17 year old, that was realization indeed.

Next time: The Camel Market, where we learned that “working together” is not necessarily a good thing.

This is the land we drove through. The edge of the Sahara.


*Just to be totally clear: I’m actually not positive if the bazaar in Kairouan was the bazaar used, or if it was the bazaar in Sousse. I found references to both as being used in Raiders’ street scenes. Also, I know that “ninja” is not the right term for that guy in the movie, I just can’t think what the correct term should be!  Here’s one quote I found to be interesting on the topic of filming Raiders: “The Holy City of Kairouan in Tunisia was the Raiders of the Lost Ark filming location for Cairo. Appropriately the town’s name means “little Cairo”. For filming the scenes on Sallah’s terrace, 350 television antennas had to be removed from local buildings to present a 1930s skyline.”  It should also be noted that elsewhere I read that the lovely white and blue houses that are typical in Kairouan were not typical to Cairo, circo 1936.  I’m pretty certain that movie watchers didn’t mind…

**Picture Luke Skywalker’s aunt and uncle’s home in Star Wars: A New Hope. That’s kind of like the place I ate in, only our place was far more primitive. The actual location of Uncle Owen and Aunt Beru’s house is in Tunisia and can be toured.

“Clementine, Mandarine!”

13 Nov

This is the first of a few posts about my African Thanksgiving, 1987. I hope you can smell the Sahara and taste the mandarins as I did…

Many moons ago, when I was 17 years old and still fondly dreamed that someday I’d be a famous opera singer, I took a trip to Tunisia with my best friend, her mother and aunt, and another friend. That’s right: five women (three of them still in high school) headed to Africa for Thanksgiving. Don’t you always think of Northern Africa when you think about Pilgrims and pumpkins? Okay, I didn’t either, but it was an opportunity I couldn’t pass up.

Lest you’re imagining us on a many-hour journey across the world, I hasten to inform you that I was living in West Berlin at the time, so really it was just a small hop south.

We arrived, along with a German-speaking tour group, in Sousse, Tunisia. From there we drove to Kairouan, where we spent most of our time. I remember seeing a sign along the route: “Libya, 10 kilometers” – perhaps not that exact distance – and thinking, “Oy! That makes me a little nervous.” Quadafi was causing a bit of a ruckus in those days and I had one of those, “I’m not in Kansas anymore” moments.

Those moments continued as we began to explore the town. We ditched the tour group (as none of us spoke adequate German to understand anything anyway) and struck off on our own. I was not accustomed to shops that sold hookas as casually as if they were tea pots. Nor was my friend. “Are those lamps?” she asked, curious as to the purpose of the curvy pottery. “No,” our other friend replied. “They aren’t.” We left pretty quickly after that.

This is the Mediteranean Sea from Tunisia, though not the exact beach I was on. Photo from http://www.panoramio.com.

We walked past that shop and headed to the Mediterranean Sea, no more than a block away. It was beautiful and almost empty, that beach. Sometimes we were the only people there. We collected tiny shells that we left in our hotel room to dry and which, by morning, had a residue all around them and on the counter beside them. I couldn’t figure out what it was. “Salt,” my friend’s mother said, and sure enough, as I rubbed it with a finger there it was: the Mediterranean, condensed on our countertop.

The thing I remember most is not the scent of the sea or the feel of the sand or the temperature of the water. What I remember is the Clementine seller. His was a constant presence every time we went to the beach. “Clementine, mandarine!” he would call with a sing-song tone, making both words rhyme. You could hear him coming from way down the shore. He would come up to us with a basket of mandarins, their tangerine-colored skins warm from the sun, and for a few cents we would buy them from him, choosing our favorites from amongst the dozens. Then he would shuffle off, calling his song to whomever could hear.

Even now, 24 years later, when I buy tangerines from the grocery store, I think of that man and I sing his lilting song. I can hear it as clearly as if he were here beside me now. “Clementine, mandarine, clementine, mandarine!” I taught my kids his song and we sing it as we peel and pop the juicy segments into our mouths.

Minnesota is a long way from northern Africa. But even here the memory of the soft sand in my toes, the aroma of the shops, the desert heat, and the clementine-man’s song, all conspire together in my mind, leaving my mouth watering for more than just fruit.

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