Terrorism — the clue is in the word


From www.nationofchange.org


I’ve been thinking a lot about terrorism lately.  This is hardly surprising.  Yesterday was the tenth anniversary of the July 7th, 2005 suicide bombings on the London transport network that killed 52 people.  And twelve days ago saw the mass-shooting of Western tourists at the Tunisian coastal resort of Sousse – in which 38 people were murdered, 30 of them British.


The clue is in the word.  The purpose of terrorism and the raison d’être of terrorists is to inspire terror.  To terrify people and governments.  Therefore, logically, if we wish to resist and defeat terrorists, we should respond in a simple way.  We shouldn’t be terrified.  We shouldn’t allow ourselves to be afraid of them.  To quote the slogan that’s been ubiquitous in Britain during the last few years, emblazoned on mugs and on T-shirts, we should keep calm and carry on.


In the case of the Tunisian attack, a reaction of fear and panic is the thing that the terrorists want – and the very last thing that the situation actually needs.  It was originally believed that this was carried out by a gunman acting under the auspices of Islamic State (IS), although more recent analyses suggest that he was trained by a Libyan terrorist outfit, Ansar al-Sharia.  Both IS and Ansar al-Sharia loathe what Tunisia represents – a modern Arab state that, four years after its revolution, has been able to create a functioning democracy.  One where a moderate Islamic party was elected into government and then, later, voted out of government and replaced by a secular one – all done peacefully, which after all is the democratic way of doing things.


Unfortunately, the Tunisian economy is also fragile.  Just over 15% of its GDP and nearly half-a-million Tunisian livelihoods are dependent on tourism.  Attack the local tourist industry and scare away tourists, and you cause severe damage to the country’s economy and leave a lot of people in poverty.  And of course, it’s relentless, hopeless poverty that provides the likes of IS and Ansar al-Sharia with one of their greatest recruiting sergeants.


The appropriate response, then, is for Western tourists to set aside their fears and keep on holidaying in Tunisia.  By doing so, they thwart the terrorists’ objectives and put much-needed money in the Tunisian economy, which indirectly helps the stability of the Arab world’s only proper democracy.  The other day, this argument was put forward in an article by Justin Mozarra in the Spectator magazine.  I have to say that its appearance in that particular publication surprised me, considering how I normally find the Spectator to be a blinkered, intolerant, right-wing rag that I can only read when I’m holding it at arm’s length with a clothes-peg fitted over my nose.


Sadly but inevitably, the thread below Mozarra’s article was soon full of abusive comments from the Spectator’s usual shower of bigoted, cave-dwelling, knuckle-dragging trolls.  Many of them argued that no right-thinking white British person should ever go on holiday in Tunisia again because (a) all Tunisians are Muslims, and (b) all Muslims are jihadists.  That last bit’s been scientifically proven, apparently.




Actually, if those trolls were correct, and all Tunisians are jihadists, I find it strange that many local people tried to save the lives of Western tourists on the beach at Sousse on June 26th — by, for example, forming a human chain between them and the gunman, or by piloting their boats close to the beach to rescue tourists who’d fled into the sea in an attempt to escape the carnage.  If such folk are jihadists, I can only say that they’re the sort of jihadists who give the jihad a bad name.


For more about the heroics of ordinary Tunisians that day, check out this article by Chris Stephen that appeared in Sunday’s Observer:




Sadly, what’s likely to happen now is that tourists will shun Tunisia in the near-future and everything that the terrorists hoped would happen will happen.  Meanwhile, it’s possible that the British government will respond, in the state of panic that seems to be its default mode of response to terrorist attacks, with military intervention in the likes of Iraq or Syria.  It’s as if those big military interventions in the Bush / Blair years, in the name of the supposed War on Terror, haven’t taught anyone any lessons.


In recent years, the British authorities’ other response to terrorist activity has been to curtail civil liberties and extend state powers to snoop upon and detain people, i.e. to bring in measures to combat terrorism that go against citizens’ rights to a fair trial, freedom of speech, privacy laws and all those other things that mature democracies are supposed to be about.


One wonders why they haven’t learned anything from the experiences of the Irish Republican Army’s campaign between the 1970s and the 1990s, which saw atrocities being wreaked daily in Northern Ireland and regularly in England.  The British response to the IRA was at its best when people simply shrugged off those shootings and bomb attacks and got on with their daily lives as if the terrorists weren’t there – adopting the ‘stiff upper lip’ that’s supposed to be a quintessential characteristic of Britishness.


On the other hand, there were plenty of dumb official responses to the IRA.  These ranged from the incredibly counterproductive, such as the introduction of internment-without-trial in Northern Ireland in 1971, which today is regarded as a terrible blunder that only succeeded in driving more young people into the arms of the IRA; to the merely idiotic, such as when Margaret Thatcher decided to “deny terrorists of the oxygen of publicity” by banning the broadcasting of the voices of people like Gerry Adams, head of Sinn Fein, the IRA’s political wing – with the result that when such people were interviewed on TV, their voices had to be dubbed by actors.  If nothing else, the ban at least provided some much-needed employment for Northern Irish actors, such as Conor Grimes, who did the dubbing.  (“Well, Conor,” Adams asked Grimes later, “what’s it like being me?”)


