Midnight at the Oasis

A night spent under the stars in a Bedouin tent is a wonderfully romantic prospect, but Christian Walsh finds the true heart of Tunisia in its ancient desert towns

When Llabli introduced himself as such, I heard "Zebedee". My ear isn't attuned to Arabic so it was a forgivable error. Like a desert father in his own painstakingly nurtured paradise, Zebedee led us through the sun-specked avenues of the oasis. He looked the part: wild hair dancing like uncoiled springs, flickering eyes and tea-coloured skin, a pair of greasy pantaloons and a vermilion dishdash, the traditional flowing robe. Placing a battered kettle on a heap of burning palm twigs, Zebedee pointed to the green shoots breaking through the sandy soil at our feet. In barely recognisable French, he barked out names like orders: "Tomato! Spring onion! Couscous! Parsley! Potatoes! Peas!" We sat down to drink sweet, sickly tea beneath a canopy of date palms, henna bushes, pomegranate trees and jasmine flowers. We chewed on last season's dates and miniature unripe bananas. Suddenly, Zebedee kicked off his plastic slippers and sprang up the 30ft date palm on my right. The nickname just stuck.

When Llabli introduced himself as such, I heard "Zebedee". My ear isn't attuned to Arabic so it was a forgivable error. Like a desert father in his own painstakingly nurtured paradise, Zebedee led us through the sun-specked avenues of the oasis. He looked the part: wild hair dancing like uncoiled springs, flickering eyes and tea-coloured skin, a pair of greasy pantaloons and a vermilion dishdash, the traditional flowing robe. Placing a battered kettle on a heap of burning palm twigs, Zebedee pointed to the green shoots breaking through the sandy soil at our feet. In barely recognisable French, he barked out names like orders: "Tomato! Spring onion! Couscous! Parsley! Potatoes! Peas!" We sat down to drink sweet, sickly tea beneath a canopy of date palms, henna bushes, pomegranate trees and jasmine flowers. We chewed on last season's dates and miniature unripe bananas. Suddenly, Zebedee kicked off his plastic slippers and sprang up the 30ft date palm on my right. The nickname just stuck.

Zebedee is a khammes – a sharecropper – and has been for 40 years. We are in the vast oasis of Tozeur, a desert town in south-east Tunisia. Zebedee's plot of land is a fraction of the 2,500 acres of date palm that surrounds us. In a region pockmarked with oases, this is the largest. Two hundred springs once fed into a hugely complex irrigation system established in the 13th century by one of Tunisia's national treasures, Ibn Chabbat. Today, water is pumped from deep boreholes, but the original system is still functioning. Ibn Chabbat would recognise Zebedee's traditional three-tiered method of oasis cultivation: delicate fruit trees are planted beneath the generous shade of the date palm, and vegetables and herbs are grown on ground level. The force of the desert sun is so violent that without the protection of the towering palms, the exposed fruit and vegetable plants would wither and die. Such a large area of fecundity provides work and food for several thousand inhabitants. Other oases on a similar scale are at Nefta, Douz and Gafsa, but there are hundreds more; minute crevices of moisture on the cusp of the Sahara with enough vegetation to support a few extended families and a handful of sheep, goats and camels.

Zebedee is one of several hundred khammes working in Tozeur. Not so long ago – 40 or 50 years – he would have owned his own parcel of oasis. Now, he tends a one-acre plot for a landowner living in the north of the country. Traditionally, the khammes receives one-fifth of the produce from his plot, but the real deal usually works out as less.

The old town of Tozeur, dating back to the 14th century, is built using strange lozenges of mud brick, in a style not seen anywhere else in Tunisia. Here and there the bricks are laid in contrary directions to one another, creating a pulsing geometric design. Behind one such wall is the minute Museum of Folklore and Popular Art, in which the ancient bust of a Numidian king lies casually slumped in a flowerbed.

Tozeur attracts many tour groups from the popular east-coast resorts. Invariably, the tourists stay for one night, lodging in the luxury hotels of the zone touristique, on the outskirts of town. They will have already signed up for a number of activities – a camel ride into the desert, a night under the stars in a Bedouin tent, a 4WD trip into the mountains, perhaps even a hot-air balloon ride across miles of salt plain. What they often miss, however, is Tozeur.

Low on adrenalin, but highly sensual, a late-afternoon walk through the shady avenues of the oasis beats a ride on a dusty dromedary and a night under a maggoty sack cloth. I walked for several hours along the sandy lanes of the oasis, streams rippling alongside our path, a cacophony of birdsong filling the stillness. Now and then a mule cart would trot past, the driver riding in a quaint and dainty side-saddle style, his load of fennel bulbs the size of small footballs leaving an almost radioactive glow of goodness in its wake. The only tourists I saw passed in a blur, racing along these tranquil lanes in the back of a Jeep, off to find adventure in the desert. Like European visitors of the past – notably the French colonials and the ancient Romans – tourists tend to dip tentatively into this south-eastern region before beating a hasty retreat to the coast.

