topics: ojja (food), Odysseus/Ulysses, Homer, HISTORY, Ghirba ("Marvelous") synagogue, diaspora, agriculture, fondouks (caravanseries), tourism, economy, health care, education, human rights; jump to dispatch

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Rider Notes: November 4–7, 1997

Breakfast: Chocolate éclairs were the basis of one of our more decadent breakfasts. Filled with a delicious custard, and topped with a smooth frosting of heavenly chocolate, they made for a tasty, if not particularly nutritious, breakfast.

Lunch: After much research and careful deliberation, the BikeAbout team found the best briks in Houmt Souk and quickly became friends with the brik maker. We made a habit of popping in every day at noon for a couple of briks and wallowed in gastronomical wonder at how a food so simple could be so satisfying. With deceptive ease and great dexterity, the brik maker spread out the mortar of mashed potatoes on the pastry. A dash of harissa, a sprinkle of parsley, a few capers, and then the final addition of an egg topped with a pinch of salt finished the preparation. With blinding speed, the pastry was then folded over, sealed, and slipped into the hot oil. After a few moments, it was served on a plate, fresh, piping hot, and just divine.

Dinner: Urged on by a spicy food/carbohydrate obsession, we mostly subsisted on ojja (see the Food of the Day) and spaghetti, with the occasional couscous thrown in for variety.

Food of the Day: Ojja

Ojja is a specialty of Tunisia composed of a tomato, garlic, and egg white stew served with an egg yolk in the middle of the dish. The classic ojja is made with merguez (a spicy North African sausage made of beef and mutton and seasoned with red pepper), but it is also possible to have it prepared with sheep brains and lungs! Since we were so close to the sea, we also saw it prepared with shrimp. Generally, just before serving the dish (usually eaten as an entrée, or hors d'oeuvre), an egg yolk is cracked into the middle of the ojja — ensuring that the egg is not fully cooked. A properly served ojja will still have a runny yolk.

Person of the Day: Odysseus (later named Ulysses by the Romans) click to view a photograph

Odysseus plays a large part in the two major pieces of epic literature in Western civilization credited to the ancient Greek poet Homer. These stories — the Iliad and the Odyssey — are masterful retellings of ancient legends and myths. For the Greeks of the seventh century BC, whose past had been obliterated with the destruction of the Mycenaean civilization, these books formed the only link to their history. Since the events of both the Iliad and Odyssey occurred in and around the Mediterranean Sea, Odysseus will pop up in our dispatches quite a bit. The island of Djerba was our first brush with this epic figure.

The Iliad is an amazing story of heros and heroines, gods and goddesses, brave and treacherous acts, and love and war. At the heart of the tale is a war being fought to recover the most beautiful woman in the world, Helen, wife of Menelaus, king of Sparta. Paris, the son of King Priam of Troy, smitten by Helen's beauty, had carried her off to Troy. This audacious act infuriated Menelaus who called on all the kings and princes of Greece to help him carry out his vengeance against Paris and Troy. Among those who offered to help were Achilles, Ajax, Diomedes, Nestor, and Odysseus (the king of Ithaca, a small island off the west coast of Greece). For two years they prepared, and finally set sail with an army of 100,000 men in 1,000 ships (thus the saying that Helen had the face that launched a thousand ships). Arriving in Troy, the assembled army discovered that the Trojans had prepared well. King Priam, father of Paris, had decided that he was too old to fight, and had instead taken refuge behind the walls of Troy (which were sixteen feet thick!) with provisions for a long, long wait.

For nine years the armies battled to a standstill, until the crafty Odysseus presented a plan that he had formed with the help of the goddess Athena. Out of sight of the Trojans, the Greeks constructed a huge wooden horse with enough room inside for 100 of their best warriors. This horse, with the soldiers secretly hidden inside, was left as a gift for the Trojans, seemingly a peace offering, while the rest of the warriors sailed off in their ships, apparently in defeat. The Trojans pulled the "peace offering" inside their walls and celebrated their victory. However, later that night while the Trojans slept, the Greek warriors within the horse sneaked out to open the gates of the city for their waiting comrades. Soon, thousands of Greeks swarmed into the city. By morning all that was left of Troy was a mass of smoldering ruins. Helen was returned to her husband and the Greek warriors returned home. All, that is, except for Odysseus.

Ordinarily, the voyage from Troy to Ithaca (Odysseus's home) would take only a short time. But some of the Greek gods, angry with Odysseus for the role he played in the war (the gods were divided into two groups — those that wanted the Trojans to win, and those that supported the Greeks), decided that it should take Odysseus ten years to reach to his wife, Penelope, and his son, Telemachus, back on Ithaca. The hazardous and remarkable adventures that Odysseus and his men endured during his epic trip home are the subject of Homer's Odyssey.

