Tunisia: The Desert Oases

November 1999


It was about 350km from Le Kef to Tozeur and would take the best part of the day to get there. We made an early start and walked back down to the bus station on avenue Mongi Slim. We would have to do this journey in three stages, stopping at Kasserine and Gafsa on the way to change buses. None of the buses were packed and they weren't too uncomfortable. As we headed further south we left the fertile plains of the north behind and entered a semi arid zone, before reaching the sandy and rocky desert after Gafsa. Cactuses were growing everywhere, especially through the semi arid zone. These cactus were prickly pears, also known as Barbary figs and were being farmed commercially. I had seen their orangey red fruit, about the size of a small pear, for sale at the markets, the bus stations and alongside the road. In every town old men were pushing wheelbarrow loads of these fruits to the market or to their makeshift roadside stalls. They must be one of the world's worst fruits to pick; they aren't called prickly pears for nothing.

All over the country, in every town, political posters and national flags were being put up on the side of buildings, streetlights and walls. Most of them were of the current president Zine El Abidine Ben Ali. Between Manfred, and myself we had worked out pretty much what was going on. It was election time. Both the Presidential and Parliamentary elections were due to be held on the 24th October and campaigning began on 10th October. Under new electoral reforms for the parliamentary elections the opposition were now guaranteed twenty percent of the 182 seats in the national assembly. In the presidential election, opposition candidates were allowed to stand for the first time. Standing against the incumbent president from the ruling Rassemblement Constitutionel Democratique Party were two moderate opposition leaders, Mohamed Beljah Amor, of the Popular Unity Party, and Abderrahmane Tlili, of the Unionist Democratic Union. Since President Ben Ali seized power in 1987, he had contested two elections in 1989 and 1994. In both of these elections he was the only candidate. This year's radical departure from the previous years winning formula was due to pressure from the Western world to be seen to be holding fair and democratic elections.

Tunisia's first president since gaining independence from France in 1956 was Habib Bourguiba. He was one of the most pro-Western Arab leaders, who rejected militant Islam and religious extremists. He emancipated Tunisian women and gave them the right to vote as well as outlawing the practice of polygamy and scrapping the veil. Under his leadership he modernised the country and brought it into the 20th century, encouraging growth in industry and tourism, founded on the countries newly found oil wealth. In 1975 he was elected president for life. It was the country's worsening economic difficulties during the mid-1980's and a long running dispute with the main trade unions that saw his decline in popularity. The end came in 1987 when a group from the Islamic Tendency Movement where put on trial for a series of bombings at hotels in Sousse and Monastir, which injured twelve tourists. It was a strange affair, as responsibility for the bombings had been claimed by the pro-Iranian Islamic Jihad organisation. Habib Bourguiba demanded the death sentence for the members of the Islamic Tendency Movement. The then, prime minister, Zine El Abdine Ben Ali, fearing a popular revolution if these death sentences were carried out, seized power on the 7th November 1987. A team of doctors arranged by Ben Ali, declared the 83 year old president unfit for office and he was moved into retirement in a palace just outside Monastir. The date of 7th November 1987 is now ingrained on the nations consciousness, on the name of streets in most major towns and also on the back of the new five-dinar banknote.

To get an overview of the important political figures and the key dates in Tunisia's history, just grab a street map of Tunis and go for a drive. You could travel into the city on Boulevard du 9th Avril 1938 or Avenue 15th Octobre 1961 before reaching Place du 7th Novembre 1987 and driving down Avenue Habib Bourguiba or Avenue Hedi Chaker or Avenue Farhat Hached. Hedi Chaker and Farhat Hached, whose names appear on street signs all over the country, were trade union leaders and key players in the independence movement.

