Kairouan, fourth holiest city in Islam

I arrived in Kairouan by bus about 6 pm. My host Chema had sent me pictures of the route from the secondary street down the alley to her door, but I also wanted to warn her I was coming so when I phoned she came out to get me. Her house is wonderful – it has been in her family for several generations and she restored it in the early 2000s. She lives part of the time in Kairouan and part in Hammamet, where her daughter lives and where she works in tourism. She lived in Germany for some years and works primarily in German, though her French is also better than mine and is the language in which we communicated. She is fiercely proud of Kairouan, and feels it is the real Tunisia. “In Hammamet I am in Europe; in Kairouan I am in Tunisia.”

That evening I went out for a walk and got my first view of one of the extremely numerous sacred sites. The mosque of the barber is the resting place of a companion out the Prophet who used to carry around three whiskers from the Prophet’s  beard. Next to this holy site is a key pilgrimage site for the children of the city, “kids town.“ It was happening, and looked like a lot of fun.

The next morning Chema made a delicious breakfast, including a hot cereal made with grains, and homemade jams. I also appreciated her various pointers on places to go. I began with a wander through the medina, which as I had read is gorgeous, lively, and very genuine. I ended up going down a small covered alley with shoe stores and cobbler’s shops that seemed to go on forever – so fun.

Alas, my first destination mosque was closed on Saturdays, but fortunately the enterprising gentleman outside guided me into the beautifully restored governor’s palace from the 18th century. The fact that it also serves now as a carpet shop I am sure was no part of his motivation for encouraging me to enter and tour. (Indeed, the one downside of the medina for me were the multiple men happy to “help“ me if that help might land them a rug sale.) I was sure to hit the holy site/engineering marvel of the Middle Ages that places a camel in an upstairs room turning a pump that pumps a well for the town!

More wandering, and more mosques, including the very old and large central mosque.

As my host had advised me, I stopped into the Hotel Kasbah. It is another beautiful restored palace. I inquired about lunch, decided to not pay 12 times what I would for a schwarma sandwich from a street vendor, and instead enjoyed a tea and WiFi by the pool.

Then the walk to the outskirts of town to see the large pools of the Aglahbides turned out not to be essential (they are not particularly beautiful basins), but it did perhaps help me, like the camel room, to understand how important hydraulic engineering was to this town back in the day. Returning to the Barber’s mosque was however very much worth it, with a series of beautiful rooms, the tomb of the prophet’s companion, and an elegantly designed interior courtyard outside the prayer room.

On my way back to the medina, I passed a packed restaurant with some delicious looking fish being served. I asked how much, and the price was 12 dinars. Granted, that is four times one of my hit or miss pita pockets, but it turned out to be a delicious experience. Refueled, it was time to try to find the hammam. My first attempt took me seperately past two of my previous attempted guides/carpet sellers, whose friendliness was perhaps dampened knowing I wasn’t going to purchase goods or services. Eventually I turned from finding the bathhouse in the medina to the one just opposite the gate of the martyrs. I passed it several times looking for what my guidebook told me was called Hammam Tak Tak but was labeled with an old sign saying “Bain Maure Sabra”.

Inside it was total party. Other hammams I have been to have ranged from fairly peaceful (in Turkey) to me being the only one there (I’m not sure where.) This had little kids, teens talking loudly, older guys hanging out and chatting – in the three rooms there was hardly a place to sit! I bet the fact that it was Saturday afternoon had something to do with it. I had to ask a bunch of questions – primarily where I could get one those buckets everyone was using. I couldn’t remember the name for bucket in French, so pointing sufficed. It’s also hard for me to navigate a new, culturally challenging and slippery environment without my glasses. It turned out to be quite rejuvenating, though, and I was glad I had followed advice from the Guide Routard and brought my bathing suit and my shampoo.

Dinner was at Restaurant Nakcha . This is an interesting place because it feels fancy (through an archway, in a garden, tablecloths, etc.) but I got a full meal (plus hours of comfortable free WiFi use) for 18 dinars. The view of the garden and (once again) the Barber’s mosque is an added treat. And despite the tourist signals, it was mostly local families.

Romans and various means of transport

The Bardo museum is reputed to be one of the great museums of the world. Also, almost everyone I have met in Tunisia speaks basic French. Therefore, I was surprised when my taxi driver seemed confident of the idea of “Bardo” but not so much of the idea of “musée.” So I followed along on my GPS, and we did indeed go toward the Bardo until a certain point. When it became clear to me that he was not going to turn back toward the museum, I asked to be let out. He seemed happy, and it occurred to me that this was the neighborhood called Bardo. A short walk later, which took me past the Parliament adorned with orange trees and concertina wire, and I was at the museum.

My favorite pieces in the permanent exhibit were the marine life mosaics.

There was also a fascinating exhibit on the revolution of 2011, with many of the personal videos, emails, social media posts and other electronic records.

On the way to the shared taxi station, the metro was so jammed I couldn’t get on. I thought I might be there forever – but an empty one came right behind. Like much of the transport system in Tunisia, the metro isn’t fancy but it seems functional.

