The Trail of the English Patient in Tunisia Lures Us on
By: Habeeb Salloum/Arab America Contributing Writer
“Tomorrow we will explore the mountain area where parts of the movie, The English Patient, were filmed.” The voice of our guide Abd al-Fatah boomed as we prepared to disembark from our bus in Tozeur – Tunisia’s picturesque tourist mecca on the edge of the Sahara. I had visited this once important caravan stop twice before, but its romantic aura had not faded with the years. The town’s unique architecture, oasis setting, and Saharan magic had for some two decades been imprinted on my soul. It was a delight to see it once more.
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 centre 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.
A tourist town par excellence, it features a remarkable style architecture – in recent years subsidized and encouraged by the Tunisian entrepreneur, Cherait, who almost singlehandedly has made the town famous. Beige sun-dried bricks set in an attractive geometric pattern around Moorish arches and facades of shops, displaying locally woven colourful carpets and superb Berber jewelry, give Tozeur a beguiling appeal.
The highlight of our visit was to its exceptional museum, Dar Cherait, built and filled with replicas of Tunisian life by Cherait 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.
I looked back fondly at the modern yet ancient Tozeur as early next morning we began our journey in five Toyota jeeps to some of the country’s finest oases. My five companions, as well as myself, sitting comfortably in our jeep, were excited. All were anxious to see the countryside, especially the lunar mountains where sections of The English Patient were filmed. Jamal, our driver, who had for 15 years taken tourists to these oases was upbeat. “It’s a great trip! You will see a fantastic landscape.”
A few minutes later, as we had passed the palm groves of Hamma, Jamal explained that these groves were like no other. From their mineral springs flowed water around 65° C – too hot for watering the groves. Hence, they are cooled in a water plant before reaching the palms.
After driving through a barren landscape for about an hour we came to the oasis of Chébika, formerly the ancient Roman post of Ad Speculum, cuddled by the foothills of the Atlas Mountains. Stopping at the edge of the oasis, Jamal pointed to a high point in the village. “Look at those abandoned homes dominating the oasis and seemingly hanging from the rocks! Don’t they look as if they were destroyed in war? This village, like many other in southern Tunisia, was destroyed in 1969 by a 20-day downpour. It was a great catastrophe.” He continued, pointing to a scattering of homes spread out below the destroyed town. “This is the new Chébika. It’s always the same. When nature destroys, man always rebuilds.”
Abd al-Fatah, who had followed us in another jeep, led us along with the other members of our tour group up the small mountain overlooking Chébika. Up we climbed on a tourist marked trail until, huffing puffing, I stopped to rest. Unlike a few in our group who now turned back, my 76-year-old body was holding up well and I was soon again on my way. A young Tunisian lad, sitting by the pathway, seeing that I was lagging behind, smiled, saying as I passed, “Crazy American! Why climb? Isn’t it better just to eat hamburgers!”
“Perhaps, he has a point”, I thought to myself as we reached the summit.
Looking down, Old Chébika appeared like a bombed town, guarding below the new village of some 750 souls, set amid 20,000 palms, some pushing up from the rocks. Breathing in the cool, fresh mountain air in a serene atmosphere, I soon forgot the tiresome climb.
As we walked down through the destroyed village, Abd al-Fatah remarked, “I always feel it worthwhile taking tourist up this hill, just to see their contentment as they rest at the summit.”
Leaving Chébika behind, we followed for a while the foothills of the Atlas, then turned climbing upwards to about 750 m (1845 ft). A few moments later, Jamal stopped the jeep and pointing to a high ridge on the other side of a deep valley said, “Beyond that ridge is Algeria. If you like, take a picture from here.” He smiled, “I’m not taking you there.”
A short drive further on, we turned off the main road to view the Tamerza Waterfalls – a narrow column of tumbling water. No sooner had the driver stopped his jeep, then one of the lady passengers piped up, “This is what they call a waterfall? They haven’t’ seen Niagara Falls!”
Back on the road, we drove through an amazing moon-like landscape until we reached Tamerza Hotel – a luxury abode where the crews filming parts of Star Wars and The English Patient stayed. From its windows we had a spectacular view of the lunar-like hills where these movies were filmed.
Below, the town of Tamerza, the ancient Ad Turres, appeared barricaded behind a range of granite mountains. One could plainly see the old village sitting empty and appearing asleep, overshadowing the new town below. Bordering a river, flowing across a rocky landscape, this town, besides being the spot for the filming of Star Wars and The English Patient, is the location where Biblical scenes from other movies take place.
I was reminiscing about the tender love scenes in The English Patient when I felt Abd al-Fatah’s hand on my shoulder. “Let’s go! It’s time to return.” It was as if he had seen the same gaze on the other tourists’ faces when he laughed, “You must be a romantic. Forget it! It’s not real.”
For me, fantasies or not, the lure of The English Patient had brought me to one of the most beautiful mountain spots in Tunisia. I had no regrets.
IF YOU GO
How to Get There:
The best way to explore Tunisia’s mountain oases is to join a tour group to Tozeur, then hire a jeep for the oases excursion.
Facts About Tunis and Tunisia:
To enter Tunisia, no visas are necessary for travellers from Western Europe, Japan, U.S.A. and Canada.
It is best to travel to southern Tunisia in spring or autumn. In summer it is very hot.
The currency used in Tunisia is the dinar – one U.S. dollar is worth 1.25 dinars. Tunisia is one of the few countries in the world where hotels give a better exchange rate than the banks.
In all of Tunisia, taxis are metered and very reasonable; buses and taxi pools (louages) connect all towns ad villages; tour companies offer excursions; autos can be rented – small ones for about 75 dinars per day, fully insured.
Hotels in Tunisia are very reasonably priced. However, it is best to book through a tour company. They can offer even better prices.
Try Tunisian food. It’s very tasty. Four of the best dishes are couscous – prepared in seemingly hundreds of different ways – from sweet to very hot; briq – a thin pastry which comes with a variety of fillings, but always includes an egg; chakchouka – a ratatouille which is offered in many types; and spaghetti cooked Tunisian style – for me the epitome of spaghetti dishes.
There is less crime in Tunisia than in Western Europe or North America, but beware of pick-pocketers, especially in crowded trains, buses and souks.
When taking tours, make sure the guide speaks English. If you do not ask, French will be the language spoken.
Tunisia is the most sophisticated, relaxed and tolerant state in North Africa. Women travellers are safe when travelling alone.
Wit the exception of its capital, Tunis, Tunisia is geared up for tourism. The most up-to-date touristic facilities are found in all its resorts.
Note: All prices quoted are in U.S. dollars.
For Further Information, Contact:
Tunisia National Tourist Office, 1253 Ave. McGill College, Suite 655, Montreal, Quebec, Canada H3B 2Y5. Tel: 514/397-1182/0403. Fax: 514/397-1647. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org