Vacation in Tunisia 2017: How Hitler helped me


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Africa » Tunisia » Douz
May 13th 2017
Published: May 13th 2017
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Or: A provincial town revolts, again



I went to see the Sahara with my mobile home. Then an incident. Because of this I really get to know the country.

If you find the story odd, then it is because the facts are odd and the times are odd. Sorry for the length.

A German version with photos is at umdiewelt.de.

Since long I dream of driving around the Mediterranean sea. It would be a really beautiful trip: From Morocco to Egypt, Israel, Jordan and so on. But with the troubles of the Arab Spring it is just impossible. Cross Libya, even Syria? A little adventure is ok, but I do not need risk to have fun. So I developped a plan to drive to Timbuktu, also a mythical destination. The legendary library, the legendary gold-rich king Mansa Musa - even monotonous desert can be fascinating with a dose of history.

Then again the safety analysis: From Gibraltar down the coast should be possible, in Mauretania one sees the phenomenal ore train, the "eye" in the desert farther east we'd besser skip, but: The north of Mali like a civil war, terrorists hunting European tourists, reportedly. A European military mission with Austrian participation tries to stabilize the country and is promptly attacked. To the capital Bamako one could dare to go, but beyond is clearly in the category unreasonable, at present. With a lesser goal one could head for Dakar in Senegal, first make a stopover in Paris an then boast that one did drive Paris-Dakar. The rally is even at the beginning of January, but since several years in South America. The Gambia also is an interesting country, just ousted a dictator and is said to be the dream destination for female sex tourists. The world is funny.

Then the job disturbs the plan. The vacation must be shortened and instead of five weeks only two are available.

A plan B must be sketched. Diving in the Red Sea, swimming in the Dead Sea, is it possible to get to Israel on the eastern path? Of course with flying, but that's not my thing. Ferries are uncertain, sometimes they exist, sometimes they are discontinued. It seems a ferry from Mersin in Turkey is possible and to Mersin one can get from Triest in Italy. At the last moment I realize that this ferry takes trucks but no passengers. By luck I find that the next morning a ferry goes from Geneve to Tunis. No visa needed, so I take the highway, buy the ticket and quickly I am on the big GNV-ferry.

The voyage takes 24 hours, most of the time I spend sleeping.



My aim now is the Sahara with real sand dunes. The situation is not too safe, the country officially in in state of exception, but till the oasis Douz is is possible to go, further south and west is not recommended.
A lot of varied history here too: Carthago with its commander Hannibal, grain chamber of the Roman empire, later Vandals and Osmans, pirates, Colonial history and World War II. Finally the trigger for the Arab Spring.

At 10am we enter the harbor, it is neither cold nor warm. Then the border checks. Though I import exactly nothing I have to wait in the customs column. In a big hall lots of people stand with their small trucks and unload them. It is incredible how much stuff fits into such a car. The customs officers slowly make their lists and many lively negotiations do not accelerate the process. After exactly 6 hours I have the clearance behind me.

My first destination is Hammamet, a small touristic pearl southeast of the capital. Walking around the nice old city. Some market booths, but not much activity.

On to Sousse.

The streets of the medina lined with endless rows of salesstands, in between kebab and similar, unknown dishes, which are worth checking out. Then the great wall of the Kasbah, which elicits medieval mood.

I have to visit the barber. In a small simple shop you can get a makeover. That hair is washed, thinned and precision-cut is normal, but the service goes gar beyond that. The eyebrows must be pruned, the ears must be freed, the mustache trimmed, then even the hairs in the nose are clipped off. Finally some hairs on a wart must die, they are pulled out one by one with pincers. That hurt! Anyway I look ten years younger and move on.

In Monastir sunset at the roaring sea, else also here little activity.