Soon after leaving Troy, the ships ran into a raging storm and for nine days and nights the winds drove the ships past Ithaca to the island of the Lotus-Eaters (the Island of Djerba!). When a party of Odysseus's sailors went ashore to explore the island, they ate of the lotus plants. This magic food made them forget all about their wives and families and how much they longed for their homes. Odysseus had to drag them back to the ships before sailing off, and again trying to return home.

Place of the Day: Ghirba ("Marvelous") Synagogue click to view a photograph

The Ghirba ("Marvelous") synagogue is thought to be one of the oldest synagogues in the world. It was supposedly originally built in 587 BC by Jews who fled to North Africa during the diaspora (or dispersion) of the Jewish people from the kingdom of Judea. Legend has it that these Jews built the synagogue around a stone from the Grand Temple of Jerusalem that they had carried to the island. Up until the 1950s, a large Jewish community lived in Tunisia, but after Tunisian independence and the emergence of highly-Arabized Muslim political leaders, many Tunisian Jews preferred to move to France. However, a small Jewish community still remains in the center of the island.

The interior of the synagogue is decorated with blue earthenware tile, stained glass windows, and some very old memorial plaques click to view a photograph, but we saw few signs of the stone from Jerusalem or other evidence that the original building had been built 2600 years ago. Still, we were once again amazed at the diversity and richness of Tunisia's cultural history.

Group Dispatch, November 4–7

picture of Anthony

We set out, full of excitement, on the morning of the 11th from Gabès. We were biking to the Island of Djerba, land of the fabled Lotus-Eaters from Homer's Odyssey. After refreshing our memories about some of the details of this epic story (see the Person of the Day), we too set out in search of this land that would make us forget about how much we miss home.

Biking from Gabès, we cycled through vast olive groves planted with thousands of olive trees. But once we turned onto the peninsula that stretches out towards Djerba, the trees suddenly stopped and we were left on a wide open, windswept, and treeless plain. We experienced a little of the wind that might have blown Odysseus so far off course; we can attest to its ferocity (especially if you are biking into it).

Upon arrival in Houmt Souk, Djerba's biggest (and quite small) town, we immediately appreciated the twisted maze of streets packed with dozens of shops and tiny cafés — perfect for writing postcards, working on dispatches, and munching on decadent chocolate éclairs. But that would have to come later. First we checked into our home for the next three nights: the Auberge de Jeunesse, a refurbished fondouk. Fondouks, or caravanserais, were resting places for travelers or caravaneers. On the ground floor are storage areas for merchandise and stables for animals (dromedaries, horses, donkeys, and mules). The travelers would stay on the second floor click to view a photograph, accessible by a large staircase. click to view a photograph Because the caravaneers often carried goods of great value, fondouks were also designed to ward off attack. Much like those used by early mosques (see Sousse), the fortress-like design of the fondouks is an excellent example of the defensive architecture common throughout North Africa.

As we visited the Island of Djerba, we quickly realized why the island has become a haven for tourists — more than one million visitors every year! — and is, in fact, equated with tourism in Tunisia. First of all, everyone we met was extremely friendly, relaxed, and seemed to speak four or five languages. Then, of course, there are the magical beaches and Mediterranean climate. And, now, not to be forgotten, are the 90-plus tourist hotels of all levels of luxury. Today, the island seems to be divided into two parts. The eastern coastal part is the heavily built up tourist hotel section that takes advantage of the beautiful beaches, while the remaining coastal and inland areas are home to the local people living a relatively traditional lifestyle. The island is mostly flat (perfect for biking) and covered with familiar olive grooves. We wandered around a lot, sharing in the holiday spirit, and stopping to swim or splash around in the waves of the Mediterranean Sea.

When we arrived in Houmt Souk, we immediately noticed that the entire town seemed to be preparing for a huge celebration. click to view a photograph November 7 (1997) was the tenth anniversary of Mr. Zine El Abadine Ben Ali's ascension to President. (He was first officially and publicly elected in 1989 and then again in 1994). The festivities were partially a celebration of ten years of President Ben Ali's rule, but also, in a much bigger sense, the celebration was for Tunisia itself.

