Kairouan and On

Ray mentioned that he read somewhere that Tunisia is the world’s largest exporter of olive oil. This is easy to believe because there are olive trees everywhere (though they are often spaced much further apart than one would believe necessary) and they have a long history — even the Berber hill towns have olive presses all over the place. Most of our dinners have begun with a plate of olives, before we even order.

We saw plenty of olive trees today on our drive from Tataouine to El Jem. We also saw an installation of whimsical public sculpture in Mahares, a beach town which looks like it wants to become a resort. There was a beautiful very detailed horse made out of lots of rebar, and a 30-ft-high man containing a deck with tables and chairs about halfway up. These and dozens of smaller entries were part of the International Festival of Plastic Arts, held there every summer.

El Jem is the home of the ruins of a very large Roman amphitheater — it was said to hold 35,000 people watching lions vs. shackled criminals, lions vs. unshackled Christians, and, of course, gladiators vs. gladiators. It’s much larger than any other building in El Jem, so it’s not too hard to find your way there. A museum nearby consists almost entirely of exceptionally well-preserved mosaics found in excavated wealthy Roman citizen’s houses located in the immediate neighborhood.

Now we’re in Kairouan, the holiest Islamic city in Tunisia, and the center of their carpet industry. We decided to come here after arriving in Tunisia, and hadn’t booked a hotel in advance. The most recommended two hotels in town both turned out to be full before sundown, so we have ended up in a nearby hotel which is pretty least-recommended but won’t kill us as long as we don’t touch anything. We didn’t need a hot shower anyway. Or breakfast — hopefully someone will serve tourists coffee after the sun rises during Ramadan. The Internet, in addition to making planning ahead easy, has in addition had the effect of making let’s-just-go travel a lot more tenuous, because so many places, e.g. those with phone lines and other public utilities, are booked in advance. Especially on a Friday Night in a Ramadan Party Town like Kairouan. There’s a lot of competition to mortify the flesh in all the best places in the holiest of Tunisian cities.

The muezzins are chanting the night time chants from the nearby mosque (the one most close outside the window; there are zillions in Kairouan.) I expect after a while one tunes it out like a commercial in the days before fast-forwarding. It’s certainly the most pervasive impression one gets from traveling in Islam, even more so than carpet salesman, who after all can be avoided for the most part by walking on the other side of the street, or perhaps in another state.