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TUNISIA

The (K)Nights of Peace

By Jheri St. James


Port El Kantaoui - The fountains by night

The moon is the same moon above you
Aglow with its cool evening light
But shining at night, in Tunisia
Never does it shine so bright.*

The Tunisian Republic has long been an important player in the Mediterranean, placed in the center of North Africa, close to vital shipping routes. Tunisia is located in Northern Africa, bordering the Mediterranean Sea, between Algeria and Libya. In their time, the Romans, Arabs, Ottoman Turks and French realized its strategic significance, making it a hub for control battles over the region. French colonial rule ended in 1956, and Tunisia was led for three decades by Habib Bourguiba who advanced secular ideas, including emancipation for women. Women’s rights in Tunisia are among the most advanced in the Arab world, highlights being the abolition of polygamy and compulsory free education. Tunisia is more prosperous than its neighbors and has strong trade links with Europe. Around 40 percent of the country is composed of the Sahara desert, with much of the remainder consisting of particularly fertile soil and a 1300 km coastline. Both desert and coastline played a prominent role in ancient times, first with the famous Phoenician city of Carthage, and later as the African Province, which became known as the breadbasket of the Roman Empire. Agriculture employs a large part of the workforce, and dates and olives are cultivated in the drier regions. Other crops are grain, tomatoes, citrus, sugar beets, almonds, beef and dairy products. Millions of European tourists flock to Tunisia every year. Political violence is rare, but militant Islamists have become an issue of concern for the authorities. Tunis is the capital city.

The smallest of the nations situated along the Atlas mountain range, Tunisia has a diverse economy, with important agricultural, mining, energy, tourism and manufacturing sectors. This country is gradually removing barriers to trade with the EU. Unlike other African nations, the life expectancy at birth is 75.34 years for the total population. Standard Arabic is Tunisia’s official language however, as is the case in most Arab countries, a vernacular of Arabic is spoken, Tunisian Arabic, which is closely related to Maltese. French also has a major role in the country, despite having no significant status—it is used widely in education.

The stars are aglow in the heavens
But only the wise understand
That shining at night in Tunisia
They guide you through the desert sand.*

*  *  *

KBOR KLIB: Thy Mystical Place

In the remote countryside of north-central Tunisia, between the cities of Siliana and Le Kef, stands a ruined stone structure known as Kbor Klib, one of Tunisia’s mysteries. Nobody knows for certain who built the structure or why. Kbor Klib is a hilltop site with stunning views. From a distance, it looks merely like a present-day farm building. Close up, however, the viewer perceives that Kbor Klib is made up of three solid square platforms connected by a wall in the back. In front are the remains of what could be a fourth platform. There are no clear indications to the structure’s purpose. Whatever was done here, it was most likely done outdoors, and without the need of storage facilities. Kbor Klib has few decorations, and no inscriptions. It could just as easily have been built by the Numidians as by the Romans.

The name comes from a mythical giant named Klib. Kbor Klib means “Tomb of Klib.” Most theories go in the direction of historical events, either as a Numidian battlefield memorial for the Macedonian Wars in the 2nd century BCE or as a Roman monument commemorating the Civil Wars (then erected by Caesar). The first theory seems most popular among researchers. “Kbor Klib and the Battle of Zama” is an analysis of this monument and its possible connection with the battle between Hannibal and Scipio in 202 BC, by Duncan Ross. A thorough examination of North African archaeological documentation reveals that the monument over the years has been the subject of a variety of descriptions, discussions and investigations. In this study, the author looks afresh at the archaeological and historical evidence of the site and its environs, and the intriguing possibility that the structure is associated with the Roman North African occupation. The original ceremonies are assumed to have been performed at the spot, and were of a religious nature, thanking the god’s support in the battle.

Words fail, to tell a tale
Too exotic to be told
Each night’s a deeper night
In a world, ages old*

* * *

Karen Schoppl from the U.S. Embassy in Tunisia, responded to our letter requesting collectors and, after much confusion over shipping, personnel, and other serpentine issues, the soil from Tunisia finally made it to the studio, and into Gary Simpson’s hands. This soil came from the American Battle Monuments Commission Cemetery in Carthage, Tunisia, which is a World War I and World War II cemetery in the ancient city of Carthage where lie over 2,000 slain American soldiers. Thank you, Karen.

