KAPOORS ON THE ROAD
We drove to the southern tip of the island of Djerba to visit the highly recommended Musèe Guellala. It sits on a hillside overlooking the town of Guellala, and we had to pass through a busy open-air market to get to the road leading up to the museum. It was wonderful to see all the piles of fresh carrots, onions, fennel, and potatoes after passing through such barren countryside, the sandy soil broken only by the large olive orchards, on either side of the road.
The museum is located in a large whitewashed complex of buildings and we were surprised to learn that it is really a large collection of life-size dioramas with mannequins depicting Djerban heritage and culture. The building itself was as interesting as the displays, and we enjoyed moving through the series of rooms, passing in and out of the central courtyard. It was a cool, cloudy day and we were almost alone except for staff members who kept a very low profile.
The displays were dramatic and there were simple descriptions of the displays in several languages. We quickly learned that the first half of the museum was focusing on the customs involved in traditional marriages, and we found them very interesting. Most of the dioramas showed the interiors of homes so the furnishings were on display without really being the major focus of the exhibit. It was an inventive way of portraying life on Djerba.
Music was piped into every room and it provided another way to learn about traditional forms of entertainment and celebration. Once we were through the various displays leading up to and after the wedding, we were summoned to a large underground olive press where we were surprised to see a live camel turning the wheel that crushes the olives in the time-honoured way. Once the olives are crushed, the paste is packed into flat, round baskets and piled together under the weight of a huge palm tree trunk.
As the olive is pressed from the paste, it dribbles down a small trough where it is collected in earthenware pots for storage. A clever ‘screw’ is turned by hand to apply even more pressure on the tree trunk, and thus extract every last drop of oil from the paste. The guide wasn’t able to explain to us what is done with the paste once the oil is extracted, but I wouldn’t be surprised if it is used as animal feed or mulch for the soil.
We were getting a little chilled walking through the buildings because the doors and windows were wide open and there was a brisk breeze blowing that day, made even more chilled by blowing in over the sea. We stopped for a coffee in the little café, decorated with traditional Berber carpets, sheltered in a cozy corner. I was surprised to see the baskets made of wood, filled with oranges. If we hadn’t been cold, we certainly would have opted for fresh-squeezed orange juice.
In the end, I’m glad we didn’t. While mint tea and strong coffee are consumed all over Tunisia, the cafes don’t seem to know what ‘hot’ means. We had always asked for our coffee to be served très, très chaud, just like we ask for extra hot coffee when we place an order at Starbucks whenever we spring for their over-priced beverages. We have never been served a coffee that was any more than tepid, here in Tunisia, but the older man at the museum café gave us our most memorable coffee in all of Tunisia.
The second half of the exhibits displayed the clothing and crafts of the Djerban people by showing them going about their daily chores and routines. As a person who has always been interested in textiles, I found this all very interesting. You can imagine my surprise when Anil showed interest in the traditional beskri cloak that Djerban women weave and wear as part of their wedding trousseau. He later pointed out that the formal restaurant at our hotel, the Dar Ali, is named Beskri.
When we were done viewing the exhibits, I wanted to take some photographs of the old mosque that sits near the shore of the Gulf of Bou Grara, formed by the Roman causeway and the narrow neck of land that stretches near the mainland coast; the place where we crossed to Djerba on the ferry. We couldn’t find any signposts for the old mosque, so I had to use my rudimentary French to try and get directions for the local residents. We went around in circles for some time, but after saying “Où est la mosquée au bord du lac?” enough times, we finally found our way following the directions ‘a droit’ and ‘ a gauche’.
It was worth persevering. The mosque was lovely, with soft rounded contours on the minaret and not a single visible loudspeaker. Have I mentioned that the loudspeakers on the mosques all over the world are driving Anil crazy? It’s not so much that he resents the broadcast of the call to prayer, in fact we both rather like the sound, it’s the sight of the ugly speakers, one in each of the four cardinal directions, spoiling the lines of the otherwise graceful towers.
It had been a cool, dull day, but we had made the best of the bad weather by driving completely around the eastern side of the island, exploring the landscape and touring the museum. We headed back cross-country, had a great meal prepared yet again by Amina’s skillful hands, and settled into our beds with the heater on for a short time to chase the chill away and then the extra blankets to keep us warm for the balance of the night. The fact that we had consumed a full bottle of Tunisian red wine meant that we slept like two bugs in a rug.