Favourite places in Tunis 6: Sidi Bou Said Hotel

 

 

I’ve waxed lyrically before about the jasmine-bedecked, blue-and-white-painted gorgeousness of the village from which the Sidi Bou Said Hotel takes its name.  However, this hotel isn’t actually in Sidi Bou Said – it’s about a kilometre north of it on the Avenue Sidi Dhrif, the hill-road that links the village with the further-north suburb of La Marsa.  The hotel is on the downward side of the hill going from Sidi Bou Said, but not too far down, which means you get some extensive views of La Marsa and its environs from the hotel-terrace.

 

 

It’s just as well you have those views to keep you occupied because any time I’ve been on the terrace, service there has been slow.  However, the restaurant upstairs (next to a first-floor swimming pool) is agreeable enough and, since the place is licenced, it makes an agreeable stop for a beer if you’re attempting the scenic walk from Sidi Bou Said to La Marsa.

 

 

Deadly déjà vu

 

(c) The Times

 

History repeats itself…’  It’s tempting to end that quote with the words of Karl Marx, who famously said, ‘…first as tragedy, second as farce.’  However, in the case of the Tunisian opposition politician Mohamed Brahmi, who on July 25th was shot dead in front his home in Tunis just five-and-a-half months after the Tunisian opposition politician Chokri Belaid was shot dead in front of his home in Tunis, I would refer instead to the American lawyer and civil libertarian Clarence Darrow.  Darrow said something a little different about history repeating itself: ‘…and that’s one of the things that’s wrong with history.’

 

Belaid’s assassination in February – allegedly by Islamic extremists, although some claimed the moderate-Islamist Ennahdha party, the main player in the Tunisian government, had colluded in it – prompted the Tunisian trade union body, the UGTT, to hold a day-long general strike in protest.  It also pitched the country into what was agreed to be its worst constitutional crisis since the revolution in early 2011.

 

Relatives of Brahmi, the founder and leader of the socialist, Arab-nationalist People’s Movement – I’ve heard the adjective ‘Nasserite’ used to describe it – blamed Ennahdha for having a hand in his death too.  However, the Minister of the Interior, Lofti Ben Jeddou, was swift to claim that Brahmi and Belaid had been shot with the same gun and to pin the blame on a Salafist extremist called Boubacar Hakim.  Considering how intricate and time-consuming forensic science can be, I suspect Ben Jeddou was a little too swift in making that claim.  Meanwhile, once again, the day after, the UGTT organised a one-day strike in protest against the killing and against the government’s handling of the security situation.

 

Brahmi was less prominent than Belaid and his assassination seemed to have less immediate impact than the events in February had.  Part of this, however, was surely due to it being summer and it being Ramadan – temperatures in the mid-thirties and physical weakness from fasting for most of a day will dull even the strongest emotions of anger and outrage.  Also, the shooting took place on a national holiday, Republic Day, when Tunis had a somnolent, closed-down feel to it.  However, I didn’t have to wait long before seeing signs that something was wrong.  Late that afternoon, in front of my local supermarket, I noticed a middle-aged woman sobbing in the street.  And when I went up to the first floor of the Lafayette Carrefour shopping mall, I saw that all the big TV / plasma screens along one wall of the household-appliances section were tuned into a Tunisian TV news programme, which was covering the assassination.  Simultaneously, the screens showed the façade of the dead politician’s house, and his car parked in the drive, and the spent cartridges littering the ground.  Three Carrefour staff-members and a half-dozen shoppers stood watching the images in horrified silence.

 

That night, at about 1.00 AM, I heard a throng of people moving along my street, past the front of my apartment building and in the direction of Belvedere Park.  When I looked out of my living-room window, I saw hundreds and hundreds of young people walking by, the eldest of them surely no more than college-age.  They hadn’t arranged themselves in a single, dense crowd, but were in groups of three, four and five that were strung across the whole street and that seemed never-ending as they drifted past.  Some were chanting.  Quite a few were wheeling bicycles.  There were no beards and only a couple of headscarves in sight, so I assumed this was an anti-Ennahdha protest.  Finally, near the back of the throng, there appeared the first of a slow-moving cortege of police vans and cars, their lights flashing silently and sinisterly, their occupants obviously monitoring the marchers ahead of them.

