Dancers of Soliman
The Dancers of Soliman
Adventures in Tunisia
by Aisha Ali
It was in1973, when travel through the North African countryside was still like traveling to another century, that I made my first trip to Tunisia. I was coming from Libya carrying a heavy tape recorder, microphones, tapes and batteries, as well as cameras, cans of film and a monopod. In addition I had brought several beaded costumes and more clothing than I really needed.
What I remember vividly from this, and other early trips, was the pain in my shoulders from the weight of my baggage. In those days luggage at airports was checked through by weight rather than size and charged accordingly, so I packed all the heaviest items in my carry-on bags. Tunis was the first stop on my agenda, for I wanted to meet Saleh Al Mahdi, director of the Arts for the Ministry of Cultural Affairs; but he was out of the country, and I was told he wouldn’t be back for several weeks. The staff at the Tunis Conservatory encouraged me to wait for his return, but after being in Libya, Tunis seemed like any city in Europe, and I was anxious to go to the countryside and begin my fieldwork on music and dance.
The morning of my departure, I had planned to look for a louage, a hired car that collects several passengers before it makes a trip to another town; but leaving the hotel I noticed a tour bus outside preparing to leave for a place called Soliman. I asked the driver if I could buy a ticket to ride to the next town. The tour leader, who had been standing by counting his charges as they boarded the bus, overheard my request, and told me I was welcome to ride with his group. This was the last comfortable air-conditioned ride I would have during the following month.
Near the outskirts of Soliman there were two resort hotels situated among rolling green hills with goats and sheep grazing everywhere, but there was nothing resembling a village or town in sight. The tourists all went to the hotel Solimar, but wanting to be away from them, I stayed at the other hotel where there were fewer guests.
The tour guide had convinced me that I should stay one night in Soliman before continuing my journey south, and had invited me to the special folkloric performance that was being provided for his group. To get to the performance at the Solimar, I had to cross a hilly field of grass in the dark wearing an evening dress and high heels, accessorized with my cameras and recording equipment. The terrain was uneven and suddenly I tripped and fell into a ditch where some goats were grazing. Picking up my paraphernalia, I dusted myself off and arrived at the party looking somewhat dirty and disheveled. Still I was happy because this was to be my first glimpse of Tunisian dance.
I suppose I imagined it to be similar to Egyptian style dance with which I was familiar. The first thing that struck me as different was the way the women glided across the floor moving the lower body forward and back, pausing in the forward position while holding their upper body straight and still.
The dancers wore traditional folk costumes consisting of a melia, long full-sleeved blouse and a yarn girdle on their hips. Their heads were covered with scarves held in place with bands across their foreheads. One of the dances performed was much more like belly dance, even though the dancer was wearing a folk costume like the others, but without any head covering. The music had changed to a predominately chifti teli rhythm. She sank to the floor and performed some of the undulations commonly seen in Turkish and Greek-style nightclubs. I recorded all of the music, the best of which was later released on an LP, and eventually re-digitized on the CD album Tunisian Rhythms.
In the morning I asked the desk clerk where I could find transportation to the next town and he reluctantly told me that there would be a bus stopping about a half mile down the road, but he had no idea of what time it might arrive. Again with my gear strapped around my body I staggered down the road to the place he had designated, and waited. After forty minutes or so, two boys, of about fourteen or fifteen years came by and asked me who I was and why I was there. I said I was waiting for a bus to the next town and they explained that there would be no bus that day. They sat on the road next to me and we made polite conversation in broken English and broken Arabic. Their names were Selim and Monsef. When I was finally convinced that no bus was coming, they invited me to their home to meet their families. I began picking up my luggage but they told me to leave it where it was, as no one would touch it. Since I did not want to argue and was tired of dealing with the luggage, I decided to trust their advice. We walked to Selim’s house first, where I met his mother and sisters who were warm and friendly. We drank sweet mint tea, the sisters told me about their English studies at school, and then asked me about the purpose of my visit. When I told them I was looking for music and dance, they all seemed pleased. While we were talking, Monsef’s mother arrived to visit her sister, who was Selim’s mother.
With more mint tea and pleasant talk about food, I told them that I liked cous cous, and Monsef’s mother invited us to her house for lunch at which time she would show me how she makes it. Selim’s mother said she would join us after she had prepared a different dish to bring for the meal.
Both of these homes enclosed an open courtyard where the cooking was done. This was common practice in Tunisia, and prevented cooking odors from entering the house. We began by washing vegetables for the ragout; and then I was shown how to make semolina into cous cous using a circular screen. Afterwards we steamed it in the couscousier or sieve, which sits above the simmering vegetables.
Because I expressed some concern for my luggage, the boys were sent to bring it back from the road. Everything was still there, just as they had predicted.
The sisters told me that I was fortunate to be in Soliman at this time because I could see dancing at the orange festival. It was decided that after lunch the boys would accompany me to the festival and that I would return with them to spend the night at Monsef’s house.
