O’ you unjust tyrant,
lover of darkness and enemy of life
you a powerless people derided
and your palm with his blood
is stained… Beware!
there is a fire underneath the ash.
– Tunisian poet Abo Al Qassim Al Shabbi, To the Tyrants of the World.
It feels amazing to finally arrive in Tunisia, after being denied boarding twice and three Covid tests later! Third-time lucky!
I had originally planned to begin my grand voyage to Africa in Algeria which unfortunately remained closed. When Air France cancelled my Paris-Algiers ticket, I re-routed to Tunis instead via Malta. While I was enjoying enchanting Malta, the Tunisian government put Malta on its red list. Departing flights were for repatriation of Tunisians only! I took a happy detour and spent an Indian summer in Sicily, exploring picturesque towns and enjoying gelato.
At the end of September, I headed to a busy local clinic in Catania at 8 in the morning. The blood test took 30 seconds and my negative results were out by noon (impressive Italian health system!). But Alitalia staff said, The rules have changed, Madam! You need a PCR test! There was a sense of deja-vu: taking the airport bus back to the city, returning to the hostel, finding a new clinic that offered swab tests, coughing up another 50 euros, and doing the whole thing again first thing Monday morning…
Per favore, non parlo Italiano, Vorrei fare il tampone oggi per viaggiare oggi. Grazie tante! Incredulously the nurse let me skip the long line and by 2pm my negativo results were out. My flight to Rome was delayed and I almost missed the connection to Tunis. When they closed the door and I collapsed into my window seat in the empty plane, I knew I would enjoy Tunisia no matter what. It reminded me of my eventual trek to K2 Basecamp last summer; the approach through the Karakoram highway was half the story!
Algeria, Sudan, and Libya all remained closed due to Covid, so I have over two months to explore Tunisia, a relatively small country. After two weeks of “quarantine” in Tunis, I take a 9-hour bus to Tozeur and spend a whole month down South: through the oasis town of Douz to Ksar Ghilane, entrance to the Grand Erg/the Sahara; Matmata to visit troglodyte homes (where Star Wars was filmed); Tataouine for picturesque Ksars (traditional granary) and impressive hilltop Berber villages; and gorgeous Jerba and Kerkennah. From there, I hug the coast to visit charming Mahdia, Monastir, and Sousse. Then I turn inland to the holy city of Kairouan, El Kef, the Dougga and Bulla Regia Roman ruins, ending in Tabarka, the ultimate tranquil town where the former President, Habib Bourguiba, chose to exile, for good reasons!
I spend my first two weeks “quarantining” in a magnificent 300-year-old auberge – a former Bey mansion – inside the 1200-year-old Medina in Tunis. I have previously visited Medinas in Morocco and fallen in love with its clever architecture and light. Amazingly, this time it is always the sound that greets me in early morning. The artisans are already out pounding in the narrow lane, carrying on an age-old tradition, producing exquisite work.
There’s no point following google map; the Medina is such a maze that the best way is to get lost in it. The joy of wandering is indescribable and the discoveries endless: a mundane morning greeting captured in a perfect shadow, the smell of fresh warm baguette, an ancient mosque at the center of Medina life with its punctual muezzin/call to prayer, a magnificent door, photogenic street peddlers, colourful residents and tradesmen, and children playing around like everywhere else… But it’s the subtle, constantly changing light in addition to the timeless Medina rhythm that delight me the most. What joy being a photographer in Tunisia!
After a week of exploring the nooks and crannies of the inexhaustible Tunis Medina (and still getting lost!), I venture out to the suburbs. The Carthage ruins – and the extensive Roman mosaic collection in the Bardo Museum – alone are worth a trip to Tunisia. I have the unimaginable privilege to be all by myself in both sites because of the pandemic!