 

Since Brahmi’s funeral, there have been calls for the dissolution of the government.  Additionally, anti-government and pro-government protestors have been a continual presence in front of the National Constituent Assembly in Bardo – police first used tear gas to disperse the two groups of antagonists, but have since settled for laying down barbed wire to keep them apart.  Prime Minister Ali Larayedh has insisted that, despite the protests, the government is here to stay – at least, until December 17th, which is the latest date that ministers are talking about as the occasion of Tunisia’s next elections.  However, Larayedh’s assertions have been undermined by the fact that certain individuals have since resigned from his supposedly-here-to-say government, including Education Minister Salem Labiadh (who until now was best known to international pundits for his efforts to stop Tunisian schoolchildren from performing the Harlem Shake).

 

The screws were further tightened on the government on July 29th when militants, believed to have ties with Al-Qaeda in the Maghreb, attacked a Tunisian army patrol and killed eight soldiers on Chaambi Mountain near the Algerian border.  Attempts have also been made to bomb National Guard members in less remote areas – one bomb exploded beside a highway 23 kilometres south of Tunis on July 30th and another went off four days earlier in La Goulette, just east of the capital – although there were no casualties.  Critics claim that Tunisia’s government is now, bloodily, reaping what it sowed with its earlier, go-easy-on-them policies towards Islamic extremists.

 

With everything that’s happened in the past week, it’s no surprise that the BBC news website has commented: ‘Not since the uprising that toppled longstanding president Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali has Tunisia faced a crisis so serious’ (http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-africa-23522121).  Which is exactly what everyone said after Belaid’s assassination in February, although this situation now does feel worse.

 

Even those Tunisians who would rejoice in seeing the current government thrown out of office today should acknowledge, though, that there’s an elephant in the room – a jumbo-sized Egyptian elephant.  Anti-government protestors in Egypt got what they wanted on July 3rd when democratically-elected (just about) Muslim Brotherhood President Mohamed Morsi was removed from power by the Egyptian army.  Following Morsi’s removal, 51 Muslim Brotherhood supporters were killed by solders on July 8th at a barracks in Cairo and between 120 and 136 more were killed in the city’s Nasr City district on July 27th.  Accounts from eyewitnesses and the Human Rights Watch seem to back Muslim Brotherhood claims that on both occasions their people were murdered.  There have been other deaths in smaller, less publicised incidents and nobody is predicting that the worst is over.  Getting rid of a government, no matter how bad, that claims to have a democratic mandate is always going to have consequences, potentially devastating ones.

 

Tread carefully, Tunisia.  Don’t let history repeat itself – not as tragedy, not as farce and not as an Egyptian-style bloodbath.

 

Extracts from the secret Tunisian diary of Ian Smith, aged 47-and-a-bit

 

 

December 8th, 2011

 

I arrived home this evening and discovered that the part of the street immediately in front of my ground-floor flat was being used for location-filming by a film or TV crew.  They’d cordoned the area off to traffic, and pedestrians had to use the opposite pavement.  A railway-like track had been placed on the road-surface and a camera and cameraman were mounted on a trolley that trundled along this track, keeping pace with the actors who were prowling about the pavement outside my front windows.

 

There was a huge crowd of local people watching and it was difficult to distinguish between who was an onlooker and who was a member of the crew.  The entrance to my building was clogged with kids, sitting on the doorstep, determined to observe every moment of the proceedings.  Hours later, they were still there, watching the very last crew-members gather up and load away the very last pieces of equipment.

 

I wonder what the nature of the film or TV show was that’d persuaded the crew to use my street, with its dilapidated coffee houses and wee shops, graffiti-ed walls and piles of left-out rubbish bags (messily eviscerated by feral cats), as a location.  I hope they weren’t making a gritty, squalid crime drama, populated with low-life and set in a Tunis slum.

 

 

September 3rd, 2012

 

I arrived back from holiday to find my ramshackle old flat surprisingly intact and in order.  No leaks, no blocked drains, no electrical faults, no bad odours.  I was pleased by this until I opened the doors in the end wall of the kitchen and looked outside into the flat’s little ‘back court’.  Near the drain in the corner there was an odd-looking puddle – a grey and somehow furry puddle.

 

I approached the thing, wondering what it was.  It stank to high heaven.  After a moment, I began to discern an outline among the furry gloop: two hind-legs, a torso, two more legs, a small head…  I realised I could just about see a cat in that puddle – what had once been a cat.