The next morning, I caught a shared taxi – louage – to the oasis village of Chebika, just 12 miles northwest of Tozeur. Chebika has a superb vantage, camped on the side of a crumbling mountain range, looking out across the salt plains of the Chott El Gharsa. Passing a group of men taking their lunch break by the edge of the palmerie, the taxi pulled up in a scrubby modern settlement of low white houses. A tethered donkey watched forlornly at a knot of children playing marbles in the dust. On a hill in the background was the original stone village that was inhabited until the late Eighties, and is now deserted. Just in front of the first broken dwellings were parked two neat rows of polished tourist Jeeps. The mausoleum of the local saint, Sidi Sultan, has been partially converted into a restaurant and welcome centre.

The old mud villages of Chebika, Tamerza and Midès have been abandoned for years, their poor structures further destroyed by a wave of flash floods and heavy rains during the late Sixties. The three villages fit the bill of "picturesque desert dwellings", and form a well-trodden tourist circuit. As well as the oasis, the ruins are a valuable source of income.

"There's plenty of work here with the tourists," said Mohammed, a 19-year-old guide who had latched on to me. "I don't like to work in the palmerie. I like to eat dates, but I don't want to grow them." That afternoon Mohammed took me on a sensational walk through the valleys between Tamerza and Midès, six miles from Chebika. The track was strewn with fossils, and oleander bushes flowered in the dry riverbeds. Beyond the border control at Midès, the tan foothills of Algeria swelled seductively, just out of reach.

The life of the khammes is a hard one, and the lure of more lucrative work in the tourist zones is, for many young people, too strong to resist. But the easy money earned off tourists supports only a few grafters, and most of the hard work is still being done, as it always was, in the oasis. Many of the hotels import their staff from the east coast, reserving the more menial positions for locals. With the majority of tourists pouring their dinars directly into the large resorts and their associated tour groups, and not into the guesthouses and local restaurants, the foreigner is still someone who passes quickly through, having little pecuniary impact on the oasis dwellers.

Back in Tozeur, just beyond the luxury Dar Cherait hotel, a corner of oasis has been cleared and a road built. A new international golf course will be ready for play in 12 months, happily served by the international airport built just two years ago. This, along with hot-air balloons and desert safaris, will give tourists yet another reason to bypass Zebedee and the pleasures of the oasis.

Sons of the desert

Poor people and stones

When the French anthropologist Jean Duvignaud first visited Chebika in the early Sixties, he met a people who had never seen their reflection in a mirror, a people who described their village as "a pebble in the desert, an agglomeration of poor people and stones".

His book, Change at Chebika, paints a grim picture of a community huddled around a tiny patch of moisture, scratching at the surface of the desert while the freshly independent government promises a new life from its distant capital. "They are waiting for they know not what," wrote Duvignaud. "The radio says they must wait, that everything is going to change. Surely the voice from afar is not mistaken." It would appear that today's youth believe "the voice from afar" to be that of the tourist.

The came, they saw – they went

The people of Tozeur are used to foreigners and their strange ways. From before the arrival of the Romans until the 19th century, the oasis was an important staging post on the trade route between sub-Saharan Africa and the fertile north. Black African slaves were sold for their weight in dates and nomads traded livestock with local farmers, as they still do at the market in Douz every Thursday.

The Roman Empire, having finally broken through the Carthaginian defences and established a vital link with North Africa, decided to dig a line of defence – limes – from Tozeur to the east coast.

Here they created their most southerly frontier, erected to protect the precious northern plains – bread basket to the empire – from the marauding Berber tribesman of Numidia.

Since then, the foreigners have just kept coming: Bedouin Arabs, Moroccans, Ottomans, French, and, during the Second World War, Germans. But like modern tourism in Tozeur, the visits have always been fleeting.

The Facts

Getting there

There are frequent direct flights from Gatwick and Heathrow to Tunis with Tunisair (020-7734 7644; www.tunisair.com.tn) and British Airways (0845 77 333 77; www.british-airways.com) offering return fares for around £200.

Being there

For information about guesthouses and restaurants in the centre of Tunis contact the Tunisian Tourist Board (020-7224 5561; www.cometotunisia.co.uk). In Tozeur, the Résidence Warda on the Avenue Abdul Kacem Chebbi has attractive rooms overlooking a garden and courtyard. A double costs £10 with breakfast.

Tozeur is a six-hour drive from the capital and the fastest and most comfortable way to get there is by coach. Contact La National for details (00 216 71495 255).

The best way to visit the three mountain villages is with your own transport, which can be hired in Tozeur. Hertz day (0870 844 8844; www.hertz.com) offers car hire from £59 per day. It is possible to do the trip by public transport, if you don't mind hanging around for the daily louage, which leaves Tozeur at 8am, at a cost of £3 each way.

If you want to stay in Tamerza, try the luxury Tamerza Palace (00 216 719 51625; www.tamerza-palace.com), which offers b&b from £85 per double per night. Alternatively, contact the tourist board for options. The walk from Tamerza to Mides is a four-hour round-trip. Village boys will act as your guide for around 8 dinar (£4).

Further information

The best time to visit the south of Tunisia is from mid-March to mid-May, when the oasis is in full flower. Avoid visiting in June, July and August when temperatures soar to 45C. The date Harvest is in October.

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