Retro – Tunisia: El Jem

Enlightening is the first word that comes to mind when I think about today.  It’s also the right one.  And it had nothing to do with tourism.

Today’s stop was the coliseum (which is actually an amphitheatre) at El Jem, at about the midway point between Gabes and Tunis.  While the coliseum is impressive, apparently it’s pretty much all there is in the town, so the plan was to take the night bus to Tunis, get off at El Jem, explore early in the morning, and then take the train into Tunis and make my way back to the Grand Hotel de France.

The night bus from Gabes was significantly more comfortable than the one from Tunis to Tataouine.  The windows still frosted up, but everybody was pretty quiet (no “Hey You!” to worry about) and the seats were a lot more comfortable.  I was able to nod off within a few minutes of rolling out of Gabes and woke up to a magnificent sunrise just before we passed by the city of Sfax, which was one my shortlist for places to visit due to its well preserved medina and casbah, but just fell short.  It made for an impressive drive-by, however.

Once we rolled past Sfax, my seatmate, who I found out actually worked for the Tunisian tourism bureau, started up a conversation and we had a neat little chat about Tunisia in general.  He was pretty shocked that an American spoke French and was willing to visit an Arabic country.  When I told him I was from Canada, it all made sense to him, and we continued.  (Not meant as a slam to any Americans reading, but I do tend to get that a lot due to the Ontario accent being the least Canadian of all of them).  We had a great discussion about Tunisian government and how even though, at the time (2009), their government was considered progressive by Middle East standards, there was still a lot of work to be done.  About how he knew his country was in good shape but also knew that there was a limit as to what a person could achieve in Tunisia.  About how he would, and I quote, “Shoot Osama Bin Laden in the face” if he ever met him for what he’s done for public perception of Arabs, but how he also doesn’t think much of anybody who would negatively view an entire culture based upon the actions of one man.  As I was getting off at El Jem, he told me to make sure everybody knows Tunisia is safe, beautiful and friendly and that I should get as many friends as possible to visit one day.

So, go visit.

Also, I found out the “story” behind my two friends in Gabes.  According to the guy from the tourism board, they weren’t male prostitutes.  Apparently, they were offering me a place to stay, which I would give them money for, and then sex might happen.  Which sounds a lot like the sex-trade to me, but I suppose it’s all semantics.

Now, on to El Jem!

The town was known as Thysdrus during Roman times and was considered ancient Rome’s “Second City” of North Africa after Sousse (which I’ll be writing about later).  The amphitheatre was built in the 3rd century and, even though a revolt in Northern Africa left most of the city sacked by the Emperor’s troops, the amphitheatre survived relatively intact and ranks as the third largest in the Roman empire, behind the actual Colosseum in Rome and another amphitheatre in Capua.  It was used as a filming site for Monty Python’s Life of Brian and, if you believe Wikipedia, for some of the North African scenes in Gladiator, although those were actually filmed in Malta.  Too bad, because then I could have added to the movie nerdgasm by saying I went to where Gladiator was filmed, too.  The site looks great, although pieces of it were taken to build the Great Mosque in Kairouan (which I’ll also be writing about later).

Even though it’s not a coliseum, it does stand out from the rest of the town like a Colossus…

Actually just wrote that…  Sorry…

Anyway, it’s impressive and you notice it pretty much as soon as you get off of the bus and get the lay of the land.  I was also arriving in the morning, so I had most of the place to myself – again, a theme of this March Break trip – and was able to go all up, down and around the place. 

I’ve been to the actual Colosseum in Rome, which is definitely more impressive in terms of size and content, but there were a couple things about this amphitheatre that made it different.  First of all, you could actually walk across the floor of the place – the one in Rome does a great job of showing you what all the underground tunnels and cages look like, but you’re stuck seeing in from a top or side view.  I was actually able to walk across the middle of the El Jem amphitheatre, which really gives you a sense of the size of the place, even with some of the stones missing.  The tunnels weren’t off limits, though, as you could cross under the floor as well and see people above you through the metal grates.  It made for some eerie audio when I was walking alone underneath, only to hear the stomp of feet and sounds of voices. 

