22 SEPTEMBER 2007, Page 31

Elias calling

Rosemary Behan D , o you mind if I take off my shirt?' Elias took another long draw on the water pipe and looked at me. As we reclined in the shadow of his crumbling palace in the medina, the midnight air was still warm and the sound of a nearby celebration scarcely intruded into the sanctuary of the courtyard.

The muezzin had laid on a feast of spicy seafood, a selection of breads and piles of perfectly ripe fruit — dates, figs, melons and grapes. Now we sat under a canopy of orange and banana trees and jasmine flowers. Slowly and without warning, Elias intoned: Allahu akbar, Allau akbar Ashadu an la Ilah ila Allah Ashadu an Mohammed rasul Allah Haya ala as-sala Haya ala as-sala.

He was recording the call to prayer on to my mobile phone. Now, whenever it rings or I need an alarm call, I am struck by the mesmerising clarity of his voice. Professionally, he calls four times a week from the minaret at the Great Mosque of Zeitouna — the epicentre of Tunis medina and, founded in the 8th century, the fifth most significant mosque in the Muslim world. 'God said to the archangel Gabriel that we should pray 50 times a day, but Mohammed said that was a bit too much,' Elias told me, with a glint in his eye.

Elias, 36, is a fifth-generation muezzin and has been doing it, without the aid of loudspeakers, for 15 years. When he isn't calling, he looks after the mosque and welcomes strangers, or ajnabee, to the city almost as a hobby. I had met him while complaining about harassment from local boys at the visitors' compound at Zeitouna. Elias had come running and chased them away. 'I tell people that we should respect all women as our sisters, Muslims or non-Muslims,' he said. Then he asked me if I was married and invited me for dinner.

His rented home was an exquisitely untouched 18th-century mansion with 37 bedrooms. Most of the rooms were covered from floor to ceiling in painted ceramics and the ceilings were carved out of wood. Elias inhabited just one cavernous room on the ground floor. In the centre was a double bed, an ironing board and piles of freshly laundered clothes. A bare lightbulb hung from the ceiling and on the wall he had pinned a towel depicting Mecca.

I wondered how long it would be before an investor snapped up the building and turned it into an expensive boutique hotel. The capitalist in me wanted to do it myself. While some parts of Tunis's ancient walled city, a World Heritage Site, have been gentrified, vast swaths of it remain virtually untouched and well off the tourist trail.

To this day, Tunis medina exhibits a very well-planned urban concept which was repeated in old cities throughout the Muslim world. The old city, which the French colonialists wanted to bulldoze, consists of a mosque surrounded by souks surrounded by residential areas. The modern city, with its parks, wide, tree-lined boulevards and grand apartment blocks, exists almost in parallel form to its older, more exciting and self-contained partner. Just outside the city, the fashionable seaside suburbs of Sidi Bou Said and La Marsa have been transformed by fresh injections of capital.

Different trading zones are still in existence around the Great Mosque, originally determined by the amount of disruption each activity caused. Thus the jewellers, milliners and booksellers were allowed to trade close to the mosque, while the dirtier, noisier trades like carpentry were located further away. So well preserved are these souks that I found the shops themselves much more interesting than the products on sale.

The main roads leading to the gates of the town also radiate from the centre. All facilities pertaining to urban life can be found along these roads — mosques, hammams and hotels, or fundouks. Sadly, these main roads have also become the central arteries of tourist tat. Secondary roads that branch off the main ones, house necessary amenities such as the masjed, or prayer hall, mederasa, or Quranic school, the mill and the bakery.

I found a number of old mederasas clustered around the Great Mosque. They were built in the 18th century, after which the demand for religious instruction declined when broader education came into fashion, and were finished with the arrival of the secular lawyer Habib Bourguiba as president in 1956. Most are now used as small associations and are open to the public. They resemble small Oxbridge colleges, with a quadrangle accessed via an entrance hall or skifa, often with elaborate stone carving, tiling and paintwork and sometimes a fountain at the centre. Two of the most impressive, the 1752 Mederasa Bachia on Souk des Libraires (the booksellers' souk) and the 1754 Mederasa Slimania, on the corner of Souq des Libraires Souk el-Kachachine, were built by Ali Pasha, a wealthy bey (king) who held power from 1740 to 1756.

Ali Pasha's cousin, Ali Pasha II, who ruled from 1759 to 1782, was responsible for the nearby and equally intriguing mausoleum of Tourbet el-Bey, which houses the bodies of many subsequent Husseinite beys, princesses, ministers and trusted advisers. The male tombs are topped with strange marble renditions of their preferred headgear, be it turban or chechia (small red felt hat) with the number of tassels showing their importance.

As well as an inner wall around the medMa, the Hafsids, who ruled from 1207 to 1574, built an outer rampart to enclose what were then the city's main residential suburbs, or faubergs. Halfaouine, one such fauberg, was my favourite district due to its gritty character, lack of tourists and maze of streets not detailed on any map. Its centre, place Halfaouine, is a surprisingly elegant square once the centre of nationalist demonstrations against the French. Now it is filled with fruit and vegetable markets and men-only cafés and is dominated by the Sahib et Tabaa mosque which houses a hammam of the same name.

The interior of this hammam, which dates from 1812, is a spectacular arrangement of pillars and arches and was used extensively in Fend Boughedir's 1990 film Halfaouine, a coming-of-age tale about a 13-year-old boy growing up in the area in the 1960s. For just £1 I was washed, steamed and scrubbed on a marble slab — treatments which would cost at least £40 in London and be half as good. The only problem was, I emerged on to the main street, rue Halfaouine — a stinking rollercoaster ride of freshly decapitated sheep, piles of goats' feet, dripping sheepskins and all manner of entrails. Thankfully, there is another hammam on the other side.