In Nefta, Tunisia, I stay in a dar, one of the former aristocratic homes that rival Morocco’s better-known riads, and Fathi is enlisted to show me around town.
As his horse-drawn calèche bumps its way down dirt paths, past row upon row of towering palm trees that produce some of the world’s finest dates, I discover that Fathi is something of a polyglot, speaking Arabic, French, Spanish, Italian, German and a smattering of English. We settle on Spanish. Nefta used to heave with visitors, he says, although that is hard to believe. The grand Sahara Palace, once a haunt of the rich and famous, is now a ghostly shell overlooking the town.
Suddenly, our peaceful outing is disturbed by a cacophonous wedding party. Three generations of women dance down the street, clapping and singing, while two boys accompany them discordantly on a drum and tin whistle. They invite me to join them, which I do, at first reluctantly and then self-consciously. It is a timeless scene until they whisk out mobile phones from secret pockets inside their long robes to snap the fun, before they disappear into the mosque where I cannot follow.
We stop off in the main square where the café is also a male preserve. “Go in, no problem,” says Fathi. I linger in the doorway just long enough to notice the lovely old tiled floor and carved wooden bar, the colored light from the stained-glass windows that blurs in the haze of shisha smoke, the football game blasting out from the battered black-and-white TV, the clack of dominos and the bearded faces turned towards me, more curious than unfriendly.
I am delivered back to my hotel to a soundtrack of competing muezzin. On the way, we pass another calèche with two French tourists and we wave to each other like long-lost friends. “The tourists will be back, I’m sure of it,” says Fathi.
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