Jim does Tunis

Jim's adventures in Tunis

I had to write these experiences down. They are not Benetech-relevant, but I circulated them inside Benetech and was encouraged to post them in the Beneblog. Advance notice: my longest post ever.

Written on November 20, 2005.

I felt the need to jot down a few notes about my visit to the old part of the city of Tunis. It's a series of stories, all crammed into less than 24 hours. After the WSIS conference, where I had been housed in Hammamet, 50 miles away and a 1.5 to 2 hour bus ride away from everything, I moved for one night to Tunis to visit the medina. Note on prices: I use $ for prices, but the numbers are actually Tunisian dinars, which are 1.3 to the U.S. dollar. So, if you see a number like $13 below, it's actually less in U.S. dollars, more like US$10. The links link to a few of the pictures I took and posted on Flickr.

My new friends.

Walking into the medina, the old part of Tunis, I suddenly acquired very friendly people from Tunisia speaking good English (which is unusual, since English is about language number six in usefulness in Tunisia, after Arabic, French, Italian, Spanish and German). They all asked the same questions every Tunisian seems to ask: how do you like our country and was the WSIS conference well organized? Then they start telling you about the unusual carpet exhibition at a palace on the far side of the Great Mosque in the medina. Berber rugs, closes today, very special. Great view of the Mosque from the terrace on top of the palace, because you can't see it otherwise (because it's so tightly packed in the medina).

Guy number 1 tries to divert me to his short cut into the medina. Follow me this way, he says, and it will take only five minutes to get there rather than 15 minutes. He was actually right it would have been a shortcut. Exercising caution, I declined to be dissuaded from my initial course to enter the medina at the French gate. Guy number two I also dodge, but nicely. Guy number three actually adds a line about my hotel (this is also a question I had had earlier in the week) and finds out that I am from the Sheraton.

And, this is where they get me for a while. Five minutes later, as I'm being carried by the tide of humanity down the main street of the medina (which happens to be about six to eight feet wide between shops), I'm passed by a guy who "recognizes" me because he works at the Sheraton in reception. Same questions about how I like Tunis, etc. Then he tells me about the great exhibition. I am finally willing to bite, even though I don't even think about how he could have gotten off work and reached the medina that fast.

He leads me off the beaten path, takes me to the older part of the medina, introduces me to his brother in his brother's shop in the perfume souk, and then takes me to see the palace. It's lined with pictures of foreign dignitaries looking at carpets (all supposed to be in this palace). No picture of President Bush, though! A couple of floors of carpets, and the top floor has the bed of the bey/sultan who lived in the house (seems small for a palace). And then, the top floor really does have a great view of the Great Mosque, and I take a ton of pictures.

Now for the real business. I'm handed off by my friendly guide to the real point of the venture: the expert rug salesman. Escorted into a good size room lined with rugs, I'm seated down with a cup of sweet mint tea to see the exhibition of Tunisian rugs (the Berber part seems to fade a bit). Closes tomorrow, you know. I note that I'm not here to buy a rug, but that's no problem. Expert rug guy is used to overcoming that sort of resistance. Expert rug guy has deputy rug guy bringing out rug after rug. About 30 rugs make rapid appearances, each laid over the previous ones. First we have the old rugs, and then the big rugs, and the small rugs (although they resist my attempts to look at smaller rugs). I see one rug I actually like quite well, but it's 5 by 7 feet and colors (primary red and blue with geometric patterns that appeal to my technical aesthetic, an oxymoron perhaps) that don't mesh with our home decorations.

The plan is to go through an elaborate elimination ceremony where I am asked whether to save each rug or take it away. I try to divert to ask if they have a small rug like the one I liked, but the ceremony continues. Finally, we are down to a couple of rugs in addition that are similar to the one I liked. I've been pushing for prices, and get numbers like $500-800 shipped to the U.S. The small rugs come as two identical rugs joined by the fringes, which they try to sell as his and her prayer rugs. However, they will cut them apart and sell me just one for $325.

While I actually was momentarily tempted by the mint tea and the ceremony to buy a rug, I remember that Virginia was quite clear when I had asked about gifts from Tunisia, that rugs were not a part of the list. I start deferring, but the pressure to start negotiating is on. Deferring negotiation, I thank them for their time and the terrace view. They attempt more sales closes: don't I like the rugs? Any of the rugs? They can bring more…

Finally, I play my trump card. My wife won't like any of them. They go with Arab platitudes: she's my wife; she has to like it if I like it. I let them know that it didn't work that way, and expert rug guy is defeated, muttering something about the wife. Obviously felt that this was an implausible excuse.

