NEFTA, TUNISIA. — Nefta, Tunisia.--At the close of the Persian Gulf war, two middle-aged Bedouin women hunched against a dust storm at the edge of the Sahara desert and scraped up gravel to sell at a local cement factory.
A reporter stopped and, through a Tunisian interpreter, asked to photograph them. The women nodded, their leathery faces stretched into shy smiles.
As they resumed sweeping the desert floor with knotty date branches, they talked of the war.
"Inshallah, Saddam will prevail," one said as the camera shutter clicked. Only her bright, restless eyes could be seen from over a scarf shielding her face from the dust.
But when the Tunisian told her the reporter is American she blinked worriedly.
"You can take the photograph," she said finally. "But just don't show it to George Bush."
They feared the American president would send his planes after them, she explained.
In the weeks leading up to Iraq's surrender to coalition forces last month, war was on everybody's mind in this North African nation of less than 8 million.
Many Tunisians had hoped for an Arab victory over forces they likened to the French colonizers booted out of Tunisia decades ago.
Having gained independence with little bloodshed, Tunisians have a tradition of political moderation. But swept up by the romance of Saddam Hussein's David-like defiance of the Goliath U.S. military, average Tunisians relived their own struggle for independence.
And from the Tunis cafes to the orange groves of Cap Bon and to the salty rim of the Sahara people seemed eager to believe that Mr. Hussein just might win despite the odds.
For months Tunisians had listened to Iraqi military bravado via Baghdad radio, much of it predicting a swift defeat for the coalition forces. At the end many stunned Tunisians felt betrayed by the extent of Iraq's defeat.
Now in the wake of Mr. Hussein's humiliating defeat, disappointed but ever-pragmatic Tunisians have begun revising their pro-Hussein fervor.
"If he knew he was going to lose," said a one young mother, "he should have left in January and spared his people all this."
Though average Tunisians are backpedaling on their pro-Hussein feelings, they still clearly consider President Bush the villain in this whole affair.
Everywhere, Tunisians discussed things they read or heard about the massive coalition air attack on fleeing Iraqi forces trying to leave Kuwait. Most called the bloody attack a massacre.
"It is another crusade against the Arabs, but this time with planes and modern technology," said one bitter student at the University of Tunis.
During the war, Tunisian news coverage was sympathetic to Iraq. But news broadcasts from Western television networks were also aired, offering a broad picture of the war.
Despite the availability of hard news, average Tunisians preferred the anecdotes brought by a friend or neighbor. Sharing these war stories became a national pastime.
All over the country, the streets were abuzz with colorful myths of Mr. Hussein's military cunning, the righteousness of his fight and the treachery and ruthlessness of the U.S. and its allies.
Rumor had it that King Fahd of Saudi Arabia was placed under house arrest by George Bush when he tried to halt the bombing of Iraq with a cease-fire. At the height of the conflict, a Carthage worker told how Mr. Hussein hoodwinked U.S. fighter pilots by tying flashlights to the heads of goats and letting the herd loose in the desert. There the infrared eyes of coalition bombers were tricked into thinking they were Iraqi soldiers.
After spending their bombs destroying hundreds of unarmed goats, the pilots turned back thinking they had won a major skirmish. The worker sighed, "See how stupid the coalition is?"
Two days before the ground war actually started, the waiter at our hotel brought us breakfast with gripping news. Hundreds of coalition soldiers were crushed at the Kuwaiti border. In a surprise ambush, Mr. Hussein's men leaped up as if from nowhere and captured all the coalition soldiers. The next week, Tunisian television showed a far different scenario.
Another popular story among upper middle class Tunisians involved a woman who dozed off at a Muslim holy site. She dreamed the Prophet Mohammed appeared to tell her, "Victory is close. Saddam will enter Jerusalem on a white horse."
As proof, Mohammed told her to go home and open her Koran at a certain page where she'd find one of his hairs. The woman went home and found the hair as prophesied.
In weeks, this rumor gained a life of its own. Supposedly a group of Westernized Tunisian yuppies cried "God is Great," when a friend opened her Koran and found the sacred hair at the same place.
The group was having a party, the story goes, with alcohol, forbidden to practicing Muslims. The revelation prompted the group to dump the wine down the drain and go home, chastened into being good Muslims once again.