Fighting the Heat - Part I
Travels to places like Tunisia involves a lot of fighting the heat, especially if you, like me (I am still surprised as to why I did that), go there right in the middle of the summer. Here’s a list of useful items to take:
- Hats and other covering: Large brimmed hats that provide head covering and some shade. For women, they are also a proof of modesty, welcomed when visiting old churches and mosques. Scarves and the like covering shoulders and arms can keep the sun off during treks. A cloth hat or scarf can be soaked to help keep the head cool.
- "Squeeze Breeze": this is a water bottle with a sprayer and a battery-operated fan attached. The beach toy to take with you!
- Sun block: While sun blocks may be purchased in Tunisia, people tend to prefer sticking with their own favourite brand (the skin, too, ‘gets used’ to it), and there’s not guarantee you’ll find it on the spot. So take your own, if you have preferences!
Ar-rujoo' ila medinat Sfax - Return to Sfax
Back in 1999, a 19-year-old British tourist stocked up on diarrhoea tablets, bread and coke for his older brother who was feeling slightly under the weather in a beachside hotel in Mahdia. While the brother grumbled in his sleep, the 19 year old snook out of the room, strode off down the road and hopped on a louage to Sfax, two hours to the south. It was his first ever trip on his own, even though it was only to last a day. He spent the day in a completely different world to the one he left that morning, a world of crowded souqs, pungent smells and hidden workshops where blacksmiths hammered away on bits of metal transforming them into intricate doorknobs and gates, all tucked inside an impressive set of city walls. During the whole day, he saw not a single other foreigner, no postcards for sale, no persistant salesmen grabbed at his arm to sell him an unwanted trinket or shouted "Kommen sie hier, venez monsieur" at him.
Escaping the summer heat, he climbed some steps into a traditional cafe set in the city walls and sipped a pine nut tea, exposing his ears to the distinctive voice of Um Kalthoum for the first time. Old men in red chechia hats fiddled with prayer breads as they sucked on ornate pipes, emitting impressive clouds of sweet smelling smoke as the water below bubbled and gurgled.
A muezzin began the call to prayer, and soon the izan sounded from all corners of the city as darkness enveloped the city. Two hours later, the 19 year old was back in tourist land, struggling to put the day's experiences into words, finally giving up. "Sfax...yes, a nice city". He regretted not taking his brother's camera. Little did he know this short day in Sfax would be the start of a love affair with the Arab World that would take him to some of the most fascinating cities in the world.
That 19 year old was me.
It was time to return to Sfax
Sfax is beginning to be discovered. The almost pristine medina, one of the most atmospheric in Tunisia and indeed the whole Middle East, makes no concessions for tourists. It is a working, living, breathing city, and offers a chance for visitors to see a completely different side to Tunisia than that of the resorts just up the coast.
Many are put off visiting by the tourist literature which contains pictures showing off Sfax's industrial success, factories and office blocks towering all around the walled city. Yet, despite all this modern commercial activity outside the walls, to enter Bab Diwan is like entering another country. The narrowest streets twist and turn, becoming even narrower alleyways and lively food markets. Turn a corner, and a mosque appears, almost hidden among the surrounding houses and shops, just a minaret poking its head above the rooftops. Take the next alley on the right, there's a row of blacksmiths, a man making waffles invites you in with a friendly smile. Turn left and noisy chatter from a tiny cafe fills the air, a place to get a caffeine boost before returning to the maze. I could spend days wanderiong round Sfax...in fact, I did just that.
Return trips are not always a good idea. Places rarely live up to the dream-like memories, so often it is best just to visit those places in the mind. But Sfax didn't disappoint...if anything, I enjoyed it more this time, able to look around more withjout sweating buckets under a hot sun. I didn't feel quite so bewildered by it all either, less wary of speaking to locals, not quite as shy about taking photos, although even this time I didn't take nearly as many photos as I wanted. I knew what to order in Cafe Diwan, the old cafe I visited on that hot august afternoon 7 years ago, wasn't bemused by the chicha pipes, and even knew some of the lyrics to the Um Kalthoum tape that was still playing.
A couple of postcard shops have now infiltrated the Bab Diwan area, but this is no touristy souq to be compared with Sidi Bou Said or the rue Jemaa Zeitouna in Tunis...instead of fake souvenirs shipped in from Egypt or Morocco, they trade in locally handcrafted olive-wood bowls and spoons.
To fully appreciate the old medina, you should try to stay in one of the hotels within the walls. All of them are basic, and some of them are a bit too deep in the medina for night-time wanderings, but just inside Bab Diwan are maybe ten or so hotels on well-lit roads allowing you to feel a part of the old city once the sun has gone down.
More, much more, is waiting to be said about Sfax, but coursework is a bit more urgent at the moment, so just like i returned to Sfax, you should return to this page....but don't leave it 7 years!
***UPDATE 2007*** Another trip to Sfax! This city is fast becoming a regular haunt of mine!! It was just as good as the last time, nothing much has changed, except the Dar Jellouli museum was finally open. Read all about it very soon....