Cycling to the Sahara: On Killer Guard Dogs and Courage

For those of you following closely my twitter feed (ahem), you will know that yesterday I took an unmarked country track from el-Jem to Sfax. This was a slightly risky move, I thought, because the track did not appear on my map and I had no idea where I was or – aside from a vague notion that south was good – where I was going.

A dangerous country track. But why?

But it transpires the risk is not from a danger so tame as getting lost, but from the fact that country tracks are the dominion of killer guard dogs, half-mad slavering demons of Baskerville proportions, whose spine-chilling banshee-howl of a bark is only matched in ferocity by their bone-snapping sabre-toothed bite. That I am not writing this from some heavenly sanctuary is due only to the grace that these murderous predators are limited in speed to 20mph and I, adrenalin gland pumping, am capable of 21.4mph (into a headwind and uphill of course).

The danger posed by these hounds was manifest. However, there was another danger that I was entirely oblivious to: these country tracks are also hunting grounds for robbers and thieves. Bearing in mind that my only brush with petty crime so far has been two kids fooling around, I am less than credulous when a chap called Najjar flags me down from his motorbike and sternly warns me of this danger to which I have foolishly exposed myself.

“In future, take only the primary routes,” he says. I try to explain that the primary routes are disgustingly overrun with trucks and lorries. But he nods furiously in agreement, “Yes, yes, more circulation, more traffic, good. No thieves.” He doesn’t seem to get the point that I’m after a pleasant ride, not a lung-choking coughing-fit.

But then he doesn’t understand what the hell I’m doing on a bicycle in Tunisia right after the revolution in the first place. “You are very courageous,” he says. “Despite all the problems, you are still trying to tour our country.” This is the first I’ve heard of such problems. Even the FCO, that most wanton, craven, petty-fooling of travel advisors – even the FCO declare Tunisia to be safe for innocent holiday-makers. But Najjar disabuses me of this government fantasy: “After the revolution, there are many thieves and catastrophes.”

So Najjar takes it upon himself to escort me to the safety of the main road, chugging alongside me as we cycle through these dangerous country villages full of wavey, smiley people. There aren’t even any more killer dogs. “But why are there so many thieves after the revolution?” I ask. “Because the police are afraid of them,” my bodyguard replies. “They are in confusion after the revolution. There are many problems now.”

Najjar faithfully leads me to the main road, where the trucks thunder and the lorries roar. His duty discharged, Najjar bids me farewell and leaves me with 17km of main road to survive. I am secure in the knowledge that I face the mere threat of extinction by fumes or tyre treads. To be honest, I’d rather thieves and knaves. In fact, his very kindness and concern is exactly what makes me feel secure in my dealings with humanity here in Tunisia.

Main road. Safer? Nicer?

But what struck me most about this episode was that Najjar called me courageous (regardless of whether he meant it or not). I do not feel this courage. I was ignorant of these robber dangers (and, by the by, I don’t believe a word of it, insha’allah) and ignorance of a danger doesn’t amount to courage in the face of that danger.

What struck me was this: Aristotle tells us that a surfeit of a certain characteristic becomes its opposite (courage in excess is foolhardiness, for example), but perhaps a deficit of a characteristic can become its opposite too – in this case fearfulness or timidity of character appearing to look like courage!

I was acutely aware, the whole time Najjar was telling me how dangerous these roads were, that he could easily have knocked me off my bike and robbed me blind himself. But instead of voicing my fears or telling him to sod off, I followed him and, in my fear, trusted him. Can this possibly be courage? Or is it the act of a weak will – a timid act, if not a cowardly one?

And yet despite this, if the definition of courage is to persist in the face of danger, then demonstrably I have courage in abundance. But this courage doesn’t feel like courage to me (I wonder: does it to anyone? To Shackleton, to Napoleon, to Boudicea?). To me it feels like timidity of character combined with helpless faith in the good nature of others and a need to survive and to push onwards. If this be courage, then I do indeed take courage.

P.S.: Those of a dog-like disposition will be pleased to hear that not dogs were harmed in the making of this bike ride. Yet.

P.P.S.: Those of a dog-like disposition will not be so pleased to hear that dogs and heavy goods vehicles do not make good companions. After swearing vengeance on the next dog that attacked me, I saw only two more dogs: both dead on the side of the road, flies buzzing around their eyes. I can’t say that I was heart-broken with pity.

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