Also, there are less restrictions about where and how high up you can climb.  I was able to get up to the top level of the place and get a great look at the floor below.  Not much in terms of views to the outside world, but still pretty spectacular.

Now, the amphitheatre is pretty much all there was in El Jem.  There is a small museum with some mosaics and such, but nothing too impressive.  Lots of souvenir stalls, a few food vendors, a couple of banks (which I tried to make use of, since I was running low on dinar, but the line was pretty massive and there were no ATMs, and I didn’t know how easy a cash advance would be) but that was about it.  So by mid-afternoon, I had made my way to the train station to make my way back to Tunis.

I know, long distance transport in the middle of the day.  What’s up with that?

I made my way to my seat, which was way more comfortable than any of the buses I had been on, and end up sitting next to a young Tunisian girl.  She looked to be in her early twenties (although she later told me she was still in high school), and she was dressed in the traditional “Muslim” headscarf (I use quotes because it’s kind of been co-opted by Islam, but is now pretty much associated with it, so there you go.)  I’m looking out the window, thinking I might get some sleep between here and Tunis when, all of a sudden, I hear “Bonjour.”

Now, I really shouldn’t have been shocked by the attempt to start conversation, since I already had the two single ladies in Carthage talk to me and serve as defacto tour guides, plus the two bus passengers.  I guess I was just thrown because this girl looked so young and, I’ll admit, I wasn’t expecting somebody in Islamic garb to start up a conversation with a strange man on a train.  But here we were.  We go through the particulars, and I discover this girl is named Assma and she comes from a small town near Gabes.  She’s going up to Tunis to meet her uncle for a few days.  It’s at this point that I ask her if she’s at university.  She was genuinely shocked by the question and, with an expression that kind of combined “flattered” and “embarrassed”, she told me she was actually still in high school, but was hoping to go to university when she graduated.  I asked her what she wanted to study.  This opened the conversation up quite a bit.

Asouma told me she wanted to go to university, and probably would, but didn’t know what she wanted to take.  This then merged into a conversation about how, even if she did go to university, she wasn’t sure if she was going to work afterwards, and that it all depended on what her family wanted her to do.  As in, were they going to get her married, and would her husband want a wife who works?  She told me this is still a real problem in Tunisia as, even though women there are considerably more free and liberated than in the rest of the Muslim world, there is still a very strong element of “do what your family tells you”, and your free will can be cut off by your relatives if they see fit.  She said that going to university would be better for her than not, since it would mean that, if her family did arrange a marriage, she could get a better husband, but it wasn’t a guarantee of success or freedom. 

This was Ben-Ali’s Tunisia.  You could make an argument that the guy was a “benevolent dictator”, who did steer Tunisia away from extremism, doing things like calling the hijab a rag, banning Islamist parties from participating in politics and creating the safest country in Northern Africa.  Still, with all of that, there is the “truth” of a civilization.  The same way that you’ll still find pockets of extreme racism in America over a century and a half after slavery was abolished, or places in Canada where two gay guys holding hands would get beaten, even though marriage here is legal.  In talking to Assma, I got an interesting view of Tunisia in general.  Here was this bright, vibrant young girl with all sorts of hopes for her future, but who knew she could be potentially hamstrung by societal expectations.  I think I learned more about Tunisia by talking to her (and other Tunisians) than I did by visiting any sites or reading any books.

As we’re getting close to Tunis, Assma reaches into her bag and produces a black and white scarf.  She told me it was in the Palestinian style and she wanted me to have it.  I told her I couldn’t pay her for it, since I had spent my last dinar on my train ticket.  She said it was no problem.  She said it was a gift and all I had to do was tell people about Tunisia and what it’s like here.  In a moment that probably made me look like a total idiot, I offered her my Superman cap as a trade and got a really funny look and smile from her.  This was a genuine gift from a genuine girl who I just happened to run into on the train.  Pretty darn amazing. 

I made my way back to the Grand Hotel de France, got my bags and checked into my new room.  Had some street pizza, crashed early.

The whole day was amazing.  I mean, a 2000 year old Roman ruin would usually be the highlight, but the conversations surrounding it were more memorable from an emotional level.  Tunisia is a pretty amazing country, and the biggest reason would be the people.

Next up, more ruins, these ones at Dougga.  Why rest?

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