 

I knew that during the preceding days Tunis had seen its first autumn rains.  My guess was that the cat had died up on the roof sometime before and during the intense summer heat had practically liquefied.  Finally the rain had washed it down into my back court.

 

I doused the whole back court in detergent and, when my nose could no longer detect the reek of decomposing cat, I scraped the remains off the ground and sealed them within four layers of plastic bags, and added them to the neighbourhood rubbish-heap on the street outside.  That’s about the most disgusting thing I’ve ever had to do in my life.

 

 

April ?th, 2013

 

Late one morning I was walking along Avenue de Paris, away from Avenue Habib Bourguiba.  A number of street traders were, at intervals, hawking stuff from the side of the street – from stalls, from barrows, from panels set out on top of cardboard boxes, from sheets laid over the pavement.  I know that the legal status of these guys, selling their wares in this impromptu manner, is pretty suspect.  Anyway, part of the way along the avenue, I noticed that a white pick-up truck was drawing up beside each of these traders and a bald middle-aged man was sticking his head out of the driver’s window and shouting something in Arabic at them.

 

As soon as they heard this guy, the street traders would panic and clear their wares away in an instant.  One trader grabbed the ends of the sheet he had spread across the pavement, snatched everything up in a bundle and ran off with the bundle swinging over his shoulder, like a cartoon burglar with a sack marked ‘swag’.  Another did something similar with a large square panel from which he’d been selling DVDs – the panel turned out to be hinged in the middle, so he closed it like a giant book, with the DVDs inside, and made off with it under his arm.  Another trader again was manning what I thought was a stall but was actually a kind of barrow, with little wheels at the bottom and handles sticking out of its end – so he just grabbed the handles and trundled the thing at top speed around a corner and into a side-street.

 

I was walking at the same rate that the pick-up truck – pausing, revving up and shooting on to the next street trader – was moving at, so we more-or-less kept level the whole way along Avenue de Paris.  Thus, I witnessed these little scenes of panic again and again.  I assume that the cops had started a street-trading crackdown operation and were working their way along from Avenue Habib Bourguiba; and the fellow in the pick-up had some street-trading connections and was warning them just in advance of the cops.

 

Ironically, one of the side-streets that a trader fled down was called Rue des Entrepreneurs.

 

 

Favourite places in Tunis 5: Le Plug

 

It’s tempting to describe Le Plug in the northern Tunis suburb of La Marsa as one of the very few heavy metal / electronica bars, if not the only one, on Tunisian soil.  But actually it’s not on Tunisian soil at all.  It’s on water.  You find it at the end of a pier called the Kobel El Hawa, a hulking baroquely-architectured structure on short, thick columns that protrudes into the waves off La Marsa’s shore (http://500px.com/photo/23572999).  I know, it doesn’t really look like a pier at all, but I’m going by the free online dictionary’s definition of a ‘pier’ as being a ‘a platform extending from a shore over water and supported by piles or pillars, used to secure, protect and provide access to ships or boats; or such a structure used predominantly for entertainment’.  So there.

 

The place is no doubt silent at the moment on account of it being Ramadan, but for most of the year Le Plug treats its patrons to music, loud music – heavy metal and rock during the earlier days of the week and techno on a Saturday.  (One metal-admiring friend told me dismissively that Saturday there was ‘techno and twats’ night, although I’ve been in Le Plug on Saturdays and the clientele seemed an awful lot less twattish than you’d encounter in an equivalent venue in the UK.)

 

The heart of Le Plug is up two flights of stairs at the highest and most seaward point of the Kobel El Hawa.  As you go through the entrance door there’s an alcove immediately on the right, curtained-off in the evenings, that is home to a miniature tattoo parlour.  Facing the entrance, meanwhile, is a bar-counter, behind which hang a skull-and-crossbones and a Union Jack defiantly emblazoned with the old war-cry PUNK’S NOT DEAD.  To the left extends a terrace, once open to the sea but now sealed in by windows, with a dance floor along its middle, with seats and tables at its sides and with small cobwebbed chandeliers and at least one mirror-ball dangling from its ceiling.  There are toilets halfway along this terrace and from what I’ve seen of the male one, they conform to the proud standards of rock bars the world over – the wash-hand basin has always been unspeakably blocked up and the walls are unappealingly slathered in what appears to be chocolate cake.

