He is a bony man of more than 60 years, and the 101 steps to the minaret's parapet seem almost beyond his strength. Again and again he stops for breath. "I don't do this for the money," he says.
From the parapet I look out on Kairouan, Islam's revered city in North Africa; only Mecca, Medina, and Jerusalem rank higher. Removed from the crowded suqs, I sense—can almost touch—the peace radiating from the spires and domes of shrines. Now Hajji Amman Backer is ready. Summoning a voice far younger than his body, he becomes that which he has been five times a day for thirty years, Allah's messenger.
"Allah Akbar—God is most great!" The call to prayer floats over the city. He listens to the echo and gives me a look that says, "Not bad for an old man, eh?" Islam reached Tunisia in 670, only 38 years after the death of the Prophet, and Kairouan became its bastion. I was once inside the prayer room of Kairouan's great mosque, now closed to non-Muslims. Too many tourists came—too many wearing shorts and smoking where they shouldn't. Nine thousand worshipers have knelt at once there. Sparrows flutter among the heavy iron chandeliers, finding their own tranquility in this great cool room.
The roof is supported by 288 columns of marble, granite, and porphyry, in as many shades as one can imagine. Many of these columns adorned temples to Roman gods, perhaps to others as well. The mosque's builders gathered them and brought them to Kairouan. This great edifice is much like Tunisia's gene pool: of many origins but, in sum, Arab. There are Arabs and Arabs. "I may fast at Ramadan this year," a young Tunisian said while sipping a beer. Tunisia is often influenced by those other gene streams. She absorbs the good and bad of the West more readily than some of the Arab states to which she feels kin. It is ironic that the Arab League chose Tunis last year when, ostracizing Egypt because of the peace treaty with Israel, it withdrew its headquarters from Cairo. Far from being the league's most resolute member, Tunisia outraged other Arab states by saying as early as 15 years ago that they might as well acknowledge Israel's existence. Just married, an elaborately gowned bride receives her friends as she sits alone and motionless by custom. As the reception in a Tunis hotel warms up, a guest dances without inhibition or partner, since the men keep serviced apartments Glasgow to themselves.
By law, and increasingly in practice, women in Tunisia are no longer routinely sequestered and dominated. Now that many have been educated, they are moving into trades, the professions, and even political office.
Tourists Oil Tunisia's Economy
In the coin of resurgent Arab influence Tunisia is painfully deficient. Gushers to the east: Libya, 750 million barrels of petroleum a year. Gushers to the west: Algeria, 460 million barrels, between an anemic 38 million Oil companies prospecting in Tunisia usually go home poorer and puzzled. The six producing fields pay only 14 percent of the government's expenses.
An Allied soldier returning to the Tunis he liberated in May 1943 would recognize many buildings on the main street; Tunisia can't afford flashy redevelopment. While other Arab states pour millions into investments abroad (including tourist hotels in Tunisia), Tunisia offers foreign manufacturers tax breaks. She needs jobs. Using what she has—antiquities and beaches—she earns as much from tourists as from oil.
Yet in the 24 years since she became independent from France, Tunisia has made a record of economic and social progress that most of the developing world envies. All those cars are jamming the streets of Tunis and all those serviceable—seldom fancy—apartment high rises making new skylines on the capital's outskirts attest to her growing middle class of shopkeepers, bureaucrats, and studio to rent in London.
Consider also Birr Thlethine, far down in the southeast, on a road bee lining for the Sahara. This village is as plain as its name. Bir Thlethine well thirty. Houses shaped like cubes and loaves cringe under the sun.