As we have learned throughout our travels in Tunisia, this has been a land of conflict and turmoil for thousands and thousands of years. Founded, in part, by the Phoenicians, Tunisia passed into Roman hands when Carthage fell in the second century BC. The Romans were eventually replaced by the Vandals, who were replaced by the Byzantines, who were replaced by the Arabs, who were replaced by the Turks, who were replaced by the French, who were replaced by the Germans, who were replaced by the French (again), who were finally replaced by the Tunisians themselves with the granting of Tunisian independence on March 20, 1956. Whew!

Under the leadership of its first president, Mr. Habib Bourguiba, Tunisia took great strides to improve education, the environment, the economy, and the rights of women.

The Tunisian economy experienced an extremely rapid development after independence, but this does not mean that there were not difficult times. Despite reforms, the period since independence has not been easy. During the 1970s and 80s, inequality persisted and the poorest classes stayed extremely disadvantaged, while the international situations between Tunisia, Israel, and Libya worsened. This period was marked by several riots over government incited food price increases and also because of the arrest of Habib Achour, the leader of the popular federation of trade unions (UGGT — the main opposition to the governmental party). In 1985, Israel bombed the Palestine Liberation Organization's headquarters in the suburbs of Tunis. Later, diplomatic relations with Libya were broken off. Finally, at the end of the 1980s, the growing Muslim fundamentalist movement reached Tunisia and fundamentalist students organized several violent demonstrations.

It was during this turbulent time that Ben Ali first assumed power. Worried that the aging President Habib Bourguiba had lost control of the situation, Ben Ali, at the time Interior Minister, took over the government. The subsequent general election — in which Ben Ali was elected President by a wide margin — indicated that a majority of the Tunisian population supported his move.

According to government press reports, during his Presidency, Ben Ali has worked to create an economy based on market principles instead of government control of companies and businesses. His government has also called for greater economic liberalization, reform of the fiscal and financial systems, promotion of the private sector, and the modernization of companies. Despite serious problems caused by widespread (and growing) unemployment, and by the drying up of Tunisia's oil reserves, Ben Ali's programs do seem to have helped to grow the economic, reduce inflation, and encourage the free market.

Tunisia has also made great strides in improving its health care and education systems, as well as in solidifying the advances made by women since 1956. Education was made universally available during the first years of independence and the first universities were created during the 60s. Today almost 15% of all students attend college and a national program was launched for the eradication of illiteracy in the 15- to 45-year-old group by 2006. The percentage of women in the working population has grown from 6% in 1966 to 23% in 1994, while the percentage of women in institutes of higher learning has increased to 44%.

Tourism, of course, is very important to Tunisia — having created over 300,000 jobs. Not to be forgotten is President Ben Ali's National Solidarity Fund. This has tapped into the culture of solidarity in Tunisia and raised a great deal of money from within Tunisia to support projects chosen by national development agencies (such as electricity, water, and road building plans, and the construction of homes and schools).

The last forty years, then, have been a time of transition. After its move to independence in the late 50s, Tunisia's economy changed from collective socialism in the 1960s to capitalism in the 70s. There was a peaceful succession between presidents in the 80s that involved an innovative economic plan tied to social progress in the 90s. Tunisia seems to have learned well from its past, and the importance of foreign relationships has not been forgotten by Tunisia, which maintains strong diplomatic ties with Europe (especially France) and the United States (see the Tech Fact of the Day).

During our visit, we have been impressed with the progress. Obviously Tunisia has made great inroads towards improving the rights of its citizens and in preparing the country for the 21st century. However, there is still room for improvement. Throughout our visit, it was obvious to us that the government acted as "Big Brother," watching over everything and everyone. We discovered much more genuine fear of the unknown in Tunisia than in Morocco. For example, in Tunisia, we encountered many more problems connecting to the Internet — not because of material limitations, but rather individuals's cautions and concerns about allowing their phone lines to be used for something that might not be considered unacceptable by the government. Plus, Corinne and andrEa were keenly aware that, despite strides being made in the equal treatment of women, women continue to play a secondary role, suffering from the traditional beliefs that clash with the progressive Tunisian agenda. This was more than just confirmed in avowals made by women who confided in us, and who continue to strive for the truly equal treatment they are promised under the law.

The November 7th celebration, then, seemed to be a celebration both of President Ben Ali's ten years of rule and of the last 40 years of improvement and growth in Tunisia, often during times of difficulty. Tunisians certainly seem to think well of their president; posters of him are to be found in almost every room of every public building click to view a photograph, restaurant, home, and even on every street corner. click to view a photograph Almost everyone credits him with having guided the country through the last ten difficult years. (We found it interesting that Tunisia was celebrating the tenth anniversary of its first democratic election at about the same time that voters in the United States were voting.)

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