I found my shared taxi after asking every several blocks and then asking among the taxi drivers. Fortunately mine wasn’t the one with “Just God Be Help Me” written on it in English!

I wondered why my driver kept calling out something like “kreed” to get people to join our louage, when none of the towns I was told to ask for were called that. So I confirmed “Dougga” with him twice more. I think I solved the mystery later that day when my next taxi passed a town near El Kef called “Krieb”.

It took about 45 minutes for us to depart. Slight confusion when we got there – he was dropping me in the new town (“Dougga Nouvelle”) and I did not know where the taxis were for the archeological site (“Dougga ruine”). Fortunately before he left he connected me with one.

A word on costs. I’d seen 6 dinar quoted on the web from 2012. I don’t know if prices have risen or I was overcharged but I paid 9. Then as many have noted the short (but steeply uphill not worth walking) taxi to the site is 20 round trip,and you arrange time time your driver should return. I asked for two hours which worked well for me.

And up I went to the remarkable, World Heritage Site Roman ruins!

Hitting the road solo

The flight from Newark to Frankfurt was late, but thanks to the Lufthansa folks sweeping me and others with tight connections under the airport by minibus, I still made my connection to Tunis. Then, a few of the airport tests. First, could I get a Sim card? No; my phone is locked, and they do not rent mobile hotspots. So I signed up for AT&T’s “passport” scheme, and turned off my cellular data. I got money out of the ATM no problem. Then, to find the #635 bus to the center of town. It turns out you need to go across all the parking lots and across a busy multi lane road with no crosswalk. Then you come to an unmarked standard issue bus shelter. I asked five police on the way. We then waited for longer than a half an hour for the bus, during which time I made friends with a man who proposed sharing a taxi. (He gave up his shade under a palm tree to come join me in mine.) We were about to hail the cab (for about 4 dinars each – much less than 20 dinars I would have paid myself from the airport) when the bus finally came. The bus cost Gamel ½ a dinar – I say Gamel, because since I only had big bills he spotted me the fare. We had a great talk all the way (in French!), ranging from the techniques pickpockets use to his work as an engineer.

I made several attempts to call my bed and breakfast host, but I have not quite figured out the numbering system for Tunisian telephone prefixes yet. No worries, though; I did what I wanted to do anyway which was wander the Medina until I found the place.

It was locked, so I asked the bakery across the street, who sent a child to go and run and get someone else, who made a phone call, and then who knocked hard on the door. I was welcomed by my wonderful host Karima and her sister.

A glimpse of Danish society from a tourist

After a few days in Copenhagen, my observations echo those of many, many US folks before me. So many cyclists commuting, taking their kids places, just getting around. Three bus lines (at least) within eight minutes of our apartment in a neighborhood north of town. A river running through the middle of town that has been so cleaned up that now there are large public swimming areas in it. We were in a metro stop and saw some rainbows on the ground. Above us, we discovered prisms as part of an art installation. Margaret’s comment: “If you pay lots of taxes you get rainbows everywhere!” (We’re not indoctrinating her, I swear…)

 

 

Friendly alley in the Østerbro neighborhood of Copenhagen.

At the same time, not all is perfect in the socialist paradise. A law banning burquas and niqabs just came into effect (with the fig leaf that wearing facemasks and false beards is also disallowed). Lots of debate about this decision. Reading the papers, both sides speak to the concept of Danish values, with one saying that aggressive covering violates women’s rights, and the other speaking to freedom of religious expression.

I’ve also read online a little bit about the idea of poverty in Denmark. The government publishes the “ghetto“ list – neighborhoods targeted for special help and services. These tend to be dominated by older people with limited education or recent immigrants. I also read one person saying in a chat forum that the Danish healthcare system does not cover dentistry for adults, so you can sometimes see people (again elderly or immigrants) missing teeth.

But back to the benefits we saw and heard ourselves. The quality of the museums and of public building upkeep is impressive, with great signage and creative things for kids to do. A Danish family who hosted us for dinner spoke about their support for the public school system, free through university, and for the European Union. Overall, my first impression is one of a strong commitment to the general welfare and the common good.

Jobs Omanis do, part II

A few observations I have heard but can’t swear to:

  • In 1970 so few Omanis were educated that most teachers came from Egypt. Now almost all teachers are Omani.
  • Almost all restaurant workers are guest workers. But the owner would be Omani – only Omanis are allowed to own restaurants (is this true of all businesses, I wonder?)
  • Some jobs are restricted to Omanis – taxi driver and water tanker driver. Why? Because these are good jobs that don’t require education, just a drivers’ license.
  • All government jobs, police and military are only for Omanis.
  • Someone working in the fields is not Omani, but the owner of the farm is.
  • An old man carrying grass on his head to his flock in rural Oman is Omani (why, if the current point about Omanis not working in the fields is the case?)
  • For every 5 foreign workers hired, a business must hire an Omani.
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Most restaurant workers are from India; these guys were from Yemen

 

Presto Chango!

