I returned to Sousse this afternoon: I needed to escape the little town where I’d been staying, and I wanted to do some further exploring as well. I had read about some catacombs just outside the Medina, and I was terribly proud of myself after eventually finding them on-foot. This is no trifling matter, and in itself worthy of a pause: most towns I’ve visited in Tunisia do not have street signs, and those that do are usually written exclusively in Arabic. Armed only with my poorly-detailed Lonely-Planet outline I blundered about the town for a good twenty minutes before finally arriving at a white stuccoed building with a sign reading “Catacombs” above it. I was fiercely enamored of my accomplishment, as if I’d successfully arrived at the completion of an arcane labyrinth. My pride was not to last long, for it was only moments until I once again ran myself into the wall that has blocked my travels at nearly every turn here: Though the sign’s hours stated that the catacombs were open, they were in fact closed. I wandered around the building, hot and sweating, to find no one. I asked someone passing on the street if they knew if the catacombs were open, and they assured me they were not.
Frustrated but not to be defeated, I again demonstrated my superior navigation abilities and returned to the Medina, where I found my way to the Ribat, a fortress-like structure built in AD 821, and as such the oldest surviving artifact in town. For today’s etymology lesson, Ribat is the from the Arabic Rabata, which means “to be garrisoned”; those who lived within the walls of the Ribat were called Morabitoun, a term upon which the French would build their word Marabout, which we have shifted directly into English and which refers simultaneously to a Muslim holy man, frequently found in North Africa, as well as the building in which such a holy man lives.
I slunk around the Ribat for a while, which, despite the ceaseless and high-volumed gabbing of a troupe of German tourists, was extremely pleasant. The Ribat is a square structure, two stories tall with a tower rising up on the south-east corner. The interior walls are lined with a series of arches that serve as a rail of sorts, and appear to the eye as the undulating length of a sea monster. The hot, bright desert light fell at an angle that brought from the building a warm, honey-gold hue. The shadows on the lower level support arches seeped black and provided a cool relief from the heat.
I climbed to an overlook upon the second storey, an outlook rising 40-feet above the Medina. Oddly enough, on this side of the wall there was no rail and I was able to step to the edge and peer straight over onto the fieldstone floor below. Once again I was met by my ever-present friend in such situations, Mr. Acrophobia, which, for our second language-lesson of the day, basically means I’m scared to all hell by heights. For me, as for many who have the pleasure of such a phobia, this is expressed less with the stereotypical feelings of vertigo or nausea, and more with the extremely strong and oddly soothing desire to launch myself from the height upon which I’m standing. At the edge of an exposed height, and without exception, my mind begins to wonder, If I jumped from here, where would I land?, For how long would I be in the air?, How would my body break upon hitting that rock?, and so on. The thought of jumping is magnetizing, and there’s something numbingly warm that pulls me closer and closer to the edge. I soon found myself repeating my mantra in such situations, “Not going to jump, not going to jump,” slightly pale and with twitching hands, and it was with great effort that I wormed myself back and away from the ledge.
After pulling myself free I spun up the spiral staircase of the tower, which, given the staircase’s extreme narrowness was horribly claustrophobic and this time did induce a strong sense of vertigo. The top of the tower was covered to protect it from the elements, and I sat on a plinth underneath its ledge and looked out over the Mediterranean to the east. To the west, slanting back up the hillside, the Medina sprawled and convoluted itself. I sipped some water and ate a pastry I’d purchased earlier. I felt quite content, which lasted a good five minutes before the Germans noisily found their way up the stairs and I, not completely unresentfully, removed myself from the tower and left the Ribat.
I strolled over to the beach, stuck my feet in the sea and sat on the sand writing. Later I had dinner at a local restaurant with Mohammed, one of the sons of the family I’m staying with, which mostly involved awkward conversation about his dating life and a lot of television watching. I caught a taxi-van back to Enfida and reviewed my successes at orienteering and not throwing myself from heights. It’s in the little details that one must find consolation.