 

Outside, below the final staircase climbing to Le Plug’s entrance door, there’s a long rectangular space that’s been converted into another drinking area and has a second counter at its end.  On the long wall running along the back of this area, an artist has painted a rather natty mural showing the workings of some huge and intricate machine.  The mural is oddly organic-looking, in a Joan Miro-meets-H.R. Giger way, and it also incorporates bits of Leonardo da Vinci and Salvador Dali.

 

The staff at Le Plug are keen to discourage people from using cameras on their premises, as if they don’t want pictures of the place turning up on social media.  I would understand them wanting to keep the existence of their bar quiet in a country where there’s a small but troublesome bunch of religious nutters who no doubt regard heavy metal and techno as the embodiments of pure evil, but they already have a considerable online presence – they have a website (http://le-plug.com/) and they were recently the subject of a feature on the local English-language news website, Tunisia Live Net (http://www.tunisia-live.net/2013/02/15/le-plug-a-home-for-alternative-music-in-tunis/), so I don’t see what difference a few photographs would make.  Anyway, the last evening I was there, I did surreptitiously snap a picture of a detail on that epic wall-mural.  It depicts a frog in a Da Vinci-esque Vitruvian Man pose – I’ve posted the original here too so that you can compare them.

 

 

Favourite places in Tunis 4: Majestic Hotel

 

Just before I first visited Tunis as a tourist, about three years ago, I’d read on a couple of travel websites about an old Art Nouveau hotel called the Majestic, situated on Avenue de Paris, a bit shabby nowadays but still atmospheric, and supposedly not too expensive to stay in.  The trouble was, search though I did on the Internet, I couldn’t find any way of booking a room in the place.

 

Later, after I’d arrived in Tunis and found other accommodation (the decidedly not-Art-Nouveau Hotel Pacha on Avenue Kheireddine Pacha), I went hunting for the fabled Majestic.  It proved to be a hefty building on a street corner, five storeys high, its white walls adorned with ledges, corbels and balustrades so that it had the look of an ornately-iced wedding cake.  It also proved to be closed.  The corner entrance was boarded up and, although someone told me it was undergoing renovations, it gave off an aura of dereliction and decay.

 

 

About a year after I’d started living in Tunisia, I heard that the Majestic Hotel was open for business again.  The timing of the re-opening was not ideal, as Tunisia was newly into its post-revolutionary era and, thanks to the turbulence involved in unseating Ben Ali, the flow of visiting tourists had been reduced to a dribble.  Anyway, I went to investigate the rejuvenated Majestic.  As I’d expected, there was hardly anybody staying there, and the place smelt strongly of the white paint that’d been freshly applied to its already-white façade.  It did, however, look smart – as smart as it must’ve done when it originally opened in 1914 – and I had no doubt that it was a lot more expensive to stay in now than it’d been during its declining, budget-traveller years when I’d seen it mentioned on the Internet.  I was glad to have checked it out and I’ve returned a number of times since.

 

On entering the circular lobby, which comes complete with a miniature chandelier, you should ascend one of the staircases that curve up either wall to the first floor.  There you’ll encounter Le Piano, the hotel bar, which is equipped with a first-floor terrace.

 

 

The terrace is mostly sealed off from sight of Avenue de Paris by a row of railings and screens, decorated with little plant-boxes and punctuated by large stone urns that seem to cradle infant palm trees, only a clump of nascent fronds visible above each urn’s rim.  It would be nice to see more of the avenue below, but at least the railings, screens and urns – along with the big parasols that hulk over the tables – ensure that the terrace is well-shaded.

 

At the terrace’s end, a semi-circular fountain occupies a corner, while four flagpoles stand nearby bearing the Tunisian flag, the European Union one, the Arab League one and the Hotel Majestic one.  The latter flag is emblazoned with the hotel’s insignia, a curvy H superimposed on a curvy M, which seems to lurk everywhere – on the table napkins, the drinks mats, the menus.

 

 

Every couple of minutes, the calm of the terrace is interrupted by stately rumbling and jangling bell of a tram, passing along Avenue de Paris below.

 

 

During my most recent visits, a sign has been in evidence warning people in French that entry to Le Piano and its terrace is restricted to hotel guests only.  This might explain why I’ve never seen it containing more than half-a-dozen customers.  However, putting on my most imperious and moneyed air – and despite the customary shabbiness of my hair, beard and clothes – I’ve still managed to get served there.

