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Report 1993: Tunisia - the South and the Desert

By Eleanor from UK, Spring 2012

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Page 6 of 17: Tozeur

photo by MAW

Decorative brickwork

Tozeur is about an hour's drive from Tamerza. The road climbs up a ridge of the Atlas Mountains with views into the deeply eroded canyon to a viewpoint at the top with stalls selling carpets, plates, wooden doors which open with a mirror behind, stuffed camels, shawls and other stalls piled high with desert roses. This is bare eroded rock with little vegetation with good views across the flat expanse of the Chott el Gharsa.

The road drops down to the Chott, a vast expanse of nothing with a few scattered oases. There is very little vegetation apart from bushes of what the Tunisians call ‘boogriba’ which has tiny fleshy leaves which contain a lot of water and are loved by the camels. There are plenty of signs warning about camels crossing and we saw a few camels grazing by the side of the road.

In places sandy desert is beginning to encroach and small fences of palm leaves are used to stop sand blowing. In other places there are a series of small boxes made of palm leaves covering the dunes. Some of the larger squares are planted with tamarisk trees.

Tozeur was busy on a Saturday as it was market day with lots of second hand clothes stalls and fruit stalls lining the streets. We checked on the animal market but were told it was on Sunday.

We went for short walk through the old quarter. Ouled el Hadef dates from the 14thC and is a maze of narrow covered alleyways with palm trunk ceilings and small squares. Most houses are two stories, and few have windows on the street. Most rely on light from the courtyard. The houses are constructed of small yellowish handmade bricks which protrude in elaborate geometric patterns on the walls. These are only found in Tozeur and Nefta. The technique was first used in Syria and Iraq in the 8thC and was carried west by Arab traders in 10thC. All new houses follow the same style. Load-bearing walls are made of concrete and yellow bricks form a patterned layer. They are popular as they provide better insulation against the extremes of climate than breeze block and create small patches of shade on walls which generate cooling currents.

The Museum Of Popular Arts And Traditions is in one of the traditional 14thC houses in Oueld el Hadef. The guide books are very complementary about this. There is a 2TD entry. We handed over a 5TD note to Souad but no effort was made to give change, something we had noticed elsewhere in Tunisia. A passageway leads from the door into a courtyard with rooms off containing different exhibits. The kitchen has a small wood fired oven with storage area next to it. There are copper steamers for couscous, large glazed serving plates with traditional green (dates) and yellow (sand) decoration and examples of small cups used for drinking palm juice, wooden olive bowls, quern, pestle and mortar made from apricot wood. Pottery made by the household was fired in the bread oven.

The next room has a Koran and a copy of the book explaining Ibn Chabbat’s system of irrigating the oasis and a kadouss. He was a 13thC mathematician who devised a system distributing water to all the plots along a complex system of dykes and sluices designed to avoid wastage of water. Water was channeled along hollowed out palm trunks with a series of holes which were blocked when the allocated time was over. Time was calculated by means of a Kadouss; a water container with a hole in it which took just over an hour to empty. Each landowner was allocated a set number of kadouss units.

There is a display of old money. Hanging on the wall are boards of apricot wood which were used in school. Ink was made from burnt sheep’s blood and could be cleaned off using white clay.

The next room is a bedroom with a chest containing examples of wedding dresses. Souad dressed Michael up in a long white robe and a turban. I was given a red dress with golden head dress. There was much hilarity as we had our pictures taken.

Upstairs is a room for weaving blankets. Souad demonstrated carding, spinning and weaving. Wool is threaded through by hand and then pushed down using a wooden comb. It could take one person two to three months to make a blanket. Larger blankets were usually made by three women sitting side by side working together.

Just down the street from the Museum of Popular Arts and Traditions are a few tourist shops in a small square selling carpets and crockery (with a scenic view thrown in).

We went to find the statue of Ibn Chabbat and some of the water channels at one of the entrances to the palmeraie. Tracks through it and plots are fenced off with tall palm hedges. Apricots, pomegranates, bananas and figs grow beneath the palms. Some still had dates hanging from them. We drove along one of the main roads through the palmeraie but declined a visit to the zoo, having read that animals are kept in small cages. The star turn is a coca cola drinking camel...

In places the palmeraie is beginning to look very unkempt and palms neglected and beginning to die. The road took us past the ‘venerable’ Jujube tree allegedly planted by Sidi Bou Lifai buried in the white marabout (tomb) behind it. The village of Bled el-Hadder in the palmeraie is a collection of small houses around the mosque. Some big new houses are being built on the edge of the settlement surrounded by tall walls with very splendid gateways.

We were dropped off at the Belvedere and left while our driver went to the mosque. This was a big mistake as it is a dump. Naff faces painted white are carved in the rocks as a tourist attraction. It might work at Mount Rushmore but it doesn’t here. There are big models of an eagle, lute, violin and drum. There is a kids play area with swings, bouncy castle, slides and a roundabout. Music was blaring out but the fast food stall didn’t seem to be doing much trade. Neither did the horses and camels. We were the only Europeans there, everyone else was Tunisian. We climbed the steps up to viewpoint on rocks which overlooked the golf club and big hotels of tourist zone. Although there were plenty of seats there was no shade. There was litter everywhere. Avoid it.

Afterwards we drove through the tourist area. There are a lot of hotels but many of them are shut, either because there isn’t enough business to keep them open or because the owners have not been paying the staff.

Many tourists to the area choose to stop in Tozeur as it has more choice of hotels than Tamerza and is a lot cheaper. It isn’t such an attractive place though. Even though we felt the Tamerza Palace Hotel was expensive we were glad we had stopped in Tamerza.

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