My Arab Spring vacation, with extra camels

By Paul Lester, October 6, 2011
A caravan holiday takes on a whole new meaning in north Africa

A caravan holiday takes on a whole new meaning in north Africa

I am writing this column sitting beside a hotel pool in Tunisia, where I have come on holiday because I needed a break from all the financial misery and rioting back home. Did you not hear about the Bushey riots? Jews went on the rampage because they ran out of herring at the Deli Cafe.

Why, I hear you wondering, would I pick for my annual holiday destination Tunisia? Because it's cheap. Cheap as - not chips; no, couscous. I did feel guilty that I didn't choose Israel, it only being up the road regionally speaking, so I sent an email of apology to the Knesset before I left for Heathrow.

Then again, I have just consulted the Bible - well, Wikipedia, same difference - where I learn that one per cent of the Tunisian population is Jewish. That's more than the UK! I'm moving here permanently. Apparently, Judaism is the country's third-largest religion with 1,500 members. Hold on, that's less than one street in Golders Green. Cancel that move.

Still, like I say, it's great value if you're just visiting. Far be it from me to pander to prejudices about Jews and bargains, but when I found out what I was getting for my money I started davening. For £370, I got a flight, a transfer from the airport to the hotel, which is five-star (even if five stars in Tunisia equals about three in Europe), and all the food and drink I can consume, including alcohol. Of course, being Jewish I don't drink alcohol, especially fizzy beer, which flows like wine in Tunisia, but seeing as it's on tap, well, l'chaim. It's just a shame I've only come for a week. For 500 quid I could have stayed for a fortnight. For £1,000, they were offering a lifetime's membership to the spa, plus a day in exile with deposed President Ben Ali.

My late father - by which I mean he passed away last year, rather than that he was unpunctual (if anything he'd get there early) - would have loved it. A variety of restaurants offering the cuisine of many nations, open from morning till night? He would have exclaimed that he'd died and gone to heaven, after-life pun intended.

I’ve been chatting to a Muslim lady by the pool. I like to think I’m playing my part in the peace process.

It's funny how being in an Islamic country has brought out the Jew in me. Suffering from a low HQ (Hebrew Quotient), every evening I've been watching the current series of Curb Your Enthusiasm that I've downloaded onto my laptop. In one episode, Larry David dates an Arab woman with uncomfortable results vis-a-vis Middle East relations. I, too, have been chatting to a Muslim lady by the pool. I'd like to think I'm playing my part in the peace process. I'm dying to see what she looks like under that burka. On the other hand, considering how pasty and out of shape I am, she's probably wishing I was wearing a burka.

Yesterday, I met an English girl and decided to invite her for a walk to the market. Our journey there was a virtual assault course of beggar-children trying to sell us flowers, and stall-holders imploring us to sample their wares. Having evidently made a comparative study of Britain's supermarket chains, they assured us the goods were "cheaper than Primark or Asda". You haven't lived till you've heard a North African ask you to "come and have a gander" at their merchandise.

I began to feel like I was holidaying in other people's misery, though, and wondered if I should be doing more to support the local economy. I was even going to do my bit for the region by popping across to neighbouring Libya and expressing support for their National Transitional Council until I realised I wouldn't be back in time for my daily synchronised aqua-aerobics class.

It's not all been good, this Tunisian sojourn. The endless piped muzak throughout the hotel is enough to send buddhist monks crazed with rage - today, they had it on so loud they managed to make George Michael's Careless Whisper sound like Led Zeppelin. And I didn't particularly enjoy being approached by swarms of lotharios while strolling with my lady friend and being repeatedly asked if I wanted to sell her for camels. I made it absolutely clear that no amount of dromedaries would convince me to do a deal.

That said, both she and I agreed that 6,000 of the beasts was extremely generous, even tempting, and we thanked the gentlemen very much for their kind offers, taking their details in case we changed our minds. Funnily enough, after our little expedition, I never saw the girl again. Last I heard, she had been sold to a family in a small village outside Sfax.

Last updated: 11:09am, October 6 2011