Tuesday, June 30, 2009

weekend excursion part one: Kairouan

I have just returned from one of the most surreal and epic travel excursions I have ever been on in such a short period of time. And that says a lot. I will break up the four day trip by cities/areas or days, depending on how much was done at each place. It was truly a month's traveling packed into four incredible days. It entailed myself and 36 other students along with our Arabic language instructors on a bus traveling all the way down and around southern Tunisia - to both the Algerian and Libyan borders - and back by plane.

Our adventure began Friday with our first stop in the city of Kairouan, the 4th holiest city in Islam after Mecca, Medina and Jerusalem due to the presence of the Great Mosque - the oldest in North Africa. From this, mosque Islam poured westward to Algeria, Morocco and Spain. The columns inside the Mosque were scavenged from Carthage and no two are alike.

Next we stopped at the impressive great cisterns - the massive water basins constructed in the 9th century to hold water carried from the hills 36km away. The two giant cisterns are 5m deep and 128m in diameter, and fed 15 smaller cisterns around Kairouan.

The fascinating thing to me - aside from the incredible architectural feat - is that this provision of water served to rapidly convert followers to Islam from Christianity: before the cisterns were built by the Muslims, water was owned by individuals, and those without means were left to die of thirst. With the creation of the cisterns, suddenly water was available to all people in Kairouan and in effect created a sort of "socialist" view of water-sharing much appreciated by the masses.

From here we stopped at the zaouia (mausoleum and mosque) of Abu Zama el-Belaoui, a companion of the Prophet known as "the barber" because he carried with him three hairs from the Prophet's beard (don't ask me why- maybe it was the true answer to curing baldness, lost forever...). The style was the exact same as that of the Alhambra I saw in southern Spain - stunning tile and carved stone.

As we entered the Mosque section, we noticed through the wrought-iron window a young boy lying on his back surrounded by three men. We were just in time to witness his circumcision by a doctor with his father and father's brother present (the mother waited as is custom outside the entrance). The boy appeared to be about 4 years old and never cried - whether he was in shock or slightly drugged I'm not sure. But afterward, with his poor penis wrapped in gauze until it was the width of a potato, he was led out by his proud papa, who made sure to lift the boys beautiful ceremonial circumcision dress to show us all the great occasion. We wished him "mabrouk" (congratulations).

We took a brief tour of the Medina (walled city) where we saw tons of rugs -
Kairouan is famous for making the best in Tunisia. We somehow managed to do all of this by 1:30pm (by which time it was extremely hot outside and we were starving. We had lunch at a gorgeous hotel built out of the old Kasbah (fort).

we finally climbed aboard the bus and drove another 3 hours to Tozeur, a famous oasis city near the Algerian border, where we spent the night at the Grand Hotel de l'oasis.

We spent the evening swimming in the gorgeous pool. It was so warm outside we lounged pool side in our swimsuits late into the night...hardly able to comprehend all we had seen in our first day. Needless to say, I slept quite well that night.

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