Tim Robertson makes a pilgrimage to his daughter’s unusual wedding in Tunisia
TUNISIA wedges like a doorstop between the vast expanses of Algeria and Libya into the Sahara. Centuries ago the port of Tunis was a haven for the galleys of the Barbary corsairs. Millenniums ago it was Carthage. From the hexameters of Virgil’s Dido and Aeneas to Dizzy Gillespie’s bebop Night in Tunisia , fantasies of Tunis and Carthage have sung siren songs to me.
So when two of my daughters go to live there and one sends me an invitation to my grandson’s first birthday party while the other announces her intention of marrying a Carthaginian, it is clearly time to cash in the super and pay a visit.
Carthage is a seaside suburb on the Gulf of Tunis, a bit like Brighton on Melbourne’s Port Phillip Bay. There are shady eucalyptus-lined streets with posh houses stonewalled against the poor and a handy rail service to the city. There are also two presidential palaces with extensive grounds that take up the best of the real estate, and heaps of ruins. These are all Roman. No Punic, aka Phoenician, aka Carthaginian, because the Romans singlemindedly razed Carthage in 46BC and ploughed the land with salt. They spared Tophet, where burnt offerings of children used to be made to Baal, a Punic deity, perhaps as a token of the justice of their cause.
La Marsa, where my eldest daughter lives, is 10 minutes from Tophet. It was a sleepy fishing village until the 1960s when it was developed into a nouveau riche expat enclave. She enjoys living in a marble-staircased and airconditioned white villa with blue shutters and profuse bougainvilleas. She has a baby and a French executive husband who was headhunted by the African Development Bank and hates his work because he says it does no good for the poor he came to help.
Their villa is a stone’s throw from the beach, where one has to be careful of rocks, sea urchins and hard-fought contests batting a ping-pong sized hardball.
The bride-to-be and her five-year-old daughter are living in squalor with her beloved Aeneas, an aerobics instructor, on the Rue de Pole Nord. It is August, every day is near 40C and my flesh and blood has turned into a microcosm of Tunisian society.
Tunis remains a made-up sort of a place and not just by being a handy and sandy film location for the likes of TheLifeofBrian , The English Patient and various Star Wars films. The state-controlled media project the image of a business-friendly liberal democracy, the stable moderator of the Islamic world. It is ruled by President Zine ben Ali for whom close to 99 per cent of the population votes every four years.
Zine’s portrait as a young man overlooks all corners of a thriving economy, one in which Aeneas’s employer has not paid him for more than a month. It appears the cash flow of the business must go to service the debt on the BMW and the rest of the conspicuous consumption needed to enter the elite. Aeneas has no means of redressing this problem. His forbearance is incredible and no way will he allow me to pick up a tab when he takes us all for lunch at a kerbside pizzeria.
Ubiquitous in McDonald’s-free Tunis, pizza originally came over from Sicily (three hours away by ferry) and is prepared with a difference. The crust is more brittle and turkey replaces ham to make it halal. There are lots of options on the menu but, as with the provisions of the constitution, few are available. Arrangements have to be made. Jus de paradis (strawberry) is brought in from down the street to accompany a plat tunisien: mixed salad with tuna and egg animated by fiery harissa. We scoop it up with hot flat bread. A great meal for about 5 dinars (about $4.60) a head.
Making sure the marriage will not be bound under sharia law, preliminaries involve dispiriting dealings with erratic bureaucracies. The bride-to-be’s birth certificate, we are told, is out of date. She has ticked the wrong box in a pro forma pre-nup agreement. Correction is an uphill struggle. Tunisia being the kind of democracy a national is not allowed to leave, 80 per cent of such contracts between Tunisians and foreign women are mariages blancs for the purpose of getting a visa.
My daughter is regarded as ignorant infidel visa bait. The standard wage of 1.50 dinars an hour is no incentive to deliver customer service anyway.