The bronze doors and the windows of the chapel were constructed by the Morris Singer Company of London, England. At the far end of the chapel, which is lighted a tall window on the right and a row of lower windows on the left is an altar of white Carrara marble with this inscription from St.John X:28: “I give unto them eternal life and they shall never perish.” The wall behind the altar is of polished Rosso Porfirico marble from near Udine in northeastern Italy. Facing the door, on the wing wall projecting from the right, is the sculpture SACRIFICE carved in Italian Bianco Caldo stone, designed by Henry Kreis and executed by Pietro Bibolotti. Below and to its left is this inscription from Shelley's ode "Adonais": "He has outsoared the shadow of our night.”

Near the foot of the steps leading down from the forecourt is a pool and figure of HONOR about
to bestow a laurel branch upon those who gave their lives. The figure's pedestal bears this inscription:
“Honor to them that trod the path of honor.” Along the wall are two other sculptured figures: MEMORY and RECOLLECTION, the latter holding a book with the inscription PRO PATRIA. Between these figures are oak leaf wreaths within which are engraved the names of battles on land, sea and in the air, in which the American forces participated: Oran, Casablanca, Algiers, Kasserine, El Guettar, Sidi Nsir, Bizerte, Sicily, Ploesti. All of this sculpture is of Bianco Caldo stone from near Foggia, Italy; it was designed by Henry Kreis of Essex, Connecticut, and executed by Pietro Bibolotti, Pietrasanta, Italy.

Planted in front of the Tablets of the Missing are rows of India laurel fig trees (Ficus nitida) in beds of English ivy. To the left of the altar are the United States national flag and Christian and Jewish chapel flags. Projecting from the east wall above the pews are the flags of combat arms, viz. Infantry, Field Artillery, Navy Infantry Battalion, Air Corps and Armor. Beneath the flags is this prayer: “Almighty God, receive these thy heroic servants into thy kingdom.” The ceiling is of Moroccan cedar; the pews and prie-dieu are of walnut. Three flower boxes of teakwood, with bronze appurtenances, are located under the west windows of the chapel. North of the chapel, down a flight of steps from the cloister, is the memorial garden with its pool; the plants include latana, poinciana, pink geraniums and a Jerusalem thorn tree (Parkinsonia aculeate). Beyond is the graves area.

The cares of the day seem to vanish
The ending of day brings release
Each wonderful night in Tunisia
Where the nights are filled with peace.*

This writer speculates about the history of cemeteries like Kbor Klib and the American Battle Monuments Commission Cemetery. Will today’s burial ground one day become nothing more than a mysterious site of strange white stones, causing visitors to ponder what was done here? After all the flags tatter into shreds? That great mythical giant Klib has no accessible current history.

“His-story”— the story of the battles, conquests and deaths of man, all taking place on the breast of the Great Mother — the provider of marble, teak, stone, walnut, cedar, bronze, pools, flowers and thorn trees used to build and decorate cemeteries. The Earth, so often unsung, unremembered, unnoticed. Living men from many countries—England, Italy, the U.S.—came together to create this cemetery. Living men and women are joining together to create the Common Ground 191 conceptual art project using Her soil as the medium.

Why are the statues, named “Honor”, “Memory” and “Recollection”, female in the midst of all this ‘his-story’? Is it some unconscious reverence for of the Source of all life? Why can living men not cooperate in living peacefully upon the shoulders of the Great Earth Mother, as they do in creating cemeteries? Yes, the (k)nights in Tunisia are quiet and peaceful, particularly in its cemeteries and gravesites, filled with mute heroes, under the soil. The word for peace in Tunisia is “Salaam”

*(All quotations are lyrics from Dizzy Gillespie’s bebop tune “A Night in Tunisia”, composed in 1947.)

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