Tantalising Tunisia

Jul 07, 2013, 06:38 IST | Krishna Raj

A kaleidoscope of colours and cultures unfolds when Africa meets the Arab world. Krishna Raj journeys through Tunisia

Nachiket and I are meeting after years, perhaps the first time after school. But the passage of time seems insignificant as we sit on the promenade in Tunis, watching a string of illuminated ships decorating the horizon like a necklace. Our meeting here is purely accidental, as I am on vacation in Tunisia and Nachiket, a wandering sailor. As I listen to his tales of sea devils and fairies, I explore a land, which is alien to me and yet is familiar, as I speak the local language.

The ruins of a Roman Amphitheatre at El-Jem

We reach the doors of the old Andalusian-style homes at Sidi Bou Said village. Amid the Monday morning bustle at Tunisia’s capital Tunis, I find myself in one of the many back alleys of the city centre where I am to meet the country’s iconic musical maestro Anis Klibi. After a customary Ahla Si Kreeshna, la bas!? (Welcome Mr Krishna, how are you?), he gives me soulful renditions on his ancient two-stringed Andalusian Rabeb of which, he is one of the few remaining exponents. Switching over to polished classical Arabic, he explains the nuances of the country’s classical and folkloric streams.

Marina at Monastir
Marina at Monastir. Pics/ Krishna Raj

Soon I find myself tripping over uneven cobbles trying to catch a glimpse of a mesmerising array of ornate lanterns, bright red wollen Chechia caps, handicrafts and perfumes at old Town Tunis’, an old town with a world famous colourful traditional market. “Ya Masri!” (hey Egyptian!), “Min Kurdistan?” (from Kurdistan?) are thrown my way by salesmen trying to guess my nationality.

Tozeur is a picture-postcard town

My knowledge of Arabic fails to work its magic and I don’t get any hefty discounts, not even on musical instruments. But yes, a perfume roll-on or two is slipped into my pocket as a ‘cadeau’ (gift, in French) for someone who looks and speaks like an Arab and also speaks langue Française, the other languages spoken in this former French colony.

A traditional market at Jerba

But so much for my knowledge of Tunisia! I visit Tunis’s Bardo National Museum next to see some of the world’s most sought-after mosaics and discover I know little about this multi-faceted nation.

Mediterrane Marvels
After a brief stop at the amphitheater of El Jem, one of Africa’s most impressive Roman ruins, I drive down to the pretty Mediterranean town of Monastir. Grabbing a cup of Shaai bi-n-na’na (North African mint tea with pine nuts), I meditate on the cackle of seagulls swooping over the gently swaying colourful fishing boats parked alongside yachts. Close by, atop the Ribat, a formidable fortress built in 796AD, couples profess their love against a splendid panorama of the Mediterranean Sea and the town.

Old town market, Tunis

Like it is often said about the Mediterranean, no one is a stranger to anyone here. As I stroll through the town, souvenir vendors wrap me in white Bedouin scarves, exchanging pleasantries, folk tunes and poetry. The spontaneous affection of the locals makes me smile as I don straw hats and grab a Samsa, a Tunisian version of the Levantine Baklava!

My next stop -- the town of Tozeur where twin arches welcome us in with the words: “Zur tuzar, in shi’ta ru’yatu jannah. Tajree biha min tahtiha-l-an’haar” (visit Tozeur if you want to know how paradise looks. For, below here flow rivers abundant).

Walking through the narrow alleys of the quaint old town unravels the very soul of the country, the quintessential Saharan Tunisia with old brown homes with charming lanterns and bright blue doors, magnificent arches that lead from one narrow pathway to another. A horse cart ride through the town takes us to sprawling date plantations and another short drive, to a natural oasis with a gushing waterfall. Close by is Douz, a desert town known for its artisans, craftsmen and hospitality.

In the heart of Tozeur, however, I am captivated by a distant thump of a Sufi Daf not far from an old Sufi school. A short walk brings me to the abode of eccentric mystic and Sufi musician Sheikh Mondher Abbes. “A Sufi is one who is beautiful, and loves beauty in any form,” he explains, repeating the words “Ana uhibbu-l-jamaal” (I love beauty). Playing his flute, he tells me how being one with nature brings him closer to his soul and the two us grab the drums and let our musical minds take over for the rest of the evening.

Island of dreams
On the last leg of my trip, I cross over from mainland Tunisia to Jerba Island by ferry. Here, an earthy folk Mezwed number belted out by a local radio station, has me dancing as I settle in for the night at Dar Dhiafa, a traditional Tunisian home accommodation in Hara Saghira, the Jewish quarter of the island.

Strolling through the sleepy town, I arrive at a non-descript Jewish eatery for dinner. “Brukheem Ha Baim” (welcome) smiles Chef Yonah. There is peace here and in Arabic Tunisia, I savour a sumptuous vegetarian Kosher meal as Jews and Muslim neighbours break bread together.

Walking through Houmt Souk, the vibrant traditional market of the island has me revel in fragrant essential oils, goat-skin drums and world-renowned Berber pottery. Rounding up an unforgettable experience is a visit to the ancient El Ghriba Synagogue, a place of pilgrimage for thousands of Jews from around the world. The serenity of the blue interiors with classical Hebrew inscriptions, chandeliers with oil lamps and the world’s oldest Sefer Torah resurrect Judaic giants like Rambam, Yosef Karo and Yehuda Ha Nasi of whom I had learnt from India’s noted Jewish scholar Sharon Binyamin Galsurkar.

But even in the midst of all this history, there is a little bit of home! If you hear “Aish” here, it’s not because you come from the land of Bollywood, it simply means “long live”! But, hang on! In the muddy alleys of the most remote Saharan villages, I hear kids singing, soniye leja leja. When I ask the little girl at the counter if she likes the song, she blushes, on realising that I am Indian, A local Berber dances a Saharan version of a filmy Bhangra welcoming his Indian guest to his dilapidated shop before he hands me henna packets which have Kareena Kapoor on the cover! And as I switch on the TV set on my last night here, an angry young Nana Patekar comes alive on the film channel. In a country unknown to most Indians, it wouldn’t be surprising to find a Vada Pav
vendor somewhere.

Fast facts
>> The currency here is the Tunisian Dinar. One can exchange Euros or Dollars for Dinars here in a local bank. Avoid currency exchanges in hotels.
>> Arabic is the national language while French is spoken as the second language, English is widely understood and spoken.
>> Tunisia is a haven for shopping. Hit the traditional markets and try the local cuisine. }Along with luxury resorts, Tunisia also offers reasonably priced traditional style accommodation.

How to get there: There are no direct flights to Tunis from anywhere in India. One can fly to Rome or Dubai for onward flights to Tunis 

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