Picking just one place in Tunisia to talk about is not easy to do. Every corner in Tunisia has its own charm, unique beauty, historical and cultural richness as well as linguistic identity. The Northern suburb of the capital, Tunis, however, is by far my favorite spot. It extends along the Mediterranean shore starting from Gammarth – an old small fishing village which has now become a luxurious resort town, La Marsa – the old summer capital of pre-colonial Tunisia, Sidi Bou Saïd – the blue-white city upon a hill that enchanted artists, writers and painters for decades, Carthage – the capital of ancient empires, La Goulette – the port of Tunis and all the way to the Kram – what used to be the fig gardens of the mamelouk Mustapha Aga.
We start our day by enjoying a light breakfast at one of the very famous cafés in the country, Café des Délices of Sidi Bou Saïd, where you can incessantly contemplate one of the most beautiful bays in the world. Also known as qahwat sidi shaba’an, the Café des Delices has one of the best views of the entire city, with its open terraces layered on the hill like enormous white and blue stairs facing the Gulf of Tunis and Jbel Bougarnine (mountain of the twin horns). Walking down the hill we enjoy listening to the chants of merchants selling their antiques and traditional crafts and maybe peek every now and then at the open art galleries. One, of course, and even after a full breakfast, cannot miss the traditional Tunisian donuts called banbaloni sold by the unique and only small shop in Sidi Bou Saïd. Steaming hot right out of the giant fryer, each donut is then wrapped in crystal white sugar and handed to you in a small peace of white paper. Very simple and modest yet extremely delicious!
We keep walking down the paved hill admiring the traditional white and blue houses piled up along the winding narrow alleys hiding the secret gardens of bougainvillea treesuntil we reach Ennejma Ezzahra, palace of the French painter and musicologist Baron Rodolphe d’Erlanger (now turned into a museum and a center of Arab and Mediterranean music).
After a tour of the museum and a complete immersion in the history of Arabic art and architecture we drive along the scenic coastal road of La Marsa and Gammarth. Our eyes are charmed by the beautiful long sandy beach, the harmonious mixture of traditional Arabic, French colonial and contemporary architecture, the welcoming Moorish cafés with their sun-drenched terraces and the jasmine bouquet vendors located in every street corner. We then make a quick stop by the famous Café Safsaf, set around an old well where public water is still drawn by a waterwheel driven by a camel.
After warm roasted pine nuts and fresh mint tea at the Café Safsaf and few bites of Tunisian fricassé (tiny fried sandwich with tuna, harissa, olives and olive oil) for those who love the spicy food, we head towards the sites of ancient Carthage. We buy a day pass for all the sites. One day is never enough to visit all of Carthage but passes are so affordable, especially for students, that we can come back very often. We start with the National Museum of Carthage and then visit the Saint Louis Cathedral, the largest Roman Catholic cathedral in the city reminiscent of the early entry of Roman African Christianity (now turned into a museum). Both the National Museum of Carthage and the Saint Louis Cathedral are located adjacently at the top of the Byrsa Hill in Carthage offering an open view on downtown Tunis and the Southern suburbs of the capital. From there we drive by the Punic Ports, the Antonine Baths, the Roman theater of Carthage and the remains of Roman and Punic villas, statues and mosaics spread around the city. Of course a drive by the presidential palace is inevitable since it is located in the heart of these ruin marvels.
We finish our long, but fun, day with a scrumptious dinner at the most famous Jewish restaurant of city. Mamie Lily is a cozy and welcoming restaurant located at La Goulette (the port of Tunis) serving authentic traditional Tunisian Jewish food. A chat with the owner (who is an artist) or the cook is a must, as they always share some interesting stories.
A day like this is undoubtedly a memorable one. We not only enjoy the beauty of the city but we also get a taste of every aspect of it; its history, culture, authenticity, scenic beauty, culinary delicacies and constant interaction with the locals of different backgrounds. What a wonderful way to learn Tunisian Arabic and get acquainted with some of the historical and cultural characteristics of Tunisia.
Congratulations to the following Top 3 Winners of the Academics Category for the CET 30th Anniversary Alumni Photo Contest. Photos eligible to win the the Culture & Customs category could show local celebrations, festivals, rituals or events.
1st Place: Gang Chen (Yale University, Summer 2010 CET Intensive Chinese Language in Beijing )
2nd Place: Suchada Sutasirisap (University of Texas – Austin, Fall 2010 CET Chinese Studies & Internship in Shanghai)
3rd Place: Lizzie Chen (University of Texas – Austin, 2011 CET/UT-Austin Maymester in China)
To view all Photo Contest entries click here
Maybe an “oops” cultural moment today. It hadn’t occurred to me that I may have crossed some boundaries until a classmate expressed her shock at the direction our classroom conversation had gone with our Arab Theatre professor. There had recently been a piece in Al-Jazeera with regards to the leadership debacle of the current King of Jordan in the context of the Arab awakenings going on North and South-West of him. One passage from the article brought up insulation from the unfiltered feedback of the populace as a dangerous characteristic of leaders in the Arab world, and the rhetoric of this point was near-identical to a passage from the Syrian play were discussing in class, The King is the King. Excited about having made the connection, I brought up the article as the class conversation winded down, asking our Professor if he thought this fault of insulation was fairly applied to the King of Jordan (as it had been in the Al-Jazzera article), and if so, if the message of The King is the King could be applied to Jordan as well.