At many crossroads and roundabouts there are heavily armed policemen. Most of the time they are bored, sometimes someone slips them a little money and sometimes they check. Most policemen stand at roadblocks with an assault rifle and the type looked somehow familiar to me. But it was not an AK-47 nor an AR-15. At one point I took all my courage or foolishness and my knowledge of French together and asked: "Excuse moi, quelle type c'est ca?" Before I received an answer I stood so close that I could read it myself on the gun shaft: AUG Steyr. Ah, made in Austria! That makes you feel like at home.
A quick Internet search revealed that indeed tens of thousands of assault guns had been delivered to Tunesia and the police was equipped with it. At the next checkpoints I used this knowledge for a little charming smalltalk: When he had a look at the passport I said "I Nemza"(Austria), pointed to his gun and said "Nemza". Some concluded that I might be from Steyr, maybe even an arms dealer. Anyway it creates a kind of relationship.

Kairouan

Honestly I had never heard about this town. But there is a famous mosque, UNESCO world cultural heritage, and I better have a look. While I walk around the mosque and glance into the courtyard, a dealer approaches me. Carpets - but I have no need for one. Then he explains me that he has a terrace on the roof from where one has a good view over the town and the mosque. I follow him and really one gets an impression of the size of the areal where on fridays thousands gather for prayer. He explains to me that Kairouan aside from Mecca, Medina and Jerusalem was the fourth large center of Islam. Additionally there are hundreds of other prayer houses in the town. Now I have one education gap less and I reward it with a few Dinars.

With more recent events the name Sidi Bouzid is associated, a small town in the interior. Here it was that a greengrocer despaired and burned himself. The following unrest could not be contained any more and spread in the whole arab region. In memoriam Mohamed Bouazizi.

Sfax

The next big town along the coast is Sfax, where I spend New Year's eve. But I find: Not much going on. No gathering, very few rockets. While I drive around looking for a suitable place to spend the night I draw the attention of the police. I find myself encircled by half a dozen police cars with blue lights on and many black figures surround me. Slightly amused I have to follow them to the police station. I am relaxed, I have nothing urgent to do. It takes some time, but finally I am interviewed. What I do here, which route I came and where I want to go etc. Then the policeman asks me what the camera in the car is good for. I explain that it is a dashcam intended for recording an accident or so. Just a few weeks before I had bought it and got a memory card for Christmas from my son. He accepted that story. He asked if I had made recordings about police. Now I started to understand. Taking photos from military installations is strictly prohibited and in the state of exception people are additionally nervous. I showed him the photos on my iPhone too: No police. In the end I convinced as an unexpected harmless tourist and was allowed to leave.
Without delay I mount the camera in the rear of the car as had been intended. I did not foresee how useful that would turn out to be.

On towards south.

On the way to Gabes I give a ride to two young men. One does not speak a single word, the other tells me his whole life, proudly talks about his education as a ship technician, shows family photos and so on. In the town he invites me for a coffee and introduces me to his friends. When we get stuck with our mutual French we try Google Translate. Arabic-German - works wonderfully this new way of international understanding. There is BTW a festival in Douz soon, they explain to me. And I absolutely have to go to Djerba and Zarzis too.

Djerba

A long dam leads to the island. I sleep alone at the beach to the sound of the sea. Fear? No trace. Mobile Internet works an I read some stuff about local roots of terrorism such as this article in the New Yorker: https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2016/03/28/tunisia-and-the-fall-after-the-arab-spring. A researcher found that unusually often they tend to be engineers. I have great difficulty to understand why that is. The next day I have a quick look at the club-resorts, Robinson, Club Med etc., but that is for other tourists than me.

Now I turn to Tataouine, which was immortalized in Star Wars. Some film sets can still be visited in the desert. In the surroundings I see just stones, how do people make a living here? The contour of the horizon with a kind of table mountain makes an unusual landscape indeed. Then I do not trust my eyes: There is a dinosaur on a hill. No idea what it means.

I encounter a strange big building beside the road. People just coming out of a mosque nearby talk friendly to me, but I do not really understand the repeated "islamiste". Apparently these are old granaries, from where caravans started across the desert. Two old men chat at a table, else nothing going on.

