Tim Robert­son makes a pil­grim­age to his daugh­ter’s un­usual wed­ding in Tu­nisia

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - Travel -

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.

Il­lus­tra­tion: Tom Jel­lett

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