Our bus connections worked well today. As we arrived in Kasserine, population 30,000, a rather dreary eastern regional centre and transport hub, a bus to Gafsa was ready to leave in fifteen minutes. Most people find that fifteen minutes is enough time to spend in Kasserine, but I'm sure that if you were determined you could amuse yourself here for maybe half a day or so. Gafsa, about twice the size of Kasserine, was pretty much the same despite it's rather more colourful history. There is an oasis at Gafsa that became an important staging post for the camel caravans travelling across the Sahara and on to the coast during the Numidian kingdoms. The Romans captured this town in 107BC and the town continued in its importance. Today you would be hard pushed to see evidence that the Romans were here, except for the twin Roman Pools and a couple of mosaics in the small town museum. We had about an hour to wait here for a connecting bus to Tozeur, enough time to sit down at a café outside the bus station entrance for a cup of mint tea while being covered in dust from the passing traffic.

We arrived in Tozeur late in the afternoon. Even though we had arrived at an oasis town in the southern desert, sandwiched between the giant salt lake of Chott el-Jerid and its smaller cousin to the north, Chott el-Gharsa, it felt like we had returned to civilisation after our excursion through the north and east of the country. As we walked down the main street (yes you've guessed it) Avenue Habib Bourguiba, we had to dodge the crowds and the shopkeepers as well as the donkeys meandering between the traffic. Most of the crowds were tourists and the shopkeepers, souvenir sellers. It was a bit of a shock after the last few days to suddenly see so many tourists around. I thought that they would be all at the beach resorts along the west coast until it dawned on me that we were in the midst of 'the optional two day desert excursion.' We checked into the Residence Warda on the south side of town on Avenue Abdulkacem Chebbi, a slightly up-market establishment still within our budget, especially as there were four of us now and we could share rooms. One good thing a large influx of tourists does to a town is improve the standard of hotels and restaurants, although this probably does not do much for the domestic market by pricing most hotels out of reach of the locals. That night I enjoyed my most pleasurable meal I had had since leaving Tunis, the national dish couscous with meat. Still, as in most Tunisian towns (except the resorts along the coast) as night drew in the town went to sleep except for a few cafés. We sat on the roof of the hotel watching what life was still awake go by and I introduced my new travelling companions to the adventures of the Bennet family in Pride and Prejudice on the BBC World Service. (And they thought I was joking when I said Pride and Prejudice is on in five minutes.)

Civilisation at this oasis dates back to 8000BC. Touzeurs most affluent times were during the 14th to 19th centuries AD, when it was a major staging post along the trans-Saharan camel caravan route. Today the town's main attractions are the palmerie, the second largest in the country after Douz; the town's old quarter with its narrow alleyways and distinctive brick architecture and the towns overall location in the desert. The brick architecture is enjoying a renaissance; the people have discovered that their ancestors did get something right. These bricks, made out of local materials, provide far better insulation against the heat of the summer and the cool of the winter nights than modern concrete breezeblocks. The bricks are used imaginatively to create intricate relief patterns in the walls, especially around the old quarter and also in new buildings being built in the main part of town.

The next day we decided to go and explore the palmerie which covers an area of just over 10sq km. The best and most relaxing way to do this is by bicycle and there just happened to be a bicycle hire shop next door to our hotel. We hired a bike each for the day and headed off down the road. There is one tarred road, which loops through the palmerie from one side of town to the other. Off this road tracks and paths crisscross through the 200,000 odd palm trees. This is a classic example of how tiered oasis agriculture works. The most dominant palm is the date palm, which provides the canopy. Below this grew banana palms, though not on a full-scale commercial basis; further down grew pomegranate bushes and vegetables were being cultivated on the ground. All of this is irrigated by a complex system of canals designed by the mathematician Ibn Chabbat in the 13th century AD, that distribute 60 million litres of water, produced from more than 200 springs each day.

We had arrived in Tozeur at the start of the annual date harvest. A large proportion of the harvest is exported to Europe in time for the Christmas season. The pomegranates were also fruiting and wherever we went that day we were offered bags of freshly picked dates or pomegranates picked from the bush. Harvesting the dates is quite a challenge; each bunch weighs between 10 and 15 kilos. One man shins up the trunk of the palm and cuts the bunches from the crown of the palm; the other workers stand on the ground and catch the bunches in a large outstretched sheet. We spent a large part of the day out in the palmerie relaxing in the cool shade of the trees, enjoying the peace and the lushness of the vegetation, which was such a contrast from the town only a couple of kilometres away.