The orange festival was a scene of great activity. There were stalls and vendors from outlying districts displaying their poultry and livestock; and there were performances by beautifully caparisoned dancing horses. At the center of everything was an area where horsemen tossed oranges as far as possible and then galloped at top speed to retrieve them on the point of their swords.
For me, of course, the best of all was the tent where the musicians and dancers performed. A small fee of about twenty-five cents entitled one to enter the tent and take a seat on one of the folding chairs. The artists performed on a high stage in front of a patterned red fabric backdrop. The musicians looked tired and appeared to be frowning at the audience. Their legs were crossed carelessly and their bare feet were shoved into tennis shoes, the backs of which had been flattened, turning the sneakers into slippers.
There were three dancers, and they, too, looked vaguely annoyed. Perhaps it was the heat and throngs of people, or perhaps they had quarreled with the musicians. They each exhibited a distinct style and personality. The first one was young and pretty and smiled as she danced with a natural grace. The second dancer was older and tall and heavy. Her belly and bust met, giving her no perceptible waistline. Her face was tattooed and her hands and feet decorated with henna.
After beginning with the usual twisting and thrusting hip motions, she sat on the stage floor with one leg stretched out before her, and went through the motions of preparing cous cous, and tasting it. She then appeared to be washing, then combing her hair, putting on maquillage and applying henna to her hands.
The third dancer was not old, but she was thin and looked hard and experienced. There were tattoos on her face and she surveyed the audience with a disdainful glance. Her performance, however, was dynamic and she punctuated her dance with hip movements so forceful and rapid that her flowing melia swirled in a continuous flurry of movement.
The performances lasted for about forty-five minutes, and then everyone vacated the tent to make way for the next audience; but I was so interested that I kept getting back into the line and paying to see them again. When I noticed that the boys were beginning to tire of it, we left to watch the horsemen again, but we had stayed so late that it had grown dark. The grounds were now aglow with strings of colored lights and a fire-eater was performing in the square.
The evening air had become cooler and the walk to Monsef’s home was pleasant. His sisters were waiting up for me and I told them about everything that I had seen at the festival before we fell asleep.
The following day the children accompanied me back to the road with my luggage and I resumed waiting for a bus to arrive. In order to appear like a respectable woman, I was wearing a gray, high-necked, long-sleeved tunic with wide pants that I had made especially for this trip. After a short wait, a mini bus came by, and after loading my gear into the back, I got in. I was the only passenger and the driver patted the seat beside him motioning for me to sit in the front. Handing him some money, I asked how much the fare was, but he laughed and pushed my hand away. I didn’t question his generosity, because almost everywhere I went, people offered their assistance free of charge. After about fifteen minutes he drove off the road and continued across the grassy hillside, narrowly missing some sheep that were grazing there. Bringing the bus to a stop, he tried to grab me. I protested and began to scream; this angered him and he slapped me across the face. Outraged, I wrenched open the door and ran out into the field. He stayed in the bus, and drove very slowly behind me as I walked away. When I remembered that not only all of my equipment and most of my money was in his van, but all the music and film I had recorded during the last months in Egypt and Libya, I panicked. Realizing that I had nowhere to run, I turned around and seeing his good-natured grin, I agreed to get back in the bus when he promised to take me directly to Soliman. We rode back in silence, but when we reached the town I went to the police station and reported what had happened. The police told me that they knew him, and that he worked as a bouncer at a nightclub in Soliman and by day drove the tourist shuttle. I got the message that they didn’t think there had been any serious harm done and would forget the matter.
By now I had missed the only bus out of town that day, so being eager to see more dancing, I went to a hotel at the other end of town where I parked my luggage behind the desk and went to the dining room for dinner. Luckily, at eight o’clock another folkloric program took place. Once again the group consisted of all women, but this time they performed choreographed tableaus. Their costumes were more traditional and complete than those of the group I had first seen. Entering in pairs, they held large water jars, which they swung between them. When they had gathered together at the center of the dance floor they pretended to be gossiping with each other. Other girls posing as vendors entered carrying baskets on their heads. One was selling flowers, another scarves, and another had jewelry that she displayed. Aside from the coy theatrics, they actually danced very well and I learned much more about Tunisian dance that night.
The dancers were friendly and curious about me, and afterwards I took my tape recorder to their dressing room and recorded them giving me all the proper names and pronunciations of the various parts of their costumes as they displayed them one by one. Afterwards we joined the musicians and sat on the veranda outside the hotel until it was time for me to catch the midnight bus. My North African adventures were just beginning, yet I already felt at home here because of the kindness of the Tunisian people.
Aisha Ali has contributed to the field of Middle Eastern dance as a performer, teacher, documentary film maker, choreographer and recording producer. She has done independent research throughout Egypt and North Africa, as well as parts of Syria and Lebanon. In addition to touring internationally as a lecturer/performer, Ms. Ali conducts weekly classes at her west side studio in Los Angeles where she directs the Aisha Ali Dance Company. www.aisha-ali.com