Zigui's laid-back charms could hold you for a lifetime, slowing your pulse in the torpid heat, smilingly offering you a beer by the river as the sun settles down for the night. Yet we wanted to see a little more of the Casamance, and head a bit off the beaten track. Initially we had planned to head to the empty white sand beaches of Cap Skiring, but we decided to check out the seat of the Jola priest-kings, Oussouye, instead. The road winded past crocodile farms and dense hardwood forests to a town that for the first time felt entirely African, a village grown large, with a dilapidated Hotel de Ville the only sign of colonial influence. We settled into our very own Case à Impluvium, complete with pet monkey and crocodile, and sampled a more traditional way of living.
South of Gambia, the Casamance is tucked away from the rest of Senegal, a vast flat land inundated with water. The landscape contrasts fairly hectic forest with impossibly extensive mangroves and rice fields that stretched on out towards the horizon – no paddies here. It’s Senegal’s premier holiday destination, with golden sand beaches almost completely untouched except for fishermen landing their bounteous catch and the occasional cow. It has also been undergoing a low-level insurgency for the last 30 years, one, in a somewhat Liliputan turn of events, that has its roots in an argument over what’s better, rice or peanuts.
A light mist rises from the sea; together with the setting sun it melts the beach and line of palms into a honeyed haze. Two horses thunder along the foreshore, churning up the backwash and effortlessly overtaking the persistent souls who insist on cycling through the sand. We sit on a raised platform under shady palm fronds, beers in hand, gazing along the curve of the bay filled with people working out or playing football. A child nearby is playing with an iPad, a row of tiny, inquisitive black heads propped up on the parapet behind her.
The road South to Kasserine ran through the dictionary definition of badlands. Despite occasional half-hearted showers, the ground remained angry and arid, with scratches of wiry esparto grass the only vegetation braving such an inhospitable environment. Dry wadis wandered between steep mesas, listless goats pretended they could make a living by lapping at stagnant pools and tearing up the memory of plants.
The scenery was dramatic, a post-apocalyptic Wild West, with glowering skies completing the look. The unhappy towns and single street villages we passed through completed the look: quite what people did out here remained mysterious, and houses seemed to sprout solely because two roads were crossing. The revolution grew in towns like these, anonymous and purposeless, much like their inhabitants. No jobs or support, but with a long history of Berber resistance to le pouvoir, stretching back to Roman times. If nature herself was that cruel a mistress, why would you put up with any crap from a master from some other world, a land of bounteous crops and fat livestock?
As you approach the Kasserine Pass, famous for being one of the most unhappy battles in World War II, some industry starts to pull itself together in an effort to give people something to do. Mostly it takes the form of turning esparto grass into something that people might actually want. Yet there is no reason to stick around in Kasserine itself, so on, always onwards, to Sbeitla, a short drive down the road, and home to a remarkably complete Roman town. The Arab town is strangely over-provided with places to eat, with ever more being built. Naturally, however, the quality restaurant that served alcohol had closed down. There appeared to be no reason why every street would be so stuffed with pizza joints and local eateries, but none of them seemed to be short of trade. I asked the man who sold tickets at the ruins if they got many tourists through, but he bemoaned the fact that they had stopped coming, and he could only rely on Allah to send them back.
Crepuscular rays ago-go
I came down from the mountains and travelled through the verdant hills. My destination sat on a ridge on the southern edge of these fields and pastures, looking south over the badlands that came next. In the distance the sun and clouds played over cliffs, mesas and plateaus, casting crepuscular rays over the sort of landscape I’d always thought as more suited to the Maghreb. Le Kef was also a more traditionally Arabic town: the sprawl was all to one side of the walled Medina, which meant that you could walk out of some of its ancient gates and be in the countryside straight away, which gave you an interesting taste of how things were before.
Le Kef was right on the border of the North-South divide in Tunisia, which runs from here down to Sfax on the coast, about 100 miles to the south. The southern half is far poorer and also much more traditional. Headscarves start becoming a lot more common on women. Not everyone speaks French.
Whilst French isn’t universal in the North, almost everyone speaks it to some degree, and people who don’t speak any at all get teased by their friends. A lot of people are effectively bilingual, and switch back and forth, sometimes in the same sentence. By far the most common greeting in the North is “ ‘Assalama, ça va?” I’ve seen women admonish their child in French then switch back to Arabic to be more accommodating. At the very least, like nineteenth century Europe, it’s de rigueur to be au fait with French bon mots.
View from my balcony
Trundeling through the Tunisian countryside this time, I saw what would have made the Romans feel at home. Great, wide bowls of wheatfields, broken up with the occasional olive plantation, or with avenues of straight poplars leading to French built manors on top of cols. Here and there an ignored triumphal arch or toppled column marked their presence. Only a faint backdrop of twisted mountains suggested you weren’t on the northern side of the Mediterranean.
I’d been surprised at how verdant Egypt had been, but it at least had the decency to look tropical, all palm trees and sugar cane. Despite being on the same latitude as Gibraltar, northern Tunisia looked more like France or perhaps southern Tuscany. Things got even weirder when I reached my destination, the mountains overlooking Algeria around the village of ‘Ain Draham. Here the profusion of pine and heather lent an almost Scottish feel to the highlands, one helped by the extreme changeability of the weather. I could go for a walk in glorious sunshine, sit out a hailstorm in a café, then walk home through sleet and snow.