Finally going to Douz.
Again it becomes evening until I arrive. In a dark parking lot two citizens take care of me immediately:"Here not good place". I move more towards the city, park beside the hospital, and go for a walk.
It is said that "an engineer is the camel on which the businessman rides towards the sun", so my self-ironic humor urges me to get a mascot. But despite much persuasion I could not resolve to buy the overpriced souvenir; for now the cigarette brand must suffice.

As I zoom through Google Maps I find a coffeeshop in the middle of the desert: "Cafe gateway to the desert". Coming from Vienna one has to inspect that, of course.
I start to drive and soon asphalt turns into sand, then softer sand, a mogul piste for 4-wheel quads. I lost my way immediately - sand in all directions till the horizon -, but managed to find back to a crossing with the wider piste towards southeast. That piste comes with its own peculiarities. Again and again sand dunes, a meter high, grow into the lane. Then you have to drive with some momentum or follow the tracks that other cars have already cut into the sand beside the road. There is almost no traffic, but one would be found. Not the mega-adrenaline-kick, but one feels challenged. Men's dreams.

Then a small castell appears and a hut nearby, the coffeeshop. It is windy and I enter. TV is running, then the host comes and I order a coffee. I sit down on a bench at the wall. The floor: Carpets on sand. The ceiling is full of T-shirts. At the wall posters and photos, the whole world was already here apparently.

Whom do you meet in the middle of the Sahara? Germans! Some motor bikers make a rest, they come from Ksar Ghilaine further south. We talk about the travel warnings and doubt the big terrorist danger. And the Tunesians who make attacks in Europe - at least they are not here. A macabre sense of humor, but the atmosphere leaves nobody untouched. They work as tourist guides and suffer from the sluggish business. "Yes, the media destroy a lot!"

On the eastern road I return to Douz. A slight sand storm comes up, looks like mist.
Via Tozeur I go to Nefta, a beautiful oasis. There is a small road through a kind of palm-jungle, so that you can forget completely the desert around. Via Gafsa I drive north in direction to Chott, the big salt lake. In the distance there is even a halve Fata Morgana, rockfaces are mirrored in the hot air.
Now I want to gonto Tunis via Kasserine. But Kasserine is said to be unsafe, armed terrorists hiding in the mountains etc. So I make a cautious plan to drive to Thelept, sleep there and the next day I cross through Kasserine. Shortly before Thelept I come through a small town, Feriana, and suddenly I see a fire beside the street. No, it is on the street, burning tires. I stop.

I see street barricades, stones and people demonstrating. Someone knocks on the window and recommends to turn around, this is too dangerous. The demonstrators already run towards me. A young man on a motor bike, on his jacket I read "security", intervenes and talks down the demonstrators.
I turn around and a few hundred meters behind join other drivers who have stopped. I am told that young people stage a riot because of joblessness. But in two hours that would be over again. As I watch the scene suddenly stones are thrown in my direction. So I better leave. But for the local people it seems to be a known ritual. Danger? Yes, absolutely, because "these people have zero brain".

The advice is to bypass the event, it is possible to turn right, then left, then back to the main street. That's what I decide to do after some time. I drive slowly right, then left, then there is a crossing where you can go left or right. I guess that I am already past the barricades and turn left. When I arrive at the main street I am a few meters before the barricades, in the middle of the chaos. I try to back off, but too late. Again a young man comes and explains "No problem!" Before I have a clear view he opens the right door and enters the car.
On the left side a second comes and talks something. Suddenly he reaches through the window, grabs my phone and runs away. Now I am fed up. The other guy yells at him and indeed he returns and enters the car too.
They indicate I should cross the street and enter an alley on the other side. That happens without problems. Then the alley becomes narrower and darker. Then even narrower and darker. I ought to turn right, but they guide me to the left. Now I can start the count-down until I am robbed. That's quite a weird feeling. Then I shall stop on a small square. And then: "Argent! Argent!" (Money!) What now?

