Saturday, September 23, 2006

Greetings from Tunisia

If you all are like I was, you probably don't even know where Tunisia is so first lets have a little geography lesson. Tunisia is located on the Mediterranean Sea in North Africa. It’s nestled between Algeria and Libya in the center of the northern coast.
It might make it easier to hear that it’s just South of Sicily, 80 km across the water. It is an Arab country that is 99% Islamic. Being only about the size of Washington State it’s an easy journey from the beach to the desert. In fact the southern end of end of the country in is the mighty Sahara Desert.

It’s a former French colony and its capitol, Tunis, has all the swish and style the French could breed into the Tunisians. I'm sure they have never heard the word metro sexual but these men define it with deep dark eyes and intense smokey looks wrapped with a stylish haircut and clothes. There are beauty parlors on every corner.

Tunis oozed of the memories of it's French past with a main boulevard lined with sidewalk cafes where people wile the day away over a cup of coffee and a pastry. Its all about watching people and they view is fabulous.

The women here are not typical Islamic starters. This is because in 1956, when Tunisia declared independence from the French, their first leader worked hard to create a secular state and reduce the power of religion. He stripped the powers of the Imams by eliminating religious madrassas (schools), gave women new rights and appealed to them to take off their veils. (more on this in my blog) Now about 30% of the women in Tunis are covered but the others are stylish and most definitely uncovered!

My friends who I visited there are concerned because they believe that more women are veiling these days. No one is talking about it, but they speculate that it is a political statement to support Lebanon and other Islamic struggles. Or perhaps a reaction to the French not letting the girls wear headscarves in school in France, as many Tunisians live in France for periods
of time and then return home. The worry is that fundamentalism is rearing its ugly head. For now though this is a "good" Islamic state and I have been bopping around alone with no problem except perhaps if you call brushing off handsome men a problem?! : )

Tourists come to Tunisia to enjoy it's vast beaches, but I'm not fond of beaches so I headed out to the Southern part of the country to see the desert. I was able to experience oasis' that pop out of the hard flat desert from nowhere because of the underwater springs that feed them. Here they count the number of palm trees that an oasis can support rather than the
number of people. As date palms are a great source of wealth.

Dates and olive oil are Tunisia's two finest products and all of their land is lined with one or the other unless is rolling sand dunes. During the Roman Empire trade times these products made the country to very rich and today they manage to still keep their people well off. I even heard that they have 65% middle class. I'm still not really sure how they maintain their economic status, but the wealth has provided money for a solid infrastructure, which is certainly good for travel.

You might be wondering why I chose to come to Tunisia, so maybe now is a good time to tell you. As I have previously stated beaches bore me but something fascinates me about Islam and as a women alone there are not that many Islamic countries that I can go alone. I also met a friend on my Afghan trip who lives there and teaches at the American School in Tunis. She
and I had many long conversations about the state of the world while we were in Kabul and I still had more to say. So I have spent the last two weeks traveling the country and spending time in Tunis with her and her husband for a varied set of experiences.

Tunisia was a major crossroads of empires. The Phoenicians, the Romans, the Vandals and the Byzantines, the Arabs, the Ottoman Empire and then finally the French lived on its shores. The country is covered with ruins that tell its history. Carthage, the Phoenician capitol is its largest and most famous, was largely destroyed by the Romans and then rebuilt
in their style. Dougga and El Jem are large well preserved Roman sites. Dougga perched upon vast hillside surroundings, perhaps saved because of its distance from the coast and other development, and El Jem, a coliseum, towering over the modern town that surrounds it. It is said that it may be the best preserved coliseum, even better than Rome.

Remnants of the Ottoman influence rise about the roofs with the octagonal minarets on the mosques that look distinctly different from the square Tunisian Arab ones. Ottoman tile work covers some of the famous Islamic pilgrimage sites. Religion plays a role in Tunisian history, past and present, too. Kairouan, one of their towns, houses the forth holiest site for
Islam behind Mecca, Jeruselem and Medina. The belief was that the site was connected by underground springs to Mecca when one the the Arab conquerors found a silver cup he had left in Mecca and promptly built a mosque at its site. Now 7 pilgrimages to Kairouan can take the place of one's one time in a life trip to Mecca.

Islam definitely fascinates me. Hearing the echoing of the call to prayer shouted from minarets above the city rooftops moves me to seek more information. I constantly yearn to understand how we can live in the world together and begin to communicate and understand each other. That being said, the conversations I was able to have in this moderate country show that the gap is growing. The war in Iraq infuriates them. I was told that Osama Bin Laden was not one of them, but the
Western action of killing children in Iraq only makes them want to join him. Lebanon to them is the first major victory of Islam over the West and the belief is strong that Islam is right and will be victorious in the end. I'm still not sure exactly what they mean.

All in all Tunisia is an interesting mix of ancient and modern. Horse carts ride the roads besides cars. Some people wear Western clothes while others stick to their traditional dress. The vast desert leads to open blue sea. History flows from its pores and one can't help but get carried away into the time of great empires. Seeing yet another culture only reminds me
what a vast world we live in and reminds me how lucky I am to see it.

And here are some photos to illustrate my journey:

(Please realize that although there are many women who are unveiled I am sharing photos of the many
traditional dresses of Tunisia and therefore showing many veiled women.)


Anonymous said...

Gorgeous pictures! What's up with you in the scarf and funny hat- that one is great.
Christy E.

Anonymous said...

Awesome pictures! You could definitely see Roman influence in the ruins. Stay safe and keep in touch, roomie!