CMES Marks Fourth Winter Term in Tunisia

June 8, 2020
Street in Tunis Medina
The Medina of Tunis

In January 2020, NELC PhD candidate Hacı Osman (Ozzy) Gündüz joined a dozen other graduate and undergraduate students from across the University for CMES’s fourth annual Winter Term Study Excursion to Tunisia. Here is his account of the trip.

On Saturday, 1st of Jumādā al-’Ūlā in 997 (March 18, 1589) ‘Alī b. Muhammad al-Tamgrūtī (d. 1594/5) set off on a diplomatic mission to the court of the Ottoman sultan from his native Tamegroute in Morocco. His account of the journey makes it clear that he was not fond of sea travel. Raging storms and fear of pirates prowling the North African coast added to his distaste of the sea. He was happiest when his feet were firmly on the ground. Tunis was one of the stops in this arduous journey to Constantinople. One morning he roamed the streets of the city as the “forehead of horizon peaked through the veil of dusk.” He was struck by the beautiful gardens and pleasant skyline of timeless buildings; it was the perfect coastal town. The city, in no doubt, al-Tamgrūtī notes, deserves the poems sung for it, like the following line he cites in his work al-Nafha al-miskiyya fī al-safāra al-Turkiyya:

Tunis is the best of abodes in the west;
A home to any stranger who settles in it.

My trip to Tunis was not as arduous. I did not have to brave any raging tempests, nor did I have to be fearful of pirates. I boarded a plane in Boston and landed in Tunis safely after a lengthy layover in Istanbul/Constantinople. On the flight to Tunis, I reread al-Tamgrūtī’s account and wondered what he would say about the miracle of flying. I also wondered what my first impression of Tunis would be like. I have been a student of the Arabic language, culture, and literature for a long time. I had the opportunity to travel and live in the Arab Mashriq, but I had never set foot in the Maghrib. I was truly exhilarated. My knowledge of North Africa in general and Tunisia in particular was not more than cursory readings of the region’s history, a few novels and Abū al-Qāsim al-Shābbī’s famous lines of poetry which became the rallying cry of the Arab Spring. This trip was definitely destined to fill a void.

Street in Tunis Medina
The Medina of Tunis


The Winter Term Study Excursion in Tunisia is one of the programs that CMES runs in the country. This year’s program was the fourth of its kind, and I can confidently state that the excursion was again a great success. In previous years, groups of graduate students traveled to Tunisia to partake in the program, and, this year, undergraduate students were also admitted. Our group had thirteen members hailing from diverse backgrounds. Under the supervision of CMES Director William Granara, Gordon Gray Professor of the Practice of Arabic, and Sihem Lamine, Administrative Manager of the CMES Tunisia Office, the Center organized a meticulously planned itinerary. Unfortunately, we did not enjoy the pleasure of having Professor Granara with us. Ms. Lamine and Laura Thompson, a fellow at the center and PhD candidate in the Study of Religion at Harvard University, accompanied us in our trips around the country. They both were a WhatsApp message away ready to answer any questions and help with any needs. In addition to road trips and urban excursions, we were also invited to lectures and panels that the center organized. The program lasted for three weeks, and it flew by too fast. We visited around ten cities and towns in addition to major sites in and around the city of Tunis.

The first urban excursion was in the medina quarter of Tunis, a labyrinthine network of narrow streets flanked by beautiful white-washed houses with iconic blue doors. It was an absolute pleasure to walk through the medina with Ms. Lamine, who is an architect. In each trip and excursion, we also had well-informed and passionate guides. It also helped that, in our group, we had fellow travelers knowledgeable of the architecture and history of the region. There was no need to resort to Wikipedia at all! My highlights of the medina were little shops selling shawāshī (sing. shāshiya) a skullcap that dominated the headgear fashion of the Ottoman empire for quite a while, and, of course, al-Zaytuna Mosque, the second mosque built in North Africa. The mosque is a calm oasis in the midst of a bustling medina, a forest of splendid columns, spolia from the nearby ruins of Carthage.

Al-Zaytuna Tunisia
al-Zaytuna Mosque


I was also able to explore the city on my own. I took the train from Sidi Bou Said where our hotel was to the city center, and walked to the medina quite a few times. I learned from the Urbex photographer Mourad Ben Cheikh Ahmed after his lecture at the Center about a street famous for its bookstores, Rue des Tanneurs (Nahj al-Dabbāghīn). He showed us pictures of a peculiar bookstore occupying a four-story old building with piles and piles of books stacked against walls and shoved into dusty bookshelves. I had to find it, and I did. The bookstore does not have a name, it is simply known as Khālid’s bookstore. It is easy to miss as the door that opens to the chaotic assemblage of books is rather unassuming. Khālid has been running his bookstore for decades. He gathered a formidable collection of books during his trips throughout the Arab world. He seemed to have total mastery in locating books within a minute or so. He was very welcoming and friendly. We had lengthy conversations, and he allowed me into the top floor, albeit at my own risk – I had to jump over books and squeeze myself through bookshelves. I visited Khālid a few times, each time exploring a new room.

Bookshop in Tunis
Khālid’s bookstore


All the road trips we had to amazing sites were beautiful. We were transported in two vans, a “lecture” van and a “quiet” van. I had the pleasure of being a permanent member of the former. The lecture van had facing seats; we entertained ourselves by reciting poetry, listening to a fellow traveler’s expertise about this or that topic, or simply chatting. If I had to choose two favorite sites we visited outside Tunis, the first would be the small town of Takrouna tucked into the hills between Hammamet and Sousse. We visited the town in the afternoon, and we were treated to a gorgeous sunset in addition to freshly baked bread, and olive oil. The second would be the archaeological site of Dougga, some 110 kilometers southwest of Tunis. It is a gleaming crown in the midst of emerald fields. I definitely understood why the country is called Green Tunisia (Tūnis al-khadrā’).

Takrouna Tunisia
The town of Takrouna


Dougga Tunisia
Archaeological site at Dougga


After three unforgettable weeks, I left Tunisia with an additional suitcase full of books, three shawāshī, Tunisian molokhia, and many other keepsakes. This trip gave me the opportunity to explore the country in a way that I could not have done on my own. I must note here that I also finally developed a taste for couscous. A milk-soaked couscous dish topped with nuts and dates we had in El Kef did the trick! The trip was also a great opportunity to strike up pleasant friendships. I am very grateful to Professor Granara who spearheaded the program and Ms. Lamine and Ms. Thompson who ran it masterfully.

Just like al-Tamgrūtī I also went on a sunrise stroll, not in Tunis but in Sidi Bou Said. A fellow traveler and I left our hotel in the dark and by the time we climbed up a hill to a sufi shrine, in al-Tamgrūtī’s words, “the king of the east was putting on his golden crown.” One of the poems al-Tamgrūtī cites in his travelogue declares that whoever visits Tunis will wish to go back. I definitely wish so. 

Sidi Bou Said Tunisia
Sunrise at Sidi Bou Said