Scowling in Kairouan

Dave the motorhome is facing down the grand arched entrance to the five star La Kasbah hotel, a few minutes walk from the medina, and within earshot of sea-food hawkers surrounded by billowing smoke of filthy fish-grills. Have a listen below (you can’t actually hear it that loudly from Dave, we had a walk over there and looked around before being shooed off by a woman who saw me photographing a nearby fish):

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And here's the fish, a whopper.
And here’s the fish, a whopper.

I’m not a big fan of Kairouan. Tour buses pull up in front of us, followed by the familiar rumbling of trolley cases across the uneven stone entrance to the plush hotel we’ve attached a couple of day’s fate to. There seems to be a direct correlation between the presence of these buses in Tunisian towns, and how much I enjoy being there. It would be naive of me to expect it any other way; the more us fresh-faced tourists turn up, the more temptation there is for the less scrupulous to exploit our unfamiliarity with the place, its customs, how much things cost, you name it. It’s a two-way thing. Although we do our best to observe local etiquette (Ju dresses very conservatively, we don’t hold hands or kiss in public, we don’t drink alcohol in public view) we do have a small furry dog with us, something almost completely alien, and such things colour the way Tunisians see us and fellow outsiders in ways we can’t understand.

In Kairouan, there have been many buses before us. The hassle is nothing compared with Morocco, but it’s wearing me down more here than it did over there, on the other side of Algeria. I suspect this is down to the fact so many people here are genuine, amiable, fair, honest and hard working. Picking which fit into this group and which fit into the in-some-way-a-scoundrel group is exhausting. As the title to this post signals, I’ve given up and am into scowl mode, marching along ignoring everyone. Ju’s not there, she’s managed to stay civil with everyone, and I’m proud of her.

Last night the guard’s dog sat a few meters from the two motorhomes in the car park and barked. And barked. And barked. Maybe an hour, maybe two, bark, bark, bark. Silence, ahhhh. Bark, bark, bark, bark, GODDAAMMMMIITTTTT. At 3am Charlie decided our laptop was also out to get him, as it sat on the side robotically uploading video to YouTube during the ‘as much as you can eat’ overnight data window. Ju got up and switched it off. At 6am Charlie needed out. I stomped down Dave’s little step, young men marched outside, ones and twos in the half light and rain, presumably off to work. I felt sheepish, my temper easing off. Returning a few minutes later, the security guard sat on his plastic seat outside the hotel entrance, his dog skulked about and went into another barkathon when we got back into Dave. If I were him, freezing and bored rigid, I too may make no effort to shut my dog up as it helped to keep me awake to do my job. All the same, he’s not getting his hands on any of my baksheesh.

Walter and Anneliese have headed off south, waking us with a gentle apologetic 8:30am knock to share contact details, the guard hovering about the place as they waited for us to write down our EuropaSIM number. I doubt Walter crossed his palm with dinar, as he asked how many times I thought about killing the dog. We chatted last night about the security situation in the south. Ju and I worried more about some mechanical catastrophe than being abducted by rogue Algerians crossing the Sahara to get at us, but it’s a tough personal choice. The fact our conversation took place at all’s an indication why there are so few tourists around the Tunisian desert at the moment.

Awake in an eyes-feel-sandy kind of way, we ate some breakfast and I took Charlie out on the hunt for a bin. There are bins, but they’re well spread out, and most folks give up before they make it to one, dropping the garbage by the side of the street for it to be kicked about or ripped open by feral cats. It rained last night, real British rain, the kind of stuff the Welsh can’t sleep without. With it came the dirt. There are no drains along the roads, the filth puddles up and splashes about with passing pick-ups, ageing bendy buses and mopeds. Charlie flipped instantly to Guinness Dog, just his top half white-ish. Everyone, and I mean everyone, looks at Charlie, and then trace their eyes along his lead to me or Ju, staring in disbelief which occasionally appears as open hostility on their faces. Despite this, I was in scowl-march mode, I looked at no-one, and no-one shouted out the usual ‘hellos’ or anything else in Arabic which I sensed was directed at me. I stomped to the bin, found it semi-melted, the remains full, added my bags to the scattered pile of filth next it it, and stomped back.

With no drainage, when it rains, the filth fills the streets.
With no drainage, when it rains, the filth fills the streets.

