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.
‘Ali was the first person I had a conversation with who spoke no French at all. As we sat on the minibus next to each other we quickly ran through the commonplaces I was relatively comfortable with, such as where I was from. He wasn’t to be dissuaded, though, and I was finally made to understand that he had a lot of love in his heart, that he wanted to welcome the world to Tunisia, but that the government made him cry, and so he hoped to go to Holland. I can’t swear to any of that, as a lot of it was helped along by sign language, and another passenger who looked like his patience was being severely tried when ‘Ali kept asking him for help to get his important message across.
As we walked from the bus station up to the old town, ‘Ali pointed to a heap of festering rubbish by the roadside and signalled that this was one of the things that made him cry. Tunisia wasn’t actually that filthy, compared to some countries I’d been to, but it was one of the things I’d wondered about whilst walking through the hills and seeing rubbish strewn liberally on the outskirts of a village. Why was I physically incapable of taking any pleasure in the multi-coloured waste dotted here and there like wildflowers? Was it because it wasn’t ‘natural’? Was it simply my cultural associations about litter and pollution? Could the Arab who happily chucks his rubbish out the window not see it as a problem because he didn’t mind all the crap that was building up? Did ‘Ali’s attitude reveal a fundamental truth in Tunisian culture, that rather than take responsibility for a problem, including the fact his own actions were contributing to it, he’d rather complain that the government wasn’t sorting it out for him? Or did it just show the dangers of extrapolating from one isolated incident and judging a whole culture on the basis of it?
In between what I thought was the worst of the weather, I would make my way further up the hill and into the teeth of the next squall. It was only four kilometres, but they were fought metre by metre in an ugly struggle. I was soaked through, and could barely feel my feet and hands, but by and by the rain fell a little, the sun deigned to cast his fingers across the landscape, and I thrilled when I caught a glimpse of the ruins on the opposing hillside for the first time.
I managed to hitch a ride back down to Nouvelle Dougga, but I was taking no chances the next day, when I headed to a roman bath that was still in use. It was ten kilometres from the edge of town, but I wasn’t exactly sure where town ended, given its propensity to grow. The thought of walking for hours in the same conditions as yesterday was just too much, even if there was a prospect of a hot bath at the end of it.
The bathhouse was isolated, which had no doubt helped save it, especially when combined with the fact it was fed naturally from hot springs. It was made from honey coloured sandstone, except when you got into the caldarium itself, where heavily worn marble steps led down to the shallow pool of ruddy water, giving off a faint ferrous smell and a gentle play of steam. It was fairly petite, with the pool being about five metres long and three across. The ceiling was arched and almost four metres above the water. At the top of the steps, where you came in, the room was lit through a small hole in a dome.
I got changed in a circular antechamber, then walked gingerly down into the steam. The water didn’t quite reach my knees, but was the absolute perfect temperature. It wasn’t the kind of hot that makes you pull your feet out and glower at the water, entirely sure that nothing delicate will stand that kind of punishment. Yet it was hot enough that when you lay out in it, your aches and even time itself begins to dissolve under its pressure. Lying there in the dull light, you could just make out the memories of bathers from centuries past, resting their weary bones after such a long trek.
After a few minutes, hours, days or years – it was hard to tell, my heartbeat a slowing metronome – my driver joined me, and gradually more and more locals started trickling in. It seems like chilling out isn’t entirely engrained into Tunisian culture, and soon the bath house was reverberating to the clatter of Arabic consonants, whilst they rubbed each other down and splashed merrily away. Luckily, by this point, the heat had shut down my reptilian brain, meaning response to stimuli was pretty much out of the question. I floated, eyes just above the surface, whilst plosives detonated and echoed around the stone arch and dome. The locals spoke a harsh colloquial, this wasn’t a tourist site for Gulf Arabs, and the scent of engine oil was melded to the water’s iron. It was nice to see that this was still just a local hangout, and I imagined the surrounding villagers taking great care of it over the centuries, making sure they didn’t lose their great treasure.
Eventually, around the turn of the century, I began to sit on the cool marble steps for periods, head above the steam, my body little more than the thudding of my heart, before returning to the welcoming, numbing warmth. This process was continued for millennia, until I could finally sit in the little antechamber and consider returning to the outside world. For the first time on my trip I had been deliciously, gloriously hot, and a return to the bluster of reality wasn’t the most pleasant prospect. The idea of hiding out in this refuge from time, beneath the mists that would hide me from untold conquerors and from want of anything but the earth’s cradling heat, was a beautiful dream, finally to emerge in the foreign country of the deep future with a Roman who’d been sequestered away there himself.
Still, when I got back to Le Kef and parted from my driver, I realised something had changed. The wind had stopped. There was an almost eerie calmness, after weeks of constant blowing. The clouds, confused at what to do with themselves now they were no longer pursued so mercilessly around the sky, began to break up and dissipate. As I sat outside a café that shared some steps with a mosque and an ancient fig tree, it was almost entirely blue above me. Down the steps and across the plains, a few angry hangers on scudded round the distant peaks, but the weather had come to peace with me, and let me be.
I wanted more of this. I wanted to be hot. This was better than the mountains, but I still needed to go South.