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Time Travel

This is the fifth in a series of blog posts from Rebecca Christianson, an Associate Professor of Applied Physics at Olin College who is in Tunisia as a Fulbright Specialist. She is blogging about her experiences while she is away.

In parts of the countryside of Tunisia, it is still unusual for women to drive. It is almost unheardof for women to drive while blasting the most recent American pop songs at top volume, singing and dancing along the way. This last weekend, Asma drove my sister, Nikki, and I out to see the Roman ruins at Dougge and Makthar, which happens to be Asma’s home town. It was two hours of driving there and back, and along the way we discovered that Asma shares exactly the same taste in music as my teenage daughter, which provided a startling counterpoint to the ancient Roman scenery and the old country feel of the Tunisian towns.  

The history of Tunisia is extremely rich and varied.  It was the seat of the ancient Carthaginian Empire, which was decimated by Rome in 146 BC. Rome then proceeded to occupy and redevelop the area which is now Tunisia and it became a significant and prosperous agricultural supplier of Rome: the granary of the empire.  There are huge, well preserved Roman ruins across Tunisia, and some of the most significant of these are the ruins at Dougga and Makthar which we visited this weekend. We saw fantastic standing columns and portions of temples, vast amphitheaters, and colorful mosaics, all amidst the beautiful rolling hills of western Tunisia. 

Of course, western Tunisia is also one of the places that the US Department of State warns travelers to avoid due to significant terrorist presence. When Asma, Nikki and I pulled up to the police check at the entrance to Dougge, the police officer immediately noticed that Nik and I were foreign and asked Asma where we were from. When she replied ‘America’, he took down her name, her cell phone number, license plate number and our planned itinerary.  For the rest of the day, at every police check along our route (of which there were MANY) we were clearly noticed and our presence reported to ‘the Room,’ as Asma called it.  They kept tabs on us until we headed back into Tunis. 

While we were in Makthar, we again were treated to the amazing hospitality which I have seen so much of here.  Asma’s mother invited us into her home, along with Salah and his entire family who accompanied us as well, and cooked us an incredible lunch of lamb and couscous, and of course the Tunisian standby brik which is fried flakey pastry filled with egg or cheese. This was incredibly generous considering that Asma’s parents are retired and live on a very meager income even by the standards of the Tunisian countryside.  Visiting rural Tunisia was really like travelling back in time.  As modern as Tunis tries to be, the countryside is still a patchwork quilt of small farms, shepherds tending flocks of sheep by—and occasionally in the middle of—the roads. Farmers sell produce at roadside stands and move their goods about by donkey. 

Even in Tunis itself, vestiges of this old way of life still persist.  Amidst the insane car traffic of the city, you will occasionally get hung up behind a horse and cart or someone riding on a donkey.  And, last Friday I got to experience shopping Tunisian-style.  Walking on the poorly maintained sidewalks of Tunis rapidly destroyed my old work shoes, so Asma took me to find new ones.  I had been to the grocery store here, but had been somewhat surprised by how empty it seemed. This is because no one really goes there to buy what they need, their grocery store of choice is an open-air market.  The market is a chaotic mix of farmers who come from the from the countryside with truckloads of artichokes, strawberries, oranges and other produce. There are also stands with cheap housewares, and dealers selling second-hand clothes and shoes in massive piles some of which, I imagine, is castoff clothing from the US.  Amidst this craziness I actually found a pair of nice shoes in exactly my size with only light wear, for the exorbitant price of 5 dinars: or about $1.50. 

Tunis and its surrounding communities also have significant. Historical presence. Carthage, which is just to the east of Tunis has incredible Punic and Roman ruins, which Nikki and I visited with the guidance of Jihan, one of the teachers of English from Esprit who lives there.  We visited the Byrsa, a tall hill in the middle of the city which contains ruins from what was left of ancient Carthage after the Romans burnt it to the ground, as well as ‘more recent’ Roman ruins and a beautiful 19th-century Christian church which was built on the site during the French colonial days. There were Roman villas, with a security guard who was able to remember Eisenhower’s visit to Tunisia, and the floating hospital that Kennedy sent to Tunisia in the 60s.  There was also a spectacular old Roman theatre which had been converted to a modern rock concert venue.


There are also places in Tunis which have been purposely maintained in the old style of architecture, where the rules forbid new buildings and an air of beauty and antiquity is preserved. One is the Medina, the old city center which Nikki and I will be visiting this Friday with Salah. Another is Sidi Bou Said, which I had visited briefly last week, and which Nik and I visited again this last weekend.  This time, we visited a gorgeous palace built there at the beginning of the 20th century by a famous European artist and musician of the time for his Tunisian boyfriend.  The palace was built in the neo-Moorish style (Arabisance), so stepping inside feels like walking into the 1001 Arabian Nights.  The intricate carvings, garden courtyards loaded with flowers, and romantic alcoves with curtain draped lounges made me feel like I could see Scheherazade walk by at any moment.  It was the perfect ending to a weekend travelling through time before returning the very modern world of engineering education on Monday morning.