(c) The Independent


One reaction to the recent spate of Islamic-terrorist attacks has been for journalists and politicians to argue that Islamic State shouldn’t be known as Islamic State anymore.  Rather, they say, IS should be referred to by its Arabic name, Daesh.  The French government, for instance, has complained that calling the organisation Islamic State implies that it represents an actual, legitimate state; and, also, it “blurs the lines between Islam, Muslims and terrorists.”  French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius has said of IS and its members that, “The Arabs call it ‘Daesh’, and I will be calling them ‘the Daesh cutthroats’.”




Well, I suppose there’s some logic in the idea of renaming terrorist organisations to avoid offending innocent people.  Although I think it’s a bit unfair on, say, the many Irish people who didn’t support the IRA but for decades had to put up with them being called the Irish Republican Army.  Anyway, if we are going to rename Islamic State, why don’t we go the whole hog and give them a really unflattering name?  I would suggest Caliphate of Crap.  Or possible, Stone-Age-Mentality Dumb-shits.


An awful inevitability


From www.skjtravel.net


As a kid living in Northern Ireland in the 1970s, I sometimes experienced an ominous feeling about our nearest town – a town nine miles west of our village and one to which I would often accompany my mum on shopping trips and, later, I would travel to daily to attend secondary school.  This was Enniskillen, a settlement of 14,000 people, located in the very centre of County Fermanagh and on the banks of the River Erne, the short, twisty artery that links the waters of Lower and Upper Loch Erne.


The ominous feeling came from the Northern Irish Troubles.  At the time, these were at their bloodiest and even as a young child I was aware of them being reported in the newspaper that arrived in our house every morning and then again on the news programme that appeared on our TV at six o’clock every evening.  And every couple of months the Troubles seemed to spawn a bombing atrocity.  As the 1970s progressed, these happened both in big cities like Belfast, Dublin, Birmingham and London and in smaller places like Coleraine, Omagh, Bangor and Claudy.  Although I was very young, I seemed to understand that the longer the Troubles wore on for, the greater the odds became that something similarly terrible would happen in Enniskillen.


This sense of awful inevitability was proved right eventually, though the atrocity didn’t come until November 1987, a decade after my family had left Northern Ireland.  This was when the Provisional IRA exploded a bomb in the Reading Rooms next to Enniskillen’s war memorial at the start of the annual Remembrance Sunday ceremony.  The bomb toppled a wall onto the crowd assembled on the pavement outside.  11 people died in the attack – a dozen if you include a victim who passed away 13 years later without ever reviving from a coma.


If there’s any consolation at all for the relatives of those who died that day, it might be that the Enniskillen Remembrance bombing is viewed now as a turning point in the history of the Troubles, an event that even some hardened terrorists felt was an atrocity too far.  It possibly encouraged a few such people to become less intransigent and start off on the path of peace and reconciliation.  It was a long and torturous path, admittedly, but it did wind its way through the Peace Process of the 1990s and arrive finally at the Good Friday Agreement in 1998.


Anyway, it wasn’t that long ago that I experienced a similar, ominous feeling – one of awful inevitability – about another town I was familiar with.  Well, this time it was about a city: Tunis, capital of Tunisia, where I lived from 2010 to 2013.  Among other things, those three years exposed me to the Tunisian Revolution and to the birth of the Arab Spring.


Looking at what happened subsequently in Egypt, Libya and Syria, it’s fashionable for commentators today to describe the Arab Spring as an out-and-out disaster, a movement that led to instability at best and to chaos and carnage at worst.  But this attitude does a great injustice to Tunisia, which has been able in the years since to create a functioning democracy for itself.  Last year the country even held an election and the first post-revolution party of government, the politico-Islamic group Ennadha, managed to bow out with a minimum of fuss when it lost.  In the blog-posts I used to write when I lived in Tunisia, I would slag Ennadha off regularly.  But hats off to them for being able to accept defeat gracefully.


It was never going to be anything like plain sailing for Tunisia, though.  Especially not with unsavoury outfits operating in the neighbourhood like Al Quaeda-in-the-Maghreb next door in Algeria, Alsar al-Sharia in Tunisia’s own back yard and now, popping up on the other side of the fence in deeply-troubled Libya, the very unwelcome Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, aka IS.  None of this lot have any wish to see a democratic Arab country survive and prosper, certainly not one that’s just voted an Islamic party out of office – though Ennadha’s brand of Islam is obviously pretty mild compared to that of IS – and replaced it with a secular one, the Nidaa Tounes party led by Beji Caid Essebsi.


So again, I suspected that, sooner or later, something bad was going to happen.


And two days ago, it did.  Two gunmen, reportedly trained in Libya and acting under the auspices of IS, launched an attack on Tunis’s celebrated Bardo Museum that left 23 people dead, 20 of them foreign tourists.  I’ve read suggestions that those gunmen were actually planning to target the Tunisian parliament building, which is next door to the Bardo.  However, deciding at the last moment that a parliament-assault wasn’t feasible, they turned their attention to the museum and started machine-gunning tourists who were getting out of coaches in its parking lot.


When I first heard the details of the slaughter, an unwelcome piece of terminology from 1970s Northern Ireland came to mind, a term that’d once referred to the Northern Irish terrorist practice of running into a pub frequented by people of one religion or the other and shooting everyone in sight.  What’d happened at the Bardo was a ‘spray-job’.  Spray-jobs were, and are, hideous in their simplicity but always sure to generate – manna for terrorists – huge headlines.