Whenever I read the kind of stuff I’ve just written, I sit back and smugly announce: ‘what did you expect, it’s North Africa, it’s not Austria or Bavaria’. I know, I know, I’m just tired and fed up with the few folks who are deceptive, and a community which exists in a way I can’t understand amongst so much scattered waste and muck.

We headed through the medina this morning to the post office this morning to take a punt on a parcel making it back to Blighty, again passing a machine-gun toting soldier stood outside a building announcing to as something to do with the elections (the government should be arranging elections but is too busy fighting itself). Charlie stayed behind, I scowled and few sellers shouted to us. Reaching the post office, we found it contained half the working population of the city, stood in equal lines touching the back wall, all looking pretty disgruntled, none of the lines appeared to move. Ju asked an unofficial-looking guy in jeans where we should go with a parcel and he pointed us to the only desk with hardly anyone at it. Over we go, waiting our turn until a chap just strode past us and attempted to lean past the person currently being served. Growing up in the UK has at least trained us for this part of Tunisian culture – getting served at the PO is much like getting a pint in a busy pub, elbows out time. Refreshingly, pusher-in man was shoved aside, although he did get served before us. Ju managed a standing-up-for-fairness thrusting motion to ensure our package made it into the wee glass window gap before anyone else’s A4 notepad or Arabic scripted slip of paper made it inside to be stamped a hundred times. The chap behind the glass spoke English, smiled a tired smile, and was patient with us as we completed the customs form and re-wrote the address on an envelope (as it had to go through a franking machine and was the wrong shape otherwise). He told us it was so busy as people were collecting their salaries. Parcel dispatched, €5 and weighing about 300g, we took off along the street looking for the Monday market.

Not much of a thing, just a few stalls, it was small enough and unintimidating we grabbed some veg and minced beef (which smells like it has a bulb or two of garlic in it), under the dull glare of a couple of hanging cow heads and various skinned, meaty, torsos.

It might look disgusting, but that’s a fridge, and we ain’t seen many of them in butchers in Tunisia.
Price list at the butchers. Despite Ju’s Arabic lesson in Sousse, we still have no idea what anything is.
Chickens. Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall would not be happy. Rabbits were available too, being carried about alive by the back legs.
These decapitated heads don’t make us feel ill, but hardly look normal. One butcher had the head skin of a cow hanging up, like some kind of psycho-mask.

Back into the medina Ju reneged on her decision to buy quality sunglasses, spotting a rare sign: 3500 along a small stack of knock-off glasses, about €1.75. Picking over a couple of pairs, the seller grabbed a mirror from another punter to show her how she looked. Just before sealing the deal we recalled the advice from the Rough Guide: ask the price here or you’ll be stung. Sure enough, the seller pointed at the 3.5TD sign and then held up a pair of awful pink-rimmed things Elton John would faint at. Those you want are ten. It took about 30 seconds before the price of ours was down to 3.5TD, we just weren’t in the mood for it, and when he wanted to not give change from 4TD, mumbling something about him needing cigarettes I laughed cynically, and held my hand out until 0.5TD made its way into my own grabbing palm, coming from a reluctant neighbouring seller.

After a spot of lunch and rapid dog release, avoiding the never-ending flow of nippers who seem to magically be entering or leaving school whenever I’m out with Charlie, we walked over to the Great Mosque again, catching the last of the sun before grey clouds swamped the sky.

Great Mosque, Kairouan.
Great Mosque, Kairouan.

Much of the place has been around for over 1000 years, and it is indeed rather large, one of the most important in Tunisia. The guy on the gate recognised us from yesterday, asking where our little dog was, before fetching a robe for Ju to wear as trousers or jeans aren’t allowed. As we’re non-Muslim, mosques in Morocco and Tunisia are, as a rule, off limits. Even in this one a third of it, the prayer room, is only viewable to us from the doorways. As we took in the sight of the inside of it, sparse, fortress-like, I was torn.

Great Mosque, Kairouan.
Great Mosque, Kairouan.

