Saturday, 31 March 2012

Dust, Wind and Panorama

When the Amenbank sign comes into view on the skyline that's when I know I'm not far away from my hotel. And that's a relief after battling against the wind all the way from the Corniche, the promenade. It was windy in the medina and the city centre too, but it was not so unrelentingly fierce. Sand showers assail me. Further on, the wide sweep of the main road has been renamed- Boulevard 14 Janvier 2011 – to commemorate the ending of the Tunisian Spring - a relatively brief and bloodless uprising, at least compared with other Arab countries. The sand showers turn to dust. Dust from building works as new hideous hotels are put up. Dust from the empty pitch with a goal post at each end, which people sometimes use as a running or jogging track. Dust from the general debris that collects on the edges of the pavements and in some parts of the city, bare patches, which will either be built on or left as waste ground gathering rubble and litter.

Wearing dark clothes and a scarf wrapped round my head gives me a certain amount of camouflage but not in the medina. I enter at the other end by the food market, walk uphill and the stall holders there seem decidedly less interested in capturing my attention. At the top of the hill I'm invited into a café with a panorama. But I welcome the idea of a seat and a coffee. A Dutch couple have gone in just ahead of me. There is indeed a fine view of creamy rooftops and satellite dishes and the harbour.

The muezzin calls and the hardboard panels at the side of the terrasse bang in the wind. Their metal hinges squeak,

and the Tunisian flags strung out on a line across the back, flap intermittently with a vaguely melancholic air. Like all flags it seems, left outside in the elements, they are weathered by wind, rain and fierce sunlight, their edges unravelled, their once bright colours dimmed to a faded pink with an off-white crescent moon and star in the centre.

Outside the walls of the medina the city centre is so like Tirana of a few years ago. Full of men in black, often with leather jackets. They shout to their friends, call out to each other, greet people, talk loudly. Cars and vans sound their horns tirelessly. Crossing the road is an adventure, despite the black and white pedestrian crossings. Or rather, the faded remnants of them, which are only just discernible at the edges of roads, near the pavements. I step out onto these as if they gave me some kind of safe haven or right of way which is of course quite illusory.

Further out of town near the plush tourist hotels the zebra crossings are much more visible and there are signs near them too, which state quite explicitly – priorité absolue aux pietons. The traffic sweeps quickly along the two lane highway so these crossings are arguably more dangerous than the other ones and definitely so if you believe in the signs posted beside them. Because drivers do not stop for you. You have to wait for a gap in the traffic. But once or twice drivers did stop when I was half way across and waiting there, for a gap in the second lane of traffic. Merci I say to them, smile, and walk to the other side of the road.

The Amenbank sign is perched on the top of a tall modern building with glinting reflecting glass and smooth stonework. In the evening, the sign is illuminated. Unappealing as it is I am always glad to see it. Just before I reach it I turn off the main road into the driveway to my hotel, which is astonishingly quiet, just the roaring of the sea, and the swishing of the palm leaves. And a sudden exclaiming blackbird that darts across the garden.

Monday, 19 March 2012

To the Medina, Sousse

It was raining when I arrived, the day before, but this morning the sun shines, although it is cool and windy. I'm going to walk to the medina, the old walled city of Sousse. I'm told it's 3 kilometers away. That does not seem any distance at all until I discover that the boulevard is featureless, busy with traffic, and the air is pungent with exhaust fumes. The boulevard is comprised of thick chunks of buildings, mostly other opulent hotels though there's also a few shopping malls, such as 'Medina city centre' or 'Champs Elysées' gleaming glass or painted faux stonework. Then there are some buildings still in construction, greyish discoloured concrete shells, and at the side, an old man probably employed as a watchman, stands at a gate, opening it only to those with permitted access. In front of this grey and hollow-eyed construction which will be transformed into a glamorous hotel, the pavement is littered with broken pieces of red tile and scattered gravel. The red tile is a welcome relief to the eye, bright among the grey rubble and the grey building in progress. Cars are also parked right next to the kerb so if you decide that the passageway of rubble on the edge of the temporary building works is just too narrow, you will have to skirt the parked cars, walking halfway out into the road to get past. Where you hope the speeding cars will move out to avoid hitting you.

Trying to find my way on the map is a little difficult as I cannot quite figure out which street I'm on. The map is not up to date and the name of the boulevard has been changed – obviously recently – to Boulevard 14 Janvier 2011. I later discover that had I followed the Boulevard to the left I'd have come out on the Corniche, the promenade, and then it would have been clear where I was. But I was glad I didn't, for it was simply a continuation of the de luxe complexes, only with a sea view.

Instead I take a right, following a centre ville sign. I walk up the slightly sloping street and notice an older man who looks unhurried and friendly. He is standing outside a shop. So I ask him the way to the medina. He speaks perfect French – as does almost everyone here - and he is gracious and charming. He points to a patisserie on the corner, says I should turn left there, and then tout droit, tout droit, I would arrive at the medina.

The streets are narrow, there are few cars, it's much quieter here, the sunlight splashes on the cream or yellow walls of the buildings...

The first time in a new place, especially if it's in a city, I don't really see properly. I can see what's in front of my eyes, a colour, a building, a person, a street sign, but the interpretative part of vision, the part that makes sense of what is seen, is not operating. Like a camera lens taking a photograph, there are no links to what is outside the range of vision. What's seen lacks context, has no links to a larger whole, lacks meaning conferred through its relationships.

Contrasting with that, once I have found a route through a city, once I know roughly where I'm going, as I put each short street together, finding a link to the next, I discover, each time, that excitement of creating new trails and pathways within me as I piece together an external trail. As I find my way back, the feeling of rediscovering the trail is a potent mixture of confidence and achievement as well as – a deeper feeling for the place itself. It has allowed you to know it, and so there is a sense of gratitude as well, towards these streets that have helped to make the new geography in you, the new trail of connections you have followed, from street sign to sunlit corner to leaning palm tree to patch of waste ground.

A crowd has formed around someone or something. They are cheering. I stop briefly, to try to see what's going on. The crowd is too thick, but I can make out part of a leaping form, followed by cheers. A banner announces a performance by drama students. When I turn around I notice that the Gare de Sousse is just behind me, on this palm tree-lined avenue. Now I can find my position on the map, but by now I don't need to for I'm almost at the medina. Just a couple of busy roads to cross, at the intersection that forms the city's hub. Taxis, fourgons, cars, vans, none of these are going to stop for you. They remind me of how I felt when I first arrived in Tirana several years ago. A sea of weaving cars and people weaving around the cars. I do what I did then and follow what the locals do.

I arrive in front of the medina's pinkish-gold walls.

Inside, the smells of cooking oils, herbs, the sounds of people calling or greeting each other, sellers always wanting to attract your attention – madame, madame –

And for the eyes, after the miserable boulevard gruel, this sumptuous banquet of dexterity of angles and shapes of ironwork, the colours of leather, carpets, vibrant patterns of bowls, plates, scarves of all hues and designs. The souk in the medina hums, reverberates, echoes with a pulsing lively energy. It bounces off the walls and awnings, ricochets up into the blue sky and hurtles down again, plastering its blue shadows over doorways, window-frames, awnings...