Southward Journey through Tunisia
When Lawrence of Arabia travelled the desert, he left many images behind that conjure up a rather romantic vision of desert life; travel by camel, a world far from worries and images of endless sand and emptiness that have a stark beauty of their own.
As my son, Joseph, and I found on a recent five-night trip through southern Tunisia, one can capture these images and if you have a son or daughter whose normal mode of communication with you seems relegated to text messaging, an opportunity to escape this communication for real bonding through real conversation and shared experiences.
We started our excursion from Kairouan, a rather compact provincial town that is known for its religiosity and the site of the Great Mosque of Kairouan, said to be the oldest mosque in Africa. The architecture was impressive, as columns to build the mosque came from various sites in Tunisia. The sheer scale of the mosque combined with the beautiful inlay woodwork makes it a beautiful structure to see, particularly when one considers this construction started in the seventh century.
Leaving Kairouan and taking the road south west, the landscape becomes more parched and sparse. Our goal for the night was to make it to the oasis town of Tozeur, which can easily be done from Kairouan in around four hours along a well-paved road. We chose to break up the travels around 90 minutes south of Kairouan by visiting the Roman site of Sbeitla.
The ruins are the only reason one would stop in the town of Sbeitla but they were well worthwhile. In addition to enjoying nearly one hour walking through the site, discussing with our guide the architecture, we also asked about the situation in the south, in general. Ever since the revolution, which led to a tremendous drop in tourism, the rumours fly among foreign countries whose citizens visit Tunisia, that the “south” is an unsafe region in which to travel.
Driving south west, I chose to take the road via the town of Kasserine. A battle between the United States and the Germans took place in Kasserine during the second world war.
We arrived in Tozeur just as the sun was setting. I promised my son that the morning light would yield the architecture that was indigenous to the south west oasis region and the opportunity to understand why visiting Tozeur was on our itinerary. For anyone who approaches Tozeur after sunset, other than the dim light of the moon, one has virtually no sense of Tozeur.
For dinner, we went to a restaurant that proved to be every bit as good as online reviews suggested and my memory served to remind me of from a visit years ago. Le Petit Prince is within the oasis of Tozeur and proved to be a place that we were not alone in visiting. The highlight was the opportunity to try camel, a dish not served in most regions of Tunisia and when found in the south, is rarely served in such a hygienic and well-appointed setting.
Our hotel, the Ksar Rouge, is one of the few remaining upscale hotels in Tozeur. The town has quite a number of small, pensione-type hotels, as well as new bed-and-breakfast-type venues but hotels with a broader offering of amenities, providing good service, are somewhat low in numbers in the south west since the revolution.
After having the morning to explore Tozeur’s oasis and learn a bit about what life in an oasis was like years ago and how the food sources of an oasis resulting from farming methods adapted to oasis life provided, we walked through the old town of Tozeur. Again, the Spartan surroundings are clearly distinctive from the central and northern regions of Tunisia, but the architecture of the region is also distinctive from these other regions and again, a result not of style, but historic development resulting from the hot climates of Tunisia’s south.
From Tozeur, we travelled east across Tunisia’s “salt lake”, the Chott el Jerid. The miles and miles of flat, barren land were altered from the previous arid landscape only by the sparkle that resonates of the salt crystals and the mirage of water that results, hence the reference, the “salt lake”.
About two hours after heading east from Tozeur, we turned south. A combination of paved roads and desert tracks led us to the remote desert encampment of Ksar Ghilane. The image many have of the sand dunes and remote desert existence of Lawrence of Arabia can be embraced in Ksar Ghilane. Several overnight facilities exist in the encampment, ranging from basic, to a tented camp with en suite bathrooms and electricity. We chose the latter and found it a nice way to feel the camping experience.
The next morning, we rose and travelled east, leaving the encampment and taking a mix of desert tracks and paved roads.
We headed east towards the coast, taking an old Roman causeway across a body of water and then arriving to the island of Jerba. With the seaside on our right as we passed the string of hotels that make Jerba a destination for European sun-seekers.
We took the time to visit the Ghriba synagogue, one of the many synagogues on the island, but definitely, the most famous of the synagogues reflecting Jerba’s ancient Jewish communities,
This interaction of Jews and Muslims, both of whom consider themselves Jerban and Tunisian, was one of the unique aspects I recognised about Tunisia during my first visit to the country more than three decades earlier. This interaction is not something found anywhere else in the Arab world, today. But in Tunisia, particularly on the island of Jerba, the vibrant and youthful Jewish community continues to live peacefully with its Muslim counterparts, as they have for more than 2,000 years.
Our visit to Tunisia’s south provided diversity in architecture, in landscape and in the people we met.
For myself, it was five days of uninterrupted time with my son, something I realise will not be able to experience often. In these days of social media, internet and texting, communication between parents and children becomes less and less.