IS have since described the attack as a ‘blessed invasion of one of the dens of infidels and vice in Muslim Tunisia’.  The Bardo Museum boasts Punic artefacts from the ancient port of Carthage and the biggest collection of Roman mosaics in the world.  So it doesn’t surprise me that IS, who’ve recently bulldozered the ruins of ancient Assyrian cities like Hatra and Nimrud into dust and rubble in Iraq, should regard the museum as a hotbed of infidelism and general evil.  Museums have a habit of broadening their visitors’ minds and in IS’s book there is surely nothing more loathsome than broadening minds.


From www.ancientcoinsforeducation.org 


What this will do, of course, is deter many tourists from visiting Tunisia – a country where the tourist industry is vital to the economy, calculated to be responsible for 13.8% of overall employment and 15.2% of GDP.  This has happened at a time too when Tunisia’s tourist industry was showing signs of improvement.  When I went for a haircut while I was in Scotland last month, even the barber mentioned that he’d just lined up a beach-holiday there.  Naturally, wrecking the tourist industry, and by extension the Tunisian economy, is IS’s intention.  With more of the population living in poverty, and greater misery prevailing, and more people turning to extreme forms of religion for solace, the more favourable the circumstances are for gathering new recruits.


(Not that all recruits to IS, Al Qaeda and the like are the products of extreme poverty.  Ayman al-Zawahiri, for example, who’s been the current leader of Al Qaeda since his more famous predecessor got it in the neck in 2011, was born into an upper middle-class family in Cairo and is a qualified eye surgeon.  Evidently, some people just join because they’re immensely f***ed up.)


The answer, then, is for everyone who feels strongly about democracy, and about defeating terrorists and thwarting the goals of terrorists, to book a holiday in Tunisia this summer.  To fly over there, get out and about, spend some money and generally do their bit to help the inhabitants of this courageous little country.  But with news outlets already reporting that several cruise liners have changed their courses to avoid docking in Tunis, I doubt if that is going to happen.


Anyway, here is what the usually well-informed Robert Fisk of the Independent has to say on the matter: http://www.independent.co.uk/voices/comment/tunisia-shooting-when-isis-attacks-a-museum-to-destroy-the-culture-of-its-disbelievers-what-treasure-of-the-western-world-is-now-safe-10120487.html.


More Tunisian graffiti


One final dispatch from Tunisia, before I haul my bags over to Carthage International Airport and take my leave of the country.  Last year I wrote a blog-entry about the graffiti that has proliferated on the walls of Tunis since the 2011 revolution, and I thought before departing I would take a walk with my camera and capture a few more specimens of Tunisian post-revolutionary street-art.


Firstly, here’s the Rasta Man, a figure familiar now to people in the Tunis suburb of Carthage when they stroll along the Rue Taieb Mihiri on their way to the seafront Neptune Restaurant.  I’m not greatly impressed by the English-language spelling abilities of the artist, Morta, but I think I know what he (or she) means by ‘ligal it’.



Then there’s this fraught example of the form that appeared a while ago at the otherwise sedate northern end of Avenue Mohamed V, where the Italian Institute and the British Council have their offices.  It gives the impression of tension and potential violence bubbling just beneath the surface – a disturbing metaphor for post-revolutionary Tunisian society, perhaps?



Meanwhile, here are two of the more colourful examples to be found in the back-streets behind my apartment building.  All right, the second example isn’t really graffiti – it’s a piece of commercial art decorating the perimeter wall of a small kindergarten or nursery school.  In addition to Spongebob Squarepants (who was once accused of promoting homosexuality by America’s Fox News network), there are representations of Mickey and Minnie Mouse.  So I suppose by showing this picture on the Internet, I am inviting the Disney Corporation to go around and sue the arses off the kindergarten’s owners.



Here’s some good, old-fashioned, anarcho-political graffiti-ing on a wall near the downtown premises of Monoprix.  And unlike Morta, the creator of the Rasta Man, this artist got his or her English spelling right.



However, the most extensive piece of graffiti to have materialised in Tunis recently is to be found along a wall by the Trans-African Highway, at the end of the flyover crossing Avenue Habib Bourguiba.  A project called Beyond Walls 2013 that’s the work of the Union des Artistes Plasticiens Tunisiens, it consists of a long line of panels bearing a variety of single-word slogans, in a variety of languages and using a variety of designs.



Here are a few of the English-language buzzwords on show.  With the current political, economic and security situations looking extremely uncertain in Tunisia – and with a nightmare unfolding at the eastern end of the North African coast as post-revolutionary Egypt descends into the pan – I think these abstract nouns, imbued with optimism and idealism, make a fitting way for me to end my final entry from Tunisia.



Farewell, Tunis flat


So, after nearly three years of living and working in Tunis, it’s time to say goodbye to the city – and goodbye too to my crumbling but somehow comfortable old flat in the downtown district of Lafayette.  Here are a few pictures I took before I stripped the place of my belongings.


This shows the high-tech entertainment centre of the flat – powered by candles and whisky.



Every civilised abode should come equipped with a library.  Here’s my library, although admittedly it’s a rather compact one.



In the hallway, I hung this Hand of Fatima pendant before the entrance door to ward off bad luck and negativity.  As nothing bad has ever come through that door, the pendant has evidently worked.  Unfortunately, when my flat was broken into on the night of August 3rd / 4th, the burglar got in through the back door.



