Beneath the Stars of Tunisia

Glimpses of camels, ancient cities, souks and starry nights in the northern African country of Tunisia.

Photography by Andreas Zervas

There is nothing like the wondrous display of stars in the late evening in Tunisia – so close, they seem to shimmer just above our heads, so clear and unobstructed by trees, buildings, or clouds, that the whole sky radiates with their pure light. The stars are not neatly patterned but beautifully arrayed in a sort of natural chaos. For the first time we grasp, perhaps a little, the enormity of the celestial heavens. It is because this is a land dominated by desert, flat, lowlying, that our eyes, accustomed to the mountain views of Calgary, are awed. When dawn breaks, we see the Mediterranean Sea cradling the beige desert – gentle, flowing, near. For days we become accustomed to a waking reverie – stars in the evening and azure water against whitewashed buildings during the day.

We are touring the seaside region of Cape Bon in the Northeast of the country, only 145 kilometers from Sicily. Inspired by images of El Jem, the Roman amphitheater, we excitedly plan a trip. Ironically, we never get a chance to visit El Jem. Instead, we are never far from the sea. On a map, Cape Bon looks like a rhinoceros horn jutting into the sea and it is here that many of the exploits that made Tunisia a rival of ancient Rome took place.

It is late February and this nation of 10 million is preparing for a festival. Shepherds wearing their kachabia, a hooded cloak (that any fan of Star Wars would instantly recognize) parade their sheep about the countryside and into the towns – hoping to sell some of their herd. In staccato Arabic, men shout prices and heated bargaining takes place until a sheep is finally exchanged. As we drive past orchards and groves of olive trees, we see small houses where any shepherd may stay for the night. “On February 22 a huge fete takes place where each family slaughters a sheep,” explains Yamen Ben Alaya, our driver, a young man in his twenties, dressed in crisp twenty-first century business attire. Incongruence is at the heart of life in Tunisia. Though nightclubs, modern commerce, sky rises, and packaged tourists, mainly from Europe, abound, sheep-herders, donkey carts, and camel riding Berbers are equally commonplace. There is an eerie rhythm in this land that alludes to Biblical times and before. It exists just below the surface of modernity. Where Carthage fell and Africa was born, where Phoenicians conquered and Islam predominates, in this diverse nation, the past breathes as true and relevant as the present.

This fact becomes more startling at the Bardo museum in Tunis. The museum houses one of the most impressive collections of Roman mosaics anywhere in the world. We visit room upon room of tiny pebbles or cut stone fashioned into Roman gods, animals, sea creatures and every other form imaginable. There are also jewels with the minutest details that look like they may have come from the present-day souk. It strikes us again that this is a country of baffling continuity. The museums do not just hold old relics, but artifacts that relate seamlessly to what we see in the towns and cities every day.

Soon we are touring Carthage – ruins of another era that were the site of the Punic wars. Walking past eight foot tall Roman columns, weaving our way through what were once bustling streets, it is difficult not to feel transported. Like most of Tunisia, Carthage traces its history to invading Phoenicians who eventually gave way to Carthaginians, Romans, Vandals, Muslims and subsequently French. The ruins themselves are extensive, spread out among six sites, and though Yamen drives us to many of the sites, we do not see them all.

Then, as though ancient and modern can be spanned in the breadth of a short drive, we are in Sidi Bou Saïd. Known to European tourists as a Mediterranean hotspot, the town is reminiscent of Santorini, or Capri. Its architectural leitmotif of blue and white has lured artists for decades. Its pebbled streets lined with cafes are situated at the edge of the sea. We quickly run into a shop and give Yamen the money to buy some Tunisian wine (in this country wine-making predates the introduction of Islam but for the sake of decency we let him buy the wine) to accompany our lunch. Far below the city we gaze down at the beautiful modern docks.

Adel is waiting for us to choose bottles of perfumed oil. His charming manner and helpfulness make us quick friends. He tries to convince us to buy semi-precious jewellry, from his store in Hammamet. His mother owns the shop and he is busily taking customers’ requests, stocking goods and talking. “I have been selling in this shop since I was fifteen and it has already been ten years. I’ve seen and met all sorts of people,” says Adel. It is something we would see again and again in Tunisia, young boys learning a trade whether painting ceramics, hawking goods in the medina, or some other activity. Even Yamen tells us, “I’ve trained to be a driver since I was young.” It seems that all the young men in their twenties that we meet have been plying their craft for close to a decade. They are committed to their work and happy doing it.

We marvel at the ease with which Adel converses in Arabic, French, Italian, German and English. Yamen too says he picked up Italian from his customers. “For me learning a language is easy,” says Yamen one afternoon as we are driving. We are intrigued, having spent years learning French, and ask why it is so easy for him. Yamen responds, “Because nothing in life is difficult.” His words carry a wisdom that goes back to the pillars of Tunisia.

