Dave the motorhome is in an oasis, where else (N33.45331 E9.02515)? We’re on the edge of the Sahara (where there is zero Orange signal again), in Camping Desert Club at Douz, Tunisia (see end of post for a short video of this site). Douz has a reputation from reading the Rough Guide and speaking with Arafat at our last campsite, as a tourist town. Trundling about Douz like drunken ants earlier on trying to find the unsigned campsite, it looked like every other Tunisian town – a dusty chaotic fascination.
Last night lifted a few veils on modern Tunisian life. We talked TVs. The French expats sharing our cosy meal said whenever they visit a Tunisian family, the TV is immediately turned on. The conversation afterwards went broadly like this:
French couple: do they do it to show off they have a TV?
Tunisian man (Arafat): no, no, it is to make you feel comfortable as guests.
French couple: hmmm, we think they are showing off.
Arafat: TV is the source of many problems.
Us: sat dumb, listening.
Arafat: young people here see the TV, see all the things people have, and want them all.
Arafat: but they don’t want to work for them.
Arafat: they sit and drink coffee, expecting everything for free, it is not a religion problem, not a goverment problem, it is a mentality problem with the people.
Us: more silence.
The discussion turned to revolution, the French couple telling us they were here on the night things took off, hiding indoors where their neighbours basically barricaded them all in while they listened to the shouts of men roaming the streets with sticks. At first they didn’t know what was happening, but once they found out about the nation-wide uprising, they were less scared. This was all said matter of fact, they didn’t come across as easily scared people. They said in the coming days people turned their chairs around in cafes, talking to each other rather than watching the TV, there was a sense of hope in the air. Since then the government has been tasked with putting together a new constitution and two years later there is no sign of it. People have become listless, losing hope that the country can move forwards, their chairs point at the TV again. We asked about the warm welcome we got from the police in Tabarka: “they were pleased to see you, it shows that things are maybe returning to normal”.
Tourism has dropped off to next to nothing it seems, declining since the first Iraq war all those years ago. On this large site, in season, there is one other motorhome and a tent. Despite the Iraq conflict being a fair way around the Earth from here, all Arab nations look the same on the TV, people were scared, as we were when we arrived. Arafat has diversified. His campsite is the result of 17 years of work, a dream for him to build, but it stands largely empty. The tour groups of 15 or 20 vans have dried up. He pointed at his small boy and said things have changed for him too, he must make money for his family. The rear half of his land is a palmerie, a mixed bag of young and mature trees, which make him a fair few Dinar in fruit. Out front he has an area for outdoor weddings, along with a small food shop and a souvenir shop. He showed these to us as we were about to leave. Although he’s spent time in Ireland, and was proud to point out he’s among the relatively few Tunisians to see both worlds, East and West, his native selling genes couldn’t be that easily suppressed! Pointing to his battered pick-up truck: “Two years younger than me, good truck, simple, easy to fix”. We worked out it must be about 40 years old, and still going strong.
When it came to payment time I was taken aback that the 18TD for the night became 48TD when the meal was included. We’d not asked a price. Thinking about it afterwards, 30TD is about €7.50 each, for a three course meal and drinks. Throw in the fact it’s one evening which we’ll not forget, ever, the price was good. Arafat also nipped out and got us a loaf of bread, as he dropped it off Ju handed over a birthday card and a bar of Galaxy for his birthday. He too looked taken aback, a bit bemused. All in all, he must have said ‘welcome’ to us about 20 times, and ‘thank you’ many more.
Turning south out of the camp’s tall blue steel doors, we took the main road for about 100 meters and turned off it, onto a sealed but bouncy single track through the palms, their leaves scratching at Dave’s roof and sides like rigid fingers. Edging in and out to let locals pass with hand carts, donkeys and even a green chugging tractor, we popped out from the thick trees into an opening, Old Kebili, the deserted and crumbling former town. With palms pressing in from all sides, this was the site of a former slave market, folks kidnapped from the other side of the Sahara would be force marched here, any falling by the way simply left to die. Our wanderings around the silent narrow alleyways, all stone walls, fibrous palm-wood lintels and whitewashed old dome-topped marabous, unveiled a couple of shops. Through a tunnel-like entryway to the old slave square we heard the rough barks of dogs, echoed by rough barks of locals to shut them up. Faced with a choice of fending off tat sellers and wild dogs, or turning on our heels, we bottled it.
From the Pompeii-like ruins we took the white road south. Although we planned to come here, the direct yellow road (which pips a white road, usually by having a faded white line up the middle) looked too easy. Our route showed us swinging around in a wide circle, crossing the Chott Kebili, skirting the Chott El Jerid and Chott El Franig. I know what you’re thinking, that’s a lotto Chott! Indeed it was a lotto Chott, especially as Chott is basically Tunisian for ‘dried up nothingness’. Along we bounced, the road rumbling prompting an automatic reach for the volume nob on the stereo. Ju also reaches for said control whenever I start crooning ‘midnight at the oasis’, relacing the word ‘midnight’ with whatever takes my fancy. I don’t blame her, especially as those are the only four words I know.
Arafat looked crestfallen when we told him we were leaving today to head for Douz (again, you can take the Arab out of Arabia…), but pretty much immediately switched into help mode, asking whether wanted to know about his palm trees, or any other questions we might have. Having been educated on all-things-palm in Morocco, we asked him about our route. He pointed at a small town called Es Sabria, jutting out into the yellow mass of the desert-proper. “Don’t go here, many children, many children”. Doubting he meant they’d swarm us, but would be well versed beggars, we avoided the place.
Not that we’ve seen much begging. A couple of lads sat alongside their moped went all flappy-armed as we drove past, the universal sign of slow down, which we failed to do. I wondered if they were broken down, Ju pointed out the town was about 5 minutes walk. Later we stopped to fool around in the dunes (did I mention the dunes, they were flippin’ awesome!). The boys cruised past, saw me walking back to Dave and spun around. I pulled the ‘sorry old chap, I’m British dontya know, no comprendo’ stunt. He gesticulated and spoke in French, getting a bit frustrated the poor fella, as he tried to flog us something or beg for cigarettes. He finally drove off as I started up Dave in a mildly threatening ‘I’ll be running you over now old chap’ kind of way, the fingertips of his left hand held together and pointing downwards, a sign we learned yesterday means ‘patience’.
So, in recap, today has basically consisted of (a) escaping from Arafat’s hospitality (b) thundering along car-wide sand-lined roads, pulling over to let light-flashing oncoming locals to get past (c) finding a a few tiny desert roses – gypsum and sand crystals formed by water evaporating from between dunes and (d) finding this French run lovely little site and cursing the total lack of Orange signal. There’s an Internet Cafe around the corner, if you’re reading this then we found it!
P.S. We found the Publinet Internet cafe in town, fast and friendly qnd with weird keyboqrds zhere the letters qre qll mixed up. I cqnnot for the life of ,e zork out hoz to get qn exclqo,qtion ,qrk;
P.P.S A short video we took at the site: