25 August 2015

Sousse, Tunisia (2)

Another day: We repeat like homing pigeons, into the medina past the marble camel. We wanted to climb the ribat, the fortress base for soldiers who lived like monks.
The ribat is built around a square with crenellated walls, and the entire place was empty at that hour. The cells of the "soldier-monks" open off the upper corridor. Because the Grand Mosque across the way does not have a minaret, the ribat's watch tower serves as such (although today, the call to prayer is often a recording). From the tower, a different view of the medina and the seafront.
Below, our coffee time again, striking up conversation when we could because we were still determined to find Dar Essid. Again receiving various opinions on directions, it took the rest of the morning to find it. I had read of a red light district – yes, of all things – somewhere near the kasbah; apparently it's a rather tightly sealed area with only one entrance. Not that we wanted to go there, but didn't want to stumble into it!

Success came after exiting the medina at one gate, walking the outside circumference of the wall, and entering again at another. Lo – signs for Dar Essid Museum! It was uphill close to the wall's interior, actually not that far from the ribat, so we had made a semi-circuit of half the medina area. But uh-oh. A small delivery truck was stuck halfway up the street (did I ever mention narrow?). Furthermore, he was totally blocking pedestrian traffic. He tried to drive down. He tried to back up. For a while we watched the proceedings with bystanders encouraging him.
Where the truck was stuck
 So there had to be a way around him in the warren of tiny streets to the side (did I ever mention logic?) to approach the street from the opposite way. One helpful man seemed to understand our goal, chattering away in Franglais-Arabic, maybe intending to guide us, or sell us something. Sure we could do this without any help we forged off. That only took another half hour, eventually emerging onto the right street ... where the wretched truck was still jockeying back and forth, exactly blocking Dar Essid's doorstep.

Finally, access. In the entrance reception a supremely disinterested woman took our fee, engaged with her cell phone. A typed sheet in English gave a bit of description about the rooms. This was the house of a wealthy Ottoman family, parts of it dating back to the tenth century. Gorgeous ceramic tiles decorate the walls and floors in traditional Tunisian style. Photographs, antiques, and family memorabilia were everywhere. We seemed to be alone except for occasional distant voices of other visitors. 

The late nineteenth century owner had two wives – separate bedrooms for each, of course. We saw the ancient Roman lamp displayed in one wife's bedroom, the famous lamp that signals the husband must not climax until it burns out. Husband in a hurry might slyly distract his wife so he could secretly extinguish the flame. A seven-hundred-year-old marriage contract was framed on one wall.
Other bedrooms were allocated for children under and over a certain age. These rooms are all off the main courtyard; the fabrics here were in better condition than those at Dar Baba ― but the pittance of an entry fee would hardly begin to pay for maintenance.
There were two kitchens, small and large, as we progressed multiple levels. Extensive and fascinating. We were aware that there was much more to the house, not open to the public, where the owner dwells. Although Ottoman rule in Tunisia ended with French occupation, a considerable population of Turkish origin remains.
The bathroom was a marvel with a marble tub and marble urinal proudly claimed as a precursor of the French pissoir. We had no idea when or how the tub was installed on this upper level. Good thing it was near the main kitchen for heating the water!
Then we ascended the final storey that led to the well-furnished servants' quarters. From there we had a splendid view of the medina down to the sea and its walls on another side. Oh no the promised roof-top café was a deserted little bar and we were dying of thirst. But suddenly out of nowhere a youngish caretaker guy appeared to find us some cold pop, thank you! Eager to practice English, he spoke of a friend studying engineering in Montreal. For some time we were a captive audience to tales of his depressing love life with a Spanish girlfriend; marriage is not a good idea without being able to afford or locate their own separate place to live (he wants Tunisia; she wants Spain). It didn't seem to occur to him that their disagreements about having children (he: yes; she: no) were just as fundamental. I was thinking get a new girlfriend! Or maybe I said it aloud.

Ultimately we headed out again toward the mosque and the medina entrance, "capturing" doorways as we went. We found ourselves in another local market area where piles of clothing and shoes were being sold. Second hand? Doing a rush business, anyway. Time for a relaxing café au lait, watching people come and go. The day ended with serious souvenir shopping on my part while friend the photog sought local scenes and portraits. She reported crossing a questionable area where some dubious men were gathered; eye contact to be avoided. She always manages well, superb photographs.

Part of a day was spent checking out the Port el-Kantaoui marina area, although I can't say the stretch of beach we saw was particularly inviting. Maybe the tourists sunbathing and strolling here had no clue about, or interest in, the historic medina ― the beaches do attract vacation people from all over Europe.
One day, rainy and cool after an evening display of spectacular lightning, we went by tram to the nearby town of Monastir. Next to the huge Sidi el Mazeri cemetery is the mausoleum of Habib Bourguiba; he is revered as the father of modern Tunisia from 1957 to 1987. The very wide area surrounding the structure is marble and was treacherously slippery in the drizzle. His impressive coffin rests in a rotunda, contrasting sharply with the plain rooms and simple slabs set in the floor for family members.
Altogether, Sousse was a highlight in a country where every new town and countryside scene manifested one awesome delight after another.

© 2015 Brenda Dougall Merriman

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