This guest post is a further update from Sue Stanton and her husband Abdelwahab on their travels through his home country of Tunisia and beyond.

Sue is a long-time friend of mine from the Top End of the NT and is a a fiercely proud member of the Kungarakan & Gurindji peoples from north of the NT. You can read Sue’s previous guest posts on the NT Intervention here, her views on the ‘branding’ of Aboriginal people and the (mis)use of the term ‘indigenous’ here and her most recent post – a postcard from Gafsa in Tunisia, here.

North Africa Report No. 2 – 4-8 January 2010

As I sit here writing my memoirs and poetry I’m encouraged and inspired by the late Susan Sontag, who stated:

“The writer’s first job is not to have opinions but to tell the truth…and refuse to be an accomplice of lies and misinformation.”

Sue and Abdelwahab - New Years Eve 2010
Sue and Abdelwahab - New Years Eve 2010

Gafsa – NYE 2010

Abdelwahab and I saw in the New Year at a pretty flash hotel named Gafsa Palace – probably 4 star by Australian standard but still rather opulent – and the food just kept coming. Seven courses, ending with slices of New Year’s Eve cake and individual bowls of fruit. We had a couple of bottles of Mounag Chateau, a local Tunisian wine and were entertained by a combination of Western (French & English songs) music and singing – French Elvis and English Jimmy Barnes types as well as traditional Tunisian music – with beautiful pipe (mizwid, similar to bagpipe) music – lively at times, lots of drumming – and of course, belly dancers.

One of the dancers performed in the Tunisian style, the other Egyptian. Absolutely enthralling! The final act was what might be described as a fire-eating, endurance performer – eating glass, sticking knives and pins into himself, generally flexing his muscles and making a lot of noise. He actually looked better than his actual performance. I named him Sinbad…

Gafsa Palace Hotel interior
Gafsa Palace Hotel interior

Egyptian men in the audience were great dancers too – very beguiling. Actually all the men who danced were extremely good, old and young. Abdelwahab even got up there and danced with the Egyptians and I was very impressed.

I even got up a couple of times and did my best wriggle and shake, aware that I was among some pretty stiff competition.

I noticed some “foreigners” in the crowd – mostly British and I’m told perhaps German or Austrian. Apparently many Germans own holiday villas here in Gafsa – many Europeans come here to escape the European winter.

We were worried that we would not make it to midnight but we managed to party on until at least 1.30am.

A recent article in The Tunisia News claims that Frommers, a leading American travel website has recently ranked Tunisia as one of the top 2010 travel destinations. While there is some advertising enticing more Americans to visit, the target group seems to be Austrians. TTN claims that in 2009 some 7000 retired Austrians was a success and negotiations are in process for 2011 and 2012. Mahdia will accommodate some 10,000 Austrian retired people during the low season in 2010.

Douze report

I was not able to travel to Douz (Douze), however, Abdelwahab, Memoun and Meriam went on the 300-odd kms round trip.

The Tunisia News predicted that Douz, “gateway to the desert”, located on the Great Oriental Erg, expected close to 100,000 visitors to the 4 day festival. Abdelwahab says that between 8-9000 were in attendance the day they were there (30th). The report back told of camel and greyhound races, folk dancing, hunting competitions, poetry recitals, handicraft fairs and beautiful flute music. There was also a painting exhibit on the theme “The Sahara, source of inspiration and creation”.

My hope that the camel fighting would be cancelled was not realised, however Abdelwahab said that the fighting was “controlled” and not permitted to get too rough – “no blood was spilt”. Part of the tourist promotion to the area encouraged foreign folk especially, to visit Onk El Djemel, at nearby Tataouine, which I remind you was immortalised by George Lucas as planet Taouine in Star Wars and especially in the movie Phantom Menace.

Spices for sale in the Douz market. Pic: Jane Milton
Spices for sale in the Douz soukh. Pic: Jane Milton

Apparently it was difficult to get the free souvenir items such as flags, especially if you were local, that is, Tunisian – in fact the seating was arranged so that local Tunisians sat separately from the foreign tourists.

I clearly remember similar experiences myself as a “coloured” growing up in old Darwin town.

I just loved the title of the conference: “For the dialogue of religions and civilizations” – which by the way was organized and hosted by Mr. Ben Ali,  the President of Tunisia. the conference was opened by the Minister of Culture and Heritage Preservation, Mr Abderraouf El Basti.

The main theme of this year’s conference was “The Tent and the Palm Tree” was designed to explore Douz’s rich historical dimension, including its former role as a base for trading caravans.

