TCS Daily

Crossing the Fossa Regia

By Michael Totten - November 19, 2004 12:00 AM

Tunisia isn't an island, but it might as well be. If you visit you will arrive the same way you would an isolated coastal town in Alaska -- by boat or by plane. No Western traveler arrives from the border states. You won't take the bus from anarchic Algeria, nor will you pull up at a remote border post in a rental car from Libya. Tunisians have all but walled themselves off from the fundamentalism and fanaticism that surround them. They look instead to their more like-minded neighbors across the Mediterranean to the north. You will think of Europe, too, if you go.

Stepping out of the Tunis-Carthage airport I felt what's familiar to any traveler who leaves the comfort zone of the West: I'm in a strange place that doesn't have any handles. But it didn't take long for that feeling to vanish.

Tunis is no crumbling, Third World emergency-room case. The 30-minute taxi ride from the airport to the city center took me alongside one prosperous neighborhood after another. The suburbs were packed solid with medium-rise towers with arches, minarets, and other traditional Islamic iconography incorporated into their design. If Tunis had slums, they were tucked neatly away. The CIA's World Factbook says only 7.6 percent live below the poverty line. That looked about right to me. At least that's the case in northern Tunisia -- inside the Roman Empire's ancient Fossa Regia.

After checking into our hotel, my wife Shelly and I headed straight for the old city -- the ancient Tunis medina. We walked the maze of twisting streets, carpet stalls, cafes, shuttered windows, arched passageways, minarets, and secret paths. Turkish lamps lit the darkened covered corners of the souk. Potted flowers in hanging baskets added delicate touches of color and life. The aromas of orange oil and curling smoke from burning incense were amplified by the warm heavy air. The muezzin's haunting call to prayer from the Great Mosque in the center was the perfect grace note. This was the East in its glory, the most intoxicating place in the capital.

We left the medina through the arch to the east and found ourselves in the French imperialist quarter known today as the Cité Nouvelle. In the space of less than 100 feet we walked from the Middle East to France, and we did it without leaving Africa.

The French were here to stay. A whole swath of the city center was lifted straight from metropolitan France and dropped wholesale between Lake Tunis and the medina. The windows of fancy apartments opened onto streets above sidewalk cafes, patisseries, chic clothing stores, and brasseries. The building stock was unmistakably French and in better condition than much of Marseilles and Paris. Rome was there, too. The ruins at Carthage are right outside President Ben Ali's office. El Jem's coliseum is better preserved than the more-famous arena in Rome.

Some of the squat yellow taxis looked as though they had been rolled down a cliff face, but most cars on the streets were new and well-maintained. They were the same oh-how-cute little Euro models you see in Vienna and Paris. The exhaust wasn't bad; the air smelled like it was supposed to. It didn't have that tang I have come to expect in a Third World metropolis like the choking and soot-streaked Mexico City.

Eight months ago the young men I saw with machine guns guarding Guatemala City's government buildings stared holes through me when I smiled at them. One of their counterparts in Tunis, a crisply uniformed officer who pointed his frightening weapon at the stomachs of all who walked past, hailed a taxi for me and put his hand on my shoulder when I got in. He kept waving as the taxi pulled away from the curb.

Some conservative women did wear the hijab over their hair, but they were distinctly in the minority. Men wore collared button-up shirts and young women competed to see who could resemble hot young French models the most.

Despite Shelly's blue eyes and red hair, she didn't get stared at much. If you want to turn heads in Tunis, dress like a Saudi. While sitting at the Café de Paris on the Avenue Habib Bourguiba, the Cité Nouvelle's own Champs Elysee, three women walked past wearing black head-to-toe chadors that covered up all but their eyes. I leaned to the right to get a view of everyone else on the street. Almost every man and most of the women turned their heads to gawk at the three wraiths in black.

Shelly and I took the suburban light rail line across Lake Tunis and in 20 minutes were whisked through the new Carthage. You won't find much of the Phoenician Carthage at all. Rome destroyed most of that more than 2000 years ago. There are only a few scattered pieces of Roman Carthage, for that matter. The new and improved city is a tidy bedroom community for middle-class urban professionals.