This is the flat’s bathroom.  It’s a sort of Tardis-in-reverse, being smaller on the inside than it looks on the outside.



Here is the kitchen, as viewed from the outside back court.  (The rear doors hanging open on either side were repaired after the night of the burglary.)  At ground door, the kitchen looks reasonable enough.  Unfortunately…



…When you look upwards, at the kitchen-ceiling, you see how its proximity to a hundred-year-old and ultra-leaky system of drainpipes on the building’s outer wall has resulted in a profusion of mould and damp.  No wonder the surface of the kitchen-ceiling has been quietly flaking and peeling off during the past three years.



Also looking upwards, this is what you see from the back court – a four-storey shaft of masonry, windows, shutters and piping that rises to a square-shaped gap in the building’s roof.  When I showed this picture to a friend, she said it reminded her of the giant chimney that Christian Bale had to climb in order to escape from the Central-Asian subterranean hellhole prison in The Dark Knight Rises.



Finally, this flat will always be associated in my mind with all manner of animals – with cockroaches, spiders, daddy-long-legs and slugs, which seemed to wander everywhere; with worms, which during the wet season somehow came burrowing out of the bathroom ceiling; with rats and pigeons, which occasionally found their way into the back court; with lizards, which lived in the cracks in the back court’s walls and obligingly ate a few of the cockroaches; and with cats, dead cats – once, some heavy rain washed the decayed carcass of one off the roof and down into my back court.  But here’s a picture of a more aesthetically-pleasing creature that inhabited the flat.



Favourite places in Tunis 8: Cafe le Rendez-vous des Sportifs


The Café le Rendez-vous des Sportifs is not so much a café as a pub, and it’s my local pub in Tunis.  Unlike many of the rival working-men’s pubs that proliferate in central Tunis, it actually looks like a pub inside, rather than like a bare, tiled cell that probably gets hosed down at the end of each business day.


Efforts have been made to decorate its interior.  Among the artefacts on its walls are some glass cases containing what look like old, vinyl, Arabic-language pop records; a pair of boxing gloves; a bugle; a collection of antique barometers, some of which are quite ornate; several 1950s-era painted advertisements for Coca Cola; a big, framed monochrome photograph showing four musicians riding shakily along on bicycles with their instruments strapped onto their backs (including a cello and a huge kettledrum); and a selection of small, framed photographs showing the likes of Miles Davis, Edith Piaf and Billie Holiday – I know, piss-heads and smack-heads, all of them.


However, the clientele is resolutely that of your average Tunis dive: noisy, chain-smoking, sometimes drunk and cranky men.  At one time it was so crowded in the early evenings that it was often a struggle to get past the entrance door, although recently the punters seem to have thinned out – due, perhaps, to the price of its beer going up by a third.  However, considering that a bottle of Celtia cost 1.8 dinar when I started frequenting it, even with an extra 0.6 dinar added on, it’s one of the city’s more economical places to imbibe in.


The only time I have seen trouble brewing in this pub was one evening when a group of drunken deaf-mutes looked ready to break furniture and beat people up.  Yes, deaf-mutes threatening to go on the rampage – that was weird.


On the sign outside, meanwhile, even the ‘o’ in ‘Rendez-vous’ looks a bit drunk.



The nine best things about Tunis


After my previous blog-entry detailing the low-points of Tunis, here is a list of all the good things about the city – in my humble opinion.


Ancient history


The Vandals did their best to erase it in the 5th century, but thankfully the Tunis suburb of Carthage retains enough traces of its Roman / Carthaginian / Phoenician past to make it worthy of investigation for a day or two.  Visitors with an interest in history will find much to savour in the Punic Port, Sanctuary of Tophet, Paleo-Christian Museum, Musee de Carthage, Roman Villas and Antonine Baths.  Those last two sites are my favourite parts of Carthage, by the way.



The Medina


Tunis’s labyrinthine Medina was founded 14 centuries ago and is now, deservedly, a UNESCO World Heritage site.  Its two main arteries that are used by tourists, the Rue de la Kasbah and the Rue Jemmaa Zaytouna are heavily congested and packed along their sides with souvenir shops.  (At least, these streets were congested before the revolution – they’re markedly quieter now and derelict, shuttered premises are, sadly, not an unfamiliar sight.)  However, you only have swerve off those tourist drags and follow a side-alley to discover a different side to the Medina – its many neighbourhoods where ordinary people live and work.  Suddenly there are workshops, and markets, and stores selling domestic goods.  You’ll want to loiter for a minute at the occasional Medina spice-shop for the pleasure of inhaling the scented air.  Meanwhile, the Souq de la Laine and Souq el-Berka, occupied by silversmiths and goldsmiths respectively, have a decorously fairy-tale atmosphere.  One of my favourite restaurants, the El Adeb, which sells deliciously hale-and-hearty grilled fish and grilled meat, is in the Medina too but you’ll have to explore far and search hard to find it.


The French bit


Spread out around the Medina are French-style apartment buildings from the colonial era, one of which I’ve spent the past three years living in.  These buildings are usually pimpled with satellite dishes and the external fan-boxes of air-conditioning systems; are notched with metal-railinged balconies that are crowded with potted plants and festooned with drying laundry and freshly-cleaned rugs; and these days sport a fair amount of graffiti along their street-level walls.  They’re rather the worse for fair but have a lot of dilapidated charm.  The drains, electrical wiring and plumbing – the whole infrastructure, in fact – are knackered in my building but the place is solidly enough built.  It occurred to me that in a Western country these apartment buildings would’ve been bought up en masse, renovated and sold off to Yuppies.  In Tunis this would be good aesthetically but undesirable in another way, because the process of gentrification would force out the ordinary working-class people who live in them at the moment.



