Chapter 14: Morocco and Tunisia

Keyhole doorway - a typical feature of Islamic architectureChapter 10 is already dedicated to visiting Islamic countries as we have noticed that many overseas visitors tend to exclude them from their program without really knowing why. A certain amount of blame can be placed at the door of the TV and newspaper reporters for one-sided reporting - but on the other hand, they only cater to the viewers or readers and everyday normal life just doesn't reach the headlines. A South African showed surprise at my suggestion that Tunisia would be a good place for him to winter over, but when we talked more about it he related his preconceived notions about Islamic countries to the reactions he has faced from people who think they will be shot dead if they spend a holiday in South Africa!

Both Morocco and Tunisia have had very recent European rule and this has left an impact on both states. French is widely spoken in Tunisia, and Morocco still has close links with Spain due both to its proximity and the Spanish community still living in Tangier - and to the still Spanish town of Ceuta as an enclave in Morocco.

Barbary figs, sweet and rich in vitaminsStarting with Morocco - as this book is taking you from west to east - I must admit to only having visited very little of the country. I do not want to pass on second-hand information anywhere in this book without mentioning it as such, as passed-on information is often much like Chinese whispers - something quite different comes out at the end of the line. You should profit from our personal experiences, and they are limited in Morocco to a visit to Tangier before entering the Mediterranean, accompanied by a train trip to Asilah.

We had considered visiting other ports further south when we left Europe, but as we left from Portugal and not from the Mediterranean we had to choose between Morocco and Madeira - and Madeira won!

Nevertheless even a few days in Tangier are an exciting experience.

Particularly the coastal regions are used to overseas visitors. Every day ferries come in to Tangier and bring day trippers and holiday makers. The old town begins right behind the harbor and as soon as the formalities have been completed (we encountered friendly and correct officials), you can walk into the narrow streets and are immediately immersed in the bustling town life.

a spice stall in MoroccoWe accepted the offer of a local "guide" who came to the harbor, when we arrived. We agreed on a fee and he showed us corners of the old town that we would not have found otherwise, such as the hand weaving looms tucked away on the first floor of a market square, where fabric was made on very simple looms. Had we even found them, we would have felt we were prying into other people's privacy to go looking through the open doorways. With our guide however we were able to ask questions and even obtain permission to take a photo, as he knew the people and knew who would be obliging. That is the one side of the coin. The other however is that these guides have a vested interest in bringing your custom to their relative's business, usually a carpet shop. There you are invited to a cup of tea (as is usual practice in all Moslem countries, regardless of whether you finally buy or not) and then carpet upon carpet are laid out before you with expert explanations in your own language. If you have no intentions of buying, then make it clear and do not show any interest in the prices - which sooner or later will be mentioned. Just be a polite and appreciative viewer and leave again with thanks as soon as you have finished your tea. Maybe your guide will then take you to another relative selling something else, but perhaps you really did want to buy jewelry or embossed brass trays or silver teapots for that excellent mint tea.

When you have done enough sightseeing, take a seat in a street café from where you can watch the passers-by as they disappear into the depths of the bazaar. The very assortment of clothing is a fascinating spectacle. There will be European dressed men and women, in suits and sleeved dresses despite the heat. Women pass in burnouses, some with only their eyes visible, others more informal using the burnous as a garment to keep the dust off the dress underneath. There will be men in lightweight djellabahs embroidered around the sleeve or across the chest. Men down from the hills for a day in the town will be wearing woollen djellabahs, mostly brown or gray with white stripes and with plenty of clothes underneath and even a woollen hat to top it all. The water vendors with their bright red costumes and brass water ladles or cups are a sought-after souvenir picture. Mint is delivered to the café by an old bent man with a handcart who brings an armful of the highly scented plant for the fresh mint tea.

Public transport in Morocco is confoundingly cheap. We had considered a trip inland towards Fez (where the tasseled hats of the same name come from), but the locals in the coastal regions speak of the towns in the mountains as robbers' dens and we settled for a train ride along the coast to Asilah. Travelling with public transport is always an eye-opener in any country, particularly on crowded trains and buses. In the poorer countries it is not uncommon to share a compartment with crated chickens - even a goat in very rural areas - as the farmers take their produce to market. Our experience in Morocco was not quite so vivid, but nevertheless we accepted the friendly offer of grapes from the family on the seat opposite and struggled to get out of the train through the heaps of baggage blocking the doors when we reached our destination.

Asilah turned out to be an attractive walled town with a vegetable market in the dry moat and a weekly market selling virtually everything in the streets of the "new town". The narrow alleys inside the walls were freshly whitewashed and the whole town made a neat appearance. The harbor was being extended but only sheltered fishing boats when we were there.