We kept going past Carthage's "Hannibal" station and got off at the cliff-top seaside village of Sidi Bou Said. The streets were finely cobbled, the walls washed in white, the doors and window trim painted with blue from the sky. Sidi Bou looked Greek, not Arab. Crescent moons on the doors and a white mosque on the hill were the only visual cues that gave it away.

We found a cliffside café and ordered the same thick black espresso you'll find in Florence and Rome. I could smell the salt spray in the cool wind off the sea. Across the shimmering turquoise waters of the Gulf of Tunis loomed Djebel Bou Kornien, the twin-horned mountain that was the ancient home of Hannibal's pagan god Baal. Sailboats contentedly plied the waters.

I thought of Libya next door. Moammar Ghaddafi banned sailing off the coast.

"Why would Ghaddafi ban sailing," I wondered aloud.

"Probably because it's 'bourgeois'," Shelly said, as good a guess as any I could think of. Even while sitting on land I couldn't imagine the Gulf of Tunis with no boats.

A young boy came by our table and sold me a tiny bundle of jasmine for a dinar. I did what other men did and placed it behind my ear. The Carthaginians did the same thing right here a thousand years before the rise of Islam.

The cafés in this part of the country were not all-male affairs. Husbands and wives sat together, sometimes with children. Plenty of couples met at these places on dates. Some Arab countries don't have a dating culture at all, but I saw a young man get a phone number from a giggling young woman who sat with her girlfriends.

Three young couples shared the next table. The women wore fashionable Western clothes and hung on the arms of their boyfriends. I would have thought them Europeans if I were led to this place with a blindfold, if I could not hear the Middle East on their tongues.

Every Mediterranean civilization has landed here in Tunisia adding to the stonework, the psyche, and the bloodlines. It's obvious by the look of the buildings, but that isn't all. As Paul Theroux put it in The Pillars of Hercules, "The faces of Tunis could have been Italian, Spanish, Greek, Sardinian, Turkish, Albanian -- and probably were." With so many layers of cultural sediment right on this spot, it's no wonder Greater Tunis made me think of Europe and not Africa.

I liked Tunis and its surrounding cities a lot. I thought it would be a pleasant place to live, at least for a while. But Shelly and I were drawn to the interior. We needed an undiluted dose of Africa, of the East. "European" Africa was as pleasant a place as I've been, but I needed to go where most French, Greeks, Turks, and Romans had not.

The 8:00 a.m. Bus from Tunis to Douz

We caught the bus out of Tunis to Douz, Tunisia's largest oasis in the Sahara, the farthest place from Tunis you can go in Tunisia on pavement. The tickets cost nine dollars. The bus left at 8:00 a.m., right at the time it began to get hot.

I bought some egg and cheese pastries -- brics à l'oef -- and several bottles of water to take with us. Who knew when we would stop for a break? The driver only spoke French and Arabic. We stowed our luggage in the grimy underside compartment and climbed aboard. The only two seats next to each other were all the way in the back, right on top of the engine - the hottest place on the bus.

It was already at least 90 degrees inside. The air conditioning was as effective as water droplets on a waffle iron. The African sun doesn't joke around. As we left the station most of the passengers pulled closed thick green curtains to keep the sun out.

I wanted to see where we were going, so I opened my own curtain a crack. The southern half of Tunis wasn't as prosperous as the north, although it still wasn't bad. We crawled through traffic for at least a half-hour, passing one lower-middle class neighborhood after another. Every neighborhood was the same; two- and three-story white- and sand-colored apartments rose above shops on the main floor. Humble storefronts advertised groceries, cigarettes (tabac), hardware, discount clothing, and other basic goods. We passed an enormous sports stadium, El Menzah, built for the 1967 Mediterranean Games. Baal's twin-horned mountain dominated our right. It was hard to see it as a place of pagan worship. A radio tower was stuck like a pin into the rim of what looked like a crater.

We picked up speed as we passed into a verdant landscape of rolling green hills watered with rain, trim farmhouses shaded by trees, and more vineyards than you would ever expect to see in a Muslim country. The people who live here are lucky, I thought. This soil has been watered with the blood of the entire Mediterranean, but these days it's as lovely and tranquil as Napa.

Cell phones rang with exotic Arabic melodies reduced to a comical series of beeps. Everyone not on the phone kept quiet. They read the paper, solved word puzzles, peered through the curtains at the countryside, or napped.