What seems to be happening here, alas, is that these old buildings are gradually disappearing.  Just a couple of months ago, a block in my neighbourhood vanished practically overnight.  In its place they’ve established an unappealing gravel-surfaced car-park, enclosed by a square corrugated-iron fence.





There isn’t a city in the world whose appearance and atmosphere hasn’t been improved by having a tram system.  (All right, Edinburgh is a possible exception to this rule.)  And central Tunis definitely feels a little classier for the presence of its stately green trams – although this stateliness is lessened slightly by the couple of truanting schoolboys whom you inevitably see riding for free by sitting on the coupling pin at the end of the back coach.





I wouldn’t say Tunisian food is my favourite cuisine in the world, but it offers a variety of tasty dishes like kamounia, klaya, Djerba rice and brik, plus some good seafood options.  My greatest Tunisian weakness, though, is for ojja, a stew composed of eggs, tomatoes, peppers and harissa and often mixed with prawns or merguez (spicy sausages).  In fact, thinking about it now is enough to make me close my eyes, moan and salivate messily down my chin, just as Homer Simpson does when he thinks about hamburgers and Duff Beer.



Blokes’ pubs


There exists a sub-species of Tunis bar in which you won’t find women, children, food or music, or for that matter much in the way of décor or comfort.  You will find, however, smoke, grime, babble and lots and lots of blokes.  Service is usually provided from the counter by grey-haired and grey-moustached gentlemen wearing French garçon-style white shirts, waistcoats and bowties, which are inevitably soiled and crumpled but nonetheless give off a certain faded dignity.  There are also often guys positioned across the drinking areas, selling beer-bottles directly from plastic crates.  By any conventional aesthetic reckoning, these places are the pits.  But when I’m in the right frame of mind, they’re wonderful.


Examples include Café le Rendez-vous des Sportifs (my local), La Source, Chef’s Bar, L’Ambassadeur, Café de Rossini Palace, Le Parisien, the big one on Avenue Habib Bourguiba next to the Café de Paris and the one at the back of Schilling Restaurant of Avenue Mohamed V.  There’s also the strange courtyard-like pub in the middle of the ground-floor shopping centre on Avenue Habib Bourguiba between the junctions with the Avenue de France and Rue de Marseille.  This is sealed off from the surrounding shops on three sides by concrete pillars and thick, red, velvety curtains, while on its fourth side it has an alcove containing a bar counter: it also has a retractable roof whose halves slide apart in the late afternoon, once the sun has reached a position in the sky from which it can no longer shine in.  Above the counter-alcove is a large sign with lettering in both the Arabic and Roman alphabets.  The latter lettering spells out ‘Salon de Thé’ and what looks like, weirdly, ‘Le Kilt’.  Is this place really called Le Kilt?  And if so, was it founded many years ago by a Scotsman?


Sidi Bou Said


I’ve rhapsodised before about the loveliness of Sidi Bou Said, between Carthage and La Marsa in the Tunis suburbs, but I’ll do so again.  The village offers a panorama of white walls embellished with panels and stripes of blue – blue doors, blue doorframes, blue window-shutters, blue window-frames, blue railings, blue grills, blue pillars, blue roof-beams – with big leafy and flowery masses of green, purple, red, yellow and pink erupting out of the alleyway walls.  On a summer’s day, when the place is sandwiched between the flawless blueness of the sky and that of the Mediterranean, and illuminated by a bright, crystalline light, it’s easy to see why the artist Paul Klee was unable to get away from it.



At the very heart of Sidi Bou Said, up a flight of steps, is the picturesque Café des Nattes, which has on its wall pictures of famous old patrons such as Albert Camus, Simone de Beauvoir and Andre Gide.  (The aura of lofty intellectualism is dispelled somewhat by a picture of someone else who visited, a certain Richard Nixon, who stuck his grisly face into the café in 1971.)



The spirit of 2011


The lustre of the Tunisian Revolution, and the Arab Spring generally, has faded considerably in the two years since it happened.  This is thanks to an unravelling security situation, economic stagnation and decay, strikes, assassinations, much bickering between politicians, and some censorious and unsavoury individuals who’ve crawled out of the woodwork to attempt to impose their medieval notions of morality on everybody else.  That said, Tunisians can be proud that their country hasn’t plumbed the depths of political and social unrest that have been plumbed by post-revolutionary Egypt.


Still, I’ll always be grateful to Tunisia for two things on Friday, January 14th, 2011, when I found myself among the crowds that’d amassed in front of the Ministry of the Interior building on Avenue Habib Bourguiba, in defiance of President / dictator Zine El-Abidine Ben Ali and his regime’s huge and nasty police / security apparatus.  This gave me (1) the unique experience of being present at and witnessing history being made; and (2) an unforgettable demonstration of what can be achieved by people power.


And… cats


I know, Tunis’s population of stray cats can be a massive pain in the arse.  They tear open rubbish-bags and make an unholy mess on the streets, they scoot out in front of you and trip you up, and when you’re trying to get to sleep, they produce an evil-sounding cacophony as they indulge in nocturnal feline love-making.  But, occasionally, they can be very… cute





The nine worst things about Tunis


Just before I depart from Tunisia, I thought I would compile a list of the nine worst things about living in its capital city.  But don’t fret, Tunis lovers – in my next blog entry, I will provide some balance by listing the nine best things about the place.


