Tunisia's Sidi Bou Said - Haven of Artists, Poets and Writers
By: Habeeb Salloum/Arab America Contributing Writer
Perched high on a cliff of Jebel Manar overlooking the Gulf of Tunis, Sidi Bou Said, a lovely blue and white village, has been labeled by travelers as a tourist siren waiting to entrap the visitor. Situated past the ruins of Carthage, a short distance up the coast north of Tunis, Tunisia’s capital, it is said to be one of the most striking and beautiful villages edging the Mediterranean.
Its clean, sparkling white houses trimmed with azure outlined against the clear blue sky has for hundreds of years drawn painters, poets, and writers from many parts of the world. It owes its existence to the Andalusian-Muslim refugees, expelled from Spain in the 17th century, who established it as a replica of the villages in their former homeland.
Thereafter, amid its homes, seemingly always newly whitewashed, and luxuriant gardens, men of the arts and letters came looking for peace and inspiration. Cervantes was the first famous person to call, for a time, Sidi Bou Said home. A good number of others followed – the most famous being André Gide, Paul Kee, Walter Macke, and Flaubert.
At the beginning of the 20th century, the town was discovered by the European wealthy, chiefly French expatriates. They went to great lengths in order to preserve its true character, safeguarding it from being ruined in the haste of modernization. Today, there is very little which is not Tunisian, but with a taste of Andalusia. Its unique eye-catching architecture has become a showplace of Tunisia at its best.
Every visitor who travels to this jewel of the country’s towns soon finds that it is truly built for strolling. It is a joy to walk the main street and the connecting cobbled lanes, flanked by bazaars, restaurants shaded by trees and clean neat white houses enhanced by doors, ironwork, and windows painted, in the main, deep blue. Most homes are smothered in bougainvilleas intermixed with bright violet morning glories – their scent subdued somewhat by the aroma of jasmine, overflowing from the flower-filled patios.
The domes, finely-made grills, mousharabias (Arab type window screens) and enormous doornails seem to give the homes perfect decorative and geometric patterns. A traveler once wrote, “Sidi Bou Said is not a village but a lesson in the geometry of spaces, engulfed in the air of a construction game suspended between earth and sky.”
Newly arrived tourists usually make their way up the cobbled main street, lined with shops selling handmade goods, to the shrine of Sidi Bou Said after whom the village is named. Through the years, the town grew around his tomb. Even in our times, he is so venerated by the townspeople that every year, during the month of August, a festival is held in his honor.
There is an unbelievable legend that this saint is the Crusader king, St. Louis who, after being defeated by the Muslims, did not, as history would have it, die. Rather, he is said to have married a Berber girl and became the pious Bou Said who the locals believe can cure rheumatism and stop scorpions from stinging. However, historically the real person is the 13th-century ascetic Abu Said Khalifa bin Yahia at-Temimi al-Baji. As is the case for most Muslim holy places in North Africa, non-Muslims are not permitted to visit his mausoleum.
From the main street, one can explore the village for hours, roaming its lanes and stairways. On the seaside, almost every visitor is tantalized by the waterfall of sugar-cube white houses, castles and minarets which appear to plunge into the sea. Everywhere there are antique, souvenir and artisan shops, intermingled with stalls of sweets and eating places catering to all tastes.
The filigreed bird cages for which Sidi Bou Said is famous are displayed in every shop. More ornamental than practical, they are used as lighting fixtures, flower holders and casings for lanterns, only, rarely as bird cages. Mostly made in Raf-Raf, another Andalusian type of village further north, they are much in demand by first-time visitors to the country.
Alongside the birdcages and other handicrafts, paintings by Tunisian and international artists are on sale almost everywhere. For the size of its shopping area, Sidi Bou Said must have more painters than anyplace else in the world.
When one tires of shopping and strolling, the Qahwat al-Alia (the High Cafe), better known as Café des Nattes, located at the top of the main street, is the place to rest. Nestled in the shade of an overshadowing minaret, it has been an institution in Sidi Bou Said for more than 300 years. Generation after generation of all classes in Tunisian society and, in the last few decades, tourists, stop for refreshments.
Day after day, a good number of the town’s’ inhabitants spend their evenings here enjoying card games or conversing while sipping cups of tea, topped with pine nuts – one of the country’s specialties. In the background, the haunting music of the traditional Tunisian Malouf – brought to the country by the Andalusian Muslims – gives another dimension to the interlude. It is a restful and memorable stop, especially before a sumptuous dinner.
For a tourist, fine dining can be found a short distance up the street from the Café des Nantes at the restaurant Au Bon View Temps. Here, a succulent Tunisian meal will be a fulfilling finale to a tour of Sidi Bou Said – one of Tunisia’s top attractions.