I wanted to see Kairouan before the end of Ramadan. As a UNESCO World Heritage Site (the density of World Heritage Sites in Tunisia is astounding), Kairouan was once an important city of Sunni Islam scholarship and attracted many pilgrims to her many mosques – including the greatest of which, named Sidi-Uqba.
I caught a louage (9 seater van) down, which set me back by something less than 20TD, and two hours or so later, we arrived in Kairouan. I watched as my fellow passengers asked to be let off on the side of the roads, where their friends zoomed by on motorbikes to pick them up, or where they walked off back home, or stood in wait of a passing local louage.
My adventures began unexpectedly – I had looked up a hotel which looked decent but was not expensive by Europe’s standards (30TD / night ~ 10 eur), and had thought of walking to the hotel from the louage station. On seeing that I was alone, my louage driver struck up a conversation – but between his broken French and my broken Arabic we got nowhere. A passing young man played translator – but he stopped only long enough for the driver to understand that I was visiting and did not have friends in the city – he motioned for me to get back into the louage – insisting with a smile. I decided on the spot to trust him and follow along – I wasn’t quite sure where the louage station was situated as compared to the hotel as it was not marked out on any map I’d found of the city.
After a few turns we turned into a side street where children playing got out of the way. He motioned for me to follow after him, opening a door and gesturing me in. I was greeted by two women, who did not seem surprised by my presence – the driver grunted a few comments, his manner becoming gruff now that he was home. He sat himself down before the TV, and the women, smiling, made me sit before a table laden with food, pointing at the inviting couscous and ladling me huge portions. They tested my name on their lips – one was the wife of Youssef, my friend the driver, and the other was his sister. In the simple living room, there was also an old couple – the parents of Youssef, I supposed, the grandmother at the table, eating out of what can only be described as a basin of couscous, and the grandfather on a chair by the TV. Behind the curtain was another room with two or three boys.
Our few words of introduction got us nowhere, they sent one of their boys to get a girl next door to come in – Mayara was a supposed genius with French, although she probably just started secondary school. She was eager to practice French and to discuss about “tout et n’importe quoi” – everything and nothing. She told me about the Kairouan she knew – and was in all surprisingly mature for her age.
I wasn’t sure how much hospitality I should accept – but they did not seem to be expecting anything in return, leaving me their phone numbers and addresses, happy to have a new acquaintance. By this time it was dark outside, and my faithful driver stood up and said he’d drop me off at the hotel. Once in his louage, he became smiling and talkative again, although I made out only a sentence in five!
The next day I had yet another friendly encounter – as I was looking for the entrance of the great mosque, a young man stopped me. He worked in the mosque as a guide, and it was his off day – but on hearing I was from Singapore, suddenly took it upon himself to show me his city. Apparently, one of his friends had moved to Singapore after his marriage – he showed me pictures on Facebook of the happy couple, wondering if I knew the girl and the place where they took the photos (the answer to both were unfortunately no).
He explained the various parts of the great mosque – the ancient washbasins cut out in the middle of the great courtyard, with hoof-shaped edges for the horses and dromedaries to wash their feet too, the markers for moon and sun shadows, so as to know the time to pray, the huge libraries behind closed doors, the rich wood used at a time when the city was more affluent.
Next was a whirlwind visit through Kairouan, where we went into side streets and markets, stores to say hello to friends, old quranic schools, mausoleums, a mat shop which used to be a rich man’s house but was today covered with mats. At the end of the visit of this mat house, the old man which had took over the visit sat me down and shook out mat after mat, handwoven, at prices I could only assume matched their quality. I told him I was only a student and did not in any way have the means to afford them. “Vous avez raison” – he said, not disgruntled, but packing away all his mats and escorting me back out. We then stopped by a scarf shop, the shop owner weaving on the loom insisted that I try my hand at moving the wooden mechanism – then showing me his many scarfs, and how to tie it the Bedouin way. I wondered if my friend the guide had brought me to finance all his friends’ businesses – but it seemed low to suspect their open warmness. I picked up a scarf anyway – a soft brown one that fit into my budget for the trip.
In the hot afternoon sun my friend stopped behind a hidden rampart at the edge of the great mosque to take a smoke – what was surely not accepted during the Ramadan period, but he did not seem uncomfortable, just matter of fact. As we made our goodbyes, I didn’t know what to make of this second friendly, un-asking giving I’d received in this town. Kairouan was unexpected – I didn’t see the religious zeal I thought would envelope the place with the fasting season, but I met with frank hospitality from strangers, carving their own space between the expected religious and cultural norms.