We followed the coast down to the city of Hammamet, a playground for European tourists and ostentatious locals, before swinging inland away from the salt spray and olive groves and into the African continent. It occurred to me suddenly: we could drive to the Congo from here.

We pulled into a small town -- just a few buildings, really -- in semi-arid farm country. The bus stopped and shuddered down. The air conditioning powered off and I sat in a puddle of sweat waiting for everyone else in front of me to get off. My shirt stuck to my back and it felt like ants crawled over my skin. I was as wet as if I had fallen into a pool.

I followed everyone else off the bus and saw that we had parked next to a roadside stand that sold soft drinks and Tunisian road food -- semi-sweet treats made mostly of bread, dates, and sesame seeds. I must have looked as thrashed as I felt. A man put his hand on my shoulder, twisted the cap off a dripping cold bottle of water, and offered me the first drink. I was so grateful and no longer cared that my clothes stuck to my skin.

I wondered if I would see the Fossa Regia. This is the ditch Rome's General Scipio dug after annihilating Carthage (and Hannibal with it) back in 202 B.C. It marked the border between Rome's new province of Ifriquiya (the north and most of the coast of present-day Tunisia) and tribal unruly Numidia beyond.

For more than two millennia this urban part of Tunisia has been under the aegis of one civilization or another. The tribalism that afflicts much, but not all, of the Arab world is mostly absent here. The region beyond the old Fossa Regia has been outside the reach of the great powers for most of this time. The south lags far behind the north economically, politically, and culturally. It has since the time of antiquity.

Tunisia's Culture Minister Abdelbaki Hermassi told Robert Kaplan of The Atlantic Monthly: "In Roman times you could ignore the periphery. Today we need to draw in the shadow zone beyond Roman settlement that is within our borders."

We got back on the bus and rolled toward the shadow zone.

Crossing the Fossa Regia

It's hard to tell where the Sahara begins. It doesn't appear suddenly. There is no one particular mountain range that divides the green lands from the dry. The landscape just keeps getting bleaker.

First the hills became stark. Then the trees vanished, followed by farmland. The soil got rockier. Soon there was nothing but low mountains slouching with age surrounded by dirt, rock, and scrub. Few people lived on the land.

I guessed we were in the Sahara. But it looked more like Nevada than the romantic desert of the popular imagination. The great sand seas -- ergs in Arabic -- were still a few hours south.

The road was smooth, the painted lines sharply defined. Our bus had the whole thing to itself. Peering around my curtain I saw usable-looking railroad tracks, although the passenger trains only ran on the coast. The power line towers were narrow -- maybe a foot or so wide -- and no more than twenty feet tall at the most. Wiring the desert took a great deal of effort -- drawing in the shadow zone -- for not many people. Those towers looked like they had been built yesterday.

There was some litter on the side of the road, a lot more than you see in the States, but not nearly the amount strewn across Latin America. Red and white tombstone-shaped markers counted down the kilometers to Tozeur.

We saw a few houses once in a while, but no farms. This was goat-grazing land -- if that. Although the countryside was a lot less wealthy than the green lands in the north, it wasn't squalid. Even the blockiest houses had sky blue doors decorated with little black moons.

The bus stopped again at a small ramshackle settlement of twenty or so buildings with a few houses scattered seemingly at random in the distance. That was fine with me. I needed to get out. The bus may as well have been broiling in coals. The driver and an assistant stepped off and stared at the engine with their hands on their hips. It didn't look good. The assistant bought several bottles of water from a roadside stand, twisted off the caps, and slung ropes of the stuff onto the engine. Steam exploded in clouds. I sighed.

Shelly and I found a narrow ledge of shade next to a boarded-up building. We may as well sit and be comfortable.

Two teenage girls came over and sat next to us. They were friends. One looked typically Arab and wore long dark hair and a pink t-shirt. The other was black and must have spent hours braiding her hair into a tight knit of cornrows. They both spoke some English.

"We have to wait for another bus," the black-skinned girl said.

The sun had clearly defeated this one, which was exactly what was about to happen to us, especially if we had to spend the entire afternoon in this dust-blown desert "town" I couldn't even find on my map.

