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Day 91: Sidi Bou Said

Michael Palin - SaharaIt stands in a dominant position at the top of Sidi Bou Said High Street, and even when you've climbed up the hill there's still a score of steep steps between you and the door, so you're guaranteed to enter breathless. The wide, but intimate, rectangular room was once part of a mosque and dates back to the fourteenth century. There is a well-used feel to it, a definite sense of layers of history, behind the black and white horseshoe arch of the doorway. It's a bit self-consciously traditional - very woody, with striped pillars and roof beams painted red, white and green, song birds in filigree cages, old wireless sets, black and white archive photos of Sidi Bou Said on the wall and a man behind the counter with a sprig of jasmine behind his ear. Wise old waiters in green and black striped jackets serve a largely young, international clientele sitting cross-legged on woven straw mats, the nattes that gave the place its name.

I order a thick, rich Turkish coffee and a glass of thé aux pignons, tea with pine nuts, for my companion Moez, a Tunisian film producer and director. Several people are puffing contentedly at bubbling chichas, so we order one to share. Moez says there's an extra intensity to the smoking, since Ramadan began two days ago, forbidding the taking of anything by mouth during the hours of daylight. Not that this produces a drastically slimmed-down nation. Apparently, the month of fasting results in such indulgence during the hours of darkness that people come out of it having put on weight.

The chicha is brought over by the waiter and set with courteous formality on a green baize table beside me. It's the size of a small vacuum cleaner, and comes with various accessories, like a silver tray of fresh charcoal and a pair of tongs. My breath draws the smoke from the coal down through the tobacco and it cools as it passes the water chamber. It gurgles pleasantly and is completely legal. According to Moez, the sound is an important part of the relaxing process. The other is breath control. An accomplished smoker can keep the pipe going for an hour or more.

'It's not easy,' Moez cautions, as I start puffing away like a steam engine. 'Both of us would burn the tobacco in ten minutes.'

We talk about his work. He's making a film about the Tunisians who died in the Second World War. From the war movies I remember, you'd be forgiven for thinking any Tunisians were involved at all.

Plenty of big foreign epics have been made in the country, including Star Wars, The English Patient and Raiders of the Lost Ark, but Moez prefers to work on local subjects.

'We need to see our images, you know. The audiences here like to see Tunisian faces, Tunisian stories, Tunisian jokes.'
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  • Series: Sahara
  • Day: 91
  • Country/sea: Tunisia
  • Place: Sidi Bou Said
  • Book page no: 238

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