Douz, Tunisia
Douz, Tunisia

Abdelwahab reported that even though they had seats in the fourth row their view was blocked by a serious over-representation of various security personnel – uniformed, plain clothes and the military. And as I observed from the camera footage, most of them (all male) were not even interested in watching the various events as they either engaged in conversation with each other or talked on mobile phones…and behaved as most blokes do, especially when out to impress attractive females coming and going.

Abdelwahab managed to capture some glimpses of the brightly decorated camels, some parts of some camel races, greyhounds chasing desert hares, part of the parade with Libyan and Tunisian musicians in full traditional dress – and has recorded some wonderful flute music.

Future plans – Djerba, Bizerte and beyond

Fort Djerba
Fort Djerba. Photo: Cezary

Still trying to make the trip to Djerba but looks like we may head north on our next trip instead – to Bizerte, described by some locals as a “resort”.

Bizerte is a historic port that stands at the mouth of a saltwater lake (Lac Bizerte) and connected to the sea by a canal. I have been told that there are two historic forts there – and a beautiful mosque. But there are beautiful, (and historic) mosques everywhere I go.

Some history – as per The Rough Guide to Tunisia:

One of the great natural ports of the Mediterranean, Bizerte was also exploited by the Phoenicians, who improbably called their town Hippo Diarrhytus and dug the first channel linking the lake to the sea. The Arabs changed the name to Benzert, and it inevitably found itself in the front line during the Turco-Spanish struggles of the sixteenth century. Charles V punished the town with a brutal raid in 1535 for supporting the corsair+ Barbarossa. The French built up the port’s facilities, and following independence (1956) they simply stayed on. When they still refused to leave after the bombing of Sakiet Sidi Youssef,* Tunisian forces blockaded the military base, causing the Bizerte Crisis of 1961. The French responded by trying to break the blockade, and Tunisia’s army undertook its first military action. More than a thousand Tunisian lives were lost before the French finally withdrew on October 15, 1963 – no longer a national holiday, but still a day of celebration in Bizerte.

(*Sakiet Sidi Youssef – is the last village before the Algerian border. Also the site where the French bombed the civilian population in the midst of what is known as the Algerian War (1958) – one of the reasons for further deterioration in (newly independent) Tunisia – French relations, and lead-up to rejection of the French at Bizerte. Otherwise, I am told, there is nothing to see or do at SSY.)

(+ I just love the use of this word corsair – for those who don’t know, meaning pirate – used frequently here when speaking of, especially Mediterranean history.)

I do hope our plan to travel to Bizerte does not change as I am so looking forward to exploring all the interesting histories – Arab, French, Turkish, Spanish, Jewish, even ancient Phoenician and Briton sojourns in the region. I am told, and as is usually evident in most places, the different types of architecture tell as much about those histories as everything else. I’m told that the walls of the Kasbah (sounds much nicer than citadel) at the mouth of the port, and the tower are of Byzantine foundation.

The medina at Bizerte
The medina at Bizerte

The Medina also sounds like a place I must visit – I’m told the black and white marble remains there, once belonged to a fountain designed by a Spanish architect, El Andaloussi, erected in the 17th century by Youssef Dey, the second of Tunis’s Turkish rulers and founder of a mosque in another place in Tunisia named Medina. The inscription in both Turkish and Arabic advises folk to use its water until the waters of Paradise becomes available to them. However, the water has long dried up even though part of the fountain, and indeed the inscription, remain.

I won’t spoil it and add any cynical comments about either water drying up or ‘Paradise lost’ here.

The old Spanish fort sounds interesting – my research tells me that it dates back to the 16th century and to the time when Tunis was the frontline in the war between Christian Spain and Ottoman Turkey. Building commenced around 1570 but was not completed before the Turks kicked them out in 1573. Later damaged during World War II activities but now used for the Bizerte festival activities.

Abdelwahab’s trip to Orbat Mountain

Recently Abdelwahab and members of his family and others visited Orbat, approximately 20 kms from Gafsa. Abdelwahab climbed Orbat (1165 metres) in 1986, but this time he took it easy and instead did some serious walking at the base and around the lower region of the mountain. Chaanbi (1534 metres) is the highest mountain in the range.

Abdelwahab and family members at Orbat Mountain
Abdelwahab and family members at Orbat Mountain

Orbat – some contemporary yet significant history

Orbat is a historically significant place as this is the place where the legendary revolutionary Lazhar Chraiti and Moujahidin (Freedom Fighters) had their most bloodiest confrontations with the French (1952-54.) The Tunisian use the term Fallagua to describe these revolutionaries and while the term may interpret into “pirate” or perhaps “highwayman” it is mostly used in the most derogatory manner (mainly by the French) so as to demean the freedom fighter revolutionaries.