They are two. They are agitated. Could be under drugs. But they are nervous too. And stupid. I play for time. I'm just a tourist, have nothing to do with your troubles, sorry.

He opens his jacket and says "terrorist". Does he want to show me his explosive belt?? He mimics an angry man. Makes a gun with his fingers and points at me.

The second guy starts to rummage through my suitcases. He finds a backbag with a notebook. I want to have my phone back. In the end I offer money. Hundred Dinar or so. Not thought enough. In the same wallet there are more than thousand Euros. The guy just grabs all of it.

Finally they take phones and iPad and leave. I drive off quickly and soon I am back at the main street where I left. I tell the people what just had happened to me. Is there no police here? There is, on the other side of the demo. They will accompany me there.

Again two men get into my car and we drive the same route again. Right - left - left. At they barricade they step off. What comes now? Confrontation? Another holdup? No, they move the barricade aside and come back. Soon after we are at a roadblock full with police cars.
I explain quickly what happened and they ask me inside the fortress-like building. I wait and wait. Many policemen come and leave. On a chair sits a young man in handcuffs, miserable.
Now I remember that I have a second iPad in the car, that one they did not find. I fetch it and suggest: Give me a Wifi hotspot, then we can locate them and you just pick them up! Said and done, Tunisian policemen have smartphones too. We try repeatedly, but without success. The devices seem to be turned off.
Suddenly I recall that there is the dashcam in the rear of the car. But was it turned on? I run for it and in fact: The whole robbery is on video. I show it to the police and they watch with interest. "Tomorrow!"



They offer to bring me to a hotel. But I have mobile home. It stands direct in front of the police station. After midnight I retreat there and curse my stupidity. Later I go for a short walk. A policeman turns to me:"Is there a problem?" No, I just have a look at the demo. All quiet. "That's a game or what?" "I don't know either, in the first two January weeks all young people go crazy." Apparently I make a pitiful impression, the policeman says:"Listen! I stand here so that you can sleep well!" Soon after I do flake out.
The next morning I am asked into the office again, wait again. In the meantime I want to change some rest of money and buy a breakfast. A bypasser makes a reasonable deal. I wait and finally I am asked to come to Thelept, where the criminal police is located.

In the interrogation room there is the same young man in handcuffs, trembling. His right eye black, above a fresh bandage, he did not have that the evening before as far as I recall. Besides him apparently his mother, in tears.
We succeeded in transferring the data from the dashcam to the police-PC by putting the memory card into a policeman's smartphone which was connected to the PC via USB. The officers surrounded the PC and studied the video.
A young man questioned me in English and a detailed protocol was made. Repeatedly he said: "Don't worry! Everything will be all right!" Later he explained to me that he is not from the police, but a truck driver who speaks English and translates.
Slowly I put together a mosaic. The young man in handcuffs had also robbed a car, namely the man who changed the money for me, that's why he had been there and heard that they have a foreigner and do not know what to do with him. So he called a friend who volunteered to translate. This is the way I met Wael.



The two accompany me back to Feriana after the paperwork. On the market some stuff is bought for breakfast and he tells me that people are already talking about the night's incident; I'm the talk of the town. Then through narrow alleys to his home, a nice house with a citrus tree in front. I meet his mother who already prepared the table in the kitchen.
We start a conversation. Why did the police just observe the riot? I hear that the year before a policeman perished during a chase and now they probably think it is not worth it.
Several of his sisters live abroad, one trades tea in Florida. I can forward the recommendation here: http://www.secretsoftea.com.
I am still stunned by so much hospitality and ask him, how comes. His explanation is very simple: "This is Islam!" The others, the fighters, the terrorists killing people would have no right to claim Islam for themselves, this position he declares quite passionately.
Then I may relax. In another room there are three couches along the wall. My friends know that this has a magic attraction for me. So I lie down, study quickly the home's Quran, which, because it is arabic, I cannot read, and then I take a nap.