The village itself had a slight alpine feel, no doubt because the French had built it initially as a hill-station to escape the heat. There were lots of beautiful old buildings with red, sloping roofs and contrasting green highlights. Sadly, as it’s cheaper to build a new house than maintain an old one, Ave. Habib Bourguiba was lined with old wrecks, and Arab sprawl was starting to fill the valleys below. Still, it hadn’t quite reached tipping point, and the view from my balcony whilst the sun was shining was spectacular.
It was time to get out of Tunis. It wasn’t that it was a bad city. On the contrary, it was actually reasonably beautiful, in a shabby sort of way. The streets were lined with bougainvillea, and after they suddenly cut all the foliage down one day, you could see that it wasn’t a slouch architecturally either. It all needed a lick of paint, but the Ville Nouvelle was an interesting mix of Art Nouveau, Art Deco, and the slow bleed of the former into the latter. On some streets you could literally watch the march of architectural fashion, as curves became less floral and more abstract on each subsequent building.
I think part of the reason it looked so decent was the light out here. It really is amazing. I’m not sure if it has to do with the latitude or some optimum level of dust to moisture, but it was particularly clear and made everything look wonderful. If I didn’t hate the word, I’d describe it as limpid. It also led to a remarkable range of clouds, painted in far more than fifty shades of grey, with detours through blue and purple, and highlights of white, pink and orange. I didn’t pay enough attention in Geography class to describe the moosemash of different types of clouds, or why they arose, but they were astounding. I can just see the next advertising campaign – come to Tunisia and see our clouds!
The kids of Carthage have a game they like to play when they ride the TGM, a suburban train line that links Tunis to its extended suburbs. When the train starts to leave, two friends hold the doors open, whilst the third runs along beside it, and, at the last moment, as the train starts going too fast for them and they almost run out of platform, they jump on. So I didn’t think anything of it when some teenagers started doing it as I caught the train back towards town after a day filming on the ancient sites.
I don’t think either when instead of jumping on, the kid grabs my bag: I just jump off after him. The doors catch my shoulder as they close, and I hop along as best I can as the train accelerates. With a final pull I’m free, but I’m spinning round, and trying to run as fast as I can backwards to stop myself falling over. For the briefest moment there’s an illusion of control, and then my feet go over the end of the platform and I’m pedalling like a cartoon character as I plummet the five feet or so to the tarmac. I’m not thinking when I roll away from the vast metal wheels that grind past my elbow. I’m not thinking when I jump up and run back into the station – adrenalin is a hell of a thing – pushing screaming bystanders out of the way, gradually becoming aware I’m only wearing one shoe, and that the fact everything’s blurry means I’ve lost my glasses. The boys are gone. My bag is gone. My camera, all my photographic equipment, my brand new kindle, it’s all gone. It’s all gone.
Today was the new Tate Tanks members preview day. For those that don't know, the Tate Tanks are the first stage in the redevelopment of Tate Modern, which will eventually allow 60% more of the collection to go on show. This is great news. It will also allow for even more touring exhibitions. The Tanks themselves are vast underground oil tanks, and will be used for a mixture of contemporary art and performance. They open to the public tomorrow.
It was interesting being able to walk down the iconic ramp and then turn right. Whilst the Turbine hall is an incredible space, I think that having things on both sides of it helps to create a sense of balance, something that will only increase as the new structure takes shape, and a new high level bridge arches across it. Walking into the Tanks leads to a sense of palpable excitement. The architecture is chunky and, to a fan of Brutalism such as myself, deeply appealing. I did wonder if the air conditioning would be up to scratch, though. With hundreds of excited members all crammed into this thick walled, subterranean space, it was a little bit sweaty and unpleasant at times.
It's perhaps hard to remember the hope we felt during the first flushes of the Arab Spring, when I, for one, was glued to the news websites, reading their live streams and dreaming of real change. Despite the good news coming out of Egypt at first, it seems like the army have been playing for time, hoping that the people would grow tired of revolution and settle for something that doesn't really shift the status quo. It can feel odd cheering on the Muslim Brotherhood, but despite what a raft of internet warriors would have you believe, there are many shades of Islamism, and the Freedom and Justice Party so far have proven closer to the Turkish sort than the Iranian.
So, how to keep the army busy and out of politics? With nearly half a million active soldiers (the 10th largest army in the world, who knew?) they certainly have plenty of personnel. Perhaps if the UN were serious about securing peace in Syria some of these guys could be sent over there, rather than the paltry 300 observers on the last mission. I can't say it's a flawless plan - the Alawites in Syria might be a little worried about letting a largely Sunni force in, for a start. Then again, Syria and Egypt were the same country in the lifetimes of most officers, if not of the grunts. And generals with some proper action on their hands might be less inclined to spend all their time defending their personal fiefdoms.
A pipe dream at best, but given that its clear which side Saudi Arabia is on, it's a more practical solution than asking them to step in and keep the peace.
Little ideas that spin through my mind.