I’m sure many who read my reports will have heard the term Moujahidin many times – mostly on the nightly news, and especially in mention of Iran, this term too is open to abuse and misinterpretation, others, and especially the West mostly use the term to demonise. Of course there are fanatics who might deserve criticism and attract insults and I don’t defend them in any way – but in an Aboriginal context, for example, one who would stand up and fight for basic rights and freedoms, like Charles Perkins or Jack or Joe McGinness – maybe they would be described as Moujahid.

Chariti is known in Tunisian folklore as “the Lion of Orbat”.

Sadly this history is mostly neglected by local historians. Chraiti and others also attempted to overthrow the Bourguiba* government, (1950s-1960s, after independence from France) as they felt the south of Tunisia was badly neglected (economically) yet the people of this region contributed much to Tunisian liberation from French occupation.

Chraiti and other Moujahidin were executed in 1962 and buried in an unknown mass grave. Chraiti’s children, now living in Switzerland have not given up on finding out where their father’s remains are as they would like to claim them, carry out a dignified burial and have a gravesite to visit and thereby remember and honour his memory.

Chraiti and other Moujahidin are heroes in the eyes of Abdelwahab and he has produced a documentary DVD (in Arabic) honouring the Chraiti family in particular, and their contribution to the Tunisian struggle for liberation.

This DVD can be viewed along with other information at: www.lazharchraiti.org

*Habib Bourguiba’s son Habib Bourguiba Jr passed away recently. He was Tunisia’s Ambassador to Italy, France, USA, Canada & Mexico as well as Minister for Foreign Affairs (1969) and Minister for Justice. He also founded Tunisia’s Economic Development Bank.

Rangers at Orbat

As a result of Abdelwahab’s recent trip to Orbat, and on meeting with local Rangers we are attempting to make donation to assist the Rangers in their conservation and natural resource management of the Orbat Mountain site. We have written to the Minister of Agriculture (Water and Forests) with a proposal to assist in the improvement of living conditions at the Rangers’ watch house. Presently this building has no door or window and no heating or light – conditions are very basic and it must be freezing for them in the current winter conditions. Previously they only had a tent – very cold in winter and very hot in summer.

We also propose to provide the Rangers with a camera so as they may record their observations (animals they are monitoring such as wolves and wild pigs, and different plants and vegetation they are trying desperately to revive, and preserve in this fragile eco-environment). In return we have asked if we can erect a plaque in memory of Lazhar Chraiti in particular. We hope that our proposal has a favourable outcome.

The Rangers earn around $3 a day and they work 7 days a week and have no working conditions as we know such as holidays, leave loading, super, etc. They are dedicated environmentalists/conservationists with a wealth of ecological knowledge and all they expect is (hopefully) a permanent position within the department eventually. Apparently some Rangers have been working for up to 15 years without any mention of a permanent position – this permanency is vital in relation to their old-age/retirement (usually 55) and receipt of pension.

Rangers at Orbat
Rangers at Orbat

8th January

Overall, I’m looking forward to seeing water again, especially the ocean. The only water I see here is in the shower and when washing (dishes and clothes).

Surprise – we woke to steady rain and what Abdelwahab described as “in Australian expression” a miserable day. The umbrella had to be used today but I’m sure these desert dwellers were grateful and praised the wet weather – maybe we woke in Paradise!

Elvis’ 75th birthday was remembered by me but I have not heard anything on Arab/other TV re this significant day, except for the BBC (Arabic) channel.

I have found Aljazeera (English – well, they call it International here) but it has been a disappointment mostly as all it seems to report on is Al Quaeda, Gaza, Yemen and bloody war and killing – not nice at all.

Some news about Australia that filters through on Aljazeera and the German-language channel includes:

• Peter Parrot and Julia Gizzards and the Japanese-Sea Shepherd-whaling incident down there;

• Bushfires and burning houses near Perth;

• Floods and abandoned houses in NSW;

• Australian drunks, especially younger population – was somewhat embarrassed to hear this but good to know that it is no longer just the NT population, and especially blackfellas they talk about;

• Sad news about a murdered Indian student;

• Good news about Australian economy and employment figures.

Of course we don’t get details just quick headlines. We get lots of American news and war propaganda and about a zillion or two (slight exaggeration) “sex for sale” channels – “nice Arab girls” etc. etc and an equal number of religious zealots of all denominations it seems, but a slight predominance of American evangelical crusaders.

The olive harvest is now completed and members of Abdelwahab’s family have been allocated their olive oil and preserved olives for the year.

Thats all for now – thanks for your comments on my stories – you are really too kind – and I’ll try to keep you entertained and amused by my stories.