But another bus pulled up in minutes. Everyone waited patiently for their turn alongside the old one to pull their luggage out of the underside storage bins. They waited in orderly lines next to the new bus to stow their bags once again. This part of Tunisia was looking a little Third World and forlorn, but it didn't function that way. Not yet.

Just before we reached the town of Tozeur we came upon what looked like a vast forest of date palms. When I squinted it looked like a jungle. This was the palmerie, which made up the bulk of the oasis, an impossible-seeming place where the subterranean water approached the surface. Date palms survived and produced fruit here without irrigation. Their roots were unknowingly deep and thrived on water ten times too salty for people to drink.

There was no French or Roman architecture to speak of in Tozeur or in any other town in the south of Tunisia. Except for the mosques, most buildings didn't look recognizably Middle Eastern, either. They were either featureless rectangles or built in what I came to think of as "Saharan" style -- sand-colored brickwork with a grooved surface created by pushing every other brick an inch deeper into the facade. We were now totally out of the orbit of Europe. This was the East, and this was Africa.

We pulled into Tozeur's bus station and the girls who had spoken English to us earlier put scarves on their heads. The black-skinned girl had spent so much time and effort braiding her hair into tight little rows, all wasted now that she was back in what presumably was her home town. A trip to Tunis must have seemed to her like a trip into France.

The next town past Tozeur was not on my map. Buildings were blockier and devoid of any architectural details, French, Roman, Arab, Saharan, or otherwise. Most of the houses were crumbling. The minarets on the mosques did not soar; they were squat. Garbage was strewn all over the side of the road and sometimes piled up next to homes. I saw men hanging around with nothing to do. I couldn't see any women at all, at least not from the bus. The only paved street was the main road through town. The side streets were mostly made of dirt with a little gravel smeared around. Chassis-busting pot holes abounded.

We came upon a vast and cracked salt-crusted plain called the Chott el Jerrid. Some of the locals thought it was once a part of the Mediterranean. At the very least it used to be covered in water, as these kinds of formations tended to be. Now it's an enormous featureless ground where nothing lives.

I could see why Rome and the other imperial powers didn't want to come down here. Large settlements are nearly impossible even with modern technology. And without today's infrastructure just getting to this place, let alone drawing it into an empire, was a treacherous business.

After crossing the Chott the bus pulled into a larger town and stopped. Was this Douz, our destination? There was no way to tell. None of the bus stations were marked. The driver didn't announce the stops. Passengers were expected to know where they were. It was no bus for tourists.

The driver got out and went into a back office inside the station. Shelly and I got out, too, and tried to figure out where we were. I scanned the storefront signs looking for clues. Maybe I could find a "Douz Hardware" or something else that would give it away. Although French is spoken in the south as much as it is in the north, almost all the lettering was in Arabic without a translation. I felt like an interloper.

It was late afternoon. The heat punished us more than ever. The streets were as quiet as midnight. We saw no people. I popped a stick of gum in my mouth, not really knowing what else to do with myself. Should I get our luggage off the bus?

A tall black man shuffled toward us on the sidewalk, his head lowered. He looked like I felt, as if he had gotten into a fistfight with the heat and lost. Seeing us, he stopped and asked us in French where we were going. He knew we had no business here.

"Douz," I said.

He didn't say anything else, but he nodded and continued past. I guessed that meant we weren't yet in Douz.

I was glad this wasn't the place. I didn't want to stay. The sidewalks were broken. The buildings were ugly, featureless, and they slumped in the heat.

Unfinished construction was everywhere. And I do mean everywhere. It looked as though almost every last building project had been cancelled early. Walls and even roofs were often missing. Rebar stuck out the top of nearly everything whether it had a roof on it or not. Maybe construction happened in fits and starts, when money was available. Perhaps the builders left the rebar sticking out the top because they were lazy or because it just didn't occur to them that it's ugly. The older houses had collapsed roofs or walls and appeared abandoned, left to rot.

