"Pray to God you don't end up in two places: the hospital, or the police."
Nourredine sat beside me at an office building of the national guard in Tozeur. This kind man had driven me here from Metlaoui. He wore a turban wrapped around his head and face - not for protection from the sand and sun of the Sahara Desert, but because he'd recently had a dental operation and should've been home resting. We'd been stopped at a checkpoint at the entrance to Tozeur, and the national guard detained us because they wanted to verify my passport and ask how Nourredine and I knew one another. They were causing fifty-year-old Nourredine to miss his bank appointment, his reason for coming to Tozeur.
After an hour and a half, they let him go. But, I had to stay.
I sat outside. The sun was weak in the air behind a cloud of sand.
Mostly, the national guard sat inside and shuffled papers and ignored me. They were wasting my time. It was frustrating. The only thing I could think to do to empower myself was to sit here calmly, acting as though I wasn't bothered. But, I actually considered it a human rights violation that they should keep me here.
When they paid attention to me, they wanted to know: where I'd been in Tunisia; how I knew the friends I'd made; why I'd arrived on the anniversary of their revolution; etc. They looked through my bags. I considered all this to be a violation of my privacy.
"When countries are defensive, there's no room for humanism." - Prema from Rymarov
I'd been told, by Nourredine, there was going to be a general strike in Metlaoui the next day. There'd been a lot of strikes in Tunisia since the revolution.
But, Tunisia had escaped the bloody, post-revolution chaos that continued to terrorize Libya, Egypt, Syria. Tunisians liked to say this was because their national mentality loved peace. Based on what I'd seen of Tunisians, they were right.
After four hours, the national guard let me go and gave me flowers from their garden. I was surprised I'd been detained so long, in a town known for tourism.
With what was left of daylight, I explored Tozeur. I avoided the Berbers who'd come from the desert to offer tourists rides on brown or albino camels. And I evaded the Arabs who wanted my money in exchange for rides in their horse-drawn carriages.
I walked to a clear stream that ran alongside the edge of town. On the opposite side of this stream was the source of Tozeur's real wealth: orchards of date palms. Feathery palm leaves bent high above me, and created an endless canopy. The trees gave me plenty of space to walk between them in a dark and sleepy Eden.
Translucent blue water. Neon green plants. Shade in the summer.
I followed the stream towards its source. On the left side of the stream, the orchards were replaced by a field of sand. All was quiet. It was as if the town of 90,000 wasn't right beside me but a hundred miles away.
Night fell. I put my tent beneath the few date palms that shaded the stream. This shade, at night, created a natural and cozy bedroom. Frogs hummed, pillowing the sound of barking dogs.
This was the sexiest and most romantic place I'd ever camped. Unfortunately, I was all alone.
In the morning, I was hungry.
I eyed the dates that hung over my head. Any tourist could come to Tozeur and buy dates. But, I wanted to prove that I had what it took to survive in the Sahara. Judging from all the fallen dates in the sand, the date palms here were wild and didn't belong to anybody.
Twigs full of dates grew ten feet above my head. I climbed the bubbled trunk of this short tree. Ow! The feathery palm leaves were armed with long, evil spikes. Aah! They stabbed my belly and back, and pierced the tips of my fingers.
I couldn't get through the leaves to the dates. But, like a stubborn child, I refused to give up. I wanted a date! I climbed the tree again. Ow! And again. Ooh! But, I couldn't reach the dates.
I suddenly became smart. This happened to me, every once in a while. I laid my clothes on the sand beneath the tree. And I threw rocks at the dates. The little, brown olives fell onto my clothes. I filled my pockets with them, and began tasting the creamy buttery sugar of the fruits.
Justin 1, Nature 0.
Happily, I headed to town. I walked past buildings made of Tozeur's famous yellow brick. I was on my way to the ancient medina.
But, I got distracted by a small girl sweeping in front of a shop. I was surprised to see a girl so small wearing a head-scarf. "Bonjour!" She greeted me with a sweet voice and colorful smiling face. She disappeared into the shop.
I followed her.
Inside, I found the girl's aunt and father. Aunt Amina smiled at me with her dark eyes and bright face, in her black head-scarf. Father Haikl wore a fringe beard, skull-cap, and long white robe. He greeted me with his "Jirka Tauffer" smile - round and happy, with proud and shining eyes. I asked the little girl what her name was. "Esm-k shnuwwa?" She had one of my favorite Arabic names: "Omayma."
Amina and Haikl welcomed me as a friend. Both spoke French and English. In addition to having this shop, Haikl worked the night shift at a hospital. I asked him about scorpion stings. I'd seen some preserved black scorpions: death on eight legs, with whipping tails. Apparently, they could even "fly" with strong desert winds. How scary!