I escape, but the adventure is not over yet. I have to go to the guide's brother's shop and look at stuff. This is all about selling me perfume essence: the rest of the shop is actually inactive merchandise. He has me sniff a bunch of perfumes: perfume brother wants to put it on my hand, but I dodge that. Which one do I like? I kind of like the lemon essence, and make the mistake of saying so. I get quoted $40 for a tiny bottle of perfume essence that can be added to water to make a liter of perfume. I try to run away, but guide brother says oh, you misunderstood my little chart, it's actually $20. He pours and wraps two bottles of essence while we're talking. The second one is jasmine, because everyone needs jasmine. Only $35 for both. No, I don't want the jasmine, but I am desperate to flee from this experience. I finally say I'll pay for the lemon and take it. After three attempts to upsell by more deals, and gifts of incense, I get away and guide brother brings me to the courtyard outside the Great Mosque, where I am deposited, exhausted.

It turns out the entire medina is full of guys pitching the terrace to every tourist. I get pitched at least a half dozen more times that day, and the morning after. I can escape quickly by noting I've been there, done that. They know it doesn't work twice, generally. It's an incredibly sophisticated commercial operation, all carried out with incredible friendliness and smoothness. It's not fully a scam, although I'm sure many aspects of it were stretching the truth. The whole point is to get you to buy a rug as your first experience in the medina, before you can find out what the pricing really is and understand how differently the sales process proceeds here.

Abdul is a good guy (but he can lose it quickly)

Leaving the rug selling experience, I plunge back into the souks, shopping. I begin to learn the techniques and etiquette of shopping, Arabic style. Of course, I've read about this in books, but experiencing it makes it real. The whole point of the process is for the buyer to express an interest in something. If you say you like an item, you're committed. Well, they'll make you feel like you're committed. Asking for a price is also escalating the commitment further. That implies that there is a price you'll settle for. I repeat this process over and over again, gradually learning that saying no and starting to walk away can greatly decrease the price. The sellers have a pretty good idea if you're really interested, and I am not experienced enough to send out (or hide!) the right signals.

They are also getting the clue that hard sell hurts sales with many European tourists. You hear "no hassles, come into my shop." I tended to shop more at the places that were less high pressure.

On the other hand, there was Abdul, seller of camel leather ottomans (of course). I poked my nose in his shop, and he points out his lovely tile ceiling. He points out the picture on the wall: it's his picture. He is Abdul, actual owner of the shop, he says. I ask about these things that look like round leather platters with eight inch vertical sides, which I had seen in other shops. I learn that they are actually leather cylinders that are stored folded up. The ottomans supposed to be stuffed and made into foot cushions. Two sizes, made from camel leather. You can tell, because every one is covered with camels stamped into the leather. Abdul proves this by taking out a lighter and lighting it against the leather, which does not burn. I assume this is the time-honored way to prove it's real leather.

So, I ask the price. Big price, and big mistake. $150. That's just over the top, and I'm beginning to come to my senses. These ottomans are big and tacky (although the idea of an ottoman does kind of appeal to me!). I tell Abdul no thank you. He can't imagine I'm serious, because I asked the price and said that I liked one. $140, $130. No, I say, it's not a question of price, I don't want it. $120, $100 says Abdul, you said you liked it, you asked the price. By this time he has a pad of paper on which he's written every price so far, crossed it out and done a new price. $80, $60, $40 he writes as his volume increases, trying to keep me from escaping from the shop. No, no, I say, edging from the back of the shop towards the front. $20 he says, will you do $20?! By this time I'm at the door, and as I make my way away, I hear Abdul yelling at me: $10! All right, $10! People are looking at me: how could you get Abdul yelling at you? Over $10?

The joy of shopping, somewhat dulled by Abdul the crazy camel leather ottoman seller.

Helpful people, really. My buddy the photographer.

I don't want to give the impression that Abdul and the carpet guys were typical. The typical Tunisian is friendly and helpful. They are proud of their country, and Americans are unusual here. When people hear I am from America, they congratulate me (usually in French, which I can follow a bit, but effusive nice French). California and Arnold Schwarzenegger are greeted with excitement. When you ask a question about how to get somewhere, they want to show you personally.

After getting to the edge of the medina, I reached the site of the Kasbah, the ancient fort. I think the French pretty much replaced it with government buildings 100-120 years ago when they ruled Tunisia. I had been heading for Dar El Jeld, reputed to be the best restaurant in the city. It was only six pm, and the restaurant didn't open until eight. Unfortunately, it was already fully booked. The same was true at Le Diwan, down the street, which was the number two restaurant by the same family (reminded me of some of the New Orleans restaurant affiliations). Le Diwan had a nice looking boutique, staffed by an attractive Tunisian woman who spoke only French. The merchandise here was a significant cut above that of the shops in the medina, and there was no bargaining. I found some nice stuff, and asked about getting into the restaurants. She phones, but confirms they are both full. I ask for a recommendation, and she gives me the name of one, with totally inadequate directions, which she realizes quickly will get me lost.

