Jan 10, 2019
Scrambling up the narrow spiral stairs in the Ribat tower, I am rewarded with a panorama of the city. Built in the eighth century, this was once a watchtower. Today it gives tourists a birds’ eye view of the medina. The austere lines of the Aghlabid Grand Mosque lie below. In the distance, the Khalef tower of the old Kalaa pierces the sky.
Another building-turned-museum is the Dar Essid which affords a glimpse into the life of the wealthy in the 19th century. Tiles and tapestry, moldings and carvings form a continuum of color dotted with imported luxuries of the privileged.
But the real treat is diving into the crowds in the medina. Far different from that of Tunis, these crowded lanes are abuzz with hawkers and shoppers, with tourist shops few and far between. In the “strangest item sold” category, slingshots made of fishtails are the winners, hands down.
Fresh produce and fruits, mountains of oranges, fish and seafood, heaps of spices, strings of dried chili peppers, bowls of olives, pots and pans, clothes, toys and electronics – just about everything is on sale and business is brisk. Souq Er Ribba resounds with the noise of a teeming bazaar as the shopkeepers call out to shoppers at top volume. Haggling is the norm.
Hole-in-the-wall eateries see a crowd three deep at lunchtime and I poke my hand through as well. Being vertically challenged, I cannot see what is being sold but am confident it must be good; I am not disappointed. Briq and Mlaoui taste a lot better than they sound.
The icing on the cake is the warmth of the people. Smiles greet a welcome and a game of Ludo played on a cellphone is prelude to an afternoon of chatting. Imene, a young woman I met, showed me parts of the medina I had not seen. In a lovely old building that is now a café, she taught me the fine art of drinking Arabic coffee, Tunisian-style.
If the Sousse medina is buzzing with adrenaline, then that of Kairouan is deep in meditative contemplation. It prefers to wear pale shades of blue and cream with darker blue doorways punching through the palette. Most of its lanes are deserted in the middle of a workday as I wander the alleys at random; I find just as enticing as Sousse but in a different way.
The Sidi Okba mosque was originally built in the 7th century when Islam first put down roots in northern Africa and the mosque is deemed the fourth most important in the world. The courtyard has several wells that were used to collect and filter precious rain water. The past shows in grooves of the marble rims, worn down from centuries of ropes used to haul buckets. This small medina reputedly has more than a hundred mosques and the city itself wears a more conservative cloak.
It is home to several elaborate monuments, among them, the tomb of Sidi Abid el Ghariani. Even more extravagantly decorated is the palace of former Pashas, now called the Governor’s Mansion. Now a carpet showroom, the colors and designs are mesmerizing – in the building as well as the carpets and kilims.