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Sahara

Day 89: Djerba to El Haddej

El Haddej, Tunisia 
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Taking tea with Bilgessou and his wife and daughter. Refusing to move from the cave he's lived in all his life, he makes money by providing accommodation for curious travellers.
Michael Palin - SaharaThere is one cave which is still occupied and rents out rooms, or cavities, perhaps.

The only entrance is through a dimly lit tunnel. It's some 30 yards long, and smells of fur and dung. At its darkest point I run slap into a donkey, which is quietly munching away at some straw. Emerging into the soft grey light of a courtyard, I see an elderly man and two women waiting to welcome me. The man's name is Bilgessou. He stands straight-backed, wearing a fine red skullcap and a knee-length brown overcoat, his bearing matching a military-style silver moustache. Next to him, in brightly coloured Berber stripes, are his wife Manoubia and their daughter Jemila. They stand almost motionless, like a tableau waiting to be photographed.

After we have introduced ourselves, they pull aside a palm wood door and usher me into a side room off the courtyard. The roof is a low, smoke-stained vault, lit by a single bulb (there is electricity here, but water has to be fetched from the well). Bilgessou sets to work making tea on a calor gas stove, Jemila sits down, revealing a bright and well-holed pair of yellow stockings, and she and her mother set to work rubbing the skins off peanuts and dropping them in a bowl. A rangy black and white cat appears from the depths of the cave, is shooed away but holds its ground, eyeing the preparations.

Once the tea has been made and poured, as it is throughout the Sahara, with a flourish from as far above the glass as possible, Bilgessou takes the bowl of nuts and scatters them onto a roasting tray, which he lays on the fire. Most of this is done in silence, as none of them speak French and I don't speak Arabic, but Jemila has a sweet understanding smile and somehow it doesn't feel wrong to be silent.

However, once the first glass of tea has been taken, Bilgessou begins to talk, in a powerful voice, with a lot of barking, back-of-the-throat sounds.

The young don't want to live in the caves any more, he says. They're moving above ground, tempted away by ready-made houses in New Matmata. The authorities don't understand. They've shown little interest in preserving the troglodyte way of life, except for the tourists. He extends an arm towards his wife. She has never left El Haddej in her life. She can't be expected to change just like that.

I'm handed a biscuit and a cotton cloth to put on my knee to catch the crumbs.

Anyway, he goes on, these troglodyte houses make sense. They're safe and secure, warm in winter and cool in summer. The soft rock is easy to excavate, and, unlike the timber round here, there's plenty of it.
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PALIN'S GUIDES

  • Series: Sahara
  • Day: 89
  • Country/sea: Tunisia
  • Place: El Haddej
  • Book page no: 233

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