 

Favourite places in Tunis 3: Neptune Restaurant

 

 

Half the time, it isn’t open when it ought to be open.  When it is open, and you go in, you’re received by several male waiters whose shambling gait and silent, grizzled visages suggest a platoon of shell-shocked survivors from a major military engagement during World War I – I’m a regular customer there and I’m usually only acknowledged with a weary nod, although I suppose that’s an achievement.  And then, when you’ve read the menu, you can spend a lot of time requesting various tasty-sounding seafood dishes, only to have each request dismissed with an unapologetic shake of the head or shrug of the shoulders.  Normally I end up ordering the same four or five items – fisherman’s salad, grilled shrimps, fried aubergine, chips – because that’s all they seem to have.

 

 

And yet…  And yet…  When you’re sitting on its terrace, when the sea below is a sheet of rippling turquoise, when the sun is bright and the sky is flawlessly blue, and when a waiter has just brought an ice bucket with a bottle of Chardonnay poking out of it, the Neptune Restaurant on the Carthage coast feels like the most invigorating place in the world.  Just make sure you keep your eyes fixed on the gorgeous middle distance, where the boats lazily roam to and fro.  You may spoil the illusion if you lower your head to inspect the more immediate surroundings, because the sea-facing wall of the restaurant looks rather dilapidated (and graffiti-ed these days) and the strip of beach along the wall’s base could definitely do with a tidy.

 

 

Your safest bet for finding the Neptune in operation is Sunday lunchtime, when it draws a crowd of French expatriates and well-heeled Tunisians wanting to enjoy a dejeuner that extends leisurely into the middle of the afternoon.  On the road outside, a little old man with a stick keeps vigilant guard over the clientele’s parked vehicles, although to be honest the most threatening things I’ve seen around the Neptune have been a few packs of gang-banging cats.  Here’s the little-old-man-with-a-stick seeing off a trio of marauding French tourists.

 

 

In fact, among the eateries along or off the Route la Goulette and Rue de Maroc, the road that connects Le Kram and Sidi Bou Said and snakes alongside the TGM line with its miniature Carthage railway stations (Salammbo, Byrsa, Dermech, Hannibal, Presidence and Amilcar), the Nepture is one of the very few where you can buy an alcoholic drink.  The district has plenty of popular and trendy venues but nearly all of them are ‘dry’.  To get from the Route la Goulette to the Neptune, you have to head seawards through some picturesque Carthage backstreets.  Here’s one of my favourites, the Rue Taieb Mehiri, so tree-lined that at times it resembles a luxuriant green tunnel.

 

 

Favourite places in Tunis 2: Cafe Hannibal

 

  

 

Like any other city in North Africa, Tunis is choc-a-bloc with cafés.  The Café Hannibal — named after the Punic Carthaginian military commander, not after Thomas Harris’s debonair cannibal — is my favourite Tunis café because it’s so likably ramshackle.

 

It occupies an intersection among some pedestrianized alleys off Avenue de la Liberté in Lafayette – a T-junction formed by two open-air alleys, which is also connected to the avenue itself by two more, covered passageways.  The heart of the café is a couple of rooms in the building between the two covered passageways.  There are countless coffee-and-shisha shops catering to males in the neighbourhood, but you’ll find women here as well – and they particularly like to congregate in the building’s furthest-back room.

 

Meanwhile, out in the T-junction itself, there are scattered tables and chairs and an aged tree whose expansive branches create a green canopy over most of the outdoor seating.  In places, weird tendril-like growths hang down from the branches, while threaded through the leafy canopy are cables of clunky-looking coloured light-bulbs.  At the back of this area the café has another indoor section, provided by a long, low wooden shelter that has the look of a very tidy garden shed (one furnished with red curtains and a television set).

 

In the middle of the Café Hannibal stands a stone fountain surrounded by a low, square wall that’s decorated with sculpted lions’ heads.  I assume the fountain is defunct because I’ve never seen any water issuing from it.  Finally, in the mouth of alleyway leading in the opposite direction from the Avenue de la Liberté, there’s a big box-shaped birdcage made out of meshed wire.  Once upon a time it was inhabited by a single budgerigar, but during my most recent visits to the café even that one bird has disappeared.  Maybe it died from loneliness.  Now, when there are only a few customers around, the waterless fountain and the empty, silent birdcage give the café a rather melancholic air.

