An American Abroad

Support for Missing Tunisian Journalists

I saw this billboard opposite the Tunis train station today.

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It’s a proclamation of support for Sofiene Chourabi and Nadhir Ktari, two Tunisian journalists who disappeared in Libya. ISIS subsequently reported that it had executed them, but there are now reports coming out of Libya that they are alive.

The images on the billboard were striking — the tied and hooded camera and keyboard. It’s reflective of the kind of free speech that is common in Tunisia and sorely lacking in other parts of the Arab world.

Souk Samedi

One of Sousse’s minor weirdnesses is that souk samedi actually starts on vendredi. I’ve been there several times, but always felt too self-conscious to take a camera. Today I got over that.

The souk sprouts up every week inside and around a walled market complex in Hammam Sousse. Generally, if you can wear it or eat it, you can find it at souk samedi. It’s not a picturesque touristy souk; it’s a place where the natives go to shop. Me too.

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Dar Kmar: The Audience

Although I came to hear the band, I came to see the audience.

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Perhaps because half the band is a percussion section, it was almost impossible to sit still during the music. The drumming, the smoke, the accelerating tempo, and increasing volume combined to put people into an ecstatic dance trance.

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There were a few brief moments of repose between numbers. I noticed that women in the audience outnumbered the men by about three to one. People generally danced in single-sex groups, and not as couples.

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After I’d taken a bunch of pictures, I sat down to sip some tea. But one of the concert organizers came over and grabbed my arm and motioned toward the center of the room where people were dancing. “Je suis un phototographer, pas un danseur!” I protested to no avail. But really, I didn’t need my arm twisted.

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Dar Kmar: The Band

First, you have to heat the drums. Camel skin gets more supple as it warms, producing a deeper, more resonant tone.

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I was deep in the Sousse medina on a Saturday night at Dar Kmar, yet another venue that has no signage, no advertising, and no definable address. I’ve lived in Sousse for almost six months now and I hadn’t even heard of it until recently. It’s an extraordinary place, a house of music, art, food, and Tunisian culture. Finding it was difficult, but well worth the effort.

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I was told they have music there every Saturday. The band on Saturday evening was a ten-piece traditional Tunisian ensemble.

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The evening was my first extended exposure to traditional Arab music played live. The band was heavy on the percussion and vocals, accompanied only a keyboard and a shawm. Each song lasted perhaps fifteen minutes. Generally they began slowly and quietly and grew louder, faster, more percussive, and more passionate as they went on. The effect was hypnotic and got the crowd up on its feet to dance (see the following post). I plan to go back for more.

The Troglodyte Pit Dwellings of Matmata: Part 2

My Touareg guide Mohammed saved the best for last. We went to visit a Berber woman who lives in a beautiful home in one of the pit dwellings.

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At the end of my visit, the Berber woman brought out some traditional bread, which I dipped into a mixture of honey and oil and washed down with a glass of hot sweet tea.

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After saying farewell, we walked on. Some of the pit dwellings we saw were abandoned. “A real fixer-upper,” you might say.

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There were some variations on the pit style. Some houses were built horizontally into hillsides rather than sunk vertically below ground.

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Not all the houses in Matmata were pit dwellings. There were some more ordinary structures as well.

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I took one last shot as I stood on the edge of one of the pit dwellings and saw my shadow standing on the opposite edge.

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The Troglodyte Pit Dwellings of Matmata: Part 1

Having gotten my American pop culture fix and brought balance to the force at Luke Skywalker’s old digs, I went in search of some more authentically Tunisian troglodyte pit dwellings.

But first I needed two things: someplace to stay and a guide.

I opted for the Diar El Barbar Hotel. Though not old itself, it’s built along traditional lines: cave-like rooms running off a sunken courtyard. But these rooms had some modern comforts such as concrete floors, electricity, plumbing, and cable. And most important this time of year: heat.

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For a tour of the area, I hired Mohammed, a Touareg with a high-and-tight and a moped. It was the first time I ever rode bitch on a luggage rack. The poor little machine was so underpowered that I had to hop off and walk up the steeper hills.

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Mohammed took me first to a homespun museum in one of the pit dwellings.

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The directions for making one of these 400-year-old structures are pretty simple. Dig a circular hole about 20 feet down into the soft sandstone. That’s your courtyard. Dig a well down even deeper. Then excavate some horizontal cavelets around the sides to serve as rooms. Now you’ve got a house that’s cool even in the blaze of summer’s heat.

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After the museum, Mohammed took me to some of the other pit dwellings in the area. The ones I went into are not exactly museums – people actually live in them – but are open to the guided public for viewing.