Sidi Bou Said is a charming and picturesque town in the Northern suburb, famed for its blue and white houses. A French baron and arts patron, Rodolphe d’Erlanger, saw his Santorini in Tunisia, moved there in 1907, and managed to convince the whole town – except one defiant owner who kept his door in original yellow – to switch to Greek colours! In 1914, painters Paul Klee, August Macke, and Louis Moilliet stayed in Sidi Bou Said as part of their two-week trip to Tunisia. “The sun has a dark power. The colourful clarity on shore full of promise… We both know that we shall work well here,” Klee wrote in his diary. In just two weeks, Klee created 35 watercolors and 13 drawings, and found his calling as a painter!
Bizerte is a beautiful, tranquil seaside city in the North with a small Medina and a colourful quartier Andalous…
I love the tiny seaside Medina in Hammamet, normally a resort mecca but now pleasantly quiet. Nabeul is famous for its ceramic while Korbus on the other side of beautiful Cap Bon has a popular pipping hot spring by the sea…
The South is a totally different world: huge palmeraie, bustling oases, canyons so beautiful that film directors fly here, colourful souks, photogenic folks, ultra sweet and strong green tea that looks like coffee, addictive pastries, and timeless desert rhythm and hospitality… And it is ennour date harvest season!
I have to figure out a way to get to Ksar Ghilane, two hours away, without coughing up 350 dinars/120 euros for a private car. At a souk cafe, I meet the morning regulars, MM. Amor, Amor, Ali, and Michel. “Alors, je vous depose/So I drop you!” Michel, a long-time French artist resident, kindly proposes. What a memorable trip and conversation on art, travel, love, life, and crossroads along the empty desert highway!
Ah, there’s nowhere like the Sahara that I first visited in Morocco ten years ago. For a week I do little but waking up every morning at six, watching spectacular sunrise, walking in the dunes, listening to the wind, observing the changing light and shadow through my viewfinder, then lying on the warm sand to enjoy my tea and date breakfast, returning to camp for a long swim in the hot spring… and repeating the same ritual in the late afternoon to play with different hues of the setting sun on the golden sand. What total paradise!
It is amazing to see subtle lifeforms, especially in very early morning when tiny creatures look for water source in the form of an invisible morning dew drop. I realize even in this vast, remote, timeless corner of the world I am never alone…
I enjoy the most beautiful and spacious office in my entire career and would have gladly stayed for much longer if there were reliable internet. Helas, I still teach full time, out of the Sahara!
There is no public transport to the next town, so I hitch hike out of the Sahara and share a ride with a highly photogenic nomad on my way to Matmata. What a glorious morning and an unforgettably surreal experience standing in the back of a pickup truck with howling wind on my face, going through miles and miles of my favourite landscape… !
The Berbers were smart architects. They built underground cave homes that were cool in the summer and warm in the winter and fortified granaries on hilltop villages for defence reasons. At eight in the morning, I have the entire impressive Ksar Ouled Soltane all to myself. The morning drizzle finally clears up and the light on the old granary is sublime!
The Southern region is famous for picturesque abandoned hilltop Berber villages: Chenini, Douiret, and Guermessa, all with magnificent valley views. I am speechless!
The city of Tataouine itself might be of little interest, but it is the best base to explore this exquisite region and the souk is and colourful vibrant. The residents, mostly dressed in traditional garb, are full of character. Domino is played with passion here!
Then… there’s legendary Jerba with abundant sun, gorgeous beaches, cute towns, timeless souks, the oldest synagogue in Africa, beautiful pottery, a traditional way of life, and priceless sunsets… No wonder people came and stayed. Even the flamingos knew!
Jerba’s residents are proud of their little paradise on earth. In 2014, over 100 international artists spent a summer painting murals in Erriadh in a project called Jerbahood that added even more colour and texture to their attractive island…
In Homer’s Odyssey, Ulysses’ crew did not want to leave Jerba and could not remember the way home… I understand why now, for after spending 10 days, I am sad to go as well. But then Kerkennah, a small island off the coast of Sfax, turns out to be the real coup de coeur. Aside from palm trees and fish traps, there really isn’t much else. Its simplicity is almost spiritual; I imagine myself settling here, going out to fish everyday with local folks, enjoying a minimalist life…
On my last day, a local fisherman, Kamel, proposes to take me out to drop the net. It’s mid-November, the weather is still mild and the island enjoys a micro-climate on top of that. I could see the grass moving beneath through the translucent water lined with traditional fishing traps – the Charfia – on which seagulls rest. Another beautiful day is ending… I have rarely seen anything as sublime!