The Shadow Zone

At last we made it to Douz and checked into the Hotel El Mouradi at the edge of the Grand Erg Oriental -- an enormous sea of beautifully sculpted talcum-grained sand. That sand was everywhere. Between our molars and our toes. In our ears, our noses, in our bed, our shower, and our clothes. It pooled in the corners of stairwells. Great tsunamis of it buried towns and villages whole until the wind turned fickle and uncovered them a hundred years later for tourists to marvel at on camel treks. You can climb a small dune and see shadows cast on sharply cut waves to the horizon, uninterrupted by house, tree, or rock. And to think: it goes on like that for hundreds of miles into Algeria. I didn't believe it, not really, not while looking at it. My mind reeled. I needed maps to see the truth of this place.

The contrast with the cities of the liberal Tunisian north was as stark as the contrast between the East and the West. There were almost no women in Douz at all. Or, rather, they were veiled by the walls of their husband's houses. The few who did venture out were swathed head to ankle in more layers of clothing than I wear when I ski on Mt. Hood in the winter. A few even covered their hands with gloves.

The poverty was less pronounced than what I saw from the bus. Many houses were ugly and unfinished, but larger than those in the other towns. Few were actually collapsing, and some had inviting tiled courtyards in the front and spindle-lined balconies above the entrances. I saw grim-looking restaurants with all the charm of high-school cafeterias. Others were nicely tiled or had purposely misshapen cozy adobe interiors.

Shelly said she felt like a zoo animal when we ventured into town. The only uncovered women most men ever saw were mothers, sisters, and wives. But when we struck up conversations with those who spoke English she was no longer an object. She became "sister."

I bought a carpet in the souk and took it to the post office to mail home. (The service was fast. It arrived before I did two weeks later.) The air inside was a cool 70 degrees, chilled by the only air conditioning in town outside our hotel. The place was run by professionally dressed women with uncovered hair, the first and only such women I saw beyond the Fossa Regia. The only man who worked there was (of course) the boss. He sat at an oversized desk and seemed to have little to do.

The women wore the proper number of layers for that climate -- one. They seemed much cheerier than the small number of grumpier women I saw around town whose lined faces looked defeated, either by the heat in the portable tents they wore or from their hard lives of domestic drudgery.

The post office was an oasis within an oasis, a virtual embassy from the north. It was the tip of a socially liberal spear thrust into the shadow zone. The government prohibited the women who worked there from wearing the hijab just as the late President Habib Bourguiba dismissed it as "an odious rag" and banned it in public schools.

All the customers were men. It was good for them to do business with modern women and see that Allah was okay with it. At least he hadn't blasted the place yet.

Our hotel, booked as it was by Europeans, was a tiny liberal oasis where Western women sat by the pool in bikinis and sipped from glasses of wine. Perhaps it had a reputation in town of being a place of sin and iniquity, but the Arab men who worked there sure did seem to enjoy themselves. They were as cheery as deejays at a hipster party. The place must have looked to them the way a nude beach or a strip club looks to Americans. If they enjoyed hanging around in a loose environment perhaps they could carry that experience with them and lighten up the conservative town just a tad. If the post office was the tip of a liberal spear, the Hotel El Mouradi was a beach head.

I didn't go to the Sahara to sit in a pool. But there are few other physically tolerable activities at 3:00 in the afternoon during the summer months when it gets up to 120 degrees in the morning shade.

One day when I went down to the pool an Arab family had it all to themselves. The father and two little boys laughed as they splashed each other. Their mother looked sullen and severe. She wore a black long-sleeved shirt and pants into the water. I slipped in at the opposite end. She got out without looking at me and wrapped herself in a towel. I felt as if I had blundered onto a private nude beach wearing a three-piece.

Later when the pool was full of Europeans and a few local men who showed up for the display I sat in a chair and flipped through Shelly's copy of Ms. magazine. I found this unintentionally hilarious sentence by Saudi Arabia's chief blowhard cleric Grand Mufti Sheik Abdul Aziz bin Abdullah Al-Sheik: "Allowing women to mix with men is the root of every evil and catastrophe...It is highly punishable." One of my favorite things about our little Western beachhead in Araby was that its very existence was as act of defiance. The mufti's fellow Arab Muslims designed it, financed it, built it, operated it, and made a living from it.

The dunes around Douz have the reputation among locals for being boring and small. I did not find them dull, but nor did I want to pass up the chance to see the bigger more spectacular dunes around the oasis of Ksar Ghilane a few hours south. It is about as far as you can go without a government permit to enter the militarized zone near the triple-border region where Tunisia, Algeria, and Libya converge -- reason enough by itself for me to go there.

