1st Northern Spirit Flute in Tunisia
Sent: Thursday, March 17, 2011 11:44 AM
From: Clint Goss
Subject: Tidings from Tunisia
Nothing compares with the feeling of being in a country that has just found freedom. Talking politics
with a Bedouin family in their tent camp in the Sahara makes it all the more interesting.
We arrived in Tunis the day after their Prime Minister stepped down, and everyone was bursting with
joy, pride, and relief. Spontaneous chants erupt from groups in every part of the city and especially in
the Kasba part of the Medina - the Old City that surrounds the massive Great Mosque.
After Sicily (which was great: superb food, wines, and fantastic Roman ruins!), we had planned to come
to Tunisia long before the Middle East meltdown started. CNN reports were worrisome, but the
travel.state.gov site that we have found so reliable over the years had no travel restrictions and advised
only the usual cautions against participating in protests. So we took the overnight ferry from Palermo
and arrived at our hotel that was right on the main square where the revolt had taken place. Tanks and
razor-wire barricades still blocked part of the square, but there were also huge numbers of people
strolling and sipping mint tea in outdoor cafes.
We feel like a rare species ... the only mating pair of the species "Touristica" to be found in Tunisia.
People's jaws drop when we tell them that ... no, we are not journalists and that ... yes, we're here on
holiday. It takes them a minute to recover and then they invariably launch into a diatribe on the old
regime and how literally half the population was employed to spy on the other half of the population
and how they are finally free and can speak freely. "See, I can say anything I want! Right here on the
People are **extremely** warm and friendly - the same kind of overflowing hospitality that we found in
Palestine (and Morocco a few years ago and in Egypt and Jordan before that).
In Tunis, we visit the major sites, including an awesome music museum where the staff is more than
happy to make copies of their recordings of ethnic flute players that date back as far as 1903. We visit
Carthage (the one of Hannibal fame!) and talk with lots of journalists and locals about everything that is
happening and how it is all playing out.
We ask whether travel South and West is advisable, and get a unanimous "Yes!". However, Egyptian,
Chinese, and Bangladeshi oil workers leaving Libya have jammed various towns in the South, and some
of the roads are impassable for various reasons - striking mine workers in one location, blown sand drifts
on another route. So the general advice is: "At each town, ask about the situation in the next town".
So we head South in our Avis car to the Great Mosque in Kairoun, the 4th century fort in Monastir, and
visit the unbelievable 30,000 seat coliseum built during the Roman era in El Jem.
Heading into the mountains at Matmata is like stepping onto the set of Star Wars. Everywhere you look
causes a double take because - this is where it was filmed. The scene at Luke's boyhood home (a
troglodyte underground dwelling), where he meets Old Ben Kanobe (a fabulous gorge), the double-
moon scene (overlooking a flat, salt filled, dessert "chott"), ... all are immediately recognizable. When
you drive into the province of Tatouine, you start seeing Jawas everywhere. No --- wait, those are
Berbers in their traditional brown wool coats and hoods! (George Lucas had a lot of good material to
work with here!)
At Chez Abdul's, the local watering hole in Matmata, we meet what look to be a cast of Star Wars extras
(from the bar scene, remember?): a Belgian guy and his French and Senegalese crew that run a tent
camp on an oasis in the middle of the Sahara. So we're off the next day for a stunning visit to a tiny
garden in the center of a vast sea of blowing sand. Accommodations are "basic" (think "negative-one
star"), but the characters at the oasis - dirt-bikers from France and Germany who zoom vast distances
across the Sahara and only occasionally break axles and collarbones - make for a colorful evening at the
well-stocked bar. (We stick to the relatively tame quad bikes for our zooming experience!)
The next day, Clint manages to hook up with three local darabouka players and they jam late into the
night. And their playing seems to spur a rare thunderstorm in the desert, which pours torrents of water
over the camp. And our tent. Which leaks. Badly. Onto our bed. Which is also covered in sand. Which
the camp cat takes great delight in mashing into our sheets. Vera is not impressed. Ahhh, but the sunrise
the next morning makes it all worthwhile (as well as the promise of a real hotel for our next stop!).
Rather than going South toward Tripoli, we go West toward Algeria and a tiny spot marked simply as
"Cafe Jelili". The Jelili family (with a new 45-day old baby) has been there for 39 years, operating their
cozy cafe in the middle of nowhere on solar power and well water. We are their first tourists in a week,
and they make us an incredible lunch seemingly out of thin air and blowing sand.
Just as the mint tea arrives, there's a knock on the door. Two technicians have just hitchhiked out to
repair the broken cell tower
20 miles out in the desert. This is urgent business in a place with no land lines, and Mr. Jelili asks us to
shuttle them out to the tower.
Before we can leave, there's another knock at the door - an ancient Berber guy (complete with
traditional facial tattoos indicating his family heritage) arrives with a moving creature in his bucket, and
everyone is excited. "Ah, porcupine - good grilled".
So our rental car becomes the "Berber Taxi", complete with Mr. Jelili, cell tower technicians, their gear,
the Berber, and the Porcupine. The road to the cell tower is in sorry shape, so we manage the round trip
in four hours (complete with another round of Mint Tea, which the Berber magically produces over a
campfire within minutes of our arrival at the tower).
Back at the Cafe, we ask about the roads to the West. Mr. Jelili springs up and says "We Go!". So we're
back in the car and across the desert on sand tracks for an hour, we arrive at three *very* humble tents
- a family from Douz that spends 3-4 months in the Sahara. They have two dozen baby goats that they
are raising for milk and that also provide playmates for their two young children. They give us the map
of all the best locations to visit, and how to get to each one, avoiding the problem roads. The
grandmother (complete with with traditional facial tattoos indicating her family heritage) brings out
dates and cooked quinoia and fresh cucumbers (fantastic!) and some "interesting" looking milk (which
we ever so delicately sidestep). Mr.
Jelili warns us against offering any money for the food, but Clint plays a flute that the kids immediately
become entranced with. The ancient grandmother practically kisses Clint's feet when he gives the flute
to them as a gift.
It was on our way to the island resort on Djerba (yes, that is where all the Libyan refugees went to get
flown back to their home countries), that we encountered our first military roadblock --- complete with
tanks, barbed wire and lots of soldiers. Clint got out of the car to find out what was going on, and the
next thing Vera sees is a soldier taking Clint by the elbow and leading him away. HHHMM ...
not a good sign. Clint comes back a few minutes later. The Captain had wanted to make sure he gave
Clint the best possible route to Djerba and had personally shown him the road to take. What a great
We are now happily ensconced in our five star luxury Radisson Blu hotel, on a pristine white beach
(again, thanks to our generous brother-in-law's miles!), where we will rest up before the long flight
home. Here, more than anywhere in Tunisia, the contrast between "the Frenchness" and "the Muslim"
heritage of the people is apparent. Vera is having a massage, totally au-naturelle (no sheet coverings
here!) administered by a hajib clad masseuse. You gotta love it!
Thanks for sharing our travels ... see you at home soon.
Love ... Vera and Clint
Clint Goss - innovative and inspiring
facilitator of music workshops,
recording artist, concert performer on world flutes and ethnic instruments, creator
of NAFtracks flute font