Street scene in MonastirIn Tunisia, the country is more familiar with yacht tourism all along the coast. There are marinas which serve both yachts in transit and permanent berth-holders and there are plenty of fishing harbors where yachts can find a space, usually on the customs pier. The fishing harbors are paid by the week, the receipt from one harbor being recognized in the next, although the fee is only small.

Tunisia is a country of very contrasting landscapes. At the eastern end of the vast Sahara desert, there are completely arid areas in the south with vast salt pans. And yet even in the desert there is a surprising amount of water and the arid areas are interspersed with oases growing date palms and other fruit. Further north are extensive fertile agricultural areas. This was the Granary of the Roman Empire and still produces grain, wine, olives, fruit and vegetables. In the north there are green and lush hills where cork oak forests supply their bark for the cork industry and where the grazing dairy cows and the houses with tiled sloping roofs are more reminiscent of central Europe than Africa.Freshly stripped cork oaks

Because of its favorable strategic position and fertile landscapes, the north of Tunisia was settled early by the Phoenicians. The Sicily Strait is only about 80 nautical miles wide and so Tunisia has a commanding location between the eastern and western basins of the Mediterranean. This made it an ideal situation for the founding of a city that was to become a name in history - Carthage, a flourishing settlement for centuries. It was from here that 60 ships with 30.000 settlers set out in 450 BC to settle the Atlantic coast of Morocco. This particular expedition is on record, many more have taken place. There are even theories that such a colonization expedition crossed the Atlantic, maybe unintentionally, and brought the knowledge of pyramid-building and astronomy along with strains of cotton plants to the New World. Whatever the truth of this theory, Carthage was a cultural center and a thorn in the flesh of the Roman Empire, which finally managed to raze Carthage to the ground in 146 BC. As a result, the remains of Carthage that can be visited today are only Roman remains, dating from the settlement later built on the same spot.

However the Punic peoples, as the Phoenicians were called in the Carthaginian colony, have left other remains and interesting excavations are going on in Kerkouane which can be visited from Kelibia. Here the foundations of a town complete with the walls up to about 1 m height were preserved under sand and are being excavated. The town plan is easily recognizable, as are the rooms of the houses and even the bath tubs. The town was enclosed by a town wall with fortress towers. The accompanying museum exhibits the pottery and jewelry and the coins and seals found in the excavations and explains the production of purple from the Murex sea snails, that was carried out there. Purple was so highly prized in ancient times that it became the color of royalty and it probably made a major contribution to the prosperity of the town.

The Roman remains left in Tunisia are of surprising quality. The colosseum El Djem is in far better state than the one in Rome and is an impressive sight visible for miles around on the flat plains. Mosaics of great intricacy and color are on display in the museums of Sousse and Tunis, collections well worth visiting. As with the Greek remains in Turkey, these sites have not been plundered as quarries for succeeding generations, nor have they been carried off to foreign museums during the boom of archeology in the last century to the same extent as the more densely populated and easily accessible sites in Italy and Greece themselves.

After the Romans, Tunisia changed hands many times. It was conquered by the Vandals, then became part of the Byzantine Empire, then the Arabs came in the 7th century and brought Islam to the country. After initial bitter resistance, the Berbers were finally conquered by the Arabs and became ardent advocates of the Islamic religion. It was a Berber chief who led the troops across the strait of Gibraltar to bring Islam to Spain in 712. Gibraltar was named after him - Jebel Tariq. After a brief interlude in which the Spanish devastated Tunis, Tunisia came under the Ottoman Empire in 1574, when Suleyman the Magnificent was Sultan in Istanbul. From 1705 onwards it was governed virtually independently under a Bey, until it became a French Protectorate in 1881. Tunisia became independent in 1956.

Mausoleum in KairouanFrom 671 until the 9th century, Kairouan was the capital of Tunisia. Many magnificent buildings were erected during this time and even today Kairouan is the 4th holiest city for the Moslems, after Mecca, Medina and Jerusalem. The great Mosque, the Sidi Abid mausoleum and the so-called Barber's Mosque are among the highlights of the town. Beautiful ceramics, alabaster and plasterwork have been used in the creation of these splendid buildings. As a religious center, many families come with their small boys for the circumcision festivities. The old town with the bazaar is also worth a visit. Apart from all the everyday commodities, wool dyed locally is sold in all colors. Kairouan is best visited on a day trip from Monastir or Sousse.