After Jerba and Kerkennah, the city of Sfax feels a bit anti-climactic, even though its Medina is authentically appealing and the residents welcoming. I arrive at 4pm and the light is magical…
Both Mahdia and Monastir are famous and charming seaside resorts. And El Jem, an impressive UNESCO World Heritage Roman colosseum, is just a bus ride away. Wow, Tunisia is simply dazzling!
Just when my memory card is running out of space and I think it’s no longer possible to shoot more beautiful photos, I arrive in the stunning UNESCO World Heritage Medina of Sousse. I am in awe of this massively underrated country…
I would spend all morning roaming around the gorgeous Sousse Medina and then walk along the famous Boujaafar beach until dusk, enjoying a sunset cafe gelato. It’s already November but locals are still swimming. Quelle belle vie!
The quality of life in Sousse impresses me so much that I leave only reluctantly. I thought I would just zoom in and out the famous holy city of Kairouan to visit the Grand Mosque (unfortunately closed due to Covid). Instead, its UNESCO World Heritage Medina turns out to be a fantastic surprise. It becomes my favourite set of Medina photos. I understand why it was here, in front of Kairouan’s walls, that Paul Klee had his epiphany: “Color and I are one. I am a painter… The experience I had just undergone was too strong. I had to leave, also, in order to pull myself together…” This place is so special that I know, too, if I do not leave, I might never do…
From Kairouan, I inch further inland, through wheat fields and rolling hills, green forests and timeless ruins. Mild winter finally zeros in. When I arrive in Dougga, the hill is cloaked in dark. But then the sky opens up just enough to cast breathtaking shadows on the former Roman city for no more than a couple of gracious minutes. I have once again the entire site to myself and am so ecstatic that I shed some tears of joy!
After 55 days of sun (!), the rain finally arrives. I snap two quick shots of the Bulla Regia ruins at eight in the morning before my luck runs out. The former Punic, Berber, and Roman city is famous for its smart subterranean architecture (no need for air con/heaters!). Climate change folks should come study here!
I make one final stop before looping back to the capital. Tabarka is a small, tranquil seaside city up North famous for its Jazz Festival. November might not be the best time to visit, but its setting – with a Genois fort in a bay on one side and the Aiguilles/pinnacles on the other – is attractive. I stay in the legendary Hotel de France where the former President, Habib Bourguiba, spent his exile. The owner – originally from la Goulette near Tunis – came in the 1930s, fell in love with the city, and opened a charming Cafe Andalous that remains an institution today. It isn’t the first time I hear of such coup de foudre stories in Tunisia. I am myself quickly succumbing to it!
Oh, I haven’t even mentioned the food that alone would justify a trip to this stunningly beautiful and diverse country. The mixture of Berber, Arabic, mediterranean, and French influences makes Tunisian cuisine highly palatable. It’s possible that there are more cafes, boulangerie, and patisserie per capita in Tunisia than in France; you can get fresh bread pretty much anytime of the day (a baguette costs 10 cents, and a pain au chocolat only slightly more). And there are all kinds of snacks and quick bites. For pastry and sweets lovers, Tunisia is paradise; I’m not sure I would recommend it, but they serve – enjoy – millefeuille at breakfast!
While I don’t like the encroaching fast food culture, the wide array of sandwiches Tunisian style – almost always generously spread with harissa/chili paste – is convenient and accessible. I become addicted to lablabi – a spicy chickpea soup with cumin and garlic that fires up one’s system first thing in the morning – after a first bowl in Tozeur. The vendors are always amused that I don’t mix the breadcrumbs and soup rigorously enough and happily take charge!