We hired a guide to take us there in a Land Rover. The road followed the edge of the erg through an unspeakably hot tortured plain of grit, gravel, and scrub. The horizon rippled with heat and yellow haze. Wild camels lazily crossed the road.

"Have you ever been to Libya?" Shelly asked our driver.

"Oh yes, many times," he said. "I love Libya. They have a nicer desert."

"What about Ghaddafi?" I said.

He laughed and rolled his eyes -- a common response in Tunisia to the lunatic dictator's name. "But," he said. "Algeria, never. Never." He made a slashing motion across his throat with his finger.

We turned off the highway onto a rutted gravel road. Soon it was buried in sheets of blowing sand. Then it began to braid. Well-worn tire tracks branched off in crazy directions. Our driver veered the Land Rover across the desert floor from one bogus "road" to another, seemingly at random. I hoped he knew what he was doing, but I didn't want to insult him by asking.

I thought of petroposia -- the quenching of thirst by the drinking of gasoline. It happens a lot in the Sahara when cars break down and no one shows up to rescue the stranded. William Langewiesche said in The Atlantic Monthly that the locals in Algeria suggested it to him as a way to stay off the battery acid.

As we pulled into the town of Ksar Ghilane (it was really more of a settlement) a donkey scratched his ear on the open door of a rusted junked car from the 50s. I saw fifteen-foot squares fenced off with sticks. These were the "walls" of the houses of the poor. They had no roof to protect them from the sun, and they had little privacy. I could practically see through the spaces between the sticks. I hoped these things were actually goat pens, but the way they were spaced out from the "middle class" homes (dreary cubes made from concrete slabs) I had my doubts. The poverty here was less ugly than in, say, Guatemala, but it was absolute.

We did not see a single woman in the oasis of Ksar Ghilane. It was like an eerie outpost at the end of the world or a village in an alternate universe where some sinister force had killed off all the women.

The dunes were spectacular. They were a deeper shade of red, more substantial, and more beautifully sculpted than those around Douz. The people of Ksar Ghilane were lucky to have this attraction. It drew just enough visitors to provide a tiny trickle of money from places that actually had some. They lived in the farthest reaches of Tunisia's shadow zone, almost totally cut off from the world around them. The government's modernization program had not even begun here yet. All power in town shut off at 11:00 p.m. as a red moon rose.

The root of so many of southern Tunisia's problems are environmental. Of course, places like Ksar Ghilane would be a lot less forlorn if Rome and the other great powers had settled and built them up. But that's just another way of saying the same thing; the harsh environment is the reason Rome and the others ignored this region of Africa.

As far as the social backwardness goes, the severity of the desert naturally made people conservative. Huge amounts of time and effort were expended just to survive. Nature wasn't thought of as a Mother, but more like a strict father or even a wrathful overlord. And it's hard to be cosmopolitan when enormous and dangerous distances practically dictate hyper-localism and its nomadic equivalent -- tribalism.

The last place we visited beyond the Fossa Regia was the Berber town of Matmata. The government had just finished building a brand-new shiny black road connecting it to Douz. The bus companies hadn't added a new line yet, so we took a taxi.

Matmata sat atop an eerie upland moonscape. The Berbers went underground more than a thousand years ago to escape the infernal heat of the Sahara. You would, too, if you didn't have central air. You would tunnel into the walls with your hands if you had to.

The underground "troglodyte" houses were a cool 75 degrees at midday. George Lucas thought them the perfect setting for Star Wars. Both Luke Skywalker and Ben Kenobi lived on the desert planet Tatooine (which is the name of a real town a few miles away) in caves tunneled out from the center of open-air pits. Not everyone in Matmata lived underground, though. Most of the buildings were top-side and -- whenever possible -- were cooled down the usual way.

In Tunis the mosques were architectural masterpieces, with soaring minarets, marble floors, Roman columns, and intricately tiled blue and white walls. The mosque in Matmata was made of the same white- and lime-washed adobe as the walls inside the Berber houses. It was primitive and misshapen as though it were a gigantic version of a clay mosque made by a child in art class.

