Retro – Tunisia: Kairouan & Sufetula

This was the crazy day where the Tunisia trip took the number one spot in the places I’ve been.

But first, this guy.

One of the first pictures I took when I got in to Kairouan was this giant poster of then-president Zine El Abidine Ben Ali.  It was draped on one of the walls near the Great Mosque of Kairouan, which is one of Islam’s holiest cities.  Aside from Mecca and Medina, it was the largest centre for Quranic learning and the most important Islamic site in Africa. 

So, even though Ben Ali didn’t have the biggest cult of personality, it would make sense that this would be one place in Tunisia where you’d definitely want your picture, for the association at least.

Anyway, it’s one of those pictures that you won’t see if you go there now (obviously), so I thought that it was neat to say the least.

It was an early departure out of Tunis today, as a bus or louage to Kairouan takes about three hours.  I’m getting used to the early hours, and it’s just easier to have all of your stuff in one place day after days as opposed to “Hotel Hopping”.  I figured that I’d grab a louage on the way there, another one to Sufetula, and then a last one to Tunis.  The ride in the louage was cramped – they usually are – but ultimately worth it, as I got in to Kairouan mid-morning to a relatively empty city.

As is the case with most Tunisian cities, life in Kairouan focuses on the medina.  Within the walls of Kairouan’s medina are its three of its biggest, most important draws.  First would be the Great Mosque, the most important mosque in Africa for the reasons mentioned above.  The second is Bir Barouta, a building that surrounds a well that is supposedly linked to the Zem Zem well in Mecca.  The third, carpets.

Kairouan is famous for its carpets, with good reason.  They are absolutely stunning, incredibly well made and are well known throughout Tunisia.  Carpets are draped over the walls of the shops in the medina, and there are a few carpet makers in town as well that will give you a “free demonstration.”  These are actually free, but you do get a bit of a hard sell and, if you try to leave after the first few interesting minutes, you get a bit of attitude on your way out the door.  It’s worth it, though, to see what the really good ones look like.  Just be warned, they’re going to want you to buy one, regardless of what it’s pitched as.

The Great Mosque was my first stop, and it was absolutely beautiful, unlike any building I had ever seen before.  Granted, I haven’t seen many mosques in my time, but I can understand why this one gets so much attention.  The mosque has been on this site since 670 AD (though the current building was rebuilt in the 9th century) and there are beautiful marble tiles and drains in the main courtyard.

This was the major centre of Islam for centuries in North Africa and, considering how high it is on Islam’s holy list, I was a little shocked I was actually allowed in the courtyard at all (you can’t enter the main courtyard of Tunis’ mosque, for example).  The prayer hall is closed to non-Muslims, but they leave the doors open so you can see the 414 pillars and tiles that were imported from Baghdad in the 9th century.  I spent a long time just wandering around and looking at the amazing structure. 

I would also make my camel fancy.

The Bir Barouta is more notable for its connection to the well in Mecca than its architecture, which doesn’t quite stack up to the main mosque.  There is a “beautifully dressed” camel that walks around the well, bringing up the water.  I know it’s a holy site, but I’m not sure how dressing a camel up adds to the religious feel, especially for a religion that preaches modesty so often.  Made for a fun picture, though, so maybe it’s just a tourist play.  That, or I just didn’t get it.

The rest of the medina features a few tombs, the nice looking Mosque of the Three Doors, the carpet displays and shwarma shops where you could get a football-sized shwarma for a dinar.  Amazing.  I also need to mention the makroudh, pastries filled with dates and covered in honey, which Kairouan is also known for.  Get a box and eat the whole thing.  Don’t share.  Or do.

I missed out on the Mosque of the Barber, which contains a tomb of one of Mohammed’s companions who was known as the “barber” since he always carried around three of the Prophet’s hairs.  I had to budget my time so I could make it to Sufetula and then back to Tunis in time.

An hour and a half away from Kairouan and four hours from Tunis, Sufetula was one of the many Roman “boom cities” when North Africa was flourishing in the 2nd century.  Unlike most of the other cities, though, Sufetula’s position in the middle of olive country kept it flourishing into the 4th century as a major Christian centre and was the Byzantine capital of the region until 647 AD before it was sacked by Arabs.  The ruins still hold up really well.  The Temple of Jupiter in the middle of the forum is the standout attraction, and the yellow stone stands out against the green of the land.  Definitely a great place to stop.  If you can get out on time.

