Kairouan-Another World Heritage Site

Trip Start Feb 25, 2010
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Trip End Mar 11, 2010


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Flag of Tunisia  ,
Tuesday, March 2, 2010

The hotel breakfast is nothing to yell from the rooftops about. But it is a relaxing, clean environment and the bread and jam is yummy, the coffee hot and strong. Wifi too! This works!

Since Kelsey wants us to live as locals, we take a "louage" to Kairouan.  Locals use louage or long-haul shared taxis frequently. There are no timetables, but they wait in the louage station (which is generally near a train or bus station).  They set off either when they have their quota of passengers or the driver thinks no one else will arrive.  The French word literally means 'rental'.  While there are buses and trains throughout Tunisia, for very little difference in price one can buy a seat in a five or seven-passenger louage between towns.  Prices are fixed and cheap and the driver may collect during or at the end of the ride.  If he is smart, he will collect it at the beginning of the ride and give the money immediately to his family.  This is because many of the two lane roads lend themselves to the exciting experience of passing trucks, donkey carts and sheep all while heading straight into clearly visible oncoming traffic.  Casey asks if my life insurance is all paid up?

We arrive in Kairouan and are encouraged out of the Louage at the first stop but clearly not within sight of the city center.  The young lad on the street explains that the city is only 200 meters from this stop.  On a desolate intersection in a clearly poor section of town, I was uncomfortable and attempted to ask the driver if he stopped closer to the city center.  I assume he did not want to insult the young man informing us to get out.  Once again, there was much surprise among the natives to find out that Kelsey spoke Arabic and was living in Tunisia.  Somehow, I feel, that this exchange resulted in an aborted attempt at our being pitched to be sold something.  The city center was about ˝ mile away.  We later came to understand that in Tunisia, everything is 200 meters away no mater how far it really was.

Kairouan, also known as Kairwan, Kayrawan, Al Qayrawan, is a Muslim holy city which ranks fourth after Mecca, Medina and Jerusalem as a place of pilgrimage. It is reputed that seven visits here are the equivalent of one to Mecca.  Its large mosques and cultural history have seen it added to the UNESCO World Heritage List.  Kairouan is the oldest Islamic settlement, has the oldest mosque in North Africa and the world's oldest minaret.

The medina, with its imposing walls and monumental gates encloses lovely mosques (depending on who you believe there are between 50 and 150 or so mosques), an ancient well and hundreds of shops where world famous Kairouan carpets of pure wool are woven and sold.  If you are wondering, all the red flags are present because the President of Tunisia had just attended the Grand Mosque as part of the celebration of the Prophet's birthday.

Upon passing through the medina walls, the main mosque emerges immediately on our right.  We have time, so we plan to come back to see the mosque later.   As we walk by the mosque, we are approached by a nicely dressed young man.  We reject his advances and he informs us that he is a student who lives nearby and he noticed that we might be missing a unique opportunity to see the mosque before it closes and while foot traffic is low.  He is not a guide, he is not trying to sell us anything, he is merely trying to help us.  We go into the mosque and spend quite a bit of time soaking in the ages.

Upon our exit, the young man reappears as if by magic and reaffirms he is not a guide, just a student wishing to help visitors to his city.  He escorts us to a nearby free museum which we visit and enjoy.

Upon our exit, the young man reappears again and introduces us to his best friend who is also a student who certainly needs to meet our daughter who, by now he knows is a student who attends classes in Tunisa and lives in Sousse and Tunis.  They insist that this young man help us get to the main souk area since the alleyways are many and complex.  They reaffirm, he is not a guide, not looking to sell us anything.  Just trying to help a visitor.

The pictures will document our walk down alleys, past ornate doors towards the souk where a hot cup of java awaits us.  The pace led by our new student friend is quick and meandering.  We are routed to a building where there is a camel walking in circles to fetch water from a deep ancient well.  Tips are appreciated.  I almost get the feeling we are being intentionally lead a more complex way than necessary in order for us to feel indebted to him for helping us through this labyrinth.  I refer to the map.  Yes, complex streets, but easier ways to traverse them.  Finally, it dawns on me – we are being shanghighed, bushwhacked, hijacked, setup.  We arrive at the Mosque of the 3 doors- a destination I had hoped for!  He informs us that we are quite lucky since this is the last day of the famous Berber Festival.  The Berber Princess is giving educational briefings on the ancient and traditional art of fine rug making and it just so happens it is occurring right here next to this mosque.  We should hurry to see it since it will be over in less than one hour – never to be seen again.  But, we are thirsty and hungry and must eat first.  Perhaps later?

Rid of our new friend, we found a nice café in the heart of the souk area and settled in for some coffee, fresh squeezed orange juice, roasted chicken and something Kelsey called Meshwee which was a green salad like mush that was not so good.  Check out the souk dudes drinking tea.  That is the way to spend a day.

In addition to being the oldest and most renowned carpet center in Tunisia, Kairouan is famous for its sweets – particularly one called a makhroud which is a date-stuffed semolina cookie soaked in honey.  Kelsey befriends the owner of a shop who takes us to the back to show us how this delicacy is prepared. We sample treats hot out of the honey.  I learn later that he was discussing with Kelsey how he would like to start a makhroud business in the USA with Kelsey’s help.  This happens a lot with her.

Upon our departure from Kairouan, it occurs to us that we are likely the first tourists to this city that escaped without being tricked or dragged into a carpet making demonstration which always leads to a sales pitch explaining how easy it is to bring a carpet back home in your carry-on luggage.

Upon our return to Sousse, we go to visit the home where Kelsey lived during her stay there.  We meet with Afef, her daughter Sandra and Afef’s mother.  Casey unloads another ˝ suitcase of gifts for the little girl who is a budding artist.  We are fed fresh grapefruit juice and amazing sweets.  I am astonished at what I learn about this PhD candidate who has just finished her dissertation in the field of Developmental Linguistics.


The taxi drops us on the main, main 4 lane, one way road lined with food shops and our grocery store.  We decide to get some groceries and wine and then grab food from a few vendors to bring back to the apartment.  Casey and Kelsey run across the street leaving me standing next to an alley as the sun is setting.  I yell – don’t leave me here!  I’ll wait outside the brightly lit grocery store on the stairs where it is safer.  I cross. While waiting, a man passes and observes me and with all the subtlety of a great white shark, circles back smelling blood in the water.  He approaches me climbs a few stairs and sternly cites a diatribe in French ending with the phrase "one dinar".  I inform him in French that I do not speak French or Arabic – only English.  He repeats the French diatribe becoming more agitated and gesturing with an open hand ending in the phrase “one dinar”.  I inform him in both French and in Arabic – No, No Thank You.  More agitation, drawing nearer to me, up the stairs, I climb as well maintaining the higher ground.  Security guard in the grocery store watches and yawns.  Voice raised again, the diatribe ends this time with “two dinar”.  The look on his face can peel paint.  Breathing deep, shaking.  I recognized this behavior.  In English now – “No! Go away! bye-bye!” (I had learned by now that Bye-Bye was a universal phrase – It worked really well when the young girl at the Louage station asked me for money.  I said “bye bye” and she reached out and pinched my leg – really hard – like Ouch!).  The diatribe begins again.  I turn and go in the grocery store.  I learn the Arabic phrase for “pussy”. 

We fetch raw fennel, shwarma, ˝ a roasted chicken, Tunisian salad (once again different from the last), 4 kinds of bread (baguette, Berber, Roti), an assortment of olives and some soggy French fries.  With this and some chilled wine we enjoy dinner at the apartment.  We watch an episode of “House” in French.  I loosely translate.
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