Chickens, donkeys, and even camels ran loose in the streets. It was hard to believe there was another street in the same country that made me think of a less-fancy Champs Elysee. Some people lived in one-room caves even in the middle of town -- the Berber version of tin shacks. The gender apartheid was total. The number of women we saw while in town: zero. We did, however, see a bloody fly-blown goat's head on the sidewalk.

The backwardness and extreme conservatism was as exhausting as the heat. The streets full of men had an edge to them, even though every last one was kind, generous, and embarrassingly friendly. (I wrote about the heartwarming hospitality of southern Tunisians in my last TCS piece.)

Shelly and I yearned for the coast and took a tortured bus ride back up to Tunis. We were finished with the Sahara and planned to spend the rest of our trip inside the old Fossa Regia. We missed the relatively liberal and "Westernized" north where Shelly's presence wasn't performance art and where the soothing Mediterranean air could massage the fury of the Sahara out of our backs.

North Africa's Answer to Miami

The train to the coastal city of Sousse left the Gare de Tunis exactly on time at 12:05 p.m. It cost six dollars. The seats were as spacious as first class on British Airways. They reclined all the way back. The air conditioning kept our compartment as cool as a Berber house. A man sold newspapers in the aisle, and another followed with a cart and sold coffee, tea, soft drinks, cookies, and sandwiches. There was a bar car where passengers could smoke. Each station was clearly marked. This was the right way to travel.

A young Arab woman offered me a menthol cigarette. She had blue eyes, red and blonde streaked hair, and a nose ring. I would have thought she was from Amsterdam or Los Angeles except that she spoke rapid-fire Arabic with her friends and the other passengers. A southern Tunisian would probably peg her as Western, too. I hadn't crossed any formal border, only the old Fossa Regia, but I felt like I was back in the world I knew. And to think: This young Arab woman was able to dye her hair and stick a ring in her nose without getting jeered at because of a chain of events started by Rome that predated the birth of Islam by 900 years.

The Sousse medina was a fine one. The walls and turrets were built by the conquering Aghlabids in 859 A.D. The paving stones looked freshly cut. The walls were clean, and there was less trash and grime than in the Tunis medina. This one had to look cute for the tourists. It was almost too precious and seemed to have lost some of the magic it may have once had.

The Zone Touristique was a bit like Las Vegas and a lot like Cancun. Vaguely Middle Eastern-themed hotels, some shaped like castles and Berber ksars, fronted the horseshoe-shaped bay. They catered to hip young Eurotourists who mostly came to Tunisia for the beach. I saw handbills advertising nightclubs and meet-markets. A large wooden sign just a block from our hotel informed me that Sousse's sister city back in the States was Miami.

The amount of wealth in a given place in Tunisia seemed to me directly proportional to its amount of contact with people from somewhere else, even if that contact was in the past. Souse benefited from being inside Rome's Fossa Regia, more recently from restoration by the French who fell in love with the city, and currently by an enormous injection of cash in the form of tourist Euros every single day of the year.

Cool salty Mediterranean air blew through our beach-side hotel room, rattled the door, and whistled sharply into the hallway. I laid on the bed with the patio door open, amazed such a soothing place could exist so close to the desert. It was only three or four hours away by car.

We were on a tiny sliver of land between the Sahara and the sea. The great desert is the size of the United States, this narrow strip of cool green land but a fingernail. I could almost feel the presence of the Sahara over the mountains as if it were a conscious ocean of sun-blasted sand and rock waiting just over the horizon to swallow this little paradise whole. A slight nudge in the climate, the merest push from the center toward the perimeter, would overwhelm this place.

What's actually happening is the reverse. This little green ledge on the rim of the continent is projecting its wealth, its culture, and its power into the hinterland more than ever before. Teachers, tourists, air-conditioners, power lines, shiny new roads, public Internet cafes, and women without the hijab are all parts of that project.

But places like Douz, Tozeur, Ksar Ghilane, and Matmata will never look like Sousse on a sea of sand instead of on water. For that the government would have to subdue the Sahara. It is beyond the means of man. In the end the Saharans of Tunisia and everywhere else in North Africa will be what they always have been: as wealthy and modern as they can be, and as traditional as they think they must.

Michael J. Totten is a TCS columnist. Visit his daily Web log at


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