For those of you who are particularly taken with the ceramics, visit Nabeul on a Friday. Nabeul is the center of the ceramic industry in Tunisia and has been so since Roman days. The Arabs introduced the colorful artistic designs and glazing that are now so popular and that we saw in southern Spain and will see again in Turkey. Friday is the weekly market and apart from the wide assortment of tiles and pots, baskets, leatherwork, embroidery and wrought iron, it is also the cattle market, where calves, donkeys, sheep, horses, goats and the occasional dromedary change hands, the deal being sealed with a handshake. As so many tourists come to Nabeul, there are also displays of horse-riding in the style of Lawrence of Arabia. Get there early - as Friday is the holy day for the Moslems the market is closed down by the time of the midday prayer (not necessarily 12 o'clock, but when the sun is at its peak). If you are travelling with public transport, it pays to get a bus or collective taxi (louage) before the market ends, as later it becomes a free-for-all to try to get in the last bus going back. Nabeul can be visited from the harbors of Beni Khiar or Kelibia, or maybe in calm weather it might be possible to anchor in the shallow waters off Hammamet.

Some areas have been particularly developed for tourism, such as Hammamet, Jerba and the coastline from Monastir to Sousse. The hotel areas with their own beaches are usually a little apart from the towns, which, in view of the different cultures is a good idea. Arriving with a boat in Tunisia means however, that you may wish to use the beach next to the harbor where the locals go in for a swim in full dress, or the donkey is given a bath. Respect the local customs and keep the brief bikini for the hotel swimming pool in Monastir or any other tourist beach.

Market in MahdiaIn medieval tradition the towns are surrounded by a more or less intact town wall. Medina means the walled part of the town although in Saudi Arabia and in Malta there are towns where the word has come to be the town name. The Kasbah is the fortress and the Ribat is also a fortification, built by Islamic religious-military orders (approximately equivalent to the knights orders in the times of the crusades). The museums are often located inside the kasbah. The souks are the market places and the areas around them where the craftsmen produce and sell their goods. Equipped with this vocabulary, you can find your way around the towns. Having said this, I must add, that the souks and the old towns are a labyrinth of tiny alleys where it is easy to get lost. The back streets are often also very poor and cramped areas of the town, where a tourist is out of place. Keep to the main streets to keep your orientation. If you look down on the maze of streets in Sousse from the kasbah, you may also come to the conclusion that it's easier to return to the harbor along the outside of the town wall!

Selling bunches of sweet-smelling mimosaTunis itself is best visited from La Goulette, although it would be possible to take the train from Sidi Bou Said. The latter is a marina, and as Sidi Bou Said has long been an attraction for jet-set tourists, it is more expensive. The yacht harbor in La Goulette is run by a club and is only a short train ride from Tunis. A "must" is the museum Bardo for two reasons. Firstly because the exhibits are excellent (mosaics and local handicrafts) and secondly because it is in part of the palace of the former Bey, which is a richly decorated building. The rest of the palace houses the parliament.

When rounding Cape Bon, give Sidi Daoud a wide berth if you are in the tuna fishing season because of the tuna fish net which extends out to sea. (See chapter on Fishing).

In the sand desertA particularly good center for trips into the Sahara is Monastir, where the boat can be left in an excellent marina and where excursions are organized for tourists. The marina is part of a tourist development with hotels and pools, and tourist attractions such as folk dancing displays going on the pier. It is a few minutes walk from the medina, and when you go through the town gate you are immediately aware of the strong contrast between the artificial holiday atmosphere of the marina and the everyday town life with the bustling market. When you have had enough of amenities and other tourists, and have picked up your mail, head south to Mahdia, where there is room for a limited number of pleasure craft on the pier directly in front of the authorities. Immediately beyond are the refrigerated store rooms and the covered market place for the fish market. The auction in the early morning is an event, the fish is not always collected in a modern refrigerated truck, but also by horse-drawn vehicles and donkey carts. A little bunch of sweet-smelling mimosa, sold by young men in local costume, is a welcome alternative to the stench of the unwashed ground in the market during the heat of the day... Mahdia is also an interesting town, but it would go beyond the scope of this book to go into all the sights of all the towns.

Dug-out house near MatmataTravelling in Tunisia provides a lot of variety due to the completely varying landscapes and the consequent different ways of life between north and south. After a trip up into the cool forested hills around Ain Draham with the red roofed houses, it is a particular contrast to visit the dug-out houses of the Berbers in the area of Matmata and then to bake in the heat crossing the Chott el Jherid. But even for those who do not venture so far inland, the country is interesting to visit. Throughout the centuries the main settlement areas were in the coastal areas, particularly around Cape Bon, so the harbor towns are full of history and still today throb with life. All around the Mediterranean, life goes on in the streets, but this is particularly true of the north African coast.

© Dianne Reichart 1997

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