The land stretched arid and brown toward the slightly blue sky. I could almost hear the lapping of the ancient sea carving the valleys into the sandstone. Shadows of clouds rolled across the rocks, shrubs and palm trees. Herds of goats and their shepherds migrated, as small as pepper flakes on this nearly empty bowl of couscous. Jagged peaks with uniform heights rose from the seabed, holding the emptiness of the Jebel Dahar.
Our 4×4 truck climbed steadily towards the old Berber fortress-grainery Heddad. The architecture, and age, of the ksar was barely detectable; it seemed to sprout from the barren peak. Besides the blacktop, no modernity. Just the blue truck, Marion, Costanza, myself and our driver Jemel. He is clad like his truck: dark blue with black leather trim. A heavy smoker with sun-hewed features and a pompadour of hazel curls, he is eerily a dead-ringer for a young Tom Waits. He became our friend that day, taught us how to make couscous ala Matmata, housed and fed us, and introduced us to the derelict wonders of his homeland.
We had met Jemel the night before over a candlelit map in Hotel Sidi Driss in Matmata. This was Luke Skywalker’s troglodyte home. During dinner, we had been approached by a golden-eyed multi-lingual local named Shaban, who offered us his services as fixer and guide. Jemel was his “driver-man” who for 240 dinars could take us to the legendary ksours on the way to Douiret. Costanza, our southern Italian trader, brought it to 150 dinars.
We slept surrounded by the smooth, white walls of the Berber style. Dug into the ground, troglodyte home are without angle, with storage, tables and stairs carved into the earth. They are cool during the day, warm at night, and central to any Star Wars fantasy. The central pit often holds a well and fig or palm trees, and is a perfect vantage for stargazing.
Rising early to a slight breakfast, we followed Shaban to a nearby household of a wizened grandmother who gave us tabouna, tea, and preserved dates. She was all smiles, her wrinkles testament to thousands of toothy grins. The girls got schooled in weaving and couscous-rolling. In one room, a Mercedes sewing machine glistened under a peacock carpet. The walls were charcoal black in another room, the oven a hole in the ground.
We followed Shaban out of her home and up into the bright sunlight, past a French retirement-colony in a neighboring troglodyte home. Jemel and his truck were waiting with bad news: the tire-arm might break and strand us in the mountains. Marion shrugged, Costanza laughed hard, I smiled nervously. We then boarded. Twenty minutes later, we were stopped at a viewpoint, and Costanza was feeding a camel with a baby bottle while carrying her new burnous, a traditional Berber jacket resembling a thick hooded sweatshirt.
We passed goat herds on the roads, pack animals plodding the inclines, and rarely other vehicles. Jemel fixed the truck’s radio to the Zaitouna station, an all-day recital of presumably the Qur’an. We were greeted in Toujane by a child with a disfigured and dirty face, who wanted faloos, naqood, money. Slowly, more children attached themselves to our intrusion into their village, an old Berber stronghold nestled between two cliffs in a wadi. The plains slid from beneath us to the sky.
Jemel hooked left off the highway, and we jostled across a dirt and rock road on our way towards Haddej. A black poodle was the welcoming committee. His French owner was dressed like Indiana Jones, but an Indy with a satellite-navigation console in his sports utility vehicle. The lone vigilant of Ksar Heddad took us past rusty, pale gas tanks into the antiquarian granaries, or ghorfas. Once a source of wealth and envy, now they are empty sockets in a dead bee hive built out of sand. The ksours were a primordial dialectic of violence and food: they were built to protect the grain of the sedentary Berber tribes from the assaults of nomads. Feet on the edge of the mountain fortress, eyes scanning the tan plains, one can feel the strength and vulnerability of such remoteness and purpose.
On our way out, the vigilant handed us each a rock and a thistle of thyme, whispering, “Souvenir.”
Another thirty minutes south, there is a bright, white symbol of Islam’s effect on the ksours. Islam never completely subdued the mountain tribes, but when the empire came, it acquired the ksours. Between the two peaks of Ghourmassen stands a mosque with a bent crescent on its peak. It is a stark reminder of syncretism, the empire laying on top of the Berber foundation. The climb up to the ksour, mosque and mountain village is steep, the sandstone smooth yet uneven. The higher and larger fortress looms over the village, both crumbling and brown like their background. They are practically camouflaged. You must be close, say 500 meters, before civilization rises from the crumbling mountain; a broken arch, a doorway, a trail. Closer still, houses appear, then the whole ancient village becomes obvious. Still intact is a ledge, where the old residents must have gazed upon the valley, their fields, with pride and vigilance, as the falling sun threw the ksar’s shadow, ever larger, upon the seabed. My 21st century sneakers scraped 12th century fortress on my climb to the top of the ksar. I squinted and sweated under the sun’s fire, while studying the oceanic valleys to the east and west, and contemplating the meaning of appropriation.
The old Berber mountain village of Douiret was another breaktaking spot, but alas, our reservations didn’t stop the hotel manager from demanding three times the price. Jemel came to the rescue and offered us his couch. So we climbed back into his blue truck and headed back 300 km to through Tatouine and Medenine to Matmata, waving goodbye to the proprietor’s young son walking a horse the color of coffee in the fading daylight.
Before the rain, there was the sweet smell of moisture in a parched land: petrichor. I breathed deep as little diamonds studded our windshield on the road north of Tatouine. The sky was still bright as the drops grew into the size of a half-dollar or five dinar coin. Sunbeams pierced the gray sky, illuminating solitary fields. Jemel slowed to ford a flooded section of road. Another car did not, and it splashed rain water through my cracked window. Lowering my sunglasses, I watched the heavy rain in awe. The drops were slamming the ground, their impact spraying the air, creating a silver fog across the fields. A rainbow faded in and out to the east of us, and hail briefly pelted our roof.
We kept driving and were soon in Medenine and out of the storm. The ascent to Matmata runs through about a dozen ridges, and we climbed them in steel blue twilight. Low hanging clouds hid the peaks behind and in front of us, but as we neared they dissolved into view. The voice of a lone man singing in rhythmic Arabic continued from the radio. The valley floor was hidden by the murky clouds. Power lines disappeared into their pale forms. No one talked as we kept popping under and then above the clouds.
Back in Matmata, Jemel’s house was beyond expectations. Practically a villa in the mountains, with white pillars and marble floors.
“God doesn’t like it when you’re hungry,” Shaban said, as he and Jemel taught us how to make Matmatan couscous in a kitchen with colorful tile work. We crashed asleep soon afterwards, dreaming of the next morning when we would head to Djerba, known in Homer’s Odyssey as the Island of the Lotus Eaters.