The guidebook had said there was just one hotel in town. It also warned travellers that they were likely to be approached by Tunisians with offers to experience an overnight stay, and to eat couscous, with local families. As the hotel was shuttered, cobwebbed and very obviously closed, the offer to stay with Mohamed and his family was not unexpected and initially appealling.
We declined the offer, politely, and wandered through the medina to ponder our options. These amounted to carrying our bags around the sights of Zaghouan for a few hours, and then catching a mid-afternoon bus onto our next destination, or finding accommodation, probably with a local family, and taking things more leisurely. Not surprisingly, the bus schedule was limited, unless we wanted to return to Tunis. Mohamed it was then, but where to find him again? We needn’t have worried –no sooner had we turned back in the direction of the market than he found us.
“How can I help you?” he volunteered, in French. We explained that we would like to stay after all but first wanted to look around the town. Not a problem, he said, offering to be our guide as well. We fixed on a price for the whole deal, to include couscous, he specified, “avec viande” (with meat). Then he set off at a rapid pace, beckoning us on at intervals, on a conducted tour of the sights.
Short and wiry with a loose mop of black curls, a moustache and a few days of stubble on his cheeks, Mohamed had an ingratiating manner typical of the local traders trying to interest tourists in carpets, brassware and pottery. However, I gained the quick impression that Mohamed lived on his wits, engaging in whatever it took to earn an income. Our attempts to make conversation, including questions about his normal employment, were met evasively, with a bobbing of the head to suggest that it depended on the day and the opportunity. Today he was a tourist guide and tonight, not for the first time, he would earn money as a host to two foreigners.
The tour was peremptory: the streets of the medina, the town walls, a few arches and the mosque. In the last Mohamed strode through the entrance without removing his sandals while we demurred on the threshold. Seeing our discomfort, he directed us to a corner inside the front porch where he said we could leave our shoes and drop our bags. He evidently viewed observances like this as petty nuisances which acted as a hindrance to a speedy tour. From this and his business-like tour of the mosque – which nonetheless took us to areas where I imagined tourists didn’t normally poke their noses – I suspected that he was not among the most faithful of the mosque’s local congregation.
Returning us through the market to the outskirts of the town, Mohamed left us for a few minutes to find a taxi. He lived outside town, he explained, and he would negotiate a special price with the taxi driver for which we could reimburse him later. He pulled up in a back and yellow Peugeot and once again beckoned us in. Another man was already ensconced on the back seat, a friend, Mohamed said, to whom we were giving a lift. We nodded hello and sidled across the narrow seat, manoeuvring our bags onto our laps.
The road along which we exited the town quickly ran into open country, a cross between low, desert-like hills and flat wasteland covered with rubble and litter, interspersed with grey concrete settlements. It was opposite one such settlement that we stopped suddenly to allow Mohamed’s friend to jump out, palming a folded note into the former’s already cupped hand as he did so. It was into another that we turned after just a few more minutes, the taxi bouncing from side to side as we negotiated the potholed track that passed for the village’s main street.
The village was laid out in grid formation, the handful of streets that crossed each other at right angles framing perhaps a couple of hundred flat roofed, concrete and breezeblock houses, each of a single storey surrounded by breezeblock walls which formed a contiguous courtyard. My initial enthusiasm for this adventure, already diminished by the truncated and cursory nature of the tour of Zaghouan, now fell to dread and a soft palpitation knocked inside my chest.
Mohamed’s house was at the far end of the main street, on a corner of the settlement, just before it gave way to flat, scrubby desert with green-fringed hills rising behind. He palmed another note into the shirt pocket of the taxi driver who trundled off, leaving us standing, with our bags, in stark surroundings that resembled an unfinished building site.
Like most of its neighbours, the breezeblock wall surrounding the house was unpainted and broken only by a rusted metal doorway that Mohamed opened by poking his finger through a square hole to lift the latch. Inside, a concrete path led through a courtyard to a door in the corner of the L-shaped house. To the right was a patch of earth, dry and unplanted, that might otherwise have been used to grow vegetables, while to the left was a concrete pillar box that I later found out was the outside toilet. The house itself consisted of two long rooms, joined to form the ‘L’: a kitchen/living room and a bedroom. We were to have the bedroom.
A woman we took to be Mohamed’s wife appeared at the door almost immediately, hearing the sound of the rusted hinges opening. She was larger than him, thickly-set but not overweight, bare-faced with jet black hair pulled back in a pony tail. She wore a loose black bodice over a white blouse and a long, grey-black striped skirt. Expressionless, she betrayed only slight irritation in her voice but little surprise, I thought, when Mohamed spoke in Arabic and told her – I surmised – that they had guests for the night. There was a brief conversation between them after which he introduced us to Zainab who then smiled and welcomed us in.
A television spoke from a table in a corner of the room when we entered, sprawled in front of which were two little girls, Mohamed’s daughters, aged between 6 and 8. Dressed in smocks, their chubby, and grubby, faces were framed by black ringlets that fell down their neck and shoulders. The room was furnished with rugs and floor cushions on one of which I guessed Zainab had also been sitting when we arrived. Dividing this space from the kitchen was an ironing board on which was positioned a small bundle of clothes and a heavy iron sitting in its own coal grate.
