"Rest of the World 2013-14" story # 24

Tunis, Tunisia           January 23, 2014

January 14th, 2014. My arrival in Tunisia.
     I dembarked from my ferry. I walked through La Goulette, the port of the capital city Tunis. It was made up of chalk white homes with turquoise doors and windows. The streets were wide and empty. The shops closed. The previous day, Muslims everywhere had celebrated the Prophet Mohammed's birthday. On this day, Tunisians celebrated the anniversary of their recent revolution.
     In Tunis' center, the main avenue of Abi Berghouba was full of orangish tea-colored people with black hair in black coats. Happy families walked in the street, on either side of a pedestrian walkway guarded by spirals of barbed-wire. Young men with lanky bodies said, "Now, we have freedom!" A "Big Ben" clocktower in the middle of the avenue was dressed in Tunisian red and white, to commemorate the people overthrowing their long-time leader, Ben Ali, in 2011. A curly-haired rosy-cheeked toddler shyly waved her country's flag.
     The avenue led to Tunis' old medina. An arched "porte de France" was all that remained from the orange, stone wall that used to surround it. I walked through this gate, to a plaza where strings of flags red with Islamic moons and stars hung all about. Beyond this plaza was the white and turquoise "old town", where bright hotels and three-story buildings crowded one another. The narrow alleys were full of merchants' shops open on business days, but the medina became dark and spooky at night. I spent two nights here, in a hostel.
     I emerged in the daytime, to meet with a guy named Walid in a cafe on Abi Berghouba Avenue. He taught me some words in Tunisian Arabic - which was like the Moroccan dialect I'd already studied. I hoped these words would be useful:
     "bheem" - donkey
     "mekhla" - a saddle which allowed you to attach bags to both sides of your "bheem"
     "ljam" - a muzzle with a rope attached to it, which pulled on your donkey's tongue to make him move
     "hjar" - a rope which you tied to a front leg and back leg of your "bheem" at night, with a third end tied to a stake in the ground, so that even if he freed himself from the stake he wouldn't be able to walk away very quickly
     "shaair" - wheat
     "paai" - hay
     "Sico Sico" - the name of a cartoon donkey, who'd comedically been named for Tunisia's Islamic Party
     I hoped to acquire all of these things, as well as a good name of my own for a donkey. And then, my "bheem" and I could walk all around this small North African country, to the edges of the Sahara. It was such a great idea.
     I would search for my donkey in the countryside. But first, I wanted to visit a museum in Tunis.
     The Bardo Museum.
     Ugly greens, reds, blues, and yellows decorated domed ceilings. The flame-shaped openings that usually topped Islamic doors of enlightenment appeared atop Doric pillars.
     A mosque-like room had a delicate, bone-white material covering its walls and dome with 3D designs of circles, protons, onion tops. A pure turquoise chandelier hung in the center.
     On the museum's top floor, a ring of arches came down from the ceiling but never reached the ground. The green, white, and gold arches ended at sharp points like tattooing needles.
     The museum was in a Tunisian building from recent times. But, the items on display were from Tunisia's ancient Roman sites.
     There were statues of Roman emperors:
     Lucius Verus had a young face and curly fringe beard, Marcus Aurelius' face was older with more tired eyes and a bushy beard, their muscular stone bodies wore turbans for crowns. There were busts of other emperors, including Vitellius (69 A.D. to 69 A.D.) who had a fat and bald face.
     And there were statues of mythological figures:
     A strong, curly-bearded god - Jupiter? The Egyptian Goddess of Mysteries, Isis, with pigtail hair and a pretty face. A chaste Venus, Goddess of Love, covering her lower body with a sheet - her face innocent and scared. A lion-faced woman in a gown, like the Egyptian Goddess Sekhmet. A naked nymph with a cat's nose but friendly eyes and a child-like mouth, holding a nymph's rod in one hand and a half-lion/half-trumpet in the other.
     I would've liked to have done a "thrump" in ancient Rome. I believed the character traits of a people were greatly influenced by their theological beliefs. Monotheistic people, who believed in an omnipotent God, were chiefly interested in things related to power: for example, money. Maybe the Romans, with their many gods, were a colorful people - like Southeast Asians, Tibetans, traditional Africans? Maybe Roman women were independent and confident, like their goddesses?
     More than anything, the Bardo Museum exhibited mosaics. They'd been gathered from Roman sites all over Tunisia. They were large pictures made up of tiny square stones - some white, some light yellow, some pale green, etc. etc. etc. Some mosaics were complete, others were partially ruined. Some were on the floor of the museum, some were on the walls. Some were two stories high, just as wide, and very complex.
     In the mosaics:
     Three life-sized Cyclops hammered out Jupiter's lightning. The fish lips and big fish eyes of Neptune appeared at the top of a dark green sea, in which Cupids rode fish and sailors steered boats. A young and brown-haired Diana, Goddess of the Hunt, looked sympathetic in a short blue dress and canvas boots; she aimed her bow-and-arrow at a doe as it grazed from a tree. The God Theseus was shown in the middle of a labyrinth, killing the minotaur.
     A male and a female centaur, naked from their horsy bottoms upward, crowned a woman who was made up nicely with earrings and who had round and supple breasts, who herself was naked except for a queen's robe. In a "carousel" mosaic, other naked women rode lions, dragons, cow-headed fish, and mythical hybrid amphibious beasts around in a circle. A huuuge mosaic portrayed the sea, with fat-headed eels and a swimming cow and big tentacles coming out of the water and a woman swimming in the middle and finless spiky-toothed fish.
     I loved these mosaics. I wanted to learn how to make them myself, so I could have one in my house.
     Ulysses (the Roman "Odysseus") was shown as a bearded man in a white robe, tied to the mast of his ship so he could listen to the Sirens, while his crew-members held shields and looked the other way. The poet Virgil sat with his young face and curly hair, while two females (the muse of pantomime, holding a mask, and the muse of epic poetry) served him. One mosaic showed Golgotha's Gazebo erected at the site of Christ's crucifiction, with four rivers flowing from it to represent the four Gospels, sheep drinking as faithful believers, and two houses symbolizing Bethlehem and Jerusalem.
     When I paid attention, I noticed that some mosaics had been made in the 3rd or 4th century A.D. I guessed the mosaic with the Christian theme was made at a later time than the others.
     There were mosaics depicting everyday life:
     Men on horse-back hunted hares and boars in the forest, then made sacrificies to Diana and Apollo. Other men unloaded a ship and weighed the food. A banker sat a desk. There were farm scenes, fishing scenes. Men played a board game. A red-bearded boxer beat a black-bearded boxer. Female servants showed a woman her life-like face in a mirror, while she dressed. Realistic lions and bears and ostriches and goats killed one another, in an amphitheater fight scene.
     There were lots of animals. Quails and pheasants appeared beneath Roman writing: VICTORIVS PACI VI - XITANNIS XXVRO - XIIIK ALENDAS MAIAS. Narcissus rode a horse. Lobsters. Shrimp. Mallard ducks. A flamingo caught an eel. Two lions with crazy eyes and hair stood under a parasol pine, shaped like a mushroom.
     "ex ungue leonem" (by its claw, a lion is recognized)
     And finally, there was a mosaic of a donkey.
     Who was that man with the donkey? It could only be ...

... the Modern Ulysses.

go to the previous story                                                                                   go to the next story

J. Breen's modern-o.com