That evening Danielle and I went to the Dar Charait Museum, a fairly long walk west along Avenue Abdulkacem Chebbi. This is the second must see museum in Tunisia, after the Bardo in Tunis. It catered well for tourists and was open until mid-night each night. The museums main attractions are the rooms around a central courtyard that are reproductions of traditional scenes from Tunisian life. They include a hamman, a Bedouin tent, a kitchen, a palace room and more. Also in the museum is a fine collection of antiques and pottery. The building itself was fascinating, with beautiful examples of traditional wall tiles.

The next day it was a split decision whether to go to Douz, or to spend another day in Tozeur. In the end Danielle decided to stay, as she wanted to do some tours around the area, of other oases and springs. Manfred, Shaun and I walked back up to the bus station to catch a bus to Douz. The next bus wasn't leaving for over an hour, so we opted to travel by louage. Douz is approximately 110km south west of Tozeur on the opposite side of the Chott el-Jerid. The journey took us along a causeway that stretches 50km across the salt lake and through one of the most bizarre landscapes in the country. The salt lake covers an area of 5000 sq km, most of it spreading out south to the horizon. As far as you could see there was nothing, it felt like you were on an alien planet except for the souvenir stalls dotted by the side of the road every few kilometres. We had to change louages at Kebili, about two thirds of the way to Douz. A sand dune lines the road from Kebili to Douz, threatening to engulf it in places. It felt like we were heading out into a desert. Whereas the desert around Tozeur was mostly rocky here it was sand and more sand. In fact we were on the edge of the Great Eastern Erg, one of the Sahara's two great sand seas that stretch almost 500km southwest into Algeria.

Douz has a population almost half that of Tozeur, but with a palmerie of twice the size, with approximately 400,000 palms. The town also receives its fair share of the package tourist trade, attracted here to the sand dunes of the Sahara that surround this oasis. We checked into the friendly Hotel 20th Mars on Rue 20th Mars (I'm afraid I don't know what role the date of 20th March plays in the Tunisian national psyche.) The hotel was a pleasant place to stay, with the rooms arranged around a peaceful courtyard that was kept very clean; although I tried to ignore the dead scorpion I found in the dustbin outside our door. Shaun was suffering from a dose of food poisoning and spent the day at the hotel, while Manfred and I went for a walk through the palmerie and to the much-fabled Great Dune on the edge of town. Even though the palmerie here is larger than at Tozeur, there was not quite the same quality to it. Many of the palms looked either uncared for or were dead, their black stumps left standing in the ground. Overall it looked like a bad winter storm had hit the place.

It was a longer walk than we expected to get to the Great Dune, about 4km. Along the road at the edge of the palmerie, in the Zone Touristique where all the resort class hotels are, the only traffic passing us were coaches. When we reached the dunes we could smell the camels before we saw them. Camel touts were running around everywhere, hustling tourists, their beasts wandering around in the coach park. We stopped to take in the scene. Whole groups of fifty or more tourists were dressing up in matching Bedouin smocks and headscarves and mounting camels before being lead out into the dunes. We dodged the touts as we were not in the market for a camel today and continued our search for the Great Dune. No sand dune around here could honestly claim a name like 'Great', as they were all fairly small bumps. We decided the Great one must be the highest and set about climbing it, which took about two minutes. From our vantage point we could see the yellow/gold sand dunes undulating off into the distance and the tourists on their one-hour trek following a well-trodden path in a loop around us. It wasn't quite the Saharan desert scene you would expect, but with a chain of resort class hotels built on the doorstep it was inevitable that this natural landscape would be over exploited.

That evening I found an Internet café just around the corner from our hotel. It was the first place in the country I'd found where I could send email; the technology hasn't caught on quite as much as in other places. It made a welcome change to the evenings predictable routine. The following day we decided to leave town and travel to the Ksour district in the south east of the country.

Continue reading this journey: The Ksour District