I absolutely have to spend the night with the guest family, regardless of the motor home. Tomorrow my stuff will already have been recovered. This is a small town where everyone knows everyone. "And if the police does not find them, I will find them!"

At a gas station the owner addresses me, in German: "Mein Herr, haben Sie gestern das Problem gehabt?" (Sir, did you have the problem yesterday?) Yes, yes. "Sie müssen Ihre Botschaft verständigen." (You must inform your embassy.) I will. "Wissen Sie, diese Leute sind nicht von hier." (You know, these people are not from here.) This I did not understand. Now they explain to me that those youths were migrating into town from the countryside, where they did not have a future any more after the post-revolutionary government cut the subsidies. And here there is also only trouble with them.

We drive to another friend of his, a "good guy", who owns a garage, which he offers so that really nothing happens to my car. They reveal to me that he is a big fan of Hitler, because he killed the many bad Jews who took away Jerusalem from the Muslims. And because Hitler was from Austria, he is a friend of all Austrians and therefore also my friend.

Huh!

I would not have dreamed that Adolf ever would be good for something. I mentioned the Roma and millions of Russians, but somehow it was not the right moment for a history class. Finally I recommended to him to study his idol more thoroughly and left it at that.

In the evening we sit in his brother's Internet-cafe. I can check ferry connections and find that I can return without delay if I am in Tunis until next evening. Sight-seeing in Tunis is cancelled, but I am not in the mood for it anyway. I inform the embassy about the incident and it responds quickly a few hours later. No way that I pay for the Internet access, no matter how much insist. I feel close to adoption.

Cockily we take a walk to the place where I was robbed. The mobile phones reasonably you can only throw away, everything locked. It is a little bit bizarre, but it is getting even more comical:"Here on the right lives the grandfather of one of the culprits." Yes, in this town people know each other. I am told that the town's major also was informed, on the other hand the father of one of the guys reportedly works at the police. It is confusing.

The next day we check a last time with the police, I get a paper about the loss, which I cannot really read, but after Australia is changed to Austria we drive towards Tunis, where Wael has some task to do too.

First a quick look to the Kasserine-pass where Rommel hit the Americans before giving the cause lost. A few Roman ruins can be seen in Sbeitla.
Driving to Tunis we talk about many things. For example about the conflicts in the Near East. In how far is Israel the cause or rather the unwisely drawn colonial borders or other regional power struggles or the unresolved relationship between Islam and modern science? I ask as a comparison: If Kurds would have an own state, would the situation be better or worse? In a way everyone tries to make sense of history and everyone fails more or less.
I tell him about my job in the satellite project OneWeb, that shall make Internet access possible at any place on the planet. He is fascinated, as a Facebook-fan he understands which undreamed of possibilities this can bring to countless people.

It is this topic that I wanted to better understand on-site: How technology changes societies, maybe directly destabilizes them, maybe leads them to wealth. I mentioned the Khan Academy sponsored by Bill Gates: Free education for all. What will it mean if the random place of birth will at least not decide about intellectual opportunities?
He tells me about his cancelled wedding ("She wanted too much gold."), so we talk about marriage, how the customs are and were, and why that thing with men and women always is so complicated.

Finally he let out his worries: When the Tunesian IS-fighter come back from Syria, then the government will not do much about them and then the Americans might start to bomb the country. The new American president is unpredictable, a pretext is quickly found, as seen in Iraq. I do not want to be so pessimistic, but how the situation in Tunisia evolves is a thrilling question.



For the certainly interesting museums in Tunis there was no time any more, I only headed for the embassy.
The soberly charming official was pleased to hear that I am comparatively ok. "Where is this Feriana actually?" South of Kasserine, I explain. "Well, you should not have gone there." Yep. Other countries would already recommend travels to Tunisia again, but "We advise against."

