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Volume 43, Number 5September/October 1992

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Heaven's Gate

Written by Zayn Bilkadi
Illustrated by Penny Williams-Yaqub

I first visited Sidi Bou Said when I was eight years old. My great-grandmother Mammati, Fatma, then in her eighties, "must Kavesensed that her hour was drawing close, and in the final days of her life she wanted to be the first one to show me what she called "Bab al-Jannah" - the Gate of Heaven - and tell me its legends.

It was in the 13th century, she told me, that a great Muslim teacher called Shaykh Bou Said chose a remote hilltop on the beautiful coastline of Tunisia as the place where he would live and preach. The fame and piety of this master, or sidi in North African Arabic, spread throughout much of Tunisia arid as far as the distant Aures Mountains of Algeria, and when he died, his body was buried in his own home, and above his tomb the present-day mosque, was built.

That, at least, is one version of the legend, the version that most people - and most historians outside Sidi Bou Said - would agree is closest to the truth. But as Mammati Fatma told me, "There is the truth of legends, and there is the legend of truths - which one do you prefer?" The people of Sidi Bou Said themselves are divided on what happened in their village six centuries ago: Some claim that Bou Said was really someone else - specifically, in fact, the French king St. Louis!

King Louis IX of France and his chevaliers led two crusades against the Arabs: The first, in 1249 against Egypt, ended in the king's humiliating imprisonment by a woman, Queen Shajarat al-Dur. King Louis's pride was injured, and he returned to his kingdom vowing to wage a second war against the Muslims. He set out for Tunisia in 1270. But the fate of his military campaign there was no better than the one in Egypt, for shortly after they landed on the shores of Carthage nearly all his troops were wiped out by cholera.

It is then, people say, that God's guidance brought the king, frustrated and broken-hearted, to a beautiful hilltop nearby where the air smelled of jasmine, where sunlight was tarnished by no sin, and where cypress trees and swallows danced day and night. Love healed the king's broken heart. He soon converted to Islam, the legend claims, changed his name to Bou Said, and spent the rest of his days on the hilltop in prayer and meditation. Impressed by his new life of piety and asceticism, it is said, Rome finally saw in him more than a worldly monarch, and canonized him upon his death. Thus did Louis IX come to be known in the land of the Franks as St. Louis.

For my great-grandmother, these legends were part of the reason that Sidi Bou Said was almost literally the gate of heaven. For me, though, the legends are unnecessary in the face of the great beauty of the site. Perched on a jagged cliff that cuts into the Mediterranean waters like the prow of an ancient galley, this small village of a few thousand residents overlooks one of the most beautiful bays in the world - the Bay of Carthage. For more than 400 years, writers and painters have come here looking for solitude, for new beginnings, for new shades and colors. In 1579 it was Miguel Cervantes, author of the epic masterpiece Don Quixote. In 1860 it was Gustave Flaubert, author of Madame Bovary, whose stay inspired his novel Salammbô (See Aramco World, September-October 1988); in the early part of this century it was André Gide, and such influential masters of the brush as Paul Klee and August Macke (See Aramco World, May-June 1991). Even today, Sidi Bou Said is home to one of Tunisia's foremost painters, Jellal BenAbdallah."

An important chapter of classical history began only five kilometers to the south of Sidi Bou Said, in ancient Carthage, the Phoenician city founded in 814 BC by Queen Elissa-Dido. But in fact, long before Carthage was ever imagined, the Phoenicians were already using a lighthouse at Sidi Bou Said to guide their merchant ships along the coastline - the same lighthouse, built and rebuilt countless times, that later guided the Romans on their way to destroy Carthage, and eventually aided the barbarian Vandals, the Byzantines, the Arabs, the Spaniards, the Turks, the French, and even the Allied navies in World War II.

In 19 BC the Roman writer Virgil counted 240 steps that led his hero Aeneas from the beachfront to the lighthouse above. The steps number only 232 today, but they are still there, and still adorned with flower beds, succulents, palms and young fig trees. Though Carthage was ravaged and flattened at least twice as the price of its history and glory, neighboring Sidi Bou Said remained untouched, always in the shadow of time, never seeking fame, forever beautiful, its eyes on heaven.

Whereas Carthage is Phoenician and Roman in character, Sidi Bou Said is, heart and soul, a Muslim town. Its maze of narrow cobblestoned streets, its domed whitewashed houses, its walled gardens, its arched entry doors studded with arabesque designs, all underline a Muslim-Moorish heritage rooted in centuries long past, and frozen almost intact in time. The entire village is now a historical monument. It knows none of the ugly clutter of our century: no billboards, no neon signs, no gas stations, no shopping malls and not a single freeway. In fact, there was a time when no automobiles were allowed here, lest they offend the spirit of the place. Every house and every wall is milky white, as tradition requires. And against this whiteness of quenched quicklime stand the evergreen lushness of tall cypress trees and the crisp, neatly trimmed lines of thorny cactus beds. Early in the summer, Sidi Bou Said glows with the brilliant blossoms of the prickly pear, which look like sea anemones before you touch them. By July and through August, the village is drenched in the spectacular blushes of purple-red bougainvillea, bursting uninhibited from the mystery of walled gardens, or leaping in a mad downward rush from the wrought iron of elevated bay windows.

