Tuesday, May 25, 2010

The Ksour (Tuesday, May 11)

On the southern edge of the central coast of Tunisia, near the Libyan border, are the ksour, the hilltop villages and fortresses of the Berber. The Berbers are an ethnic mix, devoutly Muslim and indigenous to North Africa, with a culture and language distinct from the hodgepodge of Arab, Mediterranean, Western European and African that makes up the rest of Tunisia.

Many of the ksour (plural of ksar) are in ruins. Chenini, however, is a thriving Berber village of about 700 people with a small mosque, medrassa, and primary school. The ksar was built into the mountains in steppes to protect against attack, near oases where communities farm and draw water. The stones are the same color as the mountains themselves, so it's difficult to distinguish the homes from the environment, a protective measure against attack.

The first level of a ksar is the most desirable to live in, as you dOn't need donkeys to transport water uphill to the house and can carry it by hand. In the past, Berbers had really simple, ingenious ways of protecting their grains, oil and other supplies -- they built tiny entrances to their homes, and then constructed large pots and containers twice the size of the doorways within the walls, so that nobody could steal their goods. Today, that's not quite necessary, but the dim, cool rooms are still the most effective way of keeping out sand and heat and preserving food. Running water and electricity still aren't a big thing.

At Chenini, one of the few ways for young people to make money is to give tours of the nearby ruins and homes. Our young guide, Ali, spoke 6 languages: Berber, Arabic, French, Italian, German, and English. Berber at home, Arabic at mosque and with friends, French in school, and all of the major tourist languages. Nobody was there that day but us, though, and the emptiness lent a ghostly, magical, uniquely Berber color to the desert.