“Where are your visas?” asked the large and imposing Tunisian border force sergeant, thumbing through our passports at the Hazoua border crossing which we had reached after 20km of sandy no-man’s land.
“Mais alors, we do not need visas. The Tunisian tourist office in London said this,” I replied. You have to imagine this exchange taking place in what is called ‘Arab French’ by the French and the Arabs themselves. It is the version that I speak all the time, not only in North Africa. It omits grammar and limits vocabulary to the absolute minimum. It’s a little like Pidgin.
“Ah,“ he smiled. “Cet, c’est le problem. It is the job of the Tunisian Tourist Office to get you to come to Tunisia. It is my job to keep you out of Tunisia.”
There seemed to be little common ground here to come to a mutually satisfactory arrangement.
“You must return to El Oued in Algeria and obtain visas.”
“C’est tres difficile. Our visas for Algeria are single entry. We will not be able to return there.”
A very French shrug. “C’est pas moi problem. C’est votre problem.”
“I wish to consult le chef du poste,” I said, trying to take the matter out of his pay scale.
“Le chef du poste est pas ici.”
“When is the chef du poste likely to return?”
“Je ne sais pas.”
“Bon. We will wait.”
His sweeping gesture covering the sandy, barren surrounds conveyed that we were welcome to do just that. One problem here was that Hazoua is a border crossing in the middle of the desert, nothing more. No shop, no money changer even if there had been a shop. Mrs Bear (as she was not yet then) and I assessed the possibilities and decided to set up camp on the veranda of the border post. One of the Customs gardiens shook his finger at us and motioned us inside to the waiting room. That seemed like a better idea. We spread our air beds and sleeping bags.
Food looked as if it was going to be a problem. Another of the gardiens recognized this and ducked out, returning with a double handful of flat bread, salad and grilled meat.
“Pour vous!” he smiled, “Bon appetit,” and ducked out again. Are there good people everywhere or are there bons gens everywhere?
We settled in as darkness began to fall, interrupted by regular visits from the troops hoping for a look at Mrs Bear without her voluminous riding gear on. They were disappointed but took it in good stead. When we were almost asleep, the border post suddenly burst into action. There were headlights out in the dunes, causing fears of a Libyan attack like the one that had hit another border installation recently. Of course, we didn’t know that. We were mystified by guards running about with automatic rifles, pausing only to stick their heads into the waiting room and gesturing to us that everything was fine by patting the air.
The headlights, it eventually developed, were those of a Belgian-registered VW Kombi occupied by a couple of confused Belgians. They were taken into the officed next to the waiting room and interrogated. They had scared the crap out of everyone at the border post, so it was apparently only fair that they should have the crap scared out of them as well.
“What were you doing out there? Do you take us for fools? Are you working for the Libyans?”
One of the interrogators came out at one stage for a smoke and a break from shouting. He rolled his eyes at us. “Les Belges!” he said, grinning broadly. It seems that Belgians are considered buffoons in North Africa, or at least in Tunisia. I do not know why.
Eventually the authorities tired of intimidating the Belgians and they were allowed to set up their own camp. We went to sleep. In the morning, the chef du poste arrived in a cloud of dust and a chauffeured jeep and decisively took on the problem.
“We will do this,” he said. “You,” pointing at me, “will ride the moto to Naftah with a gardien a derriere and obtain the visas. She,” pointing at Mrs Bear-to-be, “will remain here.” We indicated that this was not a satisfactory arrangement.
“Bien. We will do this. You and she and a gardien will ride the moto to Naftah and obtain the visas.” Three on the bike did not seem like a good idea either, I conveyed to him.
“Bien. We will do this. You and she will ride the moto to Naftah. The gardien will hold your passports and take the bus along with you.” That seemed reasonable, until we reached a military checkpoint. The bus was passed through, and then it was our turn.
“Passports?” demanded the submachinegun-wearing officer in charge of the checkpoint.
“Ah, pardon. Notres – notres? — passsports sont dans, er, l’autobus.”
This made absolutely no sense to our interrogator. Understandably. “Passports?” he demanded again, now with narrowed eyes and a meaningful twitch of the gun. Fortunately, our gardien had remembered that he had our lives in his hands, and the bus came back. Smiles all round, just a little strained.
It could not have been easier to get the visas in Naftha at the princely cost of a few cents. I tipped our gardien and we waved him goodbye. I suspect he is dining out on this story just as I am, to this day.
(Photos The Bear. There are no photos of the actual events described in the story because there was no way I was going to pull out a camera under those circumstances.)