She takes me out of the shop and across the street to an art gallery. This is clearly a more upscale part of the old town. The gallery owner is a French-speaking guy with some English, and she pitches him to take me to the restaurant. So, he closes his gallery, but notes that he has a small commission. Huh? Turns out, he's committed to photographing an artist at another gallery down the street. So, I go along and watch the photo session (lasts ten minutes). Then my photographer buddy and I launch for the restaurant recommended by the nice lady from Le Diwan. We get there around 710 pm, and they have room, but also don't open until 8 pm. We go further, and I buy some date sweets. Then, we make it to the far side of the old town and my photographer buddy takes me up into a second floor restaurant and bids me adieu. It turns out to be the best Tunisian food I've had all week. The first dish is an Ojja Merguez, a lamb sausage dish in peppers and tomatoes with an egg mixed in. My main course is a Bedouin lamb couscous. Also delicious. The restaurant doesn't serve alcohol, and instead I get the local equivalent of a fruit smoothie. Didn't miss my customary glass of wine a bit!

The attempted cab scam.

Leaving the nice restaurant, I decide it's time to head for my hotel. Taxi cabs all have meters, so it's supposed to be no hassle. I had taken a taxi cab down from my hotel, which has cost me about $8, but the cab driver had noted in French something along the lines of "I took the freeway: longer but much faster." So, I knew that was the cap. I hail a taxi, and get in. The meter starts at $4.50 instead of the normal $0.40. And then I note that the meter is clicking up at an alarming rate. By the time we get to the hotel, the meter is reading something like $24. It wouldn't have been that much in New York!

I get out of the cab and ask the doorman about the cab bill, telling him I had just come from the medina. Incensed, he tells me that the right price should be $2, maybe $2.50. The doorman selects out $2.50 and gives it to the silent cab driver, who slinks off into the night.

Of course, I had to wonder if the first cab ride was also cooked a bit. The next morning, I came back to the medina, driven in a really beat-up cab by an older guy in a fez and my cab fare was $2.10. I gave the cabbie $4 for being honest.

Early morning in the medina.

The next morning I got up at 630am and got to the Kasbah side of the media by about 730 am, skipping the $25 breakfast at the Sheraton. The light was beautiful in the hour after dawn, and I walked an older, less touristy part of the medina. All of the streets are close in: 8 to 9 feet wide. Many of them have roofs over them. The most striking part of walking the medina is the doors: big, metal studded with patterns and bright colors. It seemed very old: this is a part of the city that really developed 1,000 years ago. I took lots of pictures.

My walk was interesting: visiting tombs, old mosques and the house of former pirate and governor of Tunis (isn't this close to the Barbary coast, after all?). I ended up on the street of the herbs and spices. I stopped for a cup of coffee in a chichi bar, which features coffee as well as water pipes for smoking tobacco. My coffee was $0.30, and tasty. Just outside the chichi bar, a streetside vendor was selling breakfast from a cart. The dish was a piece of pita bread, which he sliced open and slathered on red pepper paste. He cracked a hard boiled egg, peeled it in front of me, and cut it up into the pita. Then went in canned tuna, and oil and something else I couldn't identify. $0.80 for this creation, which was delicious. One of the helpful guys also buying one of these showed me his Pennsylvania driver's license and social security card, and walks me back to the great mosque, which was just 150 meters away. I stand outside in the small square outside the mosque, eating my pita, and fending off guys who wanted to tell me about the terrace (on top of the rug shop I'd already visited).

The Tunisian guys seem to like the fact that I'm eating my pita, and say hi. A cat notices (lots of cats in Tunis), and hangs out for a donation. I'm encouraged to contribute by one of the terrace guys, and he pulls a plastic wrapper off his pack of cigarettes and flattens it out for a plate for el gato. A bit of egg and tuna (with hot pepper sauce) is devoured instantly from my newest Tunisian friend.

I then notice the steps to the mosque are being swept carefully. The Great Mosque door is open, and it turns out that they let non-Muslims look inside in the mornings. That's very unusual; every other mosque I saw in Tunisia was off-limits. So, after finishing my pita, I paid the $1.60 and got to go through the doors and into a fenced-off corner of the courtyard of the Great Mosque. Quite impressive (more pictures in the set linked to this link).

Happy with this morning jaunt, I headed down a pretty busy commercial street and saw a jewelry shop with some interesting earrings that I knew my daughter Kate (15 years old) would like. The shop owner was in a back room praying, so I waited until he was finished to buy the earrings. Less into bargaining: I got them for $35 instead of $40.

I got back to the French gate and watched the policemen stopping lots of people (not tourists) and asking for identification. I took some pictures from a distance the police in Tunisia were not big on having their pictures taken). However, heading back to my hotel and the airport, the decrease in police presence was hugely notable. During the WSIS summit, there were policeman every 200 meters along all the roads, and many roadblocks. Two days after the end, things were getting back to normal. And, I was heading back home for the American Thanksgiving holiday, leaving behind a fascinating place.


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