Airport taxi drivers


Tunisia’s taxi drivers are like taxi drivers everywhere – there are some honest ones and some slippery ones.  However, the bunch that hover vulture-like in front of the exit doors at Carthage International Airport are, to a man, opportunistic crooks.  On the single occasion that I had to use one of these drivers, the fare was at least six times what it would’ve been travelling the same distance with an ordinary taxi – and I’ve heard plenty of horror stories from other travellers.  If the Tunisian tourist authorities were serious about polishing up their country’s image and making holidaymakers want to return following the upheaval of the revolution, the first measure they could take would be to bust these guys’ asses.


If you’ve just alighted from a plane at Carthage Airport, don’t go straight out of the terminal building from arrivals.  Instead, go upstairs to the departures area and try to catch an ordinary – metered – cab there, one that’s just come from the city and dropped somebody off in front of the entry doors.


Celtia beer


Celtia is Tunisia’s national beer and in some venues it’s the only beer on the menu.  It is, alas, rather grim.  Tasting more of chemicals than of hops, it can leave your head feeling mangy even when you’ve drank only a couple of bottles.  Beer-lovers may find this sacrilegious, but I actually prefer drinking Celestia, which is the non-alcoholic version of Celtia.



Dirty beaches


Another measure that Tunisia’s tourist authorities could take to improve the country’s somewhat tarnished reputation as a holiday destination would be to clean up their beaches.  Even at the likes of Carthage or La Marsa, where on a sunny day the coast looks incredibly appealing from a distance, that appeal lessens when you approach the water’s edge and discover how much detritus lies on the sand.  And even in front of the fancy seaside hotels, where you’d expect the beaches to be pristine, the efforts to keep them tidy are perfunctory at best – the debris seems to be brushed into the corners but not actually picked up.  Walk to the fringes of the beaches, a few yards past the last sunbathers, and you’ll still find cigarette butts, plastic bags, plastic bottles and even broken glass.  (Plus, if some local entrepreneur is offering the tourists camel-rides along the sea-front, there’ll be the added horribleness of camel-dung).




One of the downsides of the revolution is the state of anarchy that, during the past two years, has befallen the TGM, the suburban railway line connecting central Tunis with La Goulette, Carthage, Sidi Bou Said and finally La Marsa.  Board a TGM train nowadays and you will likely have to contend with shrieking obnoxious kids who dangle out of the doors, dangle out of the windows and even clamber up onto the carriage-roofs in imitation of those ‘train-surfers’ in South America.  To be honest, the TGM is one place where I’d like to see a bit of blatant old-style Ben Ali-era police brutality re-introduced.


Supermarket etiquette (lack of)


I accept it’s unrealistic to expect countries like Tunisia to conform to Western styles of customer service.  Nonetheless, the scowly, occasionally growly visages of the checkout staff can make shopping in supermarkets like Monoprix or Carrefour a dispiriting experience.


The customers sometimes aren’t much better, mind you.  There seems to be an unspoken rule that shoppers should only start to pack their groceries after everything has been scanned, after everything has accumulated in a mountainous heap beyond the register, and after everything has been paid for – which leads to monstrous tailbacks and congestion as the groceries of the next customer and then the next start coming through.  Also, I’ve seen old men, when presented with their bill, attempt to haggle with the checkout staff.  And also, I don’t like how folk in the checkout queues start munching on their loaves of bread before they’ve paid for them.  (I don’t know why – I just find it annoying.)




I enjoy a bit of night-life but unfortunately a large section of Tunis’s night-life consists of venues like the Lodge, the Villa and the Plaza, which try to be something more than bars.  They try to be a little more upmarket – like, you know, clubs.  In reality, this means that the menus are overpriced, the service is delivered at a snail’s pace, the music is of Celine Dion / Phil Collins-level quality and is played loud, and the clientele consist mainly of suited, would-be Tunisian playboys in their early middle-age, swelling around their waists and receding on top.  (I suspect that after another few years, when these guys decide that they’ve grown too old to enjoy themselves, they’ll turn ultra-religious and try to stop other people enjoying themselves.)


And talking of ultra-religious types determined to stop other people enjoying themselves…




One thing about the Salafists whom I’ve seen prowling around Tunis is that they always seem to wear crap socks.  Jutting out of their sneakers, below the hems of their smocks, their ankles are almost always clad in a wan, unattractive shade of grey.  I’d have thought their mothers – I assume they all still live with their mothers – would try to enliven the palette of their wardrobe by buying them socks that were adorned with bright, multi-coloured checks or stripes.


Well.  Just saying.


Rubbish on streets


I shouldn’t complain about a city where there’s a rubbish-collection service every 24 hours.  Around 10 o’clock each night, a truck rumbles past my flat and its crew load it with the bags of refuse that householders and shopkeepers have put out on the pavements during the day.  Unfortunately, these trucks miss a lot of stuff.  Even more unfortunately, during the daytime, the bags get knocked over and ripped open, with the consequence that rubbish can be scattered across the length and breadth of the streets.  During wet weather, the debris gets washed into the gutters, blocks them up and causes mini-floods.  During hot weather, it reeks and the flies become rampant.


