24February2023 In order not to lose the compass


by Cloé Gosparo, Universal Civil Service volunteer in Tunisia.

On the roof of a former convent on a Saturday morning, I admire Tunis waking up. The sun illuminates the white domes of the Sidi Mehrez mausoleum, which helps me not to lose my compass.

I have been in Tunisia for six months now but feel I have much more to discover. The mausoleum in the distance and the women dressed in their traditional white safseri veils enrapture me and draw me outward.

I take a tour of the old convent out of curiosity; a friend of mine lives there and has decided to convert the building into an artists’ residence where art is free to express itself. I open the door and end up in a small vegetable garden, the cats follow me and I look around, imagining what life might have been like in a convent in Tunisia. I step out into the winding streets and lead into the heart of Bab Souika (market gate), now a picturesque neighborhood of Tunis, formerly an ancient gate of the medina. The gate no longer exists, but on the other hand, in the residential neighborhood it is a pleasure to get lost. The streets are indigenous, I don’t encounter tourists and blend in with the locals. I like to become one with the Tunisians and almost hide to observe how they behave, how they dress, what they cook and what they eat without them noticing me.

A prominent minaret calls to prayer and jerks me up, I walk down a very long street that begins with a fruit and vegetable market. These are the “markets” of Bab Souika. From fruits to vegetables, I smell spices and then meat, lots of meat. There is a section with mutton and cow legs and meat of all looks. I am in a market that has nothing to do with the medina, it is a traditional market in the center of town but hidden away.

A glimpse to my left invites me to climb three steps; I finally arrive at the mausoleum of Sidi Mehrez. The sidi in Tunisia are benefactors who are worshipped regardless of Islamic worship. In the mausoleum I cover my head and take off my shoes, everything is decorated with arabesques and stucco, I find the sidi’s tomb all decorated with colorful drapes and Koranic inscriptions.

It is said that around the 20th century AD. Sidi Mehrez asked the sultan of the time to grant a quarter to Jews within the walls of all major cities in Tunisia. The request after various events was granted with some restrictions. Only four families were accepted in the Jewish quarter and each was entitled to buy only one egg per day. In total, each Jewish quarter, called “hara,” thus had four eggs available. To this day, “hara” from this legend has also gotten the meaning of four eggs, if you have to buy them you will just say “hara” and any Tunisian will understand what you wish to buy. You can still find ruins of these neighborhoods in various Tunisian cities, and when I visit a new one I always try to unearth some detail.

It is reductive to say that Tunisia is teeming with historical contaminations. Every day I look forward to discovering new secrets and merging with the history and people of this country.

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