Tuesday, January 03, 2006

A trip to the Tunis medina - 2002

Our journey began as we boarded the older passenger train in La Marsa,
heading towards downtown Tunis. Stepping off the train, the modern city of
Tunis awaited us. In one street side shop, men individually bound fragrant
jasmine flowers for placement behind men's ears. Road and building
construction occurred here as well, just like every other part of Tunis. At
the outdoor cafés, men chatted as they sipped coffee or tea and smoked
cigarettes. Most dressed in modern Western clothes, with the exception of
some women who gently draped a shawl over their heads. I was surprised at
how many skimpy clothes and shorts I saw - certainly not what the guide
books described. Along the sides of the wide boulevard Avenue Habib
Bourguiba, one could see a variety of buildings, ranging from larger French
colonial structures to more modern tall apartment buildings and hotels.
Typical of most buildings in Tunis, white was the predominant color,
contrasting against the often bright blue skies. Compact cars waited as
groups of pedestrians walked across the busy streets.

Along the sidewalks and sheltered from the heat under the building
overhangs, men and teenage boys engaged in various entrepreneurial
adventures. Some held fistfuls of sunglasses, eager to capitalize on the
brilliant sunny days in the capital. Between the columns of a building
overhang, others had their shoeshine business set up. A few even squatted
behind scales, waiting for customers who wanted to be weighed. Some people
waited in line to use one of the several ATM machines. Shop windows proudly
displayed their wares, whether it be furniture, clothing, or shoes. At the
downtown movie theatre, posters proudly displayed the current feature
starring Dennis Rodman. Shortly before we reached the arched entrance of the
medina, we arrived at the governmental artisan store. Perusing through the
nicely displayed shelves full of items created in the country, we got a
better idea of prices and what art the country had to offer.

Upon taking the left main route in the medina, I felt an immediate
transformation in my surroundings. The narrow cobblestone street filled with
people as they tried to navigate or take a glance at what the tiny souks had
to offer. The methodical pounding of the repoussé artisans, exchanges in
many languages, and the call of the shopkeepers all added to the bustling
atmosphere. Occasionally a man would try to wiggle his way through the
narrow crowded street with his cart. Making our way past the artisan street
filled with carpets, ornate birdcages, and a variety of souvenir items, we
entered other streets. Some sold spices; others contained leather goods or
flowing clothing. The sweet scent of perfume filled the air as we entered
the perfumers' souk filled with delicate colorful bottles, a souk dating
back to the 13th century. Nearby was the souk of the fez-makers, with some
proudly demonstrating the traditional process. Almost lunchtime, the smell
of food ahead was especially inviting. Men chat as they sipped mint tea and
smoke the hookah pipe. Too hot and crowded for our tastes, we decided to eat
elsewhere. Making our way through the labyrinth of bustling souks, we once
again found ourselves back at the arch separating the medina from the modern

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