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Postcards from Tunisia

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Dec. 29, 2008 - "Finnish? Dutch? German? Swedish? English?"

The merchant in Tunis' souk, or marketplace, was trying to guess my nationality as part of the elaborate dance to get me into his store.

"No, no, no, no, no," I replied in fake exasperation. "American."

"American?" he paused and smiled. "Obama," he said as a broad grin broke out on his face and his thumb shot upward in a sign of approval.

Europeans, especially the French and the sun-worshipping Germans, have long been frequent visitors to Tunisia, a North African country tucked between Algeria and Libya. Americans are far more of a rarity, although that may be beginning to change.

Consequently, I was hardly surprised that throughout our two-week visit, few recognized me as an American. I was, however, pleasantly surprised -- and touched -- by the frequent and spontaneous expression of affection for Obama, which they all seemed to pronounce with the accent on the "O."

After yet another thumbs-up for Obama in the desert south of Tunisia, I showed a merchant pictures I'd taken of the president-elect at a rally in Quincy, Ill. He quickly called the neighboring vendors to his stall and pointed to my digital camera. They all lined up for a glimpse of Obama's picture. One found greenery nearby and stuck some behind my ears and those of the women with me.

"For Obama," he said. 

Why Tunisia?

Why Tunisia? More than one person asked me that before we left.

The easy answer is: Why not Tunisia? But the real answer is more complicated. We'd visited -- and loved -- Morocco and Egypt. Tunisia promised to be a captivating blend of similar traditions. It has a rich history, stretching back to the Phoenicians who founded the ancient city of Carthage. Indeed this Islamic country boasts impressive Roman archeological sites and superb collections of Roman mosaics,  the oldest Jewish community in North Africa, a flourishing wine industry -- not to mention beaches, Saharan sand dunes and oases, and the remnants of old movie sets.

Another day in ruins

Ominous black clouds hugged the ridge line of the surrounding  mountains while rain beat down on the bus' windshield -- not quite the most perfect day to tour the mountain-top site of Dougga, perhaps Tunisia's most impressive and extensive Roman ruin, dating back to the second century A.D. (Previously, it was the seat of a Numidian king.)

As we pulled into the parking lot, we pulled on our rain ponchos, and steeled ourselves to make the best of it. When we got outside, the wind whipped right through us. This was starting to look like a mighty unpleasant tour, which we hoped to complete in record time.

But by the time we reached the ancient theater, the rain had stopped, the sun had appeared (although the wind remained spirited). Maybe Jupiter had decided to accept the blood sacrifice of one stumbling tourist who wound up with a nasty scrape on his head.

Without the rain, we were able to wander Dougga's old and worn streets and enjoy its structures and vistas. The highlights: the theater, the capitol built in 166 A.D., the temple of Caelestis, the Lycinian baths, a hotel and/or brothel (no one seems to know) and a public "restroom" with 12 latrines.

If Dougga gives visitors an understanding of organization and layout, El-Jem (built in 230 A.D.) offers a glimpse into the Romans' sophisticated architecture and engineering. The El-Jem amphitheater, smaller than the colisseum in Rome, could hold an impressive 35,000 spectators. The venue is still used, especially for classical music music concerts in the summer. (It was also used in the filming of "Gladiator," starring Russell Crowe.)

Visitors can roam the underbelly of the structure -- where the tigers and gladiators waited -- or climb to the topmost seats for a panoramic view of the town.

Near El-Jem is a museum whose Roman mosaics rival those of Tunis' world-class Bardo Museum in quality if not quantity. From a few feet away, the mosaics look like incredibly vivid -- and large -- wall tapestries, with hardly a piece missing. For some reason, this museum had quite a few mosaics with violent, bloody images of the predator coming in for the kill. The museum also includes the reconstructed remains of a Roman villa as well as the foundations of several other villas.

At Sufetela, in central Tunisia, the ruins include the unusual combination of three Roman temples (dedicated to Jupiter, Juno and Minerva) in the forum area, several third-century Christian basilicas, including baptistries decorated with mosaics, and even an oil press for making olive oil.

Of course, Tunisia's most legendary ruin is Carthage, where Aeneas romanced Queen Dido and where Hannibal set out with his elephants. Unfortunately, little remains and what is left is scattered about the modern city of Carthage. During the Punic Wars, the Romans demanded "Carthago delenda est" (Carthage must be destroyed), and it unfortunately was.

We stopped at the tophet, a site littered with gravestones in the middle of an upscale neighborhood. (Today's Carthage is an affluent suburb of Tunis.) The graves were either of stillborn infants or infant sacrificial victims, said our guide Ali, who added that archeologists had yet to resolve the controversy. Some distance away are the remnants of the Roman baths, with a gorgeous view of the Mediterranean. The site abuts the presidential palace whose walls -- and guards -- may not be photographed.

Lights, camera, action

Our 4x4 veered off the highway and into the desert. There, on our left, we passed a family of camels who nonchalantly watched us pass. Farther on, up on our right, were hundreds of flamingos who took to the sky before I could manage to get my camera out.

We went deeper and deeper into the desert, into what almost seemed to be a galaxy far, far away. As we careened down a sand dune -- bouncing along the way -- we suddenly found ourselves on Tatooine, in a slowly deteriorating village, er, movie set.

We weren't alone. A few vendors were already there, waiting to sell us toy camels, the ubiquitous (and resinous) "desert roses," and other various trinkets.

George Lucas, who first visited Tunisia in the '70s, filmed scenes in several Star Wars movies at various locations in Tunisia, although this was the only one we visited. (The planet name of Tatooine is in fact a riff off the Tunisian city of Tatouine.)

Besides "Star Wars" and "Gladiator," "The English Patient" was also filmed in part in Tunisia. And, after we left "Tatooine," we headed for three desert oases, all of which were featured in "The English Patient." (A day earlier, we had boarded the 19th-century Lezard Rouge, or Red Lizard, train, which had also been featured in the film for a hourlong scenic ride through the Seldja gorge.) 

Chebika is a ruined village, destroyed in a flash flood in the late '60s. What makes Chebika special, though, is a nearby paved path, leading into a grove of palm trees, past a small waterfall, up past a rippling creek and to a spring flowing into a serene blue-green pool.  

Not much is left of old Tamerza. Destroyed by the same flash flood that destroyed Chebika, the ruins sit next to a dry river bed. Where we had climbed the rocky "streets" of Chebika, we observed Tamerza -- its white domes and battered stone houses -- from the comfort of the chic, very contemporary restaurant of the Tamerza Palace. Both approaches have their virtues.

Our last stop was Mides, another ruined village, but this one perched dramatically at the top of a rugged gorge. By this time, it was late afternoon, and the sunlight turned everything into gold. For a second, we spotted a small group of hikers on the floor of the gorge; their puny size made us realize just how far down the gorge went -- and led me to step away a bit from the edge. 

When we left Mides and headed back to Tozeur, highway driving the whole time, the sands, the desert, the mountains all were ignited by this golden glow. Who wouldn't be entranced by the beauty of the landscape? 

It was the magic hour, and we reveled in the cinemascope perfection of the scene.

If you go

We traveled with Overseas Adventure Travel on its 15-day tour "Tunisia: From the Mediterranean to the Sahara."
OAT specializes in small group travel, and our group consisted of nine people. The itinerary was quite active, with three nights in only two places: the capital city of Tunis and Tozeur.
For details on the itinerary and price, click here.

Susan Hegger comes to St. Louis Public Radio and the Beacon as the politics and issues editor, a position she has held at the Beacon since it started in 2008.