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An Afternoon in Douz

“Bonjour! Bonjour!” pipes a little voice from behind us. Turning around, my companions and I see two little Tunisian girls dressed in matching pink and yellow dresses shyly scuffing their bare brown feet in the dust. With the instant eagerness only possessed by children in tourist towns around the world, the two little girls smile sweetly and proffer their hands. “Candy?” they ask.

Here on the edge of the Sahara desert, we western travellers are no longer a novelty. For Tunisian children, there are sugary riches to be had from the pockets of western tourists and as this particular afternoon in the dusty town of Douz was to prove, travellers are merely another form of entertainment for children – and they for us.

Douz lies at the edge of the Sahara and is rightly touted as the camel-riding centre of southern Tunisia. This small town has relegated most of its tourism to the Zone Touristique at its periphery. Beyond the scented groves of date palms, multi-storey hotels and tourist buses converge. Here the comfort-driven tourist can emerge from their air-conditioned hotel and sip bright-coloured drinks beside the swimming pool. Outside the hotel gates, just metres from the sand dunes, exuberant camel-drivers and Berber horsemen jostle for the tourist Dinar. The guttural groans of camels fill the air as they awkwardly rise to their feet and placidly sway their way into the desert. Another camera-snapping load on their back.

As my companions and I discovered, intense local interest surrounds those who choose to stay in the small hotels in the ‘centre’ of Douz. Travelling with my two Dutch friends, Elkie and Hennie, we make a motley trio. Elkie especially, attracts great interest amongst the residents as she has beautiful red hair and luminously pale skin. Hennie and I are Tunisian-tanned in comparison. It is a running joke between Elkie and me that we are Hennie’s exotic harem as the conspicuous sight of the three of us about town attracts great attention. Our conversations in a garbled mixture of French, Dutch, English and rudimentary Arabic induces much attention and mirth from local merchants and children alike.

However, today it is thirty-eight degrees Celsius and the town is sleepy in the heavy afternoon heat. The three of us are perched on a concrete traffic island down a shady side street; lethargic in our efforts to escape the towns centre and explore the sand dunes. In the shop doorways along the main road, plastic strips and bleached cotton curtains hang listlessly. There is no hint of a breeze and the hardy eucalyptus trees along the roadside droop languidly. The air is perfectly still; hot and heavy against our skin. Even the ever-enthusiastic merchants dozing in shop doorways seem deflated of energy. Not so the children.

“Candy!” The girls call again, the tone of their voices more edgy and insistent. To my maternal relief, the girls approach us, out of the danger from the rusty mopeds and taxis that hurtle down the main road toward the Zone Touristique. We shake our heads apologetically, “No candy.” The two girls continue to gaze at us steadily, disbelief evident in their eyes. Three little boys run across the road and join in their request, clustering around us; jostling for attention. There is persuasion in numbers.

This excited little band is suddenly distracted by shouts from the driver of a horse-drawn cart that trots quickly down our street. The children scurry to the other side of the street and crouch, watchfully, under the eucalyptus trees. Four solemn-eyed little boys are seated in the cart and they dangle their legs over the side. Their driver bids the other children to get out of his way. We watch as he drives the cart past our concrete perch and into the grounds outside two innocuous-looking whitewashed buildings.

Having failed to notice these buildings, we three are intrigued. Combining our rudimentary knowledge of French and Arabic, we attempt to decipher the sign above the imposing white gates. To our immense surprise, we realise that we have been relaxing outside the local circumcision clinic. Those whitewashed structures are naturally of huge importance to a nation where more than ninety percent of the population is Muslim. Predictably, the Douz clinic appears to be busy.

This strange side street also seems to be something of a playground for all the local children. The two little girls look at us from behind brown hands clasped shyly over their faces. The pair dissolve into giggles. The girl in the pink dress suddenly looks serious and picks up a piece of stone from the gutter refuse. She walks towards us and places it, shiny side down, in the middle of the road. Pink Dress looks at us solemnly and I wonder if this is an offering or a challenge.

With a sudden grin, Pink Dress places her bare foot on the stone and zooms along the street in a skateboarding motion. As if on cue, all the children spring from their wary positions across the road. Giggling and shrieking, they all pick up pieces of stone and ‘skate’ along the road barefoot. Skidding, stumbling, skating.

Their laughter is infectious and the three of us join in their game. Elkie and Hennie jerkily skate along the road and try to re-enact roller-skating moves from their youth. I stop and spin around and around before stumbling over; more buffoon-like than ballerina. Pink Dress and her friend, Yellow Dress, are watching me and also try to spin. With much gesticulation and clumsy communication, I convince Pink Dress to let me spin her like the ballerina she tries to be. I grab her hands as she stands stiffly on one foot, wobbling on the stone. I run in a circle around her as she turns. She giggle uncontrollably and pirouettes on and on until we are both dizzy. Still reeling, I spin Yellow Dress. Then Pink Dress again. Then another friend.

The fun ceases abruptly when the cart hurtles out of the white gates. We notice that its demented driver is now without his young passengers. The game is over and I sit on the traffic island with Elkie and Hennie, gasping and sweating from the afternoon’s brief exertion. The end of the game transforms the children back to their wary stance beneath the trees on the opposite side of the road. The street falls quiet again and the clinic stands ominously amidst all the dust and the afternoon heat.

As we swig water from our bottles, Pink Dress and Yellow Dress become attentive again. “Candy? ” they ask. The other children join in their request and shuffle across the road. Hennie reaches into his backpack and withdraws a handful of paper-wrapped sweets. Colourful treasures. The children grab his offering eagerly, their faces breaking into smiles. Yellow Dress still has the wrapper on hers as she chews loudly and with relish. The chorus of “Merci Beaucoup!” is strangulated by the gooey, sweet indulgence.

This show of Dutch generosity attracts the attention of an older girl who has been watching the afternoon’s frivolity from a plastic-stripped doorway across the road. She walks over to us with the universal confidence and swagger of any teenager. “Candy.” This time it is a demand, not a request. One which is met with the firm reply, “No candy……all gone.” She looks at us with crossed arms and a disbelief that mirrors that of Pink Dress, her sister, who is now hiding behind this adolescent protector. All the children quickly swallow their sweets and surround us, gulping and looking hopefully at Hennie’s backpack.

Older Sister realises that her demand will not be met in this manner and she switches tactics. She uncrosses her arms. “English? Dutch?” she asks us, with a beguiling smile. “Dutch,” is the reply from my companions. “But no more sweets,” mutters Hennie in perfect English. Our teenage interrogator turns her attention to me. “You. Dutch also? ” she asks. “Australian,” I reply. A look of complete bafflement crosses the faces of all the children. We grab the moment to stand up with our backpacks.

Arrival of the older girl is the signal to move on. We are ready to head to the sand dunes. Skating with strangers, Dutch candy and a circumcision clinic. This has made for quite an eventful afternoon in dusty Douz. We bid the little crowd goodbye in our usual confusing array of languages, “Au revoir! Dag! Ciao! Goodbye!” The baffled, candy-less, little crowd watches solemnly as we trudge down the dusty road leading out of Douz, towards the dunes. All gone.

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