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DISPATCH: Kairouan, Tunisia
September 26, 2001

"Kairouan leaves a lasting indelible impression on the visitor. It's like something out of one thousand and one nights, its penetrating, intoxicating aroma, which is at the same time enlightening."  
                      ...Paul Klee

Klee is right: there were moments during my one night in Kairouan that are indelibly impressed in memory; the enlightenment part is where the extra thousand nights would come in handy. The work he created under its spell might, however, bring one intoxicatingly close to revelation. I found Kairouan jammed with countless moments of visual, visceral transcendence.

This was my first solo road trip since my arrival in Tunis ten days ago. By e-mail, friends from the states had expressed concern about my being in a Muslim country during this time of upheaval. The press has continually expressed its concern about Americans traveling abroad in Muslim countries. I myself had run through enough gruesome death scenarios to flesh out several bloody B-grade movies (the agonizing poison in my Turkish coffee, the tortuous kidnapping by evil masked Muslims, the historic plot to make an unforgettable example out of an American traveler, ME). Finally, speculation must be challenged by experience; I had to go it alone.

Encouraged by the relentless good will of the local souk vendors (tainted as those interactions are by the hoped-for exchange of money for goods), I determined that if I was ever going to visit Kairouan, the fourth holiest city in all of Islam, (after Mecca, Medina and Jerusalem), it had better be before the expected American retaliation, before the jihad. This stretch of limbo is precious and, I suspect, on short side.

The two-hour bus trip proved uneventful; there was only one other non-Arab traveler, a young Gaul bound for a week in the desert. At the Hotel la Kasbah, a renovated citadel cum five-star hotel skirting the old medina, the staff was cordial and after three tries, finally gave me an adequate room overlooking the pool. Stunning though it was (how I wanted to lie by the glittering water and fry a bit), I left my luggage and immediately strode off to the souk. I ran the gauntlet of souvenir vendors who all tried to guess my nationality, probing with their multi-lingual imprecations. No one guessed American. No one enticed in English. Once I said "Amerikia," however, they visibly softened (tempering their surprise) and were extra welcoming, extra gracious. I gamely wandered around, inquiring after old silver (there was none) and old carpets (ditto). At one rather large store, I asked the shop owner if he had any old kilims. He guided me to a small back room and pointed to the dirty floor where several shabby carpets were in use: "this is an old one, that is an old one, this…" I looked from the floor to his eyes, my expression wavering between insult and exaggerated disbelief. We both saved face with a few forced laughs. Apparently, in Kairouan anyway, there is no concept of old stuff being valuable; I'd expected just the opposite. I finally bought one new little 2'x3' Berber kilim (in another store) that was handsome enough. Not one other carpet even tempted me.

Late afternoon found me deep in the old medina, slanted light glancing off walls of glacier blue and shock white, a labyrinth of broom-swept alleys so clean they could be inside someone's home. Waves of dry-ice cool tripped me up; I had to shut my eyes and inhale, staggering like a drunk: the visual intoxication of old peeling paint. Every few feet was a door more fabulous than the last, all rivets and aged wood, arched, patched, hinged and hardwared, each with so much character they cried out to be photographed. I heard their cries. I took their photos: a Paul Klee moment.

Eventually, I stumbled across the Mosque of the Three Doors, built in AD 866 by a holy man from Cordoba, Spain. Closed to non-Muslims, I was satisfied to photograph the exterior, its frieze of beautiful Kufic Arabic script elevated to high relief by the afternoon light. Rectangular carved wood doors crowned by three stone brick arches: simple, glorious, unexpected.

I had a few encounters with the people who lived there, since there were no tourists in this area. Their faces were open and friendly, and I felt so accepted that no fear even nibbled at my well being. Of course, I didn't have an American flag on my tee shirt; still, I feel that these people can easily separate a government from one of its citizens. I felt vindicated and very happy to have made the trip.