My hospitality-experience is not that surprising for her, Tunisians want tourists and must do something for it. They receive hundreds of millions Euro from Europe, else the outlook would be bleak. For this reason it is even less understandable that still preachers would recruit young people in some mosques. Partly even money is offered for fighting, what some seem to consider a romantic adventure vacation. Formerly she would herself drive with a car into the desert and spontaneously sleep under some tree. But that would never be again, the violence did rise generally and unrest is possible any time.
We discuss the best way to handle my stuff, just in case it is really recovered. She does not know herself - "Thanks God, we do not have many such cases" -, but she will write an official note to the ministry. She advises against big hopes.



In the harbor again the checks, once, twice, three, four times, then I stop counting. I almost become a routined motor home salesperson "Ah, shower!" "Hmm!"
I lost a green paper, had to turn around, then not, then again, then I was waived to the ferry and it was over. Kafka must have known Tunisia.
As I connect to a Wifi hotspot at a restaurant I find an email from Wael:"Guess what? They found your stuff. The policeman call me today saying that they found the 2 phones, ipad and the laptop." He had been right after all.
Later more information arrives, somewhat contradictory. With the robbed money a motorbike was bought, that seems to belong to me now, but the police did not have it and neither the two guys.

After my stuff was found I was asked to come and pick it up. Instead we authorized Wael to bring it to the embassy in Tunis from where it was sent to Austria. Money and some papers were missing, but the electronics stuff was complete and worked. When I synchronized the photos on the phone there was a big surprise: There are videos which I did not take or know. The creepy point: The robbers accidentally filmed themselves during the robbery with my robbed phone. LOL!! Not only do they act before the dashcam, they even double it up. A Tunesian acquaintance translates to me what they are talking to themselves while they walk away, count the money and its distribution. Italy was their goal.

The video from the dashcam I deleted accidentially, but I had shown it to my son who was impressed. The Tunesian police seems unwilling to give me a copy for fear I could post it here. After four months the police caught the first guy and I am invited to a hearing on short notice. I am not able to travel, and the situation is reported to be volatile still. Via Wael I am asked by the father of the suspect if I would be willing to sign a paper that I forgive, so that maybe the prison term would be shortened. I do have doubts that a Tunesian prison makes a better person out of a dumb juvenile. But without full cooperation there are doubts about the remorse.

Once I talked to the Tunisian embassy in Vienna and showed this travel report to the diplomats. The first impression was that they are not amused. But I only wanted to make constructive suggestions how to improve the safety of tourists.

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Interesting is the tension in which the country is: Political turmoil causes loss of tourism, which brings more people into precarious situations, what causes more virulent political demands and so on.

How really to break such a vicious cycle? Possible answers:

1. Doesn't matter.

Long distance travel is evil, people better spend their vacation in say Austria.

2. More guns.

Without safety no tourism and no economic investments.

3. Send police trainers.

More professionalism needs less threats.

4. Send history teachers.

In volatile times crude historic slogans, proliferating in education gaps, can become explosive.

5. Less agricultural subsidies.

What counts as an export success here can ruin a farmer in Africa. Rural depopulation is often the breeding ground for radicalisms.



I also want to propagate some practical safety advice. Of course it is possible to stay away from any risk by some thousand miles. But there are no guarantees and surprises can happen anywhere. I did take seriously the official travel recommendations, but not sufficiently. Traveling alone in the night in an unstable region was a mistake even though crimes against tourists are comparatively rare in Tunisia.
My maxims in the future:

1. My car is my castle. Period.If you have to look for the button for locking doors then it is probably too late.

2. A camera covering the inside is a fine thing. Make sure it works even with ignition turned off and that enough light is on.

3. Pepper spray isn't bad. Deescalating might be better, but what if you can not rely on it?

4. Where is the alarm button that makes noise like hell and attracts bystanders and maybe sends an SMS?

5. Everything looking like value must be hidden.



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After all this my summary is: The best way to get to know the Tunisian society is to be robbed in a provincial town by outsiders.

Thanks to the many people who guarded and helped me.


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