And… cats


And the chief culprits for eviscerating those bags and spreading their smelly contents are, of course, Tunis’s huge population of feral cats.  Not only do the cats diminish the city’s cleanliness, but, darting out of the rubbish-piles and from under the parked cars, they can also be a considerable hazard to pedestrians.  I’m still psychologically scarred by the morning when I attempted to go jogging and tripped over a feline who suddenly shot from amid some rubbish bags, across the pavement in front of me – I fell onto a broken sheet of glass that’d been left out too for the rubbish collectors.  In fact, I very nearly emulated the fourth set-piece freak accident (also involving a sheet of glass) in the original Omen movie.



Favourite places in Tunis 7: the Italian Club



The Italian Club in Lafayette has been a major eating-and-drinking fixture in my life these last three years, so it’s sad to report that the place looks like it’s on its last legs.


After you’ve charmed your way past the bouncers at the front door and scaled the first flight of stairs, you arrive at a first-floor bar.  For a long time this was the pub to go to in the district if you didn’t want a venue that was either (1) a smoky dive full of crabbit old men, (2) an ultra-bland hotel bar, or (3) an expensive club-bar reverberating with deafening music and populated by ageing, full-of-themselves playboys.  The Italian Club bar was endearingly bohemian in character.  Many of its clientele were bearded student-types and – a rarity among Tunis’s pub scene – it drew a fair number of women too.  There was no music and you could actually have a sensible conversation, although the Italian sports channel on the inevitable TV screen was turned up a little too loud when there was football on.


If you ascend two more flights of stairs to the very top of the building, you find yourself at a rather good Italian restaurant.  In its day, the Italian Club restaurant attracted a lot of expatriate diners – indeed, it was about the only venue in Lafayette visited by as many foreigners as locals.  Accordingly, the menu was a tad pricy (especially if you fancied some wine), but it was worthwhile if you wanted to have a proper night out.


Alas, the Italian Club has taken a nosedive in the past year.  The bar has seemingly lost 99% of its clientele.  This was partly due to the beer being cheekily bumped up from three dinars a bottle to five dinars within the space of a couple of weeks; partly due to a decision to change the personnel behind the counter that, reportedly, was unpopular; and, I suspect, partly due to the opening of a rival bar on the seventh-floor terrace of the Pacha Hotel ten minutes’ walk away.  During my handful of visits to the Italian Club pub in 2013, it was so empty that I felt like I was drinking in the on-board bar of the Marie Celeste.  The restaurant seems to have lost its appeal too.  When I took a group to it last month, we had the place to ourselves for the entire evening.


Still.  It was fun while it lasted.


A cheesy Tunis cheerio



Life can be cruel sometimes.  I’d been living happily and peaceably in central Tunis, in the same ground-floor flat, for three years.  Then, just one week before I was due to leave the place, I received an unwelcome visit – from a burglar.


I was away from the flat on Saturday and Sunday night the weekend before my departure.  When I arrived home on Monday morning, I entered the hallway (which has no windows along it, only doors) and immediately wondered why I could see sunlight.  I also wondered why this sunlight seemed to penetrate the hallway at a low level, along the floor.  The reason was because someone had smashed through the bottom right-hand panel in the kitchen door, which I’d locked before I left.


When I checked the kitchen, I found that the two back doors leading from the kitchen into the little courtyard behind the flat had been bust open too.  An intruder had (1) got into the apartment building; (2) climbed out of the window in the stairwell and lowered himself into the courtyard — or to use the Scottish term for it, the ‘back court’; (3) managed somehow to wrench open the outer back door; (4) smashed a glass pane in the inner back door, reached in and unlocked it; and (5) burrowed through the kitchen door into the rest of the flat.


In the middle of these operations, the burglar had dislodged the refrigerator’s plug from its socket, with the result that all the ice in the freezer compartment had melted and the milk in the fridge had gone sour.  This made me conclude that the break-in had happened on the first night I’d been away, Saturday, rather than the second night.


Also, at around ten o’clock on Friday night, someone had rung my doorbell.  When I opened the door, nobody was outside.  I’d put this down to a local kid being a pain-in-the-butt.  (It happened after Iftar, when my neighbours had eaten following their day’s fasting for Ramadan, and at this time the kids normally seem a bit high.)  When I mentioned the doorbell incident to the policeman who came to investigate, he replied, “That was him.”  The burglar had obviously monitored the place for a day or two beforehand, checking whether I was in or not.


My bedroom had been turned upside down, although the living room escaped with only a row of books being swept off their shelf in the bookcase and the pockets of a coat (full of old supermarket receipts and bus tickets) on the coat-stand being emptied.  After a preliminary check, I concluded that the thief had made off with two rings from a jewellery box — yes, I’m afraid I’m a Rio Ferdinand / Nicholas Sarkozy-style king of bling these days — an old laptop from my workplace and 235 euros, 35 euros of which had been in my desk-drawer and the other 200 had been stashed in a hiding place, which was at the back of my first-aid kit.  The contents of that kit were scattered across the bedroom floor.