It’s a relief to be on the road northeast through a tawny, littered landscape to Cap Bon at the height of the tomato season. A joy to stay in Kerkouane at Dar Zenaidi, a pension run by Swiss-prepped Tunisians, with a private beach and Punic ruins. Murex, the shellfish secreting the Tyrean purple, used to be processed here. We enter the great hollow pyramids of the sandstone quarries at El Houaria on the tip of the cape that supplied the stone to build Carthage. We trek off the road to the wild surf of Errita and admire the beach savvy of the Tunisians, diversely sheltered, mint tea on little tables, cooking in hand, blokes reclining with their hookahs.
Back in town, the have-nots are still struggling against the tyranny of the clerks. For the marriage contract to be signed on the day set for our fete, some sort of home visit is necessary for a fee of 100 dinars. Whitewashing the party house has blistered the groom’s forearms, the bride can’t use her hands or feet after nights of application of ceremonial henna and tatouage. I’m wired by hours of sitting about, a reformed smoker in a nation that smokes like a train (4 dinars a pack).
The haves take me off to Dougga where St Augustine went to sin. It is so preserved that one can still sit on the 12-holer public toilet and test the nifty acoustics of the theatre. Down the road at Bulla Regia are underground Roman villas, Coober Pedy style, but with mosaics and better plumbing.
The day before The Day, the female half of the wedding party is scoured by whacking big mommas at the local turkish baths or hammam. I visit the colossal Baths of the Antonins that offended Islamic morality let fall into ruin sometime in AD700. I potter around the pond that is all that remains of the closed double circular quays harbouring hundreds of galleys in 5BC.
Getting around in the little yellow taxis of Tunis is very cheap. Petrol is the equivalent of about 70c a litre. Seat belts are not worn. It is said one out of four drivers is a police informer. Ten dinars gets you across the 30km sprawl of the town to the Bardo Museum. This was the winter palace of the former bey.
Hectares of mosaics, removed from their sites, reveal Roman Tunisia to have been a huntin’ and shootin’ and fishin’ place of great abundance. Virgil is to be found here flanked by a muse and an actor. Dionysus, too, with a goanna on a leash. Statuary stands around with male appendages removed.
Aeneas’s boss reluctantly agrees to pay part of the wages he owes and at last The Day dawns with the municipal official teed up for 11am. The men take their turn in the jovial dungeon of the hammam. The wedding party gathers at the scrubbed-up family home with its hopeful second storey work-in-progress. As expected, 11am comes and goes without an appearance. By 12.30pm, undertows of con- flicting rumour suggest there is a problem but as a special favour, another unspecified notable is coming to sort things out.
About 2.30pm, a mullah glides in, sleek, affable, authoritative. The mint tea and almond pastries are broken out. The women withdraw and he launches into an Arabic homily. Via double translation we learn this is about the sacred nature of marriage, the sperm of Mohammed and the shortcomings of the French. My daughter is summoned and with shining eyes affirms that she loves her Aeneas and that she is entering this holy estate of her own free will.
Nothing is sworn, nothing is signed, but I’m not coping well. I am perplexed by the sudden conflation of church and state and raise my glass of jus de paradis somewhat doubtfully.
That night we return to the quarter, car horns blaring as is the nuptial custom, greeted by the beating of drums, the reedy wailing of the mizmar and wild ululation from the women. The entire neighbourhood is assembled for the ring-giving festivity. The bride in satin, a White Swan of Carthage, is led to a Franco Cozzo throne by her close-shaven beloved, impeccable in white. He gives her a Berber ring.
Trad music stops, the DJ turns on highdecibel Arabic disco and our big night in Tunisia rips away: the father of the bride’s speech in pidgin, the wedding travesty.
One problem: the happy couple is still not married. Aeneas avers the contract will be signed next Tuesday for certain. Tuesday comes and goes. Then, without warning, a week later, the bureaucratic stars align.
But I am not there to bear witness. I am back in Carthage. Susan Kurosawa’s DepartureLounge column returns next week.