A Tuesday Outing to Northern Tunisia
Spring in the Mediterranean climate of Tunisia has provided a
sense of renewal. The clear blue skies and gentle warmth of the sun beckon
people to leave their winter shelter and do whatever possible to be outside.
This past Tuesday, the beginning of Muslim New Year, provided us an
opportunity to leave the cinder blocks and crowded thoroughfares of Tunis
and travel to the green valleys of northern Tunisia.
Our destination: Sejnane. Visitors pass through the rather
insignificant village, scouring the countryside roads until they find
roadside stands with ceramics characteristic of the region. True, we could
find the pit-fired terracotta clay figures glazed with natural cream, rust,
and black colors sold in other parts of Tunisia, but we wanted to go to the
source. For me, witnessing the actual creation of the pieces in the artist¹s
natural environment enhances the meaning and memories of the items.
Outside of Tunis, the large highway eventually narrowed into a
simple, but well-paved country road. Modes of transportation began to vary
more, with everything from donkey or horse carts to mopeds to public
transportation vans, speeding by at a terrifying speed. Along the roadside
and scattered up the hills, shepherds tended their flocks of varying size
some with only a few sheep and others with huge flocks of the wooly animals.
Occasionally, herds of black and white cows would be spotted in the
distance, grazing on the green grasses provided by the plentiful rains.
As we neared one of the small villages hugging the road, we could see
more people walking and carrying goods in and out of the village. In
contrast to the French/Arabic bilingual signs typically posted in Tunis, one
would see more store or road signs only in Arabic. Luckily many of the
business signs also were illustrated. Men, in their characteristic fashion,
sat in simple cafés, talking, smoking, and drinking sugar-laden tea. Others
relaxed at the café, smoking the chicha pipes. Were they thinking of the
women in the fields nearby, laboring with their backs bent towards the
Traveling onwards, the terrain changed, giving way to high, grassy hills
and even low mountains in the distance. Fruit trees and almond trees neatly
marched up the hills, adding to the texture. Abundant wild yellow daisies
glowed in the bright sunshine, contrasting with the cool dark greens of the
leaves and grasses. Tractors, including Massey Fergusons and even a John
Deere model worked up the fields. In other fields, scores of women and
children manually labored as a group. Homes were small and simple, many
whitewashed in typical Tunisian style. Laundry dried on the lines or spread
over bushes. Roosters, chickens, donkeys, and other animals freely roamed
the small farm. Occasionally one would spot a larger French building,
remnants of the colonial days of Tunisia.
After quite a stretch of narrow roads winding up, down, and around the
hilly terrain, we decided to pull over and stop to have a picnic. It was a
picturesque spot, with fields of yellow daisies, trees, and flowing hills.
Narrow dirt paths meandered across the fields like ribbons. Puffy white
clouds lazily floated across the blue sky. Down the road emerged two women
and two young children, riding on a donkey. One of the teachers in our group
spoke Arabic and went to greet the women as they headed over to a field.
After the initial greetings, one of the women asked us what we thought of
the impending war. How, we inquired of the women, did they hear about such
matters? TV, of course, one of the women replied. After a few more minutes
of conversation and an invite to go to their home to share some bread, the
older woman promptly went to work, cutting weeds with a heavy hewn hoe. When
I offered the women and children a sweet snack comprised mostly of sesame
seeds and honey, the women acknowledged their gratitude and gave the pieces
to the curly-haired children. Hesitant to taste unfamiliar things, the
traditional women did not eat any until our Arabic group member explained
the ingredient contents of the Tunisian-produced snack.
Pottery of Sejanane
Refreshed with our picnic lunch, we placed the items in the car trunk,
said goodbye to our new friends, and proceeded towards Sejnane. As we pulled
up near the driveway of the well-known potter Sabiha, some children politely
greeted us. Sabiha and her aunt quickly came to the car, smiling as they
greeted some of our group by name, even though the couple had not visited
the area in over a year. Walking up the rutted road to the main buildings,
Sabiha explained that the simple but unfinished cinder block building near
the road was being erected with government grant money to display her
In front of the small barn, large plain clay tiles dried in the sun. We
followed Sabiha into a barn that housed several cows on one side. Drying cow
chips for the outdoor stove adorned the indoor walls. Sabiha walked over to
the large container of clay that she had already cleaned and premixed with
ground pottery bits for strength. Both the clay and engobe colors of black,
rust and cream were all gathered from the nearby hills. Back outside amongst
the sun-drying pottery, Sabiha and her aunt squatted on low stools and began
to knead the clay in their hands. Both women quickly transformed the lumps
into vessels, turning the clay pinched pots on a crude ³wheel² comprised of
an upside-down metal pot and a slab of plywood.
While working, Sabiha explained that she loved being a ceramicist (as
introduced to her by her mother) so much that she willingly made certain
sacrifices. In order to keep working, Sabiha would have to remain single
and live with her aunt. A formal education including learning to read had
also been deferred, with her entire energy put forth in her work. Like the
women in the field, Sabiha and her aunt wore a mélange of clothing styles
and layers. Knit pants were worn underneath a simple skirt and a kerchief
was tied around her dark-haired head. Cheap simple plastic slip-on shoes
were worn over bulky socks. Sabiha¹s aunt wore a more traditional dress,
held in place over a western-style sweater with large silver Berber pins.
After the demonstration, Sabiha and the entourage of polite children led us
to the simple rooms where the finished pieces were stored. We each quickly
located something to purchase, including some whimsical clay animals and
shallow bowls with traditional Berber designs. In gratitude, Sabiha
instructed the children to give us a couple small clay animals as a gift.
Before we left, they insisted we take a few loaves of flat round bread, just
pulled out of the outdoor stove. Thanking Sabiha, her aunt, and the children
for their hospitality, we proceeded back down the road.
Moving onward, we stopped a few roadside displays, hoping to find some clay
Berber dolls in the same style. The pushiness and aggressiveness of the
children and adults at these places made us want to leave quickly. With our
fragile pieces in the trunk, we headed towards the seaside town of Bizerte.
Along the way, we saw entire fields underwater, victim to the higher-than
usual amounts of rain and a flooded dam upstream in Algeria. After a drought
lasting several years, the rain has been seen as a welcome sign. We
momentarily stopped to take photos of some storks roosting on the roof of an
old French railway station and then headed on. As we crossed the large
bridge of Bizerte and onto the expressway, we knew it wouldn¹t be long
before we arrived back in the capital city. Less than an hour later, the
tall white buildings of Tunis filled the skyline, replacing the green
flowery hills we so enjoyed on this trip. With a good road system and
relatively short distances to a variety of destinations, we¹ll be sure to