Every window and every door is blue, echoing, no doubt, the color of the sky and sea at the horizon. When an entry door is momentarily left open, you can catch glimpses of the colorful ceramic tiles, famous from Marrakesh to Tashkent, covering the floor of the walled garden. And then, of course, there is the venerable Café des Nattes, one of the landmarks of Sidi Bou Said. With its arched entryway and wide front staircase, this old institution would make a perfect setting for Mozart's Abduction From the Seraglio. Yet here, at dusk, while sipping the house specialty - very sweet mint tea with roasted pine nuts - you can hear not Mozart but the touching sounds of the maluf, the distinctive music of Moorish Spain. Down the sloping street from the café you can still bargain your way to a handwoven Kirwanese or Berber rug in a poorly lit shop, or buy tiny cork-sealed bottles of rose, musk, amber and orange perfume from the local attarji, the perfumer, or his son.

Life in Sidi Bou Said still has its own rhythm - a rhythm that I knew well as a boy, but which, alas, is faltering today, partly under the daily stampede of foreign tourists, and partly because the bounty of the sea, the one element that for centuries guaranteed the livelihood of the majority of the villagers, is no longer reliable.

The day begins early. In the pre-dawn darkness, before the first call to prayer rings from the mosque, a line of shadows carrying squeaky-handled lamps descends the 232 steps from the village to the beach. The noise is subdued at first: a few coughs, a few mumbles; then gradually, as they approach the stone and gravel pier to which their wooden boats are tied, the shadows grow more vociferous and restless. "Pass the rope," "Watch the net," "Hold the handle" and "God bless this day" is all you hear in the short bustle that accompanies the boarding. And within minutes, the tiny flotilla of white and blueflukas - all of the same shape, all of the same size - roars away towards the rising sun. Twenty-five years ago, they numbered in the dozens, but now you can count the flukas on two hands. This may be the last generation of these harvesters of the sea.

By seven a.m. it is time for breakfast for those who remain on shore: not just a humdrum breakfast of cold cereal and milk, but an affair that takes time and demands patience. You can tell it is that time of day by the wonderful aroma that suddenly embalms the streets. First you go to the corner fritter man - the ftayri - and take your turn in line. From his freshly leavened dough he will make you several ftiras - Frisbee-shaped dough pieces stretched very thin in the middle and dipped quickly into boiling olive oil. The idea here is to "shock" the dough, not fry it, so that the delicate skin turns crispy brown, while the porous inside becomes chewy and tender at the same time. The stack of ftiras is then brought home and devoured while hot, with in-between bites of fresh purple figs just plucked from the garden. In autumn or winter, when fresh figs are not in season, whole dates or triangular slices of red, sweet oranges are a fine substitute. No tea, no coffee and no milk to drink, just a glass of water will do. And, oh, use your hands, please - no forks are allowed.

At midday in summer, Sidi Bou Said becomes a village of ghosts and echoes. The heat is crushing, the light blinding, and the streets, all but deserted, become playgrounds for twirls of hot air that seem to spring from the stony ground in quivering bursts of shimmering shadows. And in the silence of the narrow alleys every sound becomes an echo - the distant shrieking of sea gulls, the clicking of lonely traffic lights, the footsteps of women wrapped head-to-toe in their silky white sifsari, tending to their daily errands, oblivious of the heat.

A few hours later, a strange transformation takes place, a cleansing act of nature that dispels the suffocating mugginess of the past hours. A refreshing breeze from the northeast breathes in. Trees shake and hiss, people awaken from their torpor, and then the entire bay gradually disappears in a thick veil of chilling fog. Heaven and earth become one in the little white village.

For a while, in this balmy, surrealistic interlude, the little mosque becomes the focal point of the village. Its tiny outdoor courtyard overlooking the bay is quickly filled with men assembling for the mid-afternoon prayer, the duhr. As they kneel, the dark mass of the Djabel Bou Kornein, the Vesuvius of Africa, 16 kilometers across the water, begins to reemerge from the gray dampness - the first sign that the sun is on its way back.

Life is back to normal in Sidi Bou Said. At least, so the legends say....

Zayn Bilkadi, a Tunisian-born research chemist, is working on a book on the medieval Arab petroleum industry.

This article appeared on pages 2-7 of the September/October 1992 print edition of Saudi Aramco World.


Check the Public Affairs Digital Image Archive for September/October 1992 images.