Travel and Dining


Tunisia: Escaping the Great Mosque of Uqba

The Great Mosque of Uqba. (Photo: Angela Smith Kirkman)

Youssef, our new Tunisian friend, navigated toward the old town center of Kairouan while my husband, Jason, sat shotgun reading from the guidebook. When the Great Mosque of Uqba came into view, it was immediately obvious why the structure—built by the Arab general Uqba ibn Nafi in 670 AD—is considered one of the most important holy sites in the Islamic world. The imperious structure spreads over 9,000 square meters, and its colossal walls are punctuated with commanding buttresses and colonnades, lending an air of majestic sobriety.

Youssef parked near one of the massive ocher ramparts that make up the façade, and the kids and I unfolded ourselves from the back seat. We had no intention of going into the mosque, of course, since we’d been told that non-Muslims are strictly forbidden. But just wandering the streets in the shadow of the great building was enchanting.

We’d been meandering for only a few minutes when Youssef stopped at the door of a tiny shop. “This place has the best-quality Berber rugs in the area,” he said.

I would really have preferred just to stroll through the medina. Some days, when my mood and caffeine level are just right, shopping can be a fun challenge, but today I wasn’t up for it. “We’re not really in the market to buy a rug,” I said.

Jason backed me up: “Yes, and since we’re traveling, we’d have no place to put it.”

“Unless maybe they have a magic carpet?”

“Oh, but the Berber rugs are beautiful!” Youssef protested. “You must see to believe.”

He marshaled Jason into the showroom and I followed, reluctantly. A cheery shopkeeper welcomed us, shook hands with Youssef, and hurried toward his teakettle. Youssef ducked back onto the street. “I’m going to make a quick visit to the mosque. Be right back.”

Jason and I took seats with the children on a low bench next to the teapot. This was not going to be a short stop.

Moments later, as Jason knelt compliantly on the floor next to the merchant, inspecting the back of one of the rugs, Youssef poked his head in the door and whispered excitedly to get my attention, beckoning me outside.

On the sidewalk next to Youssef stood a slender, serious man whom he introduced as an official from the mosque. Youssef notified me, excitedly, that he had been successful in negotiating my entry into the Great Mosque. Funny, I couldn’t remember having requested such entry. When I failed to immediately acknowledge what Youssef was saying, he repeated himself. “Angela, you have been cleared to visit the Great Mosque of Uqba!”

I stood in bewilderment for a few seconds before hearing myself say, “Oh no, thank you, Youssef. I’m good. I can see the mosque just fine from here.”

Youssef and the slender man looked at each other and then back at me. It was obvious that this should be considered a great honor, I ought to jump at the chance, but first I needed to have a quick argument with my other self, with the alter-Ang.

What’s wrong? Why are you so nervous?

Why couldn’t they have invited Jason?

This could be a wonderful opportunity!

I’d happily take over with the carpet vendor if Jason could go in my stead.

The interior of the mosque is alleged to be exquisite; you really should go see it.

What the hell? Why am I so nervous?

I wasn’t quite finished arguing with the alter-Ang, but she got the better of me and began forcing out words that hadn’t quite cleared security first.

“I apologize, Youssef. Please excuse me. I got my tongue tangled around my eyeteeth and couldn’t see what I was saying. What I meant was, yes, of course I would be honored to go with you."

The men smiled, nodded and headed back down the street toward the mosque. I mumbled a slew of menacing words at the alter-Ang, then took a deep breath and followed them.

We entered a large courtyard where clusters of men, who had been chatting seconds before, now scrutinized us in silence as we scurried like fugitives toward the entrance of the mosque.

“Please, madame,” whispered the slender man, “cover your hair.”

I nervously adjusted my headscarf and followed them through a side door. By the time my eyes had adjusted to the dark interior of the prayer room, Youssef and the slender man had been swarmed by a crowd of men in prayer caps, hissing excitedly in Arabic and glaring toward me. I was pretty sure they weren’t just happy to see me. I lowered my gaze, pulled the headscarf down over my eyes and waited for instruction. While the slender official appeased the men, I obediently followed Youssef, who was slinking toward the nearest exit.

I remember sitting back in Santa Fe, seven months ago, spinning the globe and sipping one of Jason’s frosty homebrews as we planned this crackpot expedition. North Africa had been the part of the itinerary I was most excited about. How exotic it was going to be: the desert, the snake charmers, the Berber people, the medinas, the imams. In retrospect, though, I think I was expecting to witness it all anonymously, as if from behind a glass window. I hadn’t considered how I, an American woman, might actually fit into the scene. Right there in the middle of the medina, sticking out like a hippie at a hoedown.

Youssef and I hurried back up the street, tails between our legs. The merchant welcomed us back into his shop, where he was merrily bundling what was apparently our new rug. Jason gave me a defeated look that I could only reflect.

I removed my scarf and turned toward Youssef, waiting for an explanation of what had just happened. I wasn’t impressed with his elucidation: The men in the prayer room had been outraged that a woman—and specifically a non-Muslim woman—had been allowed to disturb their prayer. That much seemed obvious, so I awaited further explanation. What on Earth had given him the idea that I might be allowed in? Apparently, Youssef had tried the old but-she’s-studying-the-Koran trick, which had worked so nicely earlier with the grumpy police officer who’d stopped us at the roadblock outside of Kairouan. This time it didn’t fly. No matter; I was just relieved to have escaped without being stoned. We grabbed our new rug and headed home.

Angela Smith Kirkman recently returned to Santa Fe, New Mexico from a two-year journey around the world with her husband and three young children. During The Big Field Trip, her family hiked the Inca Trail, snuck into a dilapidated communist headquarters in Bulgaria, rode camelback through the Sahara, got chased out of the Grand Mosque of Uqba, caught swine flu in Istanbul, taught at a tribal school in Rajasthan and communed with snow monkeys in the hot springs of Japan. Stories from The Big Field Trip have been published in International Living Magazine, Asia Literary Review and Eventus Magazine. Kirkman blogs at and lives with her family in Santa Fe, New Mexico.