PARANOID MUSINGS IN THE LAND OF THE LOTUS EATERS
To begin with, a word of advice: If you’re thinking of travelling to North Africa, do not read Paul Bowles! I knew nothing about the Tunisian island of Djerba, except its being a mecca for European sun worshippers. It was February and I needed rest and sunshine. I made the mistake of reading Bowles’ “The Delicate Prey” on the plane.”
Houmt Souk is an ancient town, once renowned for its silk and wool, its trans-Saharan slave trade. Its history has left Djerba with a small black minority which today shares the l97-square-mile Mediterranean island not only with Berbers, but with the descendants of Arab invaders, persecuted Jews, Greek and Maltese sponge fishermen.
I met a local woman for tea at a fonduk, a modernized inn where Ottoman merchants once sought shelter along with their camels. The Arischa had studded portals painted cerulean blue and a whitewashed courtyard festooned with purple bougainvillea. My acquaintance was a Jewish woman who had converted to Islam in order to marry her jeweller father’s apprentice. Djerba’s Jewish community is small but ancient, going back to 56 B.C, when Jerusalem fell to Nebuchadnezzar II.
The next morning was market day. The tantalizing smell of spice and ripe fruit hung in the air. At an outdoor cafe, an elderly Arab sat puffing on a nargileh, as indolent as a lizard on a sunny rock. The natives seemed camera-shy, but, in a shady square, two chechia-hatted men stood arguing loudly, oblivious to my camera. They kept switching from French to Arabic, their mammoth bellies greeting each other, their hands slicing the air.
I bought myself an orange, hassled by merchants hawking everything from Levis and Swatches to bagpipes and harem outfits. I stopped to peel the orange, watching a toothless Djerban in a burnoose and wide cowl putter outside his cluttered shop, rearranging Calvin Klein carryalls with the gravity of an explosives expert. Suddenly, the merchant looked up, and, seeing the orange juice trickling through my fingers, held out a pack of tissues, his prune-like face splitting into a dazzling smile.
Though Djerba’s young men all seemed to be sporting jeans and designer glasses, the older men looked biblical, attired in flowing cloaks of heavy wool or burlap. There were a few women about, all of them muffled in the bright, hand-loomed robes favored by Berbers, or the white, tent-like, shrouds of Arab women. Spotting my camera, the women turned their backs, then fluttered on, pausing here and there to squeeze a freshly caught snapper or sniff at a pot of fiery harissa.
It was as I stopped to buy a pack of tissues that I first sensed I was being followed. I’d seen the stranger—a middle-aged man in jeans and striped tunic—while photographing a Turkish hammam. Now, the Djerban pushed himself away from the palm tree he’d been leaning against, thrust his hands in his pockets, and waited to see which way I would go. Two shrouded matrons swept between us, their veils flapping in the breeze like sea birds. When I stopped to photograph a donkey loaded with octopus traps, the stranger paused as well, stubbing out his cigarette.
I decided to call my friend, but she wasn’t answering. The Djerban was dawdling across the street, plucking pumpkin seeds out of a paper cone. He kept following me at a distance. This was when I suddenly recalled Paul Bowles’ blood-curdling stories about naive foreigners victimized by smiling but brutal natives. I was not alone in some shady alley, but couldn’t help glancing over my shoulder. The stranger was still dogging me, though I had gradually made my way to the hub of the marketplace. A silversmith idling on his threshold kept trying to lure me into his shop.
“Come, Madame. I’ll give you a good price to bring you luck,” he said, gesturing with the flair of a Bedouin chief welcoming a weary traveler into his shady tent.
There were hoards of silver in Houmt Souk: Berber necklaces and filigree brooches, Byzantine jewelry boxes and Arab bangles, pendants and amulets. The stranger in the striped tunic had paused at an adjacent store, seemingly intent on its vitrine. The moment I resumed walking, he began to follow.
He followed me all the way back to a familiar souvenir shop, the one where I had earlier been offered a tissue. The merchant was still there, smiling in recognition. I told him in French I was being followed.
“Ach, Madame,” said the elderly merchant. “You’re a pretty woman and he probably likes you.” He chuckled. “I’m sure he’s harmless.” Saying this, the merchant sauntered away, flapping his right palm backwards. “Wait here!”