I’m an atheist, and I struggle to reconcile the massive investment of money, materials and energy required to build the world’s astounding religious sites with the contemporary lack of medical and social facilities. On the other hand, the enormous Catholic cathedrals we’ve seen have been, if nothing else, hugely impressive from an artistic and architectural perspective. The Great Mosque in left me cold in it’s austerity and plainness; I feel I’m missing nothing by being disallowed from entering other Islamic places of worship. As we left a couple of guys made a game attempt to take us to a viewing spot on a roof overlooking the mosque, above a carpet shop. Neither of us could be bothered with the obvious ensuing battle to exit sans-tapis, and we made a sharp exit back to Dave.

A cistern below the mosque used to store water, and still does.
Ancient sundial, minus sun, which disappeared 30 seconds after we got inside.
The prayer hall, by far the most impressive part, and the bit we can’t get into without risking some unstated punishment.
Great Mosque, Kairouan.
A suitably dressed Ju. She still refuses to obey my every command.
An odd-shaped drain into the cistern, designed to trap dust before making it underground.
Notches cut in stone by hundreds of years of ropes pulling at buckets.

Tickets for the the sights of Kairouan are sold on a collective basis, you buy a global ticket which gives access to a bunch of sites and museums. It says something about our state of tiredness, probably built up over a few days in the cities, that we can’t be bothered with any of them. One is a camel, its head tied to a rope which walks in circles to pump water which you can then drink, for a little baksheesh. Two are museums which are closed Mondays (our own fault for not checking). The others sound like nothing special, in fact they sound like a load of money-grabbing hassle, so we’re staying put and heading for a beach tomorrow.

A doorknob on one of the bright blue and yellow doors which stand out for being so pretty among so much drabness.
A doorknob on one of the bright blue and yellow doors which stand out for being so pretty among so much drabness.

Here’s hoping Tunisia has more to offer. Perhaps if that dog shuts up tonight I’ll be in a better mood to enjoy it… Yours grumpily, Jay (it’s not that bad, beats being stuck in traffic on a dark and freezing M1 at 7am on a  Monday morning!)

P.S. We heard from Wim, a great Dutch guy we met in Douz, that a couple of boys on a moped stole his dog Guusje while he was at a bakery. With some massive effort he got her back after 36 hours. Although I know for sure that one instance of something bad happening has very little bearing on our own fate, Charlie will be watched like a hawk for our last days in the country.


    • Hi Robin

      They were all Roman/Byzantine ones pinched from the many sites in the country! If you look closely there is wood between the pillars and the top of the building, this is to stop movement from earth tremors – simple, not sure how effective!

      They also say if you count all the pillars in the mosque you’ll go blind, I’m sure they say that about doing something else in the UK! :)


  1. Do you think you are ‘travelled out’ and Tunisia is just the spot that it has happened? could have been anywhere?
    Reason I ask is you are mentioning the UK a bit more than usual.

    We were ‘travelled out’ a couple of times and put it down to being in a small space, being bombarded with new things constantly and always moving. We would try a few weeks back in the UK at those moments but found it hard to stay there. ‘Normal UK life’ lost it’s interest in a short time and we had to be off somewhere out of the country again tres rapide.

    We found our personal way of overcoming the lack of attraction of long term UK vs travelling situation, I’m sure you will find yours if this is the problem of the last few days.


    • Hi Jamie, great question, we hit the ‘travelled out’ wall after a few days in a train station car park in Germany last year, maybe we’re there again now, dunno, we’ll have a ponder on it. I think we’re mentally on our way back to the UK now, having hit the furthest point south and even though we’ve 6 months to go. Great to hear you guys have worked out a solution to the itchy feet problem, we’ll continue to ponder that one too. Cheers, stay in touch, Jay

    • Don’t worry – I’ve got proper ones too. But as they spend most of their time holding my hair out of my face thought I’d get some fashionable ones to act as a hairband!

  2. I expect it’s less “travelled out” and more “worn out”. Sounds like a bad night the night before, and tiredness always makes everything feel worse.

    • Hi Craig, I think you’re right. In Morocco there were a decent number of safe camping facilities with loads of European folks to make us feel at home. Here we’re on a bit more of a wing and a prayer, feeling far more exposed. I’m getting only a few hours kip much of the time as my body’s in flight or fight mode half the time, whether it should be or not. Paid up a bit of bribe money to the police tonight (against my ethical code, but needs must), so should be getting 8 hours in! Cheers, Jay

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