On the way up, on the first floor, a man hurled himself at me, daubed something from a small phial on my wrist and rattled off – keksjasminchai keksjasminchai. I did not know if this wrist dampening was an obligatory cleansing as part of our welcome to this ancient and holy city - or a sales pitch. The assault was renewed with even more fervour on the way down from the top floor and the panorama of grey skies, brown sandy coloured low buildings and a wild wind. I went into the small shop, following our guide and some others from our party. The keks it turned out, were complimentary date filled delicacies of the region, and very tasty. After that I joined our guide and a couple of others at the counter and ordered a cup of coffee which was sweet and strong. The sales pitch, for all its initially unnerving lack of clarity, had worked, the free samples being a sufficient enticement. And some people did purchase jasmine and boxes of the date filled 'keks'.
We then head for the shrine and mausoleum of Abou Zama Al-Bataoui, also known as Sidi Sahib, a companion of the Prophet who died in 654 AD. The Mausoleum was built in 15/1600s AD and people believe that it has healing powers, and will grant wishes. For example, our guide says, students come here who wish to pass their exams, and women come, who wish to have children. Two courtyards lead off the arched entrance and the walls beyond the archways are covered in tender mosaic patterns, their floral designs ranging out from a core of colour, a seed pearl of gold or orange, blue or green designs unfolding in waves of petals, leaves, folded into each other crowded round their core. Mandala shapes embrace the worlds, the seasons, the directions...
Although we are not allowed beyond the inner courtyard, into the mausoleum itself, the guardian kindly took my camera and photographed the actual tomb of Sidi Sahib.
Men hawking cheap beads and chains wear billowing brown hooded capes to protect them against wind and rain. They thrust Hands of Fatima on chains, in front of our eyes. The wind catches their capes which swell out around them, turning the men into flitting hooded falcons, with their glinting chains darting like claws from their billowing brown feathers and landing on bags or arms or thrust into hands. This worked well with me and no doubt with others too. Once something is actually on my person I cannot let it fall or ignore it. It becomes my responsibility and I end up buying two hands of Fatima, which are supposed to bring good luck and good fortune. Fatima was the sister of the Prophet.
Our next stop is the Great Mosque of Kairouan, the 4th most sacred site in the Islamic world after Mecca, Medina and Jerusalem. It attracts pilgrims from east and west, especially those who through poverty or ill health cannot make the long journey to Mecca. But as the rain increases, there are no pilgrims here today in the vast and empty courtyard. The marble pillars of the archways are reflected in the wet flagstones, a second set of ragged lines, slightly uneven, bent and skewed in places, but doubling the harmony like a set of sympathetic strings, flinging archways into a further echo of the sky of divine resonance, doubling the voices in a choir of praise.
The massive carved doors are of dark olive wood. We could look inside at the red carpets heaped on the floor as if abandoned by some thirsty trader, who has hastened to the chaikhan to drink a glass of chai subtly flavoured with mint, to wrap his fingers round the warm glass and gossip with his friends. The piled carpets shiver slightly, rearrange themselves, settle into position, straight as the line of light on water, that cossets the sea surface, tripping over it in its race to the sun. Lamps hang from the mosque roof, dangling on extended chains, giving off a soft light that seems to emphasise the immensity of space rather than illuminate it. All this inner opulence, with the ranks of glowing lamps, and outside, the simplicity, almost austerity, of the huge marble courtyard, wet, gleaming and empty.