After a month in Sminja, I grew too big for this small town. I wanted to make some travels with a kashabiya.
The "kashabiya" was a fuzzy brown robe with a pointy hood you could put on your head. The fact that I would be traveling with this robe meant two things:
1. I was in Tunisia, or at least somewhere in northern Africa.
And 2. It was winter.
The fact that I would be traveling in Tunisia meant also that:
3. I was going to meet some crazy people.
And so, on February 15th, I began hitchhiking to southern Tunisia and the Sahara Desert.
My first ride took me to the city of El Fahss. Two young men helped me buy my kashabiya in the Saturday market. I put it on and felt like a fuzzy brown teddy bear. I smiled. Wearing a robe outside was the next best thing to wearing a robe inside, or to being naked outside. This kashabiya was the best $5.50 I'd ever spent.
One of the young men helping me wore a fuzzy black robe called a "kadron". It was worn by religious men. This man and his friend, who wore Western clothes, instructed me to repeat something after them in Arabic. I recognized the words, "Allah" (God) and "El-Nabi" (The Prophet). Certainly, they wanted me to profess that Allah was the only god and Mohammed was His prophet. They were trying to trick me into believing in their religion?
They went to the mosque, and I continued to hitchhike south. I was quickly picked up by a large man in a bright white robe, a navy vest, an Islamic fringe beard, and a navy skull-cap. He was going to his home in the city of Kerouan. Some people considered Kerouan to be Islam's fourth holiest city.
This man, Mohammed Idriss, had been to Mecca in Saudi Arabia twenty-five times. He spoke to me in Arabic - not just in the Tunisian dialect, he also used words from classical Arabic. He said Islam was "jameel" (beautiful). He told me stories of Canadian and German friends of his, who'd come to Kerouan and converted to Islam.
I also wanted to visit Kerouan. But, not today. I continued hitchhiking, and got picked up by an Algerian trucker.
Attia Hamed loved his country. I knew that Algeria's government was basically a military regime. Attia Hamed told me proudly that there were a lot more police in Algeria than in Tunisia, and that in his country of thirty-seven million there were three million soldiers. He said that, in Algeria, it was illegal for a man and woman to be in a car (or hotel room) together if they weren't married.
Oh, boy. He made Algeria sound awful.
He left me somewhere in Tunisia. I pitched my tent in an orchard full of olive trees and sand. I took my kashabiya out of my backpack and put it on and sat in the silence. I smiled.
I'm the coolest person in the world, I thought to myself, because I have a kashabiya.
I invented a song for myself, which could be sung to the rhythm of The Vapors' song, "Turning Japanese". It went like this:
"And-ee kashabiya, and-ee and-ee kashabiya, and-ee and-ee ... bah-duh-bah pah pah!"
(I have a kashabiya, I have I have a kashabiya, I have I have ...)
Bah-duh-bah pah pah!
The next day, I traveled to the town of Metlaoui. This town was four miles away from my first destination in southern Tunisia: the Selja Gorge. In a small shop, a man named Ibrahim shared his couscous with me.
An athletic guy named Mohammed Misaoui befriended me and helped me carry my bags to the gorge. We walked through a reddish and flat, dry land. We came to a small mountain range, and the mouth of the gorge. We walked inside the mountains via a railway tunnel. At the first opening, I descended to the river-bed and pitched my tent on the sand. I said "thanks" to Mohammed Misaoui, who returned to Metlaoui; he had to work in a phosphate mine in the morning.
Night fell. I sat between the mountains. It wasn't very cold.
My greatest fear on this trip was that the nights would be warm, and my kashabiya would become unnecessary. My second biggest fear was scorpions. My third biggest fear was that I'd get run over by a train.
Just after it became cold enough for me to put on my kashabiya, I heard the sound of a motor approaching via the railway tunnel. It was the sound of two small motorcycles. Ibrahim from Metlaoui was on one of them. Even though he'd only just met me and I ate half his dinner, he'd come to find me and hang out. And he was wearing a kashabiya! He was also the coolest person in the world.
Ibrahim and his friend made me a fire; gave me pasta and a bottle of water; and sat around, drinking beer. Ibrahim said everyone in Metlaoui drank.
After two hours of us not understanding anything anybody said, Ibrahim and his friend left me alone with my kashabiya.
