Tuesday, January 03, 2006

A Tuesday Outing to Nortnern Tunisia - 2003

A Tuesday Outing to Northern Tunisia
Spring in the Mediterranean climate of Tunisia has provided a sense of renewal. The clear blue skies and gentle warmth of the sun beckon people to leave their winter shelter and do whatever possible to be outside. This past Tuesday, the beginning of Muslim New Year, provided us an opportunity to leave the cinder blocks and crowded thoroughfares of Tunis and travel to the green valleys of northern Tunisia.
Our destination: Sejnane. Visitors pass through the rather insignificant village, scouring the countryside roads until they find roadside stands with ceramics characteristic of the region. True, we could find the pit-fired terracotta clay figures glazed with natural cream, rust, and black colors sold in other parts of Tunisia, but we wanted to go to the source. For me, witnessing the actual creation of the pieces in the artist’s natural environment enhances the meaning and memories of the items.
Outside of Tunis, the large highway eventually narrowed into a simple, but well-paved country road. Modes of transportation began to vary more, with everything from donkey or horse carts to mopeds to public transportation vans, speeding by at a terrifying speed. Along the roadside and scattered up the hills, shepherds tended their flocks of varying size – some with only a few sheep and others with huge flocks of the wooly animals. Occasionally, herds of black and white cows would be spotted in the distance, grazing on the green grasses provided by the plentiful rains.
As we neared one of the small villages hugging the road, we could see more people walking and carrying goods in and out of the village. In contrast to the French/Arabic bilingual signs typically posted in Tunis, one would see more store or road signs only in Arabic. Luckily many of the business signs also were illustrated. Men, in their characteristic fashion, sat in simple cafés, talking, smoking, and drinking sugar-laden tea. Others relaxed at the café, smoking the chicha pipes. Were they thinking of the women in the fields nearby, laboring with their backs bent towards the ground?
Traveling onwards, the terrain changed, giving way to high, grassy hills and even low mountains in the distance. Fruit trees and almond trees neatly marched up the hills, adding to the texture. Abundant wild yellow daisies glowed in the bright sunshine, contrasting with the cool dark greens of the leaves and grasses. Tractors, including Massey Fergusons and even a John Deere model worked up the fields. In other fields, scores of women and children manually labored as a group. Homes were small and simple, many whitewashed in typical Tunisian style. Laundry dried on the lines or spread over bushes. Roosters, chickens, donkeys, and other animals freely roamed the small farm. Occasionally one would spot a larger French building, remnants of the colonial days of Tunisia.
After quite a stretch of narrow roads winding up, down, and around the hilly terrain, we decided to pull over and stop to have a picnic. It was a picturesque spot, with fields of yellow daisies, trees, and flowing hills. Narrow dirt paths meandered across the fields like ribbons. Puffy white clouds lazily floated across the blue sky. Down the road emerged two women and two young children, riding on a donkey. One of the teachers in our group spoke Arabic and went to greet the women as they headed over to a field. After the initial greetings, one of the women asked us what we thought of the impending war. How, we inquired of the women, did they hear about such matters? TV, of course, one of the women replied. After a few more minutes of conversation and an invite to go to their home to share some bread, the older woman promptly went to work, cutting weeds with a heavy hewn hoe. When I offered the women and children a sweet snack comprised mostly of sesame seeds and honey, the women acknowledged their gratitude and gave the pieces to the curly-haired children. Hesitant to taste unfamiliar things, the traditional women did not eat any until our Arabic group member explained the ingredient contents of the Tunisian-produced snack.
Refreshed with our picnic lunch, we placed the items in the car trunk, said goodbye to our new friends, and proceeded towards Sejnane. As we pulled up near the driveway of the well-known potter Sabiha, some children politely greeted us. Sabiha and her aunt quickly came to the car, smiling as they greeted some of our group by name, even though the couple had not visited the area in over a year. Walking up the rutted road to the main buildings, Sabiha explained that the simple but unfinished cinder block building near the road was being erected with government grant money to display her ceramic work.
In front of the small barn, large plain clay tiles dried in the sun. We followed Sabiha into a barn that housed several cows on one side. Drying cow chips for the outdoor stove adorned the indoor walls. Sabiha walked over to the large container of clay that she had already cleaned and premixed with ground pottery bits for strength. Both the clay and engobe colors of black, rust and cream were all gathered from the nearby hills. Back outside amongst the sun-drying pottery, Sabiha and her aunt squatted on low stools and began to knead the clay in their hands. Both women quickly transformed the lumps into vessels, turning the clay pinched pots on a crude “wheel” comprised of an upside-down metal pot and a slab of plywood.
While working, Sabiha explained that she loved being a ceramicist (as introduced to her by her mother) so much that she willingly made certain sacrifices. In order to keep working, Sabiha would have to remain single and live with her aunt. A formal education including learning to read had also been deferred, with her entire energy put forth in her work. Like the women in the field, Sabiha and her aunt wore a mélange of clothing styles and layers. Knit pants were worn underneath a simple skirt and a kerchief was tied around her dark-haired head. Cheap simple plastic slip-on shoes were worn over bulky socks. Sabiha’s aunt wore a more traditional dress, held in place over a western-style sweater with large silver Berber pins.
After the demonstration, Sabiha and the entourage of polite children led us to the simple rooms where the finished pieces were stored. We each quickly located something to purchase, including some whimsical clay animals and shallow bowls with traditional Berber designs. In gratitude, Sabiha instructed the children to give us a couple small clay animals as a gift. Before we left, they insisted we take a few loaves of flat round bread, just pulled out of the outdoor stove. Thanking Sabiha, her aunt, and the children for their hospitality, we proceeded back down the road.
Moving onward, we stopped a few roadside displays, hoping to find some clay Berber dolls in the same style. The pushiness and aggressiveness of the children and adults at these places made us want to leave quickly. With our fragile pieces in the trunk, we headed towards the seaside town of Bizerte. Along the way, we saw entire fields underwater, victim to the higher-than usual amounts of rain and a flooded dam upstream in Algeria. After a drought lasting several years, the rain has been seen as a welcome sign. We momentarily stopped to take photos of some storks roosting on the roof of an old French railway station and then headed on. As we crossed the large bridge of Bizerte and onto the expressway, we knew it wouldn’t be long before we arrived back in the capital city. Less than an hour later, the tall white buildings of Tunis filled the skyline, replacing the green flowery hills we so enjoyed on this trip. With a good road system and relatively short distances to a variety of destinations, we’ll be sure to travel again.

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