Emmanuelle Jary - 2013-05-17
From Tozeur to Tataouine via Douz, the gateway to the Sahara, southern Tunisia is home to extraordinary sites, including the ksour and Chott-el-Jerid. Climb onto a camel and follow the leader: from the first stop on, the mountain oases and their refreshing dates welcome you as their honoured guest.
The cities of the desert and their oases
The south of Tunisia is both verdant and sandy. Each evening when the great sun hands the land over to the blue of the night, the muezzin’s chant embraces faraway towns. In the narrow alleyways of the Nefta and Tozeur medinas, houses present lacy facades made of brick. One explores these vaguely mysterious cities without trying too hard to discover whatever secrets they may hold. Moucharabiehs, zigzag sqifa entrances and windows looking into courtyards but never inside others’ homes are as many architectural tactics aiming to ensure privacy. Protection from the eyes of others, and perhaps also from the desert and its vastness, as if it were sometimes necessary to retreat.
In the depth of the oases, light arrives through the lacy foliage of tall, lanky date palms and tumbles down to the cool, humid earth. Fingers of fog appear to caress the bases of the trunks of countless fruit trees: orange, lemon, fig and the pomegranate trees whose fruit contains pink drops of aromatic nectar that seems to quench the thirst of an entire summer. It’s as if we were in the heart of a mirage, an immense green fairyland in the midst of the mineral desert. One after the other, men climb date palm trunks to pick bunches of the sweet, pungent fruit. A low fire warms a small, age-worn teapot. They sip the sweet, minty drink between harvests; a cup of encouragement after their efforts. The men of the oasis offer you tea just as they offer you branches heavy with fruit; their generous hospitality mirrors the luxuriance of the gardens. To navigate this exotic world, this land of dunes, one needs plenty of time and heart.
Across the desert from Tozeur to Tataouine
After Tozeur, the road cuts straight through 5,000 immaculate square kilometres before reaching Tataouine. Chott-el-Jerid, the country’s largest salt flat, is another kind of desert, a desert that swallows our footprints. As we walk, the crunch of sand mixed with salt underfoot gives rise to novel sensations and sounds. Where are we? Where are we going? The desert has the upper hand here. Memory is overpowered; the only thing to do is let go, contemplate, forget about time and take advantage of the present moment. The car begins moving again and the journey continues until we’ve reached Tataouine, land of fortified villages with ancient granaries called ‘ksour’.
The Ouled Soltane ksar belongs to the powerful tribe of the same name. It has been dominating the Sahara since the 15th century. Yes, dates, olive oil, dried figs, barley, sheep’s wool and the like were all stored here, but why were they designed to be so beautiful? They are the echo of the desert. The sensuous curved forms of the buildings seem to rival the soft round dunes.
We approach Douz via the south. As we traverse and become accustomed to the various landscapes, we begin to understand just how these vast stretches called ‘desert’ can feel so familiar. We thought they were immutable; in fact, they are both singular and multifaceted. Douz, the gateway to the Sahara, has the colours and the wealth of two merging worlds. Jewellers, tanners and ironsmiths watch as dusty camels and donkeys arrive from the desert. Mounds of diverse fruits and vegetables from the oases are displayed in the souk, as are brightly coloured spices from beyond. But Douz has limits; the desert sees to that. The paved road ends suddenly, as if it were high time to cut loose. Once more, the landscape takes on an untamed feel.
Before us is a sea of sand that the wind ripples here and there like a quivering wave. In the hollow of the night, a storyteller awaits us with a fire and ageless tales. The saga of caravans arriving from faraway Libya; the origins of the great Berber dynasties, princesses covered in gold, spices and salt: a whole world that only thought has preserved. The memories may reveal themselves as dreams, but facts are of minor import; the imagination too can give birth to the past. Later, as we lie snug in our tent, we can still hear men’s voices speaking outside in the watchful night.
Morning, the pale sunlight inches slowly towards the top of the dunes. A few hours after sunrise, it will triumphantly reach the summit and heat the entire region. But dawn is cool; boiling hot tea and freshly cooked bread pulled from the sand coax us awake. A few grains of sand have stuck to the thick crust, but here sand is not an enemy; it’s part of life. They say that men taste it to find their way in the desert. Leaving our camel drivers behind, we climb aboard a 4x4 and return to the chaos of the dunes. Some of them, stripped by the wind, reveal a heart of hardened sand; they form a maze of bare hills, solemn and fragile. The dunes’ cores can be visited; we halt at a small improvised café that backs into one. Oblivious to time, men are conversing there, as if the desert has promised them eternity.
The cuisine of south Tunisia
Each oasis produces a variety of vegetables and fruits. Each desert city produces its own special couscous. Couscous with terfè desert truffles; couscous with morchane turnip greens; and couscous with farkous, a green Cucurbitaceae with yellow flesh that only grows in the Gafsa palm groves. Seeds are handed down from one generation to the next. Compared with the other cities of the Sahara, Gafsa seems to have many culinary specialities, most likely due to the size of its oasis. At a restaurant, we order barkoukch, a meat soup made with lamb, veal, chicken, dried fish, gazelle and rabbit. We also try the preserved shoulder of lamb and the mtabga, a pastry pocket stuffed with meat and flavoured with mint. Fresh vegetables and salads are always present, as is mint tea. We also enjoy egg briks, kofta (meat balls), Tunisian salad and mrissa (tomato puree salad). In season, the meals ends with pomegranate kernels sprinkled with orange blossom water, served with a mint tea with pine nuts and grilled almonds.