Haikl said, scorpions hid in the winter from the rain. But, many people got stung during summer. Scorpion stings were treated by putting ice on the wounds. Some stings caused second-degree symptoms: shaking and the chills. It was important to keep the poison from reaching one's heart. Some people died from the stings.
Haikl said, few tourists got stung by scorpions. But, lots of tourists went to the hospital after falling off camels. Other tourists were injured in accidents while driving 4x4 vehicles or motorcycles in the desert. Other tourists went to the hospital with diarrhea.
Haikl asked if I wanted to come over for lunch. Sure. Eating local food was safer than riding on camels.
I jumped on the back of Haikl's motor-bike, and we left Amina in the shop. We drove to Haikl's home and entered his walled-in courtyard.
Haikl said, "We'll pray together. Then, we'll eat." I said: No. I'd only be eating. I watched him pray. Then, happy Haikl recited a poem he'd written in English, called "My First Love".
His wife Monya had a bright face and blue-ish eyes. I would see her without her head-scarf once, and she had orange hair - probably a dye job. She wrapped her large and voluptuous body in a black robe with pink roses on it. It was no wonder that Haikl was so happy. She brought us a soup whose main ingredient was a paste made from hot peppers.
She went to join her sister Amina in the shop. And Haikl fell asleep at the lunch table. I'd thought I would visit the old medina after lunch. But, I felt responsable for making sure Haikl and Monya's kids weren't left alone to kill themselves. I liked these kids more than the old medina, anyways. They included:
Mohammed Saaid (18 months old) - He always wanted to be with Monya. If she wasn't around, he wanted to play in the street.
Omayma (7) - She liked to wear shirts and head-scarves decorated with blue garden designs. She ran around with neighborhood boys, and struck atheletic poses. She was like a superhero. She tried to keep Baby Mohammed from crying, with a worried look in her eyes. I would see her without her head-scarf once, and her charcoal hair caused her face to be dark and unrecognizable.
Meryam (8) - This girl had a round Asian face. She wore pink shirts and head-scarves. She looked like an angel. But, she was a trouble-maker. She tripped Baby Mohammed. And she kept kicking the ball before he could, when I was playing soccer with him.
In the street before Haikl's house, I drove Omayma and Meryam around on a bike. Later ... Omayma, Mohammed Saaid, and a four-year-old girl (who looked like a Fraggle) played together in the sand street, in front of a sand-colored house with white paint around the door, and two women in head-scarves looked on.
Haikl awoke from his nap. He turned on his house's stereo system, which was so loud it shook the neighborhood. He stood and waved his fingers to the music, and smiled his "Haikl Rouissi" smile.
He said I should sleep in his house while in Tozeur, and he gave me a small bottle of cologne. He was constantly rubbing colognes and fragrant soaps on his clothes and hands.
Night fell. Haikl and I got out the motor-bike, for another ride. I assumed we were going to check out the ancient medina. I was excited!
But, Haikl drove me to ... a mosque.
He instructed me. "Now, we're going to wash our hands and feet in the bathroom. Then, we're going to pray." I said I didn't mind being at a mosque, but I wasn't going to do either of those things. "Okay," he said. "Repeat after me." No doubt, he wanted me to say in Arabic there was only one god and Mohammed (not the baby) was God's prophet. I refused. Why? "Parce que je crois pas ca." (Because I don't believe that.)
This confrontation of wills was stressful for me. But, Haikl gave me a friendly smile and said, "That's okay. Like you say, Justin, maybe some day we'll have the same religion. I'll meet you in the mosque."
In the mosque, the "imam" was lecturing to twenty robed and bearded men. Haikl translated for me: "Islam isn't about terrorism or extremism. It's a religion of peace." The lecturer reached a point where - if I were to guess - he asked Allah's blessings for the unfortunate? He and another man cried.
It was time for the evening 'Isha prayer. More men arrived, until there were eighty. They formed three rows and prayed. I watched from the back of the mosque. The way they moved in unison, it reminded me of the military. After the prayer, Haikl and I left together. An elderly man yelled at Haikl for having brought a non-Muslim into the mosque; he said it was "hram" (forbidden). Haikl stayed calm and told him, "En-nabi ma-ak." (The prophet be with you.)
He drove me on his motor-bike to a small house where religious men gathered. One of these men had invited me over for tea, and I didn't want to be rude so I accepted. Inside, a dozen bearded and robed men sat on the floor. I joined them, and was given cake and lemonade.
