By Annette Reinhart
This is a continuation of last month’s article of excerpts from an email journal I
kept while traveling with Barry in Tunisia this past winter.
We spent some days in Kairouan – the 4th holiest city in the Islamic world after Mecca, Medina and Jerusalem. We headed out by taxi to try and locate a hotel that sounded interesting from a guidebook description. As soon as we stepped out of the taxi, various touts appeared wanting to show us the way or offer guide service. Despite our polite ‘non mercis’, a dwarfed man with a hip disability assertively set out to lead us through a ‘shortcut’ to find the hotel we sought. The rest of the touts followed beside or behind us. This shortcut was straight through the aftermath of a morning market that had yet to be cleaned up. With the deep treads in our shoes, we picked up quite a bit of the composting matter before coming to the last section of market, which had been the poultry area. Thus we paraded into our prospective hotel in this sacred city, the gesticulating dwarf limping in front, us two middle aged backpackers with chicken feathers sticking to our shoes, and a small crowd of young touts hoping for some gain in this event. The hotel desk was staffed by an extremely elderly and grizzled fellow who did not at all inspire confidence. And sure enough, the hotel was quite primitive and not at all what we had expected. So we quickly made our excuses and set off to find another taxi, leaving behind a cluster of very disappointed entrepreneurs.
We enjoyed the city for its old monuments and living medina. Neighbourhoods and commerce functioned side by side in an age-old style. We visited an interesting zaouia (zow-wee-ah) or mausoleum commemorating the barber of Mohammed. This barber kept three hairs of Mohammed’s in three places on his body at all times. This seemed to have gained him a very elaborate resting place as well as a devout following. There were a series of domed, tiled and carved pavilions leading into a gardened courtyard where devotees reclined on a line of carpets after having paid their respects and been sprinkled with rosewater by the attendant. We gladly reclined, having arrived in the heat of the day, and enjoyed the restful cool and the quiet observation of others. It was very pleasant to witness all the gossiping and kibitzing around us and just be accepted as fellow pilgrims.
In our travels throughout the country, we had rarely taken a room that didn’t have an annoying door handle and/or locking apparatus to access our room. Either some particular wiggling or angling of the key or a unique pressure applied to the knob was necessary to gain entry. Once the entire handle fell off while the lady was showing us the ‘features’ of the room. She quickly slammed it back on its post and left us to realize she’d done it backward so that, once inside, it wasn’t possible to even close the door without Barry’s reassembling the whole mechanism. Likewise, Tunisian toilet seats were an exercise in frustration – cheap, brittle plastic with poor attachment mechanisms. Either the seat was attached too firmly and you needed to hold up the lid to prevent its collapse back on you or it was not attached at all and slid around (and right off) the cold porcelain below. The most annoying thing was when there was a tiny hairline crack in the plastic that vindictively pinched you just when fully seated. I did, admittedly, give up cursing the seats when one hotel provided none at all.
The town of El Kef was about 800m above sea level in the northern fertile hills. The town was built on a panoramic cliff and had views over the surrounding cultivated plains. Clear, crisp weather made for very fresh air and a crystalline view of up to 100 km away. Spring had arrived with new grain crops already 6 inches high making the landscape an unbelievable shade