 

Favourite places in Tunis 1: Bar Jamaica

 

Bar Jamaica sits on the rooftop of the Hana Hotel on Tunis’s Habib Bourguiba Avenue.  To reach it, you go to the back of the hotel’s reception area and take the lift on the right to Floor 10.  The floor-numbers display inside the lift is a bit knackered, by the way, and it informs you that you’re passing Floor 7 a few moments before it says you’re passing Floor 5.

 

Once you get up there, you’ll no doubt conclude that the bar itself is nothing to write home about.  In fact, it looks like it was put together by an interior designer suffering from a severe case of altitude sickness. A mangy blue carpet, black walls, two yellow-orange hexagonal indentations in the ceiling, a metal-topped bar counter and two tiers of dull-surfaced mirrors behind the bar do not make for a salubrious drinking environment.

 

But the bar isn’t important.   What matters is that the terrace outside allows some of the best views of downtown Tunis you could hope for.  Here’s Habib Bourguiba Avenue seen from the Jamaica’s terrace as it extends towards the Medina.  Visible at the right is one of the towers of the Roman Catholic Cathedral of St Vincent de Paul.

 

 

Here’s the avenue as it heads the other way, towards Place 14 Janvier 2011 and La Goulette Road.  It’s just a pity that the slab-like Hotel Africa looms incongruously over the cityscape here, looking like a supersized version of one of those alien-designed monoliths in 2001: A Space Odyssey.

 

 

Meanwhile, the view south from the Jamaica lets you look along Avenue de Carthage to the hill that’s the site of the Cimetiere El Jallaz, the city’s main necropolis.  The cemetery was most recently in the news in February, when the murdered Tunisian politician Chokri Belaid was laid to rest there.

 

 

And here’s the National Theatre, which is located across the thoroughfare from the Hana Hotel.  It looks like an ornate doll’s house when viewed from its neighbour’s tenth floor.

 

 

The Bar Jamaica will be forever engraved on my memory because I was up there on the afternoon of January 13th, 2011, which was the moment when the Tunisian Revolution (and by extension the Arab Spring) seemed to kick off for me.

 

For half-an-hour I’d been walking around the avenue below, aware of the tense atmosphere.  Most of the street-side cafes were shut, their chairs tightly stacked and pushed in against the entrances, their parasols folded inwards so that they stood along the pavements like clumps of withered flowers.  I’d found one place, a men’s coffee shop, which remained open – it was opposite the Ministry of the Interior building, which had a lot of policemen stationed in front of it.  (Bizarrely, whilst drinking a coffee there, I remember watching a Ministry cleaning lady dressed in a blue smock and a headscarf plodding to and fro among those cops, presumably going about her usual cleaning duties.)

 

Further up the avenue, there were yellow public-transport buses parked at the front and sides of the National Theatre, with troops sitting inside them.  Three or four police land-cruisers waited in front of the French Embassy and another busload of troops were positioned where Avenue Habib Bourguiba narrows and becomes the Avenue de France (which continues to the Medina).  Several green trams had ground to a halt, one after another, on the tramlines that loop around the top of the avenue from Rue de Rome to Rue de Hollande, and these contained a number of very troubled-looking passengers.  Eventually though, the trams started moving again.  They inched their way off the avenue with arthritic slowness.

 

When I passed the junction where Rue de Rome meets Avenue Habib Bourguiba, I saw that it was blocked up with riot cops.  They glared across the avenue to the opposite junction, with Rue Jamel, where a crowd of youths had gathered.  While I was in the vicinity a couple more police vans pulled up, and then I saw one of the riot cops load a canister into a tear-gas gun.  At that moment I decided it was time to remove myself to a safer vantage point.  The easiest-seeming thing to do was to hop into the Hotel Hana’s lift and ascend ten storeys to Bar Jamaica.

 

After the oppressive atmosphere at street level, things felt entirely different up at the bar.  The view of central Tunis seemed as enchanting as ever, the sea to the east blue and serene.  The people and vehicles on the avenue had shrunk to toy-like proportions and the troubles associated with them suddenly seemed distant and inconsequential.  The ranks of armoured, helmetted policemen, manoeuvring on the avenue in accordance with where they thought the protestors were going, now looked to me like groups of scuttling beetles.

 

I’d just bought a beer at the bar when I heard a loud and prolonged rattle of gunfire.  It came from the northern side of the terrace, from where you can look along the Avenues de Paris and de la Liberte and see the big, green hump of Belvedere Park.