The religious man who'd invited me here said, in English, "Okay. What do you know about God?"
Was this a trick question? It was arrogant for any of us to think he "knew" something about the spiritual world. Oh? Wait. These guys thought they knew.
The English-speaking man lectured to me. Blah blah blah ...
Ordinarily, I didn't fear that Muslims were terrorists. But, I felt uncomfortable here, once Haikl left the room. These people were so sure of what they believed. They wanted so badly for me to believe it, too. One guy in a turban looked as if he didn't like me.
No matter what, I would say I didn't believe in Islam. I felt like an African, or other person with traditional beliefs, whom missionaries were trying to convert to Christianity or Islam. And I couldn't forgive those people for letting themselves be converted.
Haikl returned. I gained confidence. I stood and told them I believed God was inside me, inside all of us, not outside. I said the force that had created me was more accurately "nature" than a god. I said I was tired of this conversation and wanted to go home. I thanked them for their invitation.
And Haikl and I went to his house to sleep.
The next day, I parted from Haikl temporarily, so I could go and see the ancient medina.
The sand-filled skies of the previous days were replaced by real clouds. A weak rain fell all morning. It left thin streaks on my jacket.
I explored the medina: a square maze of sandy yellow brick, two stories high. The medina walls wore 3-D brick patterns: diamonds represented the female body and fertility; honeycomb patterns attested to the sweetness of life. Walking around in this medina was like being in a honeycomb.
Square tunnels with wooden beam roofs led through dark alleys. Wooden doors shaped like shields were left ajar, and I could see into comfortable cushioned caves. Arched tunnels opened to plazas surrounded by brick. Shops sold Berber rugs where purple, navy, and pink surrounded camels drawn from simple rectangles. I'd never seen anything like this happy yellow village.
I left the medina and entered a neighboring date orchard. This spot gave me a good view of the yellow minarets and clock-towers that hung over Tozeur. I also hoped to find a place to pee here.
Before I could do so, I was approached by a "shubab" (young Tunisian man). He wore sporty Adidas clothes, which was common "shubab" fashion. He winked at me. Once, twice. He seemed to be on drugs.
"Donnez-moi l'argent," he said. (Give me your money.) A second shubab stood behind him. Oh, no. I was being robbed!
I turned and ran to the date orchard's entrance. They couldn't stop me. As I left the orchard, two other shubabs came running in. Were they working with the first two? I arrived at a safe distance from them. I picked up a rock to use as a weapon, just in case. I left the shubabs behind and disappeared into the medina. My heart was beating fast.
I returned to Haikl's house. I ate lunch, changed into my kashabiya, and peed finally. Haikl was always saying I should wear my kashabiya. He said it made me look like a local.
I left him again, in the afternoon. I wanted to take a long walk in the desert.
On my way out of Tozeur, I passed my old camping spot. It'd be nice to have some dates for my walk in the desert, I thought to myself.
I laid my kashabiya on the sand and threw rocks at the dates. But, the falling fruit didn't bounce right, and only two or three landed on my robe.
Suddenly, I noticed a motorcycle stopped on the other side of Tozeur's stream. And a brown-skinned man was walking towards me through the trees. He reached his hand into a bag he had near his waist. Was he reaching for a weapon? Was I being robbed again!?
No. The bag was full of dates. He gave me two handfuls. And he didn't want anything in return. Without saying anything, he kept walking. Thanks!
I had more dates than I needed. But, I had to see how this guy got his dates! I watched, as he carefully selected a tree to climb. Sticking a metal hook into the tree, he climbed twenty feet up. He somehow got through the spiky leaves. He threw down twigs of dates, for himself and for me.
Now, I noticed a fancy truck stopped on the other side of the stream. It was the national guard! A man wearing a trench-coat and holding a big gun watched us. Looking unfriendly, he approached us. He didn't seem concerned that I was collecting dates.
I assumed it was this peasant who was in trouble for taking dates. I resolved to stay with him, until he was out of trouble. I wouldn't let these spineless government thugs bully my new friend!
Oh? What was this? They were letting the peasant go? It was me they wanted! They were ordering me into the truck? Hey, peasant, where were you going? What about our solidarity!?
The bounty hunter and his driver drove me. We passed the head of Tozeur's stream, where a waterfall created a desert pool where I'd taken my first bath in Tozeur. We drove to the golf course. There was an assembly of men, who looked like the military, gathered outside.
We parked. My captors locked me in the truck. I wanted out of here! They left and returned with a military official. He looked through the window at me and nodded his head at the bounty hunter.
They had their man!
To be continued ...
Thanks to Nourredine for the ride!