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Looking for Luke Skywalker

On the train ride south, it seemed like someone was dialing back the saturation levels in my mind’s-eye Photoshop every ten kilometers. Eventually the landscape was simply tan and even things that were nominally green — a few palm trees, some scrub plants — seemed to be some undifferentiated dark color. We were getting near the desert. It was cold outside and the heat was on in the train.

After four hours, we got to Gabès, the end of the line for Tunisian passenger trains. I bargained a ride to Matmata from a Berber in a Peugeot. En route he stopped at a bakery for a box of macaroons. He had perfect Crayola crayon brown skin and wore a rough wool djellaba with a pointed hood.

At my request, the driver took me to the Hotel Sidi Driss, which in its Hollywood incarnation had been Luke Skywalker’s boyhood home on Tatooine, back when he lived with his Aunt Beru and Uncle Owen.

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There were two camels parked out front of the hotel, whom I mentally named R2D2 and C3PO. The location was actually a troglodyte pit dwelling that’s native to this part of southern Tunisia. The Star Wars set dressers had added some pipes and vaguely sci-fi doodads, some of which are still in place. But age and neglect have taken their toll. The paint was peeling, the seams were showing, and without the Lucasfilm movie magic the place seemed a little forlorn.

I decided not to stay at the Sidi Driss. Luke had checked out long ago, and the rooms were shared dormitory-style affairs, crammed full of small uncomfortable-looking beds. That didn’t bother me as much as the fact that there was no heat in the underground rooms. I didn’t fancy freezing.

I walked around the place and kept running into a young woman from Kyoto who seemed just pleased as punch to be there. Such is the power of American pop culture. She and I were the only tourists there; January is very much the off-season in the desert.

I was here:

Watching carefully for Tusken raiders and Jawas, I explored the surrounding area on foot. Guidebooks describe the terrain as “lunar,” but to me it looked like a huge construction site, as if some divine Caterpillar had gouged deep furrows in the land and piled up rocks and soil here and there.

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After hiking around for a while, I worked up an appetite and headed to a roadside cafe. I’m not sure what Luke would have eaten, but I had some grilled chicken and a Celtia beer.

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More from the Berber Café

It was another unseasonably warm day today, so I one again wandered the Medina and stopped by the Berber café for a cup of chocolate and a few more photos.

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At the Berber Café

The temperature here in Sousse climbed into the seventies today. I’d been laid low with a cold and had spent the preceding week shivering in my unheated apartment. Today, though, the balmy weather did good things for my health.

I ventured out to a Berber café in the heart of the Sousse Medina. An American friend had introduced me to the Tiziri in the week before Christmas vacation. It was love at first sight then, and so I vowed to return. And so today I did.

The place is a little hard to find, with only this sign on the door to let you know you’ve arrived.

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The Medina is a medieval warren of alleys and buildings where you could wander lost for days on end, but I lucked out and found it again without much difficulty. The café is built around an open-air courtyard and has several different levels and rooms.

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I hung out in the courtyard people-watching and sipping cocoa. The old woman who took my picture for me was so nervous about being asked that her hands shook (which accounts for the slight blurriness of this pic, which I nonetheless like).

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Over at another table, a group of people began singing. Then someone pulled out a guitar, someone else pulled out a drum, and soon a group of people mounted the platform at the end of the courtyard and began to make music. It was a beautiful moment.

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Couples sat with their arms around each other (not a common sight here). A young woman walked over to me, asked if I spoke French, and then invited me to a Quentin Tarantino film festival there at the cafe.

I’d been feeling a little emotionally abraded recently, but the good weather, the music, and the relaxed friendly vibe at the Tiziri reminded me that there is still a lot of good in the world, recent global events notwithstanding.

Terrorist Threats Against Foreign Teachers in the MENA Region

Yesterday I attended a meeting in Tunis about safety and personal security here in Tunisia. It was led by David Santiago, a former U.S. Marine who was stationed at the embassy here and who now is the Security Director for the American Cooperative School of Tunis. He gave an excellent presentation, after which I checked out his expat security blog and subscribed to his Twitter feed. I recommend both.

We discussed the fact that recently there has been discussion on ISIS and other jihadist websites about attacking foreign teachers and foreign schools in the Middle East, North Africa, and elsewhere. American and international schools are viewed as “softer,” easier targets than embassies and other more secure institutions. Various American embassies have put out warnings about this. Reportedly, schools in Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates, Qatar, Egypt, Jordan, Turkey, Bahrain, Oman, Kuwait, Sudan, Nigeria, Morocco, Malaysia, India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Indonesia — and Tunisia — were mentioned in the jihadist discussion.

An article that came out yesterday states that Egypt has arrested someone who posted threats against foreign schools and teachers on jihadist websites. But the discussion is out there. I hope my friends and colleagues who teach abroad will be vigilant.