Long pause. The Professor responded delicately, explaining how close King Abdullah II’s father had been to the people, that the King himself was actually half British (hence the blue eyes), and that, as the second son, the position wasn’t originally in his fate. Only retrospectively do I see the deferral in his response; at the time it felt like an answer, a excusal perhaps, and I wonder if I can still claim the answer I did extract, or whether my interpretation obliterated what he was actually trying to convey.
It’s not as if I was searching for some seed of discontent. I just assumed (and it appears wrongfully so) that because the article from Al-Jazeera was public and widely accessible, and the article’s thesis reflected in locally-authored literature, the ideas were public and open for debate as well. The Professor seemed uncomfortable, which I misinterpreted as due to our having “strayed from the topic,” but not entirely unwilling to engage, and once again I am left unsure as to the boundaries and flexibility of the red tape.
Written by Raymond Palmer (Connecticut College)
CET Chinese Studies & Service-Learning in Beijing, Spring ’12
When you’re feeling a bit bummed and off, why not go to a park? At least that’s what I thought, so I decided to go to Zi-Zhu-Yuan Park (if you want a word-to-word translation it’s Purple-Bamboo-Palace Park). I don’t remember why exactly I was feeling a bit off… maybe I was feeling homesick, maybe I was just feeling extremely stressed (especially after the toilet incident), I’m not sure now that I think back on it: it doesn’t matter anymore anyhow. I’m thinking it’s related to culture shock – there are different phases that you go through, apparently, like the honeymoon phase, the I’m-hostile-to-everything-and-anything phase, etc. – but alas, I can’t put my finger on a cause. I was just feeling bummed.
So, thanks to Google maps I was able to spot a nice-sized pond surrounded by greenery – a park: and that was Zi-zhu-yuan Park. It seemed pretty close by but I wasn’t sure if I could realistically walk there within 30 minutes (that’s about the time when I usually decide I have to take public transportation) – but I walked anyways. I have time, and I needed some change.
If you look at Google maps you’ll realize that the park is pretty huge. The little red circle is where I live, and the big red blob is the park. Pretty impressive, right? The blue line is the route I took, and you’ll notice that I didn’t exactly take the shortest route (that I thought) possible. That’s because the city here is made up a little differently, and those alley ways between buildings aren’t always passable. You know how in New York or Boston you can almost always walk in between buildings if there’s space in between them, like alleys? Not so easily here. And that’s because there are walls everywhere. I tell you (and Professor Moser will tell you), WALLS. It’s a city of walls, really, when you take a look around, or like myself, try to cut through a section of town without knowing. To begin with, the campus that I am on is surrounded by iron bars, with only 2 entrances. You walk across the big street, and there’s another campus (of the same university), with only 1 entrance. I wandered into that campus when I was trying to walk in between the buildings, and was trapped in there for about 15 minutes while I tried to find an exit on the other side. In the end I had to go out the entrance that I came in through (I felt defeated). I saw apartment buildings on Google maps, and thought, “Oh I could walk in between them” – No. Apartment building complexes are again, walled in, with usually only one entrance. Schools, apartments, hotels, a tea house, somebody’s house… you’ll see walls everywhere, and it’s just impossible to “cut across” a section of town randomly. If you want to navigate around town, you have to stay on the streets, which are signed and easy to spot. I learned that the hard way, by wandering into different complexes and frightening people there because they just don’t expect somebody to randomly walk into their walled-in parts and examine every inch of it in pursuit of another exit.
So anyhow I got there, after some interesting meanders, to Zi-zhu-yuan Park (it took me a grand total of only 15 minutes on my way back, after I knew my way). It is simply gorgeous, and on top of that, free! I found out about this after talking to Zuo Cui, my RD, and Jason Wang, the Intensive Chinese program RD, but parks here are often not free. In most parks there’s a little fee that you have to pay at the entrance to get in, which can be anywhere from 2 or 3 kuai to 10 kuai. Zi-zhu-yuan Park is one of the only parks that are still kept free, although the government apparently lowered the entrance fees to the other parks when the Beijing Olympics came about. So I guess I got lucky. I will confess, however, that when I saw the gate to the park approaching I got ready to run/jump past any toll booths because I wasn’t ready to pay a fee to get into a park. Maybe it’s just me, but I’m not used to the idea of paying to get into a park unless it’s something like six-flags. Oh and again, that whole park is walled in, with defined entrances (in case you hadn’t guessed already…).
The park is absolutely gorgeous, especially because the big lake in the middle (and other little ponds as well) is all frozen over and the waves and whatnot are all frozen in place. It’s like a winter wonderland. I bet you can’t skate on it (although I will watch you try if you want to), but it’s pretty darn solid. That’s another thing: almost everything is frozen here, just like in NE – they don’t use any salt here though. You’ll see chunks of ice just rolling around the streets, and little ice-waterfalls seeping out from between walls or mounds – everywhere. Even people’s spits (which you’ll see as much as bird-poo here) are frozen over. It hasn’t snowed here yet, but I bet it’s going to be chaotic if it does.