However, what he took wasn’t particularly valuable.  The rings had come from a Thai street-market and the laptop had a faulty keyboard and was about to be decommissioned by my office anyway.  Also, he could’ve taken plenty more.  None of my ornaments from the Tunisian medina had been touched.  He also left unscathed an eight-year-old bottle of French red wine that I’d been saving for a special occasion, which suggests the burglar was a strict, if hardly a good, Muslim.  And he’d been untempted by my CD collection, despite it containing albums by Dying Foetus, the Mad Capsule Markets, Cradle of Filth and Extreme Noise Terror, which clearly indicates he had no taste in music.  Of course, if he’d tried to carry away anything else, he would’ve had difficulty climbing out of my back court again.


If this burglar had had more suss, he might also have taken my collection of memory sticks, which between them have a great deal of storage space.  Thankfully, he didn’t take my passport either – I’m sure passports can fetch a price on the black market if you know who to sell them to.


What probably cost more than the stuff he’d nicked was the damage done to the doors, particularly the kitchen door.  For that reason, my landlord and I visited the local police station later on Monday to file a report.  Apparently, the police station in the adjacent district was recently closed down, with the result that my local one is now doing the job of two police stations – that probably explains why the place seemed as crowded and chaotic as the precinct in Hill Street Blues when we got there.  It was a drawn-out process, sitting at a police desk and explaining the incident to a cop who only seemed able to type the report using one finger, while a succession of colleagues and members of the public kept coming in and interrupting him, to shake his hand and say hello, to chat, to complain, to argue, to beg him to investigate a different case.  (I wondered if this police-station culture of endless distractions was deliberate – you were left waiting so many times that finally you felt very small and powerless indeed in front of that desk.)


With the trip to the police station, and the considerable conferring I had to do with my landlord, and the several visits I had from workmen who came to fix the doors, I must’ve lost about two days.  So time was probably my biggest expense.  As I was due to leave Tunisia a week later and was busy preparing for my departure, the break-in caused a lot of inconvenience that way.


However, there was something of a happy ending.  When I started to clear up the papers, clothes and general debris that covered my bedroom floor, I discovered the envelope that the 200 euros had resided in at the back of my first-aid kit.  Inside the envelope, I found the 200 euros, untouched.  The burglar had torn apart the first-aid kit but somehow missed the cash hidden inside it – which meant he’d only made off with the 35 euros in the drawer.  I suspect that after breaking through the kitchen door, which surely made a lot of noise, he was panicking and went through my belongings in a rush, not pausing to check anything thoroughly.  Alternatively, he may just have been a shit burglar.


Incidentally, I interpreted the fact that the eight-year-old bottle of French wine had survived as a sign.  There was no longer any point in saving it for a special occasion.  So I drank it immediately.



Welcome to the Hotel Ballard


Regular readers of this blog will know that I’m a fan of the late writer J.G. Ballard, whose dystopian fiction was famous for the hallucinogenic landscapes it created.  Using prose that was simultaneously concise and dream-like, his novels and short stories would transport you ten minutes into the future, where the most unnerving trends you’d read about in the media – rampant consumerism, environmental degradation, urban decay, social dysfunction – had become a little more extreme, a little more perverse, but had gone far enough to reach a tipping point.  Accordingly, Ballard’s characters moved against surreal but disturbingly-familiar backdrops of abandoned hotels and derelict shopping malls, drained swimming pools, sand dunes dotted with half-swallowed pillboxes, wreckage-strewn motorways and flyovers, and wrecked luxury apartment blocks whose inhabitants had gone Lord of the Flies.


(c) Penguin Books


A few months ago, a friend and I were exploring the Basilique de Saint Cyprien, an early Christian site just north of Tunis, on the coast between Carthage and Sidi Bou Said.  The site provided a perfect tourist-brochure view over a beach and a glassy-blue section of the Mediterranean, through which a couple of expensive-looking yachts were cutting furrows.  However, when we turned our heads northwards, we saw something that changed the place’s atmosphere.  Our gazes fell upon the nearby remains of the Hotel Amilcar and my immediate thought was: “That’s something out of J.G. Ballard.”


From what I can gather, the Hotel Amilcar closed its doors in 2008.  Its location, on the Rue Mohamed Ali Hammi, is somewhat below the level of the Basilique de Saint Cyprien but it still must’ve offered its customers good views of the sea.  It’s been gradually dismantled since its closure.  Depending on who you talk to, the plan is either to dismantle it entirely, or, once it’s been stripped to a skeleton, to assemble a new hotel over its steel-and-concrete bones.



What stands now looks pretty skeletal.  The hotel retains its floors, columns and roofs but has almost no walls at all.  From a distance, it rises above the undergrowth like a gigantic set of Ikea shelves.  Meanwhile, close up – a chunk of the perimeter wall is missing, so it’s possible to venture in and root around the rubble-littered spaces of the building’s ground floors – the contrast between how it once was and how it is now is haunting.  Ballard would’ve loved it.  He’d have wandered around these emaciated ruins whilst composing sentences about package-groups of phantom tourists, setting their weightless cases down amid the piles of masonry in the gutted, grimy shell of the lobby, or later making themselves at home in the wall-less squares of their bedrooms, their ghostly eyes drawn by the shimmer of the Mediterranean beyond the non-existent windows.  (Obviously, his sentences would’ve been better-written than mine.)



Ballard would also have liked this little boat at the side of the hotel, beached amid heaps of debris and rubbish.  (If you look closely, you may see that the boat was crewed by a dozy cat when I took the picture.)  Meanwhile, I noticed an additional and very Ballardian detail in the hotel grounds, a drained swimming pool, though I was only able to photograph it from a distance.