Sidi Bou Saïd, Tunisia
A few hours ago, my dear friends dropped me off and installed me here in Sidi Bou Saïd north of Tunis. For the month of Ramadan I have my own flat on the top floor of a family home. It’s outside the heat of the central city, yet close enough to make my research trips easily enough.
A narrow street comes to a T at this address, and here on the rooftop terrace, that street gives me a view northwest. Beyond a silhouette of tall thin trees, maybe cypress or arbor vitae, the sky turned pink after sunset and is darkening now.
Three stories above the street, I sit at a table. The floor is gray tile. Before me are rows of empty clotheslines, a low wall, and windows of the homes across the street below. The wall on my right is higher, separating this terrace from the one next door. On the left there is a long, low tiled sink for use in cleaning and laundry. Next to that is a gate to the ornate, black-metal spiral stair that descends to the tiny courtyard of the landlady’s family house.
At my back is the flat. It has a tiny sitting room with faded green sectional couches, a bedroom, tiny bathroom, and kitchen, all wrapping around the building’s inner air shaft that allows exchange of air, light, and sound. Inside the flat, I hear the family’s voices below. Outside I hear sounds coming from other homes and terraces and flats up and down the street.
This is the most famous seaside town of Tunisia, gathering place at the turn of the last century of some of Europe’s most famous artists, who painted and wrote about it—Paul Klee, August Macke, Gustave Flaubert. Everything is white with blue trim. I am on the back of the hill, facing inland, apart from the touristed area yet close to the little commuter train to Tunis, a short walk to the sea or to Carthage. I have no view of the water, and the only living trees I can see are the Dr. Seuss-like columns a block away.
But there is one more tree. On the big blue wooden door from the terrace into the flat is an image of a fountain made from black studs pounded into the wood in the rustic Tunisian style. To me it’s a tree, taller than me, branches falling like water, like a willow. Beside it I perch here like a bird on the built-in bench, on the tile surface of blue, green, and white, at a white table, writing and watching the stars come out over this ancient land.