The Little Guide

2010-05-15

I did not really know what to visit, when I arrived in Gafsa. I had no map and there was no tourist office in town. I had read in my travel guide that Gafsa was famous for handmade rugs, but that there was nothing else to see in this small town in the south of Tunisia.

I got off the bus and, after asking for directions a couple of times, I found the city center. It was a small square, decorated with a few trees.

I sat on a park bench to recover from the heat when suddenly a group of musicians and dancers swarmed the square. The loud, traditional music swept me away and I danced with the others in the middle of the square. I asked one of the spectators about the occasion of the celebration at one point. The Gafsa football team had won a game in the national championship. I imagine that the whole city would flood the streets if their team wins the championship.

The procession moved on and I started looking for the market. I had attached a poster for a scientific conference on the side of my backpack. It was in a plastic tube for protection. A group of three children ran after me and asked me if I was hiding a weapon in it. To keep the matter simple, I told them it was a map and I tried explaining what a conference was. I said I would present my work and teach the other participants and that they would then do the same. The children started telling me about their school and that they also had a teacher. They were all about 9 years old or so and they were in fourth grade.

The children persisted. They followed me and asked dozens of questions. I used this opportunity to get a better insight of the country and the people. Fortunately, I speak Arabic fluently. French is indeed helpful with the adults, but the local language allowed me to dig deeper. It provides a kind of common ground and more openness.

The little Murad seemed to be the alpha male of the troop. He asked the most questions and led me by the hand. I bought him a doctor toy set. I admit, I was trying to bribe him, so he would show me the rest of the city. And it worked! He never let go of my hand.

He spoke to the shop owners, tried to bargain and asked me what I would like to purchase. In the end, I bought a pair of small, embroidered carpets for the two sides of my bed.

Murad was a fantastic guide. However, when the clock struck 12, he dropped me like a hot potato to go have lunch. You just can’t stop a hungry man.

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