We were invited to sit on the floor while tea was served. The television remained the focus of attention for the next hour or so, mercifully so as it filled the gaps in the conversation we attempted, mainly directed through Mohamed, until even that petered out. Mohamed, we realised, was going to continue to earn his fee as easily and possible. He said little to rekindle the sparks of conversation and, having brought us this far, showed no inclination to leave the house and show us what little there might be of his village. Zainab spoke only Arabic – she was of Berber descent, we were told – while the girls, who had also shown little reaction to our arrival, peppered their speech with a handful of French and English words when prompted. A consequence of poverty, I realised from this experience, meant having little to do and all day to do it in.
At length I said that we would go out for a walk and asked what there was to see. This was greeted with nods and the girls , Nour and Miriam, were directed to escort us around the village. From somewhere a kite was produced as we exited the courtyard. Mohamed rose only to take me to one side to ask for an advance on the agreed fee: “pour le viande”, he emphasised.
The girls took us each by a hand and directed us to a plot of wasteland on the edge of the village. It was a rocky ampitheatre that stood above and slightly obscured any view of the village looking back. In the opposite direction, the sun was declining over a low range of hills wrinkled with scrub, betraying the location of local water sources. In the middle distance, very evident from their white coats and constant bleating, was a flock of goats. Their dung was scattered about the site and pervaded it with a strong, earthy smell. They were tended by a boy wearing a red and white striped jalabah and carrying a long stick.
This was a communal space on which a number of washing lines had been erected between wooden posts. Washing had been hung out to take advantage of the breeze that usually sprung up as the sun descended in the late afternoon and, all the time we were there, women came and went with clothes baskets balanced precariously on their heads. While we were standing with the girls, one or two addressed them directly and appeared to berate them for being in the company of “tooreests” but this only seemed to spur the girls into activity to demonstrate how they were enjoying themselves.
As Nour and Miriam ran about the stony ground trying to get their kite to rise in the breeze from which the washerwomen were taking advantage, we sat on nearby boulders to take in the scene. It was that time of the evening when, around the whole of the Mediterranean, people walk out to take the air and get their appetite. Almost from nowhere we began to see silhouettes of people, individuals and whole familes, walking onto the terrace, feeling the breeze, lifting their faces to the sun and emitting a low chatter of voices across the rocks. The boy with the goats was bringing his flock ever closer, creating a cacophony of bleats while, behind them, a man in full bedouin dress rode sidesaddle on a donkey down the hill and into the village. An almost biblical scene was unfolding before us and the whole atmosphere of our visit suddenly changed.
Back in the village the mood had similarly lifted. Neighbours were out in front of their houses or strolling down the streets and the main square, to which the girls now took us, was an unexpected hive of activity. A handful of market stalls had unfolded for the evening, selling fruit and vegetables, meat, basic dried goods and hardware; a sweet shop was enjoying a brisk trade in ice cream; and a dozen or so children were running, screaming, around a playground in the centre of the square. We bought the girls an ice cream each and sat with them to once again take in the scene. The dusty-dry streets and harsh concrete blocks were still there but barely noticed in the wonderful glow of the evening sun, now slanting almost horizontally into our eyes.
There was a further surprise waiting for us when we returned to Mohamed’s house. A donkey was standing hobbled outside the gate – it tripped itself up in moving away as we approached – and inside, cross-legged on the floor and filling the room with the thick woollen coat that flowed over him, was the old man in Berber dress that we had seen earlier. This was Zainab’s father – I don’t think we were told his name – and he had come into the village to join us for dinner.
Due deference was given to the old gentleman who looked ancient but might have been in his late fifties or sixty. He sat bolt upright with his hands folded over each other in his lap and observed us with piercing blue eyes, smiling broadly with an open mouth that revealed his two remaining teeth. His face was weathered and stubbled and wires of grey hair poked out from under his keffiyeh, his blue and red chequered headdress, held in place with a red cloth braid. He shook our hands with a limp grip and we exchanged “Salams” before joining him on the floor.
Then, almost immediately, dinner was served. Zainab presented Mohamed with a large, shallow bowl which he lowered onto a leather cushion in the centre of the room. It was piled high with steaming couscous and over the top spilled a stew of vegetables and fatty meat. We were invited to start eating, as the old gentleman had already done, clawing couscous with his right hand, squeezing it into a ball and cupping it into his mouth. Mohamed did the same while Zainab pulled lumps of meat from the top of the pile, ripped them apart and fed them to her father. Seeing our hesitation, Mohamed suggested that we might like bowls, to which we agreed and, once provided, we filled them from the main pile and ate greedily as well.
The meat was probably goat and had a pungent, almost rancid smell and taste which discouraged us from eating too much. But the couscous and vegetables were delicious and the gravy in which they were cooked had a strong, herby taste which compensated for the meat. Drunk from the sudden inrush of food and relieved that our stay was turning out better than anticipated just a couple of hours ago, we plied the family with a stream of questions and observations that helped to keep the conversation going for much of the rest of the evening.