Next, however, came the sticky part. In Tunis, I was given the number of a friend of a friend: I phoned a certain Nordeen and we arranged to meet for dinner. When I saw him, I realized that he was the quite affable man behind the tourist information desk where I'd stopped earlier that afternoon. His eyeglasses were memorable: regular lenses with a convex circular piece of glass glued dead center. When I looked him in the eyes, the size of them changed as his head turned. An eerie experience and one that I'm sure had some effect on his interactions with others (read: women). He was 35 years old and a bit full in physique (is it 'physique' when full or does it then become mere 'body'? Easier if I weren't so PC to just write 'fat.' O Berkeley…)

After a rather quiet, but tasty, dinner of couscous, Nordeen wanted to pick up a carpet from a friend. It turned out that he had to drive to Tunis the next day to deliver it, and hoped I could stay yet another day for his personally guided tour of Kairouan, even though, mind you, he spoke VERY little English. I left it as a possibility: anything is possible. We then went to the Kasbah for a coffee and sheesha; he stashed his 8'x10' carpet with the backdoorman, praise be to god. Surrounded by high rampart walls dotted with narrow gunnery windows, we sat in the outdoor café, bougainvillea and palms all creating the steep ambiance that mood lighting and five stars will provide. Our small talk was staying very small (see above) but the apple-flavored tobacco and Turkish coffee were sublime. Now, in walked the trouble.

His name was Mohammed and I'm sure he had known Nordeen forever in this small town. I saw immediately that he was a bad boy, and there was a palpable shift in power; Nordeen's face took on the diffident glaze of the often trounced. He chatted with Mohammed in Arabic, introduced me, and I offensively attempted to include them both equally in the limited conversation provided by my Arabic. Mohammed spoke fluent French and German, no English. But his eyes spoke with sparkles and glints, teeth flashing white during his intentionally effective smiles.

I must speak about this bad boy phenomenon, familiar with it as I am. There are those who are the real thing, irreducibly, honestly, confidently. They have a talent for connection, they are the lovers. Then there are those who talk about being bad boys, a sure anti-talent. They are the approximators, the accidentally lucky, the studied imitators. Antonio Banderas vs. Burt Reynolds. I thought at first Mohammed was a bad boy; turns out he is a 33 year-old wanna-be. Optimistically, he may be a has-been; all he wants now is to be in America, and I was to hear more about this than I ever cared to.

As I visually went in for a close-up, I could see the slightly staccato flutter of his lashes, the less slight movement of his lips, a trembling of individual nerve fibers, caffeine driven, perhaps, but probably of nervous origins, performance driven. This, at least for me, is a trait that I naturally select out: a man who oversteps his bounds and doubts himself in the same instant. It's not a quality of survival. The mind is over-engaged and will always eventually fuck things up. The life force, the juice, is choked by tentacles of mental interference and need. Ugly to watch. They've seen too many bad movies and have met too many careless tourists.

Finally, begging out of this endless evening, I went upstairs and watched too much BBC. I didn't type a word, didn't open a book, just tried to soak up some of the reality of this mind-bending situation, or at least the reality as presented by the media. Bush says that life must go on. I'm trying.

The next day, after a leisurely morning in the Kasbah, I met Mohammed. He was going to take me to his mother's for yet more couscous (insha 'allah, I will eat fish soon…) and we would then see some sights. I'd been handed over to the available and the semi-experienced. Fatima was a very aged 67 years old, understandable after 10 children. His sister, Rahma, at 23, was the baby. She spoke a bit of English, having learned some in school. They wanted me to spend the night; I had every intention of leaving on the five o'clock bus.

We ate in their tidy terrazzo-floored, tiled and stuccoed living room, squatting on short benches around an equally squat table. It was delicious, and Mohammed predictably sealed his fate when he returned after a wash-up smelling of a particularly offensive (to me) combination of musk and citrus. I could barely stand to be next to him.

But I stood it for as long as it took to get through a day of site-seeing, relative visiting, errand running, all the taxis on his dime, as I was his guest. I saw more beautiful things and took more photos. The human part I always find much more intriguing, especially when it all ends well. I got out of dodge at the appointed hour and back to Monia's by eight. Al hamdulilah.



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