01 October 2015

Tozeur, Tunisia 2012

Tozeur is a small town built around a desert oasis. One of its notable features is the distinctive brick-pattern designs in buildings all over town. The oasis is large and well-managed; we learned about the seasonal stages of harvesting and maintenance of the life-giving date palms.

After some free time in the peaceful medina streets we plunged into the contrasting fray of the morning market. The butchers customarily display the head of the meat they are selling; it signals that their meat is fresh.

By now I’d already happily acquainted myself with a few camels in this country. Time for my specially arranged ride. Jelel drives me to the rendezvous that turns out to be at the edge of "downtown." Two guys we meet. One is there to ensure the arrangement, probably the owner, and disappears almost immediately. Misbah is the camel handler, age indeterminate, since he is very weathered and has few teeth. And speaks a French mixture at machine-gun speed, but we learn to communicate. He's had tourists from Quebec so "Montreal" is his reference point for Canada. 

I mount a white beauty called Ali Baba. I check for blue eyes: nope. And away we go along a curving back street that skirts the oasis watercourse, behind and below the tourist hotels. It's quiet and pleasant but the South Arabian saddle arrangement may become a problem. I see places where palms lining the watercourse are black and dead; our guide Sami tells me later there was a fire. The water itself looks polluted and refuse has been dumped in spots, so at odds with the pristine oasis we saw this morning. 

Then we pass a semi-grungy local bar getting primed for business — no question the source of last night's lively music. Wave to the guys! They cheer for me (“John Wayne!”) due to their cowboy interpretation of a Tilley hat. Misbah picks some jasmine and bougainvillea from passing vines and makes a little posy for me. Touristy but nice.

After twenty minutes or so of stately pace the vista opens and we approach signs of other activities. A golf course entrance, and an amusement park of sorts. One or two families are about. Misbah is very aware of photo opps and he knows the park. Ali Baba too is obliging and accustomed to posing; I swear that camel is a born actor. 

Misbah places us in front of a giant replica of a man's head. In vain I try to catch the Arabic name of the celebrity. Now I know it was Tozeur's favourite son, "one of the first poets of modern Tunisia,"Abu el Kacem Chebbi (1909-1934), born in the area where our hotel sits. 

After that to my surprise, we change camels. Reason unknown, a momentary blip in our franglais. Maybe something to do with leaving the cobblestoned street to hit dirt and sand underfoot. Now I am riding black Mavroud who is older and (forgive me) a little moth-eaten, with less conceit than Ali Baba. Maybe the switch is to give the poor old guy some exercise! We fuss at adjusting things so I am not totally behind the hump.

Misbah and I agree emphatically that building golf courses in the desert is regretful. Nevertheless we are traversing part of it on paths, apparently following a familiar route. He waves his arms describing new projected tourist plans. I’m quite happy there are no golfers in sight. Then, at last. We reach the desert. Desert with tufts of the grassy stuff camels like to eat. Away from civilization for a bit. But the saddle is truly uncomfortable. Misbah understands we need a conference. Stop, dismount. When I say "sore bum" he repeats BUM delightedly. His new English word. 

He carefully rearranges the blankets. Then he says "Montez!" pointing to Mavroud's neck. I pose astride the patient camel's neck, another tourist trick I guess but what the heck. Old Mavroud is gentle as a lamb. Set off again toward the waning sun and I wonder if we are going all the way to the old Star Wars set. Misbah gives me the nose lead and walks behind, switching the camel and commanding him. A little trot, I wondered? Could I hope for a canter? Whatever it was, it didn't work. My supplementary proddings are ignored. Mavroud is simply not up to it today. We continue into the sunset, already way over the allotted hour.

I ask Misbah what is the smoke coming from the left (what on the desert could possibly burn?!) ... with intense concentration I translate it’s from the brickworks. He is eager to show me so we dip into a fold between gentle hills to see acres of this walled open air factory. Once there, he insists on taking photos of piles of bricks as he explains the manufacturing process. The site is almost deserted at this hour; it’s easy to see over the walls on camel back. We poke back and forth along the enclosure. This place is likely the town’s biggest employer.

Misbah seems keen to go on forever but by this time my sitting bones are very sore from the unrelenting saddle. The man has done all the walking cheerfully and loquaciously, some of it barefoot. We take a route through a different part of the golf course (still deserted) with great views toward the town. We chatter a bit and he blows me a kiss after some remark I make. Seems to me a sophisticated gesture from a small-town small-time entrepreneur who may or may not even own a camel himself.
Back onto the watercourse and eventually into the corner of the town we departed from. No Jelel. Misbah decides not to couche Mavroud yet. We turn the corner, parade along a main street (more John Wayne fans) and there's Jelel. I could have walked to the hotel from here. As we part, we probably would have had a discreet hug but for prevailing convention; others were watching. 

Probably the best ever.

© 2015 Brenda Dougall Merriman

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