Twenty-four hours on deck, under a scorching sun through the day and a warm starry sky at night. Waving goodbye to Marseille and anticipating an unknown land across the Mediterranean. Cheeks burned by the sun and the strong wind off the sea. Hard deck, lack of sleep, picking a way gingerly in the dark through mute heaps of sleeping people. Going below deck to find an overflowing toilet, an ordeal that had to be endured. Morning broken, the sun returned, the first signs of human habitation coming into view. The ancient ruins of Carthage stretched up the bank on one side of the ship as it nosed its way down a long narrow waterway towards the dock at La Goulette, the port of Tunis.
Fifty-five years ago, I was a student, little travelled, finding my way with a clutch of fellow students, across France and the sea beyond to Africa, heading for Tunisia to attend an Arabic language course at the Institut Bourguiba des Langues Vivantes. In port, we disembarked, part of a heaving crowd glad to be liberated from the smell, the crush and the flies. Dragging bags down the ramps and stumbling as we went, we made our way along the quayside, through dilapidated marine warehouses, towards a line of customs officials standing behind a rough assemblage of trestle tables ready to receive and inspect our baggage.
One signalled me to place my suitcase in front of him. He opened it and then closed it perfunctorily. With a few words in French, he pulled it off the table and ordered me to go with him. I followed meekly, looking round for my companions at the same time. But amidst the jostling crowd they were nowhere to be seen. The customs officer took my arm and led me away, right out of the docks, going through a big gate in the middle of an impregnable fence of iron railings. He hailed a taxi. Fear began to take hold and in halting French I asked him to let me go back. He shook his head, with a peremptory “Non, venez avec moi ”. Holding insistently onto my elbow, he pressed me into the tiny cab. We drove off.
Eventually the driver stopped outside a modern block of flats. I followed my captor out of the car. He took my case. I thought, this is the moment I disappear from public view for ever. We went into the building and took a lift to a flat on the third floor. He opened a door and took me in. A young woman, casual in European clothes, greeted my captor in Arabic. They offered me sweet mint tea. Later we left the flat, taking another taxi across the city. Finally, the taxi stopped and we alighted, going into another building, older and more traditional. Marble floors, cooling the air and masking the heat of the day. They knocked on a door, a woman in a long, flowing dress, her hair bundled up in a scarf, greeted us and ushered us in. Another young woman peered round an open door nearby, smiling and inviting. It must be, I feared, a brothel.
Again I was offered sweet mint tea, accompanied by a small plate of dates. Several other women and now young children appeared. Smiles, stares and tentative pats from them all. Food later that evening, then a mat on the floor by shuttered windows, sleeping alongside the females of the house in a long, airy withdrawing room. Next day, the customs officer left for work and, later, two other males of the family proudly showed me Tunis. And the day after that, they took me to the hostel where my fellow students greeted me with relief. Six weeks later I gained my certificate in Arabic – no problem. But I never knew the reason why all this had happened.
Gillian Dalley, Autumn 2018