Now, if you’ve been reading the blog so far, you’ve seen part one of my Bitstrip for Sufetula.  I decided I’m not going to create a second part, mostly because the tech doesn’t support the story.   Here’s the Bitstrip again, with a basic translation/explanation at the bottom for those who can’t read French, or can’t figure out my crappy French.

Basically, I banked on a louage being available to take me back to Tunis, and it didn’t happen.  The thought of not making it back to Tunis was pretty devastating, as I knew I’d basically be staying at a local hotel, grabbing an early morning louage, charging a battery as best I could, and then making my way to Sousse and Monastir.  Or, I’d have to move directly to Sousse the next day with a dead battery.   Basically, I would either be missing out on seeing a lot of the things I wanted, or I’d be headed to a city without a camera, which is almost worse for me.  I know, first-world tourist problems.

The driver offered to take me to Tunis if I paid for most of the louage (ie made it worth his while)  So, with the sun setting over Sufetula, we were off to Tunis.

Long drive back to Tunis.  I was hoping my driver spoke a bit more French, but it was pretty basic – keywords, phrases, negotiating fares, etc – but that actually made the ride more entertaining for a bunch of reasons.

First off, I knew the guy hated the police.  I know this because, every time we drove by cops stopped on the side of the road, he raised a fist, looked at me and said “La police!”  It was funny the first few times.

Second, he knew his numbers in French.  Every time we drove past a road marker – basically, a large, concrete gumdrop on the side of the road with “Tunis” and the number of kilometres on it, he’d proudly proclaim “Tunis!  Cinquante-neuf kilometres!”  It was also funny the first few times.

However, a couple of things added to the charm of the driver and made it a really sweet ride.  First off, the makroudh that I talked about earlier?  He had a whole box.  He put it in between the two of us (I was in the passenger seat) and we snacked away.  The louage drivers are all licensed and need to check-in with people, so I was playing the odds that there wouldn’t be any “sleepy powder” on the treats.

He asked me if we could stop at a “diner” along the way, which was basically a small convenience store with some picnic tables at the back, and he bought himself some dinner.  He asked if I wanted anything, and I politely declined.  He insisted, so I ordered some bread and hummus.  Not only did he share his chicken with me, he picked up the bill.  Amazingly gracious.

So, considering how nice this guy was, and considering that he was driving four hours at night for half of what he would usually get for this ride, I was totally willing to put up with the human GPS and curses at the police.

I did get a little nervous, though, when we were actually pulled over by the police.

Yeah, that actually happened.

The cops talked to the driver first in Arabic and I was a bit nervous.  Was this guy allowed to take a single customer?  Were cops in Tunisia corrupt?  Was I making it back to Tunis?  Basically, I had zero idea of what was coming or why we were getting pulled over.

Then, the police officer shines his light at me and starts speaking Arabic, to which I reply, in my most “I definitely give a damn” accent, “Je m’excuse, je ne parle pas Arabique.  Parlez-vous Francais?

“Parlez-vous” is key here.  Gotta show respect.

The police officer asks why I’m in a louage alone at 10 at night.  I explain the day, the fact that I got to the louage station too late, that the driver was nice enough to take me for half the fare so I could keep visiting Tunisia.  He was confused about why I was traveling alone as well, to which I simply replied “I’m a teacher in Canada, none of my friends wanted to come this far, but I was really interested in your country.”  This put a smile on his face and he told me “Well, enjoy the rest of your trip and have a good night!”

Wow.

It’s funny, because I know I hadn’t done anything wrong, but anytime you have a confrontation with a police officer in a foreign country where language could be a barrier, you get “Locked Up Abroad” scenes flashing through your head.  Even the cops are gracious here.

We drove a couple of kilometres in silence before my driver looked at me, smiled and said “La police!”

We finally made it to Tunis at around 11:30 pm.  The driver got to the louage station and proudly stated “Tunis!  Zero kilometres!”  I tried to tip him and, once again, I was turned down.

This guy was amazing.  Saved the last day of my vacation, went out of his way to get me where I needed to go and was charming the whole darn way.  Simply incredible.

I got a cab to the hotel, saw the concierge in the lobby and, keeping with the theme of “Tunisians are awesome”, he’s sitting there with another employee.  He tells me he wanted to stick around to make sure I was okay.  I had told him my travel plans earlier in the day, and he knew I was way later than I should be.  I simply told him that I caught a really late louage, but thanked him for staying up.  I got the key to my room, made it upstairs, plugged in my battery and crashed.

Tunisia proves, once again, it’s the best place you’ve never been to.  It’s all about the people.

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