Recently we went to dinner at a hotel restaurant in Muscat. It was one of the higher end hotels, and the restaurant served wine, so I guess you could identify it as a cosmopolitan or liberal space. (As I understand it, few independent restaurants, and not even all hotel restaurants, are licensed, even in the capital.) The diners were a mix of Omanis, Europeans, and folks from other Gulf states (at least one man wore what I think of as a Saudi ghutra.)

Next to us sat a middle-aged Omani couple. He was wearing the traditional Omani cap and dishdasha. She was wearing a black abaya and head covering. After they ordered dinner, she removed her head covering, kissed her husband, and excused herself. She returned without her abaya, wearing a red tank top and jeans.

Both in Oman and in other countries, I have seen women and men in widely varying interpretations of modest dress. But I have not seen someone change their level of dress “in public”, if you will.

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Define this space: public? Western? liberal?

Greetings in Oman: more than just “hi”

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We were picnicking in a wadi when a farmer came around the corner, carrying on his head grass for his goats. Our guide rose and exchanged the following greeting and farewell (my apologies for poor transliterating/translating – it’s what I could get from my guide after):

Salaam aleikum (Peace be with you)
Aleikum Salam (And with you peace)
Kief Halek (How are you?)
Hamdulilah ([I am well,] Thanks be to God).
Mash Akbar? (No news?)
Mash ulum? (No information?)
Diar salime (The country is safe)
Bifuthel Allah wa Qaboos (by the grace of God and His Majesty Sultan Qaboos)
Ma Salama ([Go] with peace)

…and the man went on his way.

Wealth, poverty and wealth again

Oman has swung from substantial to impoverished and back again. The trading history is fascinating and romantic. In the 18th century Oman controlled a series of ports along the Somali and Kenyan coast, as well as the island of Zanzibar. Trade was conducted by dhows, the last of which was built for (for actual commercial use!) in 1951.

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Built as an actual trading vessel in 1951! Cool, but also showing the technological limitations of Oman at that time.

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The beautiful harbor and lighthouse of Sur

Nowadays in the Omani coastal town of Sur they are still building dhows. Now, however, wealthy princes from other Gulf states order them as symbols of their commercial history! Made of teak and taking a year to construct, they don’t come cheap.


During the 20th century came a time of steep decline; Oman became incredibly poor. Since 1970, however, when the current Sultan deposed his father, the increases in all markers on the human development index have been dramatic. Oman once again does a serious sea trade; this time in oil and natural gas.

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LNG tanker off the coast of Sur, Oman

Figuring out who is an Omani, and what jobs they do

This is my first time to a Gulf country, and I am particularly interested in questions of wealth, poverty, oil, and guest workers. On my Etihad flight from New York to Abu Dhabi, no-one was wearing traditional Gulf Arab clothes. There were no men in dishdashas, and I did not even notice a woman who covered her hair. In terms of appearance, if you hadn’t told me where the plane was going I would have said India. Most of the folks who didn’t look European on this flight looked South Asian to me. Were these mostly guest workers? Or were they just Indians and Pakistanis changing planes in Abu Dhabi? And is there another airline or flight time that is more popular for Gulf Arabs?

On our flight from Abu Dhabi to Muscat, however, there were significantly more folks in traditional dress, most clearly a group of young men. When we got off the plane, there were four paths through immigration. The first was marked “electronic gates” – the young men in dishdashas went that way. The second said “GCC nationals” – I’m not sure I saw anyone head that way. The third was not labeled as far as I could tell, and we were waved that way (just on the basis of our appearance, I think). The fourth said “retinal scan”, and that is where the folks who looked South Asian went.

Since we have arrived, I’ve been getting a better sense of identifying who is an Omani and who is a guest worker. There are many, many of the latter. As a tourist, I’m pretty sure none of the restaurants I’ve eaten at have had Omani staff. At the same time, it appears that this doesn’t mean that every Omani is wealthy. We visited a fishing village today, for example, that was not fancy by any means. And one of the first things one reads about Oman is that it has far less oil than other gulf states (though oil production still accounts for over 50% of GDP).

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Fisherman, Qantab Beach

Decline, revolution, and tragedy

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Ruling families in the late 19th century, it seemed, had a habit of building modern palaces at great cost. These were to replace their traditional castles, but they completed them just before they lost their crowns altogether. The “Summer Palace” of the last Emir of Bukhara is one such building.

Part Russian, part Central Asian

Part Russian, part Central Asian

While far more modest, it reminded me of the Dolmabahçe Palace in Istanbul. A few architectural details echo Bukharan buildings, but most are Russian. The last Emir was a close friend of the Czar, trained with him in the military academy in Moscow and fell in love with the Czar’s sister.

The decorations rotated with the seasons, even involving changing the wall panels in one major room. The fall panels remain today from when the Red Army arrived in September 1920. The Emir fled to Afghanistan.

Contrasting politically, though also evocative of the tragedies of the early 20th century in this region, we also visited the family home of the head of the first communist revolution in Bukhara, Faizullah Khojaev. He was the son of a wealthy merchant who felt his city was backward and needed become more egalitarian and modern. He became the head of the Bukharan People’s Republic, then joined the leadership of the Uzbek SSR. Eventually, though, Stalin had him killed in the purges in 1938.