As we drive, Yamen points out wind-powered turbines that dot the countryside. Though considered an emerging economy, Tunisia remains as progressive as it is enduringly ancient. Virtually everywhere cranes dominate the skyline. There is construction taking place in every city we visit. One day, we decide to take a train to Nabeul, known for its pottery and ceramics. As we walk on cobblestone streets through souks, laden with filigree wired bird cages, tajines and Berber-silver jewelry, we are slightly uneasy with the beckoning of shopkeepers and the entreaties to buy. At times in Tunisia we are frustrated by the language barrier (despite our best efforts to get a crash course in Arabic from Yamen) and the sometimes aggressive commerce. As we follow the maze of streets toward the medina we see construction workers removing one entire layer of tiles that decorate a mosque. We take a piece of the façade of the Mosque they are redoing as a souvenir. One layer of tile is being replaced by another.

In our attempt to unravel the layers of Tunisia, Yamen takes us to Kerkouane, an ancient village on the edge of the Mediterranean that has been declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site.  In ancient times it supplied shellfish-derived purple dye to royalty, though a port was never built here.  As we wander the site, we discover Tanit, the lunar deity that reappears throughout Tunisian art and lore.  Her symbol is a circle atop a triangle, intersected by a horizontal line, like a kindergarten version of a female.  As the patroness of Carthage, Tanit was an important symbol for this area.  We see her form often when we visit the medina and it reappears in Nadia Al-Fani’s 1992 film Tanitez-moi.  Later, the reason for our affinity is clear; we learn that Tanit’s form is also the palm tree, the tree of life, and our own company’s symbol.

There are few tourists here at Kerkouane and standing amidst ancient villas and baths with the breeze blowing toward the Mediterranean mere metres below, we are alone in thought.  We have seen many ruins during the course of our trip but Kerkouane is different.  A stillness and calm permeates, the only sound is of the black rocks being slapped continuously by bluish green water.  There are places whose power resonates through the ages, where there is an instant visceral connection.  Kerkouane, perhaps because it was never rebuilt by the Romans, possess that direct raw energy.  It is as though its founders thought that beauty is enough of a reason to begin a settlement.

Tourism is one of the major sources of income and with the recent announcement of a five-billion dollar tourism project advancement, Tunisia seems destined toward the ideals of bigger equating better.  Almost as a preview of what is to come, we visit Sousse, south of Cape Bon.  Sousse has a preppy yachting-cool vibe.   There are people everywhere and foreign couples are strolling on the waterfront in droves.  An eighteen-hole golf course nearby, and a beachfront lined with hotel development and restaurants attract more than a million visitors every year.  Its decidedly modern flair leaves no trace of the ancient, storied Tunisia that has so captured us in Cape Bon.  If this is Tunisia to come, then, we wonder, what will happen to the Tunisia that was, the Tunisia that is always there, beneath the surface?

To escape the frenzy of Sousse, we drive to the Great Mosque of Sidi Oqba in Kairouan, one of the most sacred sites in Islam after Mecca.  After our tour, Yamen tells us that Kairouan is noted for makroud, a small round pastry.  It is made with semolina and dates, rolled into the shape of a triangle and dipped in orange syrup.  In shop after shop we search for makroud.  We finally find the cherished treat in a shop dripping with sweets from ceiling to floor.  Turkish delight, cookies and pastries literally fill the entirety of the space, the smell of fresh rose water and saccharine in the air.  Instantly, a harmless greed overcomes us all, and leads us to purchase more than a healthy dose of sugary delights.

The stars are hours away from making their appearance when, while walking on the beach, we meet Monsieur Mohammed.  He is the resident potter at a nearby hotel.  He welcomes us with the familiar greeting “Salaam wale kum”.  He does not speak a word of English, so we begin to converse in French.  A master of his art, having been a potter most of his life, Monsieur Mohammed is humble to say the least.  As a man living through the development of his homeland, he has observed and learned much.  In the course of our hour-long discussion about everything from human nature to sports and politics, Monsieur Mohammed begins to reveal his life’s philosophy.  “You know there are people who live with huge means and a lot of money.  Although they may go to bed with a full stomach, they do not taste their food.  They do not know true happiness,” he offers.  He has a wonderful philosophy of living from and with kindness and respect.  “In opening up to people respecting them”, he tells us, “they become like your family and with them you feel comfortable to share your most personal stories.”

In the magnanimous changes that are promised for Tunisia, ancient layers will be guided into the future.  Perhaps, at last, this is Tunisia – a land where one layer gives way to another as it has for millennia, where ancient wisdom comes disguised in the trappings of a young man, where recently unearthed ruins have a startling immediacy, where friends are made in a few hours yet always beneath the stars.

This article first appeared in the spring 2008 issue of City Style and Living Magazine.