He strode across the street and was soon exchanging heated words with the younger man. Although I didn’t understand Arabic, my stalker was beginning to look like a reprimanded child. Muttering under his breath, he began to retreat, with one reproachful glance in my direction.
“It was as I told you,” said the merchant. “The poor man’s fallen in love with you. He was just trying to get up the nerve to ask you for coffee.” The merchant patted my shoulder. “A woman like you should not be walking these streets alone.”
I thanked him, then resumed walking.
I may have been distracted, but the yellow taxi that almost hit me as I crossed the street was driven by a Tunisian who clearly thought himself to be in Allah’s merciful hands.
They were all like that, Djerba’s drivers, swerving around motorbikes, farm carts, squawking chickens. Allah being great, I had just managed to cross safely when I spied a dime-sized object glittering on the sidewalk: a palm-shaped, engraved Fatima’s Hand—my very own silver talisman! I straightened up, breathing in the fragrance of roasting coffee beans and deep-fried brik, as well as the more subtle scents of sea salt and Eucalyptus trees.
I turned a corner, and there was a creaking cart being pulled by a gray, rawboned mare that resembled Rosinante, much as its master did Don Quixote. The farmer’s head was covered in a striped, loosely-arranged towel; the young boy at his side had on a baseball cap turned backwards.
I hailed a taxi, heading to the Zone Touristique. A muezzin began to call, his mournful voice floating from a nearby minaret. A few feet away, a laborer engaged in road repair sank to his knees and bowed deeply, head touching dusty pavement. On the outskirts, a rural dandy in a canary-yellow turban came riding a camel past an orange grove. A Berber woman in a magenta cloak was leading two frisky goats on a string. But once we left the town limits, there was nothing to see but long, powdery white beaches, palm groves, luxury hotels.
The hotels were all whitewashed, with Moorish windows and clusters of rooftop domes. Eventually, I registered the preponderance of names associated with Homeric legend. We had passed a hotel named after the legendary fruit which Odysseus’ men were said to have shared with the natives, lapsing into blissful oblivion.
“Why are there all these hotels with Greek names?” I asked the cabbie.
“Naturellement,” he said. “This is the land of the lotus eaters.”
“The land of the lotus eaters? Djerba?”
“Djerba,” he echoed. “Why? Where did you think it was?”
I’d never thought about it. “So what’s a lotus?” I asked. “Is it a real fruit, or what?
“No one knows,” the cabbie said, though there were those who thought it was not really fruit that knocked out Odysseus’ men, but the potent palm wine Djerbans had always produced.
There being no palm wine on offer at the seaside restaurant, we ordered a bottle of local rose to go with a Tunisian specialty of lamb and vegetables cooked in a clay jug, cracked open once the stew is ready to be ladled out. Gargoulette.
I told my friends about my adventure in the marketplace. As I did so, I spotted a little rotund man on the other side of the patio, reading a newspaper in the spring sunshine. He wore a suit and tie but had a small black mustache resembling Hercule Poirot’s.
And was he really reading the newspaper?
Every now and then, I would glance up and catch the swarthy stranger staring in our direction; and then his eyes would veer away. He kept fumbling with the newspaper, squinting at the headlines with an air of singular concentration. I sat for a moment, sipping my coffee, staring at the stranger.
“Let’s get out of here,” I suddenly said. A little earlier, I’d overheard one chechia-hatted man advise another: “Stay away from the lion’s den, even if you aren’t sure what a lion looks like!”
Was that an Arab proverb? I had no idea, but that’s the thing about travel today: there may be stalkers or a bomb waiting to go off somewhere, but these ancient streets continue to bestow their riches. If you’re lucky, you may even find an unexpected treasure lying in your path. The thing to do is focus not on potential danger, but on the marvels around you, like some bemused Sufi pondering the soul’s inevitable union with the divine.
And always have a talisman on you.
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Irena Karafilly is an award-winning writer, poet, and aphorist. She is the author of several acclaimed books and of numerous stories, poems, and articles, published in both literary and consumer magazines, as well as in various North American newspapers, including the New York Times and the International Herald Tribune. Her short stories have been widely published, anthologized, and broadcast, winning literary prizes such as the CBC Literary Award and the National Magazine Award. She currently divides her time between Montreal and Greece.