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Texts in English / Tunisia





A village wedding-festival at Tunis, Tunisia, 1850~


Stuart-Wortley, Lady Emmeline: &c. London, Bosworth, 1853. Reprinted by Elibron Classics.



We went one day, while in Tunis, to see a village wedding-festival. We found all the guests in their holiday dresses: they received us very graciously and kindly, making a curious sound with their mouths, something like a flourish of screech-owls, which one who was conversant with their customs said was tantamount to cheering and applause with us; the blushing bride was not handsome (for which grievous fault in a bride she might well blush deeply), and seemed one of the least pleased of the party, so perhaps there are mariages de convenance even in Moorish villages.


The chief amusement of the festival, as far as we saw of it, was dancing. One woman, who was said to be a Bedouin Arab, and who was thickly tattooed, so that she was a mass of stars, figures, arrows, suns, moons, and all kinds of ingenious devices, danced most indefatigably; but such extraordinary dancing! Now she figured about clumsily like a peewit with the gout, now like a hippopotamus prancing on hot irons (she was remarkable for embonpoint), and now she looked like an elderly porpoise dancing on the tight-rope. After she retired to recruit her strength, another stepped forward, who distantly resembled a henna-tipped, half-black fingered Moorish Mother Goose. Her dancing was as wondrous as that of her saltatory predecessor, - not in the least like Taglioni's or Cerito's. She would considerably have astonished the habitués of Her Majesty's Theatre by her style of dancing; and the mode of decoration of the performer - the profuse tattooing - would have a singular effect; it would be something, however (and novelty, we know, is always precious in Europe), to see a tattooed Sylphide or Reine des fées.


The house prepared for the bride and bridegroom was very neat and nice, - scrupulously clean, airy, and comfortable. After staying some time, during which the ladies kept on industriously performing their pas seuls, and the men did not dance a step, we took our leave, and were greeted by the same burst of whistling and rattling that cheered us on our entry. It is a most singular sound, - a long, tremulous, quavering, hooting kind of shake; a horse, a screech-owl, a rattle-snake, and a cat-call together might form such a sound - an ear-piercing one, - in short they seemed neighing, screeching, rattling, and whistling all at once, and with all their might.



After visiting various places, and enjoying a number of splendid prospects - for the country around Tunis is very beautiful - we alighted, and took a long walk, visiting several villages, and among others a remarkably curious underground one (for from the number of little subterranean abodes it might be called so), which was exclusively tenanted by troglodyte negroes and negresses. We plucked many of the ripe Indian figs, and I thought them exceedingly good and very refreshing, and we lingered long in the glowing, pleasant, warm sunshine, hardly able to believe that it was indeed December. We met a Bedouin Arab woman, who I found was one of the dancers at the wedding festival we attended. She came smilingly up, claiming acquaintanceship; and, on seeing her nearer than I had done on the evening in question, I was quite surprised at the multiplicity, variety, and richness of the figures with which she was most abundantly tattooed: all the signs of the zodiac, and a great many more, appeared to be represented twenty thousand times over on her person. There is a story, I believe, of some one in the olden time shaving a man and writing a letter on his skull; but if these strange-looking cabalistic signs, and intricate hieroglyphics of tattooing, mean anything, this Arab woman must have been a walking work in twenty volumes - a small locomotive library. She was thickly adorned, too, with almost innumerable charms (besides her own plum-pudding-coloured ones), and ornaments, and amulets. I wore a gold pencil-case, or something of that kind - I forget exactly what - and it enchanted the poor fat figurante so exceedingly, that she repeatedly offered me her whole stock of amulets and charms if I would bur exchange with her, and let her have the much-coveted ornament. Nay, I believe, verily, could she have done so, she would most willingly have transferred to me beside, her whole wealth of tattooing, - stars, points, wheels, suns, moons, plants, birds, animals, leaves, snakes, and squares and circles; but, as this would have involved the serpent-like process of casting her skin, it was not exactly feasible. She was wildly tearing off necklaces and trinkets, which, to say the truth, formed a very considerable portion of her attire, when I checked her, by making signs nearly as mystical as those borne upon her person, but which she understood by the help of a few Arabic words, and, with many expressions of regret, she submitted to her hard fate, and bore as well as she could the deprivation of the desired bauble. But for some time afterwards, I fear, her dozens of necklaces would appear valueless in her eyes, and even the labyrinthine tattooing unlovely. A pencil-case to this Bedouin Arab would have been about as eminently useful as the eight-day clock and gilt cage of canary birds was to a certain veteran of the Peninsular war, who gained these treasures - so indispensable to a soldier on active service - as a prize.