 

 

Now a grey haze of gunsmoke hovered in the air several blocks to the north, perhaps above the nearer end of Avenue de la Liberte.  I remember noticing that on the rooftop of a lower building next door to the Hana Hotel, a guy had been sitting eating a late lunch off a small folding table.  The moment that the gunshots rang out, he sprang to his feet, snatched up his lunch-plate, then snatched up the folding table, and bolted inside through a rooftop doorway.  Meanwhile, nearby on the terrace, a young Tunisian woman lamented in English, “It’s like Bagdad now!”

 

I judged the gunfire to have occurred halfway along the route I normally walked to get from my apartment to the centre of Tunis.  Needless to say, I suddenly felt an urge to give up on the idea of returning home that day and to spend the rest of it up at the Bar Jamaica — like the hero of Robert Burns’ epic poem Tam O’Shanter, to “sit bousing at the nappy, an’ getting fou and unco happy,” whilst declining to think of the problems that might “lie between us and our hame.”  However, I summoned my courage and left soon afterwards.  Though that afternoon I did make my way home in a very roundabout way.

 

A boob on the road to democracy?

 

In recent months this blog has said little about Tunisian politics.  Actually, due to how depressing the subject had become, especially with the assassination of the secularist politician Chokri Belaid in February, I’d started to think that if I stopped following it, maybe it wouldn’t be so bad.

 

I guess my logic was like the phenomenon of observation in quantum mechanics.  Scientific experiments have suggested that the behaviour of a beam of electrons is affected by the very fact of their being observed, and the more they are watched the greater an influence there seems to be on their behaviour.  So perhaps if I didn’t observe Tunisian politics, expecting bad stuff to happen, then bad stuff wouldn’t happen in Tunisian politics.

 

But needless to say, my hands-off approach hasn’t worked.  Bad stuff has continued to happen even though I’ve done my best lately to ignore what’s been going on in this country.  Back in April there was the episode in the Mount Chaambi area, on the border with Algeria, where Tunisian soldiers were badly injured – some lost limbs or were blinded – by mines planted by Jihadists believed to include members of the Salafist group Ansar al-Sharia.  And last month there was trouble in the town of Kairouan when the government banned Ansar al-Sharia from holding its annual congress there.  A rally held in support of Ansar al-Sharia in the Tunis suburb of Ettadhamen ended in more violence and a protestor’s death (http://www.thenational.ae/news/world/middle-east/tunisias-moderates-lose-patience-with-ansar-al-sharia#full).

 

On top of everything else there’s been the affair of Amina Sboui, a Tunisian woman associated with the Ukrainian feminist group Femen, who first came to prominence when she posted pictures of herself on Facebook in which she was topless and had painted across her skin the declaration, ‘My body belongs to me and not to the honour of others’.  She then turned up in Kairouan on the day that Ansar al-Sharia was banned from holding its congress and graffiti-ed a cemetery wall near the Great Mosque (which coincidentally is part of a UN World Heritage site) with the word ‘Femen’.

 

Ms Sboui was subsequently arrested and put on trial in Kairouan, charged initially with carrying an ‘incendiary object’, which turned out to be a can of pepper spray that a foreigner had given her for her own protection.  A can of pepper spray, it should be said, would have been little use against the horde of religious protestors who were soon demonstrating outside the Kairouan courthouse and venting their ire against her (http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-africa-22714130).  She now faces more serious charges of offending public decency and desecrating a cemetery.

 

Meanwhile, non-Tunisian members of Femen have hurried into the country to express their solidarity with Ms Sboui.  Two German women and a French woman have just gone on trial inside Tunis’s Palace of Justice, charged with offending public decency a week ago by staging a topless protest outside the building.  And it seems that a founding member of Femen, Aleksandro Shevchenko, was arrested in Tunis yesterday and deported to Ukraine, presumably before she could offend Tunisian public decency with a bare-breasted protest of her own  (http://www.tunisia-live.net/2013/06/05/two-femen-trials-underway-femen-leader-reportedly-deported/).

 

Well, there’s certainly an argument to be made that flashing a few naked boobs on the street and scrawling a word on a wall are far less harmful than the things that the religious extremists who’ve emerged from the woodwork in the last two-and-a-bit years in Tunisia have done.  They’ve attacked TV stations, galleries, campuses, Sufi shrines, bars, embassies and schools and generally made life miserable for a lot of people who’d naively assumed that after they’d chased Ben Ali out of the country in January 