We survived the night, without getting broken into or abducted, had breakfast and waved to our security guard friend. We got back on the road, and drove the 50 km into the city of Sfax.
We inched our way through the city traffic, weaving around pedestrians and motorbikes (not the other way around, of course), and with minimal pain found a spacious manned car park. We were here to visit the medina, the ancient marketplace, which we’ve read is one of the most ‘real’ and un-touristy, where others tend to be packed full of pushy souvenir vendors.
Sure enough, it was brilliant — no hassling whatsoever. We just wandered around amongst the locals, with a friendly “salut” or an “aslama” here and there.
We met a guy working a stall when he asked where we were from as we passed by — we paused to answer, and we just kinda kept talking; His name was Baha, and he spoke English, which was refreshing. He got a neighbouring vendor to watch his store and took us around the corner (we lagged behind a little, cautiously) to where his brother was selling drums and some other freaky-looking traditional instruments.
He surprised us by not asking us to buy anything, and instead took us for a coffee, which was great — he told us he lived in Tataouine (you know, where Anakin Skywalker lived), and travelled in to work sometimes. As always, there was a bit of a communication barrier, but we got by. He showed us how our names were written in Arabic:
And he wrote down his address in Tataouine for us, in case we needed him! We’d read about the persistence of the hospitable Berber culture in Tunisia, and I think it’s definitely apparent.
We’d just said farewell to Baha, and were wandering through some back-alleys taking pictures of some excitingly grungey-looking doors, when two young women paused to puzzle over what we were doing, and one jokingly posed for me in front of a door:
They surprised us by speaking to us in excellent English. They gave us funny looks and asked us why the hell we were taking pictures of grotty doors, and what on earth we were doing in Tunisia of all places. Classic!
They were art students at the Sfax art university, Sirine and Amal, and after checking what our plans were, they invited us to have coffee with them at a café/studio they were headed to.
It was absolutely brilliant to be able to meet some Tunisian women finally — we were a little frustrated at talking with just guys, not having a woman’s perspective at all; in fact, just the day before Katherine had voiced that frustration, so it was great timing! Plus speaking in English helped massively — we really aren’t at the point where we can understand very much at all. We just tend to make up for ourselves the other person’s side of the conversation, which can have interesting results. They said it was nice to speak English for a while.
So, we joined them at the café, an artist’s haunt, with a room upstairs for painting and milling about creatively — Sirine negotiated for us to head upstairs briefly to say hi to their friends (I admit, at this point I was remembering the art scam that got Kevin Rose and Glenn McElhose in China, but once again, all was well!). They spoke for a moment in Arabic, and when I observantly noted “that isn’t English!”, they explained that they were commenting on my beauty. It’s the hair, you see. I nodded modestly and agreed that I was quite the looker.
So, we four grabbed a table downstairs and spoke for ages about a variety of topics — life in Tunisia for women, and in Australia, and marriage; Sirine was, I suspect, a tad baffled at our opinions towards marriage — “but you love each other, why not just get married?” — We explained how marriage has much less weight in Australia, for various reasons, and that with us two it was just something we didn’t see as necessary; We know we’re going to spend the rest of our lives loving each other, and that was enough, at least for now! Of course, that’s a very big contrast to here in Tunisia, where you’re not even really allowed to even go out at night as a woman until you’re married. It’s actually illegal to live together here unless you’re married! Luckily, there’s a little lenience towards tourists. It sounds a bit like one remains with a child’s restrictions until the ring is on your finger! Sirine mused that she’s probably quite fortunate — her family sound quite tolerant and moderate!
We spoke about family life and obligations, the art university and it’s modern and moderate nature, and their chosen specialities — ceramics for Amal, and sculpture for Sirine. They told us that teaching art was a very good career, and well paid.
We also spoke about being a traveller in Tunisia, and they warned us about being too trusting, like when meeting someone who offers to take you somewhere. We gave them a look — “well, not us!”. I think they should make the evil-doers wear a badge or something. Sirine said something disparaging about my manly strength compared to the big strong dangerous local men. I think she probably had a point. Maybe I could defeat them with my mighty brain? It’s an interesting conundrum, though. Do you play it safe all the time and never have any new experiences, or do you take chances and risk your safety? Maybe we just need to learn how to improvise a shiv from nearby objects.
Sirine was engaged to a Tunisian man — from Sfax — living in Paris, and was happy to be getting out of Tunisia. She told us that she always knew she wanted to marry a foreigner (I guess this way she keeps the family happy and gets to marry someone who’s living overseas and is all Frenchified!). She actually suggested that we come and attend her wedding in Sfax in August, which was very touching, although we couldn’t have made it. We’re totally going to catch up in Paris though.
So, Amal and Sirine gave us their full names to look them up on Facebook (man, that thing is so international!), and we’re going to stay in touch. It was just brilliant to meet them, both to talk about how they lived and just to hang out with cool people in our age group! We wished each other well and parted ways.
We wandered our way back to Nettle, who was still there and still in one piece — awesome — then had a quick lunch and headed out of Sfax. People here drive…differently to people in other places.