Train to Tozeur

North African Market by Natalie Levy
November 2008


The morning train out of Tunis railyard heads south. Clickety clack. Small boys race the train – jump rusted cans, broken bottles. Wave with both hands. I wave back. Settle my black ensemble in window sun.


Black doesn’t disguise white skin and solitary stance, but it allows me passage in this realm of Islam.

Out my window hills roll. Gush green. Distant villages and valleys skim by. Clickety clack. Green curls to scrub. Nearing the Sahara Desert, growing things sense doom. The train tunnels into the Sahara – the largest sea of hot sand in the world. Dunes dip and rise in cloud shadow. Sand ripples, billows, shifts, entrances.

Sun moves to the other side of the car. The train stops for passengers. Few ride this first-class car – mostly men. Down the aisle an old man takes a seat. The old woman with him doesn’t.

She comes toward me. Wisps of glorious white hair escape a loose mantle of yellow silk sefsari that wraps her small regal body. Surely temple maidens will appear to scatter scented petals before her.

“Hello.” I say with relish.

She slips into my double seat. Small smile, puts a finger to her lips, shakes her head slightly. She doesn’t know English.

Pearls encircle her neck. Below, another necklace of golden beads and rock crystal. Circlets of wide gold around each wrist. Tiny brown fingers ringed with emerald, opal, and sapphire.

We sit knee to knee. She like a Phoenician queen in shimmering armor. Me a white woman armored in black. Free-minded spirits both.

Her indigo eyes glow messages. Mine shine back. Clear joy. We spend the evening caught in splendorous admiration. Sisters. Make small silent connections. Watch a ruby sunset dim the restless sand. It’s pitch-black when we reach Tozeur.

From the train platform I see queenly jeweled fingers wave in the dim-lit high window. I think of Jezebel, Phoenician princess, Goddess of Baal, Queen of Israel. The plight of Jezebel in that kingdom of Jesus – slander evermore for worship of Baal. I wonder how my queenly sister holds herself above the all-encompassing Allah.

Thousands of days won’t bring so singular a sight as this dazzling interloper. The train pulls out. Red caboose lights disappear.

The stationhouse is shuttered. Two men shuffle out of blackness onto the platform. Nod at me. Talk to each other. Sharp flat Arabic. I interject ‘hotel’ several times. I’m ignored.

One of them motions me to a taxi. I hope it’s a taxi.


Author's Comment

What is most important about the story is the intimate connection made by two strong women without the common bond of culture or language.


Susan Gene McCartney was born in Montana. A world traveler, she follows her heart to enrich her life. In New York City, she studied acting and playwriting at the Ensemble Studio Theatre. Her play The Freak Show was produced in New York. In Belize she founded Placencia Children’s Theatre Company. At 64 she traveled to fourteen African countries in two years via local transportation. She taught English to Swahili boys in Tanzania. She is now writing stories about her two years in Africa and hopes to publish a collection in the future.

2 Comments on “Train to Tozeur

  1. Very good Soosan. First Class wow!! I wish you would write up my 1968 4th class journey on the Sudanese train to Kassala.

  2. Loved the story, descriptions of the other, I assume wealthy, woman on the train. I hope to read more of Susan’s Work.

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