Friday, 15 March 2013

religion, women and revolutions

Still leery about cycling here, we decide to travel without the bikes for a few days to visit some Roman ruins in Sbeitla and then stop in Kairouan, said to be one of the holiest places in North Africa.  One of the most efficient ways of getting around in Tunisia is by louage - in effect white vans that hold 8 passengers.  They're fairly comfortable because the passenger limit is observed but the critical thing to note is the colour of the van, for the drivers are, indeed, White Van Man.  They all have that Formula One delusion.  What you need to determine with only one look is whether the driver inviting you in to his van is an Alain Prost or an Ayrton Senna.  At the louage station we ask around for a ride to Kairouan and a man invites us to take a seat in an empty van.  From experience, getting into an empty van is never a good thing.  For a start, they don't leave until they're full and secondly, as a tourist, unscrupulous drivers sometimes like to persuade you to hire the whole vehicle in order to leave.  We wait about twenty minutes, in which time a couple of locals join us.  One of them eventually asks us if we've ever been to Sidi Somewhere before.  I say no, we haven't.  So why do want to go now? he asks.  I look confused.  The other passenger tells the man in French to "leave it".  I go back to the driver and ask him if he's going to Kairouan.  He shrugs.  He isn't. The swine.  We change vans to another heading to Sousse where we will have to change.  There a German man and his son get in the same van.  They're on a package holiday but doing some daytrips independently and the dad has a very healthy attitude.  Their hotel is fine apart from things like the toilet not flushing and the major repairs being done. He dutifully complains each morning.  "And what's your price?" he asks Gayle.  He met a sixty year-old Englishwoman who has had two propositions of sex from Tunisians.  This phenomenon is known locally as "bezness".  Tunisian men look to meet (usually older) western women on holiday for sex and possibly a passport.  This is common knowledge in Tunisia and doesn't help the image of Western women travelling the country.
the principle ruins of Sbeitla
Sbeitla lies another 140 km inland from Kairouan but we enjoy the ride because there's a hint of green about the landscape.  There are more hills around and obviously more water for crops.  Here stands the remains of a Roman city which would have been at the heart of a fertile and productive land - supplying Rome with food in the 2nd century AD.  We walk down paved streets through a gridwork of house remains.  They have uncovered a huge thermal baths complex, a theatre, several churches and, on one side of the forum, three grand temples dedicated to Jupiter, Juno and Minerva.  It's interesting to see the temples still standing even after christianity arrived.  There is no-one around save a couple of men who sidle up to us at separate places and pull out of their pockets the identical "original Roman oil-lamp" for sale.  We walk along the streets and try to imagine a bustling Roman town.

But we have to return to Kairouan for real bustle.  The city is fairly large, with quite a big medina, at one end of which is a large 9th century mosque.  The guidebook claims this to be the fourth holiest in the Islamic world.  It might be old, but there's a sense of museum about it, unlike say, the Umayyad Mosque in old Damascus which teems with life. And despite being viewed as the most conservative city in Tunisia, there aren't many beards about - am I stereotyping?  We have an odd hotel moment when we arrive.  We check out the cheapest place listed in our guidebook (and admittedly described as a dump) first.  A grumpy man at the desk calls his slimy colleague to show us a couple of rooms.  Mr. Slimy speaks some English and whispers sotto voce that room 6 is much better than room 3.  The guidebook's description is accurate but we want to persuade ourselves differently.  Back at the desk we ask if they can give us a discount. 

Mr. Grumpy won't come down from 30 dinars.  But Mr. Slimy says to us in English that, as there are few tourists, we could have a room for 25 dinars. Okay, but do you have a room higher up, less noise from the street.  Mr. Slimy takes us up and we leave our bags in another room at the back.   The bathroom stinks, there are fag ends in the sink and the door has been jemmied open at some point.  The place has all the look and air of a knocking shop.  Back at the desk we fill in registration cards and then head to the door to find some lunch.  We are called back by Mr. Grumpy and Mr. Slimy to pay now.  "30 dinars" demands Mr. Grumpy.  But you said 25, we reply. He shakes his head and demands "30 dinars".  Well stuff you mate.  We go and grab our bags back and are heading back downstairs with Mr.Slimy saying to us "25 is okay, 25 is okay". When we've gone I imagine them breaking into huge smiles and high-fiving.   Around the corner is a perfectly normal hotel with a reception full of female guests.  We have a very comfortable clean room for 40 dinars.  It's more than we want to pay, but all of a sudden it seems like great value.

Kairouan's medina is mainly residential.  There are a few shops along one street and, as the city is famous for carpet production, a few carpet shops for tourists.  We just want to amble around but keep being accosted by young men who insist on telling us what we are looking at: "Scarves, madame! Restaurant! Mosque! Furry Tartan Slippers!"  As we head off down a little alleyway a man joins us to tell us that way is closed.  He points back - that way for the Grand Mosque. I ask him to leave us alone.  He starts telling us that he respects us, a comment that I can only aliken to a red rag borne aloft in front of a bull.  The bull charges, the man retreats.  We visit a few mausoleums as well as the mosque - everything is quite low-key around the medina.  A small boy with an angelic disposition ambles past on his bike.  He says cheerfully "Sex, sex, sex. Madame, madame, madame." but shows no sign of mischief - as if he is innocent of what he is saying.  On another street another day a drunkard passes us and asks Gayle in quite distinct French if she would like to have sex with him.  Back at the hotel Gayle gets a chance to talk to some female students who are on an agricultural engineering field trip.  Most of them do not wear the hijab, the headscarf.  Do they get comments from men all the time? Yes.  We already know this - we've seen men hissing and commenting to women as they pass by in streets.  It seems that the best a woman can hope for is not to be seen - to be invisible.  What kind of culture could demand this of half it's people?  "Bloody cavemen" Gayle decides.  But the women point out that the dress code is not so conservative - especially in the summer.  This is one of few Arab nations with women's rights enshrined in the constitution and with almost a third of MPs being female, (compared with Pakistan and the UK at about 22%), you'd hope this would translate for more public respect.  And pity the Egyptian women who have the Muslim Brotherhood to deal with - only 2% of their representatives are female.  What they need here, reasons Gayle, is another revolution - by women.

a revolutionary hero?
he thinks so

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