In each region and city I taste the specialities: corne de gazelles – pastry with honey nut filling in Tataouine, and kafteji, a popular dish of fried potatoes, tomatoes, green peppers, and eggs, and makroud, date cookies in Kairouan…
Autumn is harvest season for so many things. I’ve never eaten as many delicious, succulent ennour dates and pomegranates in my life. In Tataouine, while waiting for poulet roti/grilled chicken, I asked Lazher where I could find the best couscous in town. He said, Chez moi! and, of course, he was right! I spent two days enjoying his sister, Mira’s fabulous home cooking and his mom’s ultra-strong and sweet green tea, and playing with his adorable niece and nephews. My favourite meal is a cocotte Berbere au boeuf at Restaurant du Peuple, an institution in Sousse Medina, now excellently managed by grandson, Majed. I would not mind eating there everyday! Every meal is always accompanied by fresh and delicious Tunisian salads/mechouia of grilled veggies, and assortment of olives. And to end it all with a smooth finish: gulp down a tiny glass of ultra sweet mint tea, the taste of which lingers on your lips for an eternal moment!
More than the fabulous beaches, stunning sites, and culinary treats, however, it’s the joie de vivre, generous spirit, and resilience of Tunisians that touch me the most. This is a country that endured colonial rule (from 1881-1956), followed by decades of dictatorship before a revolution spearheaded the “Arab Spring” in the region in 2011. With a high level of education and developed infrastructure, Tunisia was a beacon of hope for so many. Yet youth unemployment remains high and the salary so low (a lucky college grad earns around 100 euro/month for an office job) that the question of whether/when/how to cross the ocean to head up North is in the back of many young Tunisians’ mind. What a shame! Life is hard for many for sure; sometimes the distress is almost palpable. It’s humbling to see how people find joy in the simplest things…
Upon return to Tunis, Leila, a retired prof, opens up her beautiful home to me in affluent La Marsa and introduces me to her circle of friends who, like her, chose to return to their gorgeous country to retire. Together, we visit the exquisite palace of the Baron d’Erlanger, indulge in the guilty pleasure of one more bambalouni/donut, wash down with Turkish coffee, before having my last egg brik at the iconic cafe El Saf Saf… Quelle belle vie!
For two months that felt like two years – when so many parts of the world went back to lockdown mode, the US elected a new president, and democrats in Hong Kong resigned en masse – I had the privilege to discover Tunisia that nourished me in so many ways. Aichek!
mon éternelle errance
me sert de langage/
my endless wandering
becomes my language.
– Amina Said
Third Time Lucky: Tunisia
This story is part of a photography book, Timeless: A Year of Minimalist Travels Across Africa During the Pandemic. Through ten photo essays, this book brings to viewers vast tracts of geographical and socio-political landscapes: age-old medinas, Berber and Carthage ruins, and the desert dunes of the Great Sahara in Tunisia; the disappearing tribes of Omo Valley and fervent faith in Ethiopia; the endangered gorillas of the Virunga Massif and peace education in Rwanda; community living in Malawi; picture-perfect pastel-colored Ilha Mozambique; a post-colonial journey along the Senegal River and traditional life in Casamance; the old towns in The Gambia; the last great oases and “deadliest train ride” in Mauritania; the dying art of puppetry in Mali; and the irresistible temptations in No-Stress Cape Verde.
As Teju Cole writes in the Foreword for the 10th edition of Bamako Encounters, African Biennale of Photography in 2015, “Time, in multiplicate, is the African habitus.” The series explores rapidly changing African temporality based on ancestral, religious, colonial, social, digital, Anthropocene, and transnational time. It is at once a documentary photography journey – on history, memory, place, identity, modernity, and displacement – and a meditation on minimalist and “timeless” living.
5. On Board My Love: Mozambique
7. The Old Towns of The Gambia
8. The Last Great Oases in Mauritania
9. The Dying Art of Puppetry in Mali
10. Cape Verde: Islands of Temptations
All Content © 2023 by Jennifer Chan