An American Abroad


Kairouan is either the third or the fourth holiest site in Islam, depending on whom you talk to. (Question: who compiles rankings like this? How many cities are so ranked?) The town is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Like Matmata, it’s a Tunisian town with a George Lucas connection; the “Cairo” scenes in Raiders of the Lost Ark were filmed there. I did not shoot any knife-wielding locals (although some of the touts came close to deserving it).

I took a louage there yesterday, accompanied by three good friends. We were here:

Our first stop was the Great Mosque of Sidi-Uqba, which dates from the Ninth Century. Two of the friends with me were women who generally did not wear headscarves. At the door to the mosque, they were requested to cover their heads as a sign of respectful dress. One of my friends complied, taking one of the scarves that hung by the door and wrapping it very loosely over her head. The other refused as a matter of principle and didn’t join us at the mosque. I could see her point, though having just been required to wear a sarong to cover my knees before entering a Buddhist temple in Sri Lanka, I understand the need to balance core personal beliefs against the demands of a religious society.

Like many mosques I have seen, the Great Mosque presents a fairly spare exterior. The interior spaces I could see were richly carpeted and had large chandeliers. Verses from the Qur’an were inscribed on the walls.

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After the mosque, I went rug shopping. What can I say? Academics love rugs. From the roof of the merchant’s shop where I bought two beautiful Berbers, I looked out into the medina and the surrounding town.

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After rug shopping, we walked around the medina.

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Our final stop was the Mausoleum of Sidi Sahab, generally known as the Mosque of the Barber. There was some gorgeous tile work there.

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