A Journey to the Edge of Tunisia’s Sahara
By: Habeeb Salloum/Arab America Contributing Writer
It was a cool winter day when our group of Canadian tourists left the Great Mosque of Kairouan, Tunisia’s historic Islamic capital, on our way southward to the edge of the Sahara. No sooner had we left the suburbs behind, then the city’s magnificent monuments were forgotten, obliterated by thoughts of oases, camels, sand dunes and the serenity of the desert.
The highway, edged by eucalyptus trees and cactus bushes, ran through a landscape of lush vegetable fields and olive groves, overshadowed by barren hills. The rich greenery had been made possible by the waters of the El Karma Dam which gave life to a once desert land.
Onwards, our route took us across many oueds (dry river beds) which during flash floods become very dangerous. I had made the same trip eight years before and, this time, I could see much improvement. The road had been widened and, over numerous oueds, bridges had been built.
At Sbeitla, once the Roman city of Sufetula guarding the African frontiers of Rome, we stopped for lunch. As are all food in tourist hotels in Tunisia, the meal was a version of European cuisine with a Tunisian touch. Like in most third world countries, the hotels usually, disdaining their country’s national dishes, serve second class European food. The odd time their own country’s dishes are on the menu, they are thoroughly de-spiced.
After lunch, we explored a part of the extensive ruins, including the Diocletian Arch, the preserved baths and oil press, the three Capitoline Temples dedicated to Juno, Jupiter, and Minerva, and a reconstructed Roman theatre seating 3,000 spectators before continuing our journey southward.
After driving for about 30 minutes, the greenery began to thin out until we reached Gafsa, once the Roman city of Capsa. A town of 70,000, it lies amid 300,000 palms intermingled with fruit trees and vineyards. Today, it is the administrative capital of southwest Tunisia and the site of a number of chemical industries. The birthplace of Jugurtha, the Berber leader who stood up to Rome, it is famous for its brightly colored hand-woven wool tapestries and noted for its Roman pools, Great Mosque and the 13th century Kasbah (fortress).
After Gafsa, the desert countryside continued past Metlaoui – a prosperous town in the heart of Tunisia’s 10 million ton phosphate industry – until we reached Tozeur, an oasis city surrounded by greenery. This town, once the Roman outpost of Tusuros, is so distant from the all-encompassing wasteland that one can easily see why the desert poets have since time immemorial been enchanted with these patches of vivid foliage in the sand.
Called the ‘Pearl of the Djerid (palms)’, Tozeur, a town of some 60,000, has been labeled ‘Paradise of the South’. It is the commercial and political center of Tunisia’s date-producing Bled el-Djerid (country of palms) and consists of four oases: Tozeur, Nefta, Hamma and Oudiane. Situated a short distance apart along the north shore of Chott el-Djerid (salt lake of palms), these oases, the most beautiful in Tunisia, contain some 1.6 million palms. Their lush greenery and tasty deglet nour (finger of light) dates, along with Tozeur’s International Airport have helped immensely in drawing the visitors from the four corners of the world.
A tourist town par excellence with a beguiling appeal, Tozeur features a remarkable style architecture – in recent years subsidized and encouraged by the Tunisian entrepreneur, Abderrazak Cherai, who almost singlehandedly has made the town famous. Under his encouragement, the city has become saturated with the traditional beige sun-dried bricks, molded-in arabesque relief, and set in an attractive geometric pattern around Moorish arches and facades of shops. Their patterns resemble the decorations of the locally woven colorful carpets and fabrics that are displayed, along with superb Berber jewelry, in the shops.
After enjoying this exotic atmosphere of the city, visitors can relax amid the thousands of date palms, crisscrossed by gurgling streams, which encircle the town. Others can enjoy an Arabian Nights theme park or take a stroll in one of the town’s two zoos or through the fragrant botanical gardens. These allurements and others can be appreciated at their best in November-December when the Festival of the Oases is held.
The highlight of our visit was to its exceptional museum, Dar Cherait, built and filled with replicas of Tunisian life by Cherai and his German wife. One of the finest folkloric museums in the world, it is built in the authentic style of southern Tunisia’s traditional palaces. Inside are rare manuscripts, traditional jewelry, ceramics and much more. However, its top attractions are the many excellent wax figures of traditional artisans at work and scenes of past Tunisian life.
Southward from this unique oasis city, we crossed Chott el-Djerid, the largest of the 250 salt lakes in Tunisia. Appearing like a floating shimmering white mirage, the Chott, 22 m (72 ft) below sea level, in prehistoric times was joined to the Mediterranean from which today it is divided by a low mountain range. Pliny, Herodotus and other ancient writers considered it a sacred lagoon, forming the basis for many of their fantastic tales.
Halfway on the highway crossing the lake, our bus stopped by stands selling so-called desert roses, formed by the wind solidifying the sand and salt into shapes of flowers. What amazed most of our group, as we moved among the stalls, were the vivid mirages appearing on the salt lake then fading away. It gave one an eerie feeling of an unreal world.
Past the Chott, we drove between palms planted in the sand as if standing guard against the encroaching dunes, until we reached Douz – a tourist town on the edge of the Sahara. Traditionally known for its handicrafts, Berber jewelry, and breeding of the North African version of the famous suluki dogs, it has become a tourist center par excellence – an ideal place to join safaris into the Sahara. The best time to be here is in December-January when the Douz Sahara Festival is held. Before leaving on a safari, one can enjoy from among its many events: camel races, traditional marriages, hunting with salukis, folkloric entertainment and displays of handicrafts.
We had come at a time when the Festival had long gone and, hence, we did not tarry in town. Our goal was Zaafrane, some 14 km (9 mi) to the south. As we neared, almost all our group was excited. They had come a long way to plunge a bit into the desert.
Suddenly, before us, atop the sands were dozens of camels on their knees half asleep and chewing their cud – their owners lazing around waiting for customers. It was a panorama of a desert scene par excellence. Beforehand, the camels had been hired at $15. per head by our tour company. This included a young man to lead the animal for a two-hour ride across what appeared to me to be the Beau Jest Desert.
After the ride as I climbed off my kneeling camel, a handsome haughty-looking young man offered to take me on a 15-day journey camel ride to where Libya, Algeria, and Tunisia meet. As to price, he said, “For you, it would be only 60 dinars per day, including your food and tent.” I smiled as I felt my saddle-sore behind, “I have had enough camel riding to last me for a long time.”
That night in our luxury hotel in Douz, still bothered by an aching backside, I had a somewhat restless sleep. In my almost realistic dreams, palm trees, oases, sand dunes, and camels intermingled as I relived my journey to the edge of Tunisia’s Sahara. The next day as we breakfasted in the atmosphere of 20th-century luxury, I thought to myself, “Deserts and camels might be romantic, but the luxurious of modern life is what I really yearned for.”