I smiled. But, I didn't sing the "And-ee Kashabiya" song this night. I hummed the theme music from Star Wars. The Star Wars movies had been filmed not far from here. I thought to myself:
I wonder if Obe Wan Kenobe would've liked my kashabiya?
The following day, I explored the Selja Gorge. I followed the river-bed into the mountains. The river itself smelled strongly of phosphates. My bare feet sunk into the black mud surrounding the river, and turned black themselves.
The fiery red mountains opened up to a great valley in which flocks of sheep grazed and shepherds wrapped their heads in turbans. Birds sang in the spiky explosive tops of palm trees. Gazelles and jackals had left their prints in the river-bed.
The red mountains closed in on the river, creating dark shadowy amphitheaters ringed by red cliffs. "Hello!" I yelled, to hear my echo. "Pretty fu*#ing cool!" The cliffs turned tightly as the river turned, and there was no room between them for anything except water, mud, and the small birds that nested on giant cliffs.
I returned to my tent, following a path beside the railway tracks.
That evening, I was visited at my campsite by a shaven-headed, cross-eyed guy who was crazy like an a-bomb. He came with two friends; they'd been drinking beer at the mouth of the gorge. "Does everyone in Metlaoui drink?" I asked them. They said, "Yeah, because our country is sh#t."
Against my will, we talked for an hour. They began every topic of conversation; every topic of conversation was me; and yet, they didn't listen to a word I said. They told me the following about myself:
I'd heard stories about the Selja Gorge as a child. I heard them from my grandpa, my grandma. I came here with a concrete objective: to search for the Selja Gorge's treasure, the treasure of the Romans. And I hadn't come alone! Somewhere in this gorge, I had a foreign friend working with me.
The crazy, shaven-headed guy grabbed my arm and shook it. He insisted I was going to stay in this gorge another day, and look for the treasure with them. "Sure, whatever, crazy guy." I just wanted this stressful visit of theirs to end!
Finally, they departed. I was left alone with my kashabiya.
Boy, I thought, there are a lot of crazy people in Tunisia.
Some were crazy with their religion. Many, like Ibrahim, were crazy with friendliness and generosity. Others, like my latest visitor, were so confident they ignored reality.
The Tunisian psychology combined feelings of great confidence, along with feelings of inferiority. People felt inferior because their god was a big bully. They felt inferior because their country wasn't as rich as Europe or the U.S.A. Young men felt inadequate, because they couldn't even talk to women until they were financially ready to marry, and that took time.
Tunisians struggled. And yet, they were confident they already knew all the answers to life's questions. They did little critical thinking.
Maybe people needed to read to become critical thinkers? Tunisians read little. I could understand why. In the Arabic world, all books and literature were written in classical Arabic. Moroccans and Tunisians, etc., never got to experience the joy of reading a good book written in the language they spoke with their friends. Instead, they watched the television programs that spoke their dialect. And television and religion seemed to encourage the "I know everything" mentality in people.
My thoughts turned to my kashabiya.
Even my kashabiya was crazy. It had no pockets. So, it was useless if I wanted to carry anything. There was a slit on the left side, which I could put my left hand through to reach the pockets of my other clothes. But, there was no opening on the right side! There was a slit in the front of the kashabiya. I wasn't sure if it was at the right height for me to pee out of, or get my belly button pierced.
But, I still liked my kashabiya. I smiled.
And I liked Tunisians.
A sixteen-year-old girl seemed to like me the next day, when I returned to Metlaoui.
She wore dangly earrings and shiny bracelets. She was sweet and innocent, and she kept calling me over to her. Her name was Nebila. We exchanged pens.
It felt good to meet a woman who expressed her desire for attention. In this land where men locked their women up in caves. Where women locked their feelings up in their chests, and hid their personalities in their "fuulars" (head-scarves).
I would travel farther to the south now.
Everyone agreed that Metlaoui wasn't in the Sahara Desert, but that the town of Tozeur - thirty miles to the south - was.
I hitchhiked to the oasis of Tozeur ...
The Modern Oddyseus.
Thanks to Mwassan; Salem; Bechir Harabi, Omur ben Asr, & Sofien; Mohammed Idriss; Attia Hamed; Shedli; Hamjed & Lutfi; Heddi Reddaoui, journalist; Mouad; Ali & Mohammed; and a guy on a motorcycle in a red Fez hat, for rides!