Desert Train

2010-05-13

The train to the desert left Tunis at 9 o’clock in the evening and arrived at 5 o’clock in the morning in Tozeur. I thought I’d get a little sleep on the train so I can begin my adventure the next morning, but that was just a dream …

The train was full. There were people playing music, talking and laughing, shouting and dancing. I tried closing my eyes every now and again. Every time I opened them, there was someone new sitting next to me. Each more talkative than the one before. “Where are you from? Do you like Tunisia?” I usually like talking to people I meet on the road, only during the day rather than in the middle of the night. I was dead tired.

Behind me sat a man who repeatedly stroked my hair as I leaned my head against the window. He pulled on a strand of hair and played around with it. He probably thought that I would not notice it. The hair fetishist was creepy.

I started reading a novel in English at one point. A young man, maybe 16 years old, sat beside me. He leaned his head towards me and read started reading along. When I wanted to try sleeping again, I offered him my book. I closed my eyes and listened to him as he explained the content of the book to his friends in the Arabic. Although I am fluent in Arabic, I still had some difficulties understanding the Tunisian dialect. But I must say that the boy summarized the book quite well. It amazes me sometimes how some people are motivated to learn a new language and to practice it.

After many long hours, I was awakened by a tapping on my head. I could not remember when I fell asleep. The train was not due at the destination for another hour. It another guy who wanted to talk to the foreigner on the train. It was a young main in his early twenties. My caution and my experience advised me not to unravel myself as an Arab. Marriage proposals usually follow a lot sooner when a girl shares a common heritage.

I pretended to be German, which is true anyway, and tried to get rid of the man by pretending to sleep. He sat down next to me and kept poking my shoulder until I gave him my full attention.

His name was Nabil and he came from a village near Tozeur. He seemed distressed that a young woman was traveling alone in the desert. He insisted on helping look for a hotel in Tozeur and being my guide during my stay. I could not say no. First, because he did not take no for an answer and also because I had no plan of what I wanted to do or see.

He led me to a cheap motel, which I would have never found without his help and we agreed to meet later in the afternoon. I had to recover from the sleepless train ride. It was not a five star hotel but it was much cheaper than the tourist palaces I would have ended up in without Nabil’s help.

When Nabil did not show up at the time stipulated, I decided to explore the city on my own. I let the front desk know, in case he did show up, and hit the road. It turned out that there was nothing to see in Tozeur except a market with overpriced souvenirs on the main road. The tourists here usually visit the Star Wars film set or the salt lake in the desert. Unfortunately, you can only get there with a guided group or in an expensive taxi. Fortunately, Nabil caught up with me on the street market. I was not so hard to find in such a small town.

I was, however, alarmed When he invited me to dinner at his parents’ house. I had the feeling that he wanted to make use of my European passport through marriage. He acted very insulted when I refused. After a long back and forth, we toured around in the safe Tozeur. He seized the initiative again later on and said that his friend had a car. He could drive us out to the salt lakes. Again, I was skeptical, but I relentlessly agreed. The hotel knew that I was with him, I had my cell phone and I spoke Arabic. I also really wanted to see the salt lakes. I don’t know if I would do it again. I had a strange feeling in my stomach the whole time.

His friend had a pickup, so we squeezed ourselves onto the front seat and drove into the desert. The Nabil’s friend was about his age and worked in a factory near Tozeur. After a half hour drive, we were in the middle of the Chott el Jerid salt lake. It was incredible. Far and wide, only white salt, as if it had snowed in the desert. We stopped to take a closer look. Some salt crystals were quite large and all perfectly geometrical. I had to taste the salt, because I did not believe my eyes. It was very salty.

Yet again, Nabil invited me to dinner with his family. His sister in law, he said, was French. That was meant to encourage me. I gave in again and went with them to Nabil’s village. I insisted on buying biscuits or something of the sort, since I was as an unexpected visitor.

His family welcomed me and ignored me five minutes later because of the language barrier. I mostly talked with Nabil’s sister in law. The family lived in a house that consisted of several small rooms, connected by the courtyard. There were three sheep and some chickens in one of the rooms. It is common to breed animals in the villages for extra income. All the rooms were modestly furnished. Some mattresses on the floor and a television in the living room. A bed, a dresser and a coffee table in Nabil’s room. He decorated the walls with posters of European football teams and Western pop stars.

After eating his sister’s delicious couscous, we went downtown again with his sister in law to have a fruit cocktail and a water pipe (chicha) in a fancy restaurant. However, we had to wait for about an hour till a minibus drove by. While waiting, we watched Nabil’s father and his friends playing a kind of chess game in the sand on the side of the road.

The French sister in law was very nice. She had met Nabil’s brother on her vacation in Tunisia and quickly fell in love with him. Soon after, the wedding bells rang and the groom emigrated to France. It is probably unfair of me to think so but I was worried that Nabil saw in me his ticket to Europe. This hunch was later confirmed. He wanted to accompany me to my next destination out of concern for me. He also insisted I call him every day. The fear rose up in me again. I thought he would never leave me alone again. I wanted to travel solo, without a plan and certainly without having to constantly call someone I barely knew! He finally let me travel to Gafsa alone after I openly expressed my discomfort and anger.

Back home in Europe, I received three to five calls daily from Nabil. At first I thought it was nice to have found a new friendship that did not stop at the country border. But it soon became too much for me to handle. He called me during work, in the middle of the night and in the early morning hours. He scolded me for not calling him and asked if I had forgotten him. I answered again and again that it is not possible for me to forget him because he called so often! I repeatedly asked him to stop haunting me. A month later, when he kept persisting, I asked a male friend to take the call and yell at Nabil. Not even that helped.

It wasn’t until about two months later that he gave up on me. I learned, however, that hospitality and guided tours always have a price. Nabil was a very nice person. I am not denying that I would not have seen so much of Tozeur without him and I often thanked him for his generosity. However, he seemed to have expected more from me than I could give.


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