Read Part 1 here
It was just after the Fajr prayer and the waters of the Mediterranean were coming to life under the light of the sun, revealing the azure shade of blue so loved by the Tunisian people. This colour is interwoven in jewellery, adorns pottery, and decorates the homes of the beautiful seaside town of Sidi Bou Said. It also finally explained to me why my husband’s shirts were, almost all, variants of this same shade of blue.
We were at the ocean for a week, where the cool breeze provided some respite against the pulsing heat of the Tunisian summer. We were joined by my husband’s family who spent a few days at a time with us, enjoying the famed beauty of the Tunisian beaches.
The water was warm and wonderful. Families were enjoying the summer holidays, and children were blossoming under the warmth of the sun. The week at the ocean helped recharge our batteries after a busy two weeks and the emotionally-charged reunion between my husband and his family. The ocean brought a sense of calm to all of us. My mother-in-law joined us for a few days as well, and we cajoled her into the ocean, which she loved.
At nearby Nabeul, my husband and I braved another visit to officialdom. We were trying to extend my visa, amongst other things. In this regard, the Tunisia of today was as my husband had remembered it, one closed door after the other. We had spotted the beautiful craft market of Nabeul on an earlier visit and so turned our attention to a more fruitful pursuit, shopping for the family in South Africa. My husband was, Alhamdulillah, patient for a few hours before whisking me back to the holiday home where our son had fallen asleep after a morning swim.
It was during our stay at the beach that we were contacted by close friends whom we had known in South Africa. The husband, a Tunisian businessman, was settling with his family in Tunis. His Palestinian wife was one of my best friends, and I had missed her terribly since they left South Africa four years earlier. They had not returned and here we would meet them, in the most unexpected place in the world – in the country which both my husband and his friend had fled almost two decades earlier. SubhanAllah. Meeting this sister, whom I truly love for the sake of Allah (SWT), was an unexpected blessing of our journey.
This was to be my second visit to the capital city. We spent a wonderful evening catching up with all our news, and watched as our boys, her three and my one, played together happily. During our visit, we stopped for ‘Isha prayer at Jaami’atul ‘Aabidien, a mosque built by ousted president, Ben Ali. The guide informed us that the entrance to this mosque was only by presidential invitation in the past. Not so today, Alhamdulillah.
Tunis beckoned again, and during my third week in Tunisia, I visited Tunis by day. It was an exciting day which started at The Bardo, a museum which chronicles the long history of Tunisia, particularly the era of Roman occupation, when emperors and generals ruled over Tunisian lands. The mosaic collection is astounding. After a pizza lunch at a nearby restaurant, we proceeded towards the Zaytuna mosque which housed the famous Zaytuna University, the first university which was established by Muslims in the 8th century. En route to the mosque, we passed by many of the places which had been at the centre of the protests during the Jasmine Revolution. My husband recalled the scenes of the protests in 1989 and I know he had longed to be there in 2010.
The covered market area surrounding the mosque sells traditional Tunisian crafts. We spent only a short time in the market that day and my husband’s niece, a university student in Tunis, promised to return with me at a later date for a tour of the city. I returned one week later with her mother. While I was fascinated by the intricate decorations on many of the doors around the market, my son’s eyes popped out at the sweets, sold by the kilo. He had one shopkeeper in stitches when he asked him, in Arabic, how much one sweet cost. Needless to say, in the true spirit of Arab generosity and reflective of their abundant love for children, my son walked away with a handful of sweets which he shared generously.
These weeks also saw me acclimatise to the demands of daily life – I even ventured to cook for the family one Friday. My mum-in-law and I had some hilarious moments in the kitchen. Once she asked for some tomato paste, an essential ingredient in most Tunisian dishes, and I brought her an entire bag of fresh tomatoes. Another time, I had her rolling on the floor with laughter when I brought the whole bag of bread instead of the one piece she had asked for. All-in-all, I wasn’t faring too bad on the language side, at least I had brought tomatoes and bread, maybe not in the specific consistency or quantity, but I was pretty close.
I also, in this period of the trip, enjoyed some glimpses of Tunisian life after the Jasmine Revolution. I accompanied one of my sisters-in-law to the graduation ceremony of a traditional Qur’an school, a kuttab, which had opened its doors just after The Revolution. My husband had attended this very institution when he was a young boy, before the institute was closed and some of its teachers imprisoned for teaching children to read and memorise the Qur’an. I was also treated, in this period of the trip, to the Friday market in my husband’s town, which boasted everything from delicious sweet melons, ripened by the warm Tunisian sun to artfully-crafted wooden tables. I resisted though and only purchased two sun hats, one cup, a small kettle and some beautiful scarf pins.
During this time I also met an Albanian sister, married to a friend of my husband. She spoke Arabic and I enjoyed listening to her insights into Tunisian life. Despite her husband’s exile, she had been visiting Tunisia annually from nearby Italy and not only spoke the slang, but had her five-year-old daughter speaking Italian, Albanian and Arabic, masha Allah.
While I had longed to spend a few more hours in the beautiful seaside town of Binzerte, the meal of fish, roasted vegetable salad and warm bread, was one I will remember for years. We ended the evening with a visit to a cousin of my husband whom he had never met before. The rented Renault Symbol took us home that night, anticipation already building for our next visit, which would take us to Kairouan, where one of the companions, Uqbah ibn Naafi (RA), had built a mosque in 670, less than 40 years after the death of the Prophet (SAW). It was to be one of my most memorable experiences in Tunisia.
Najma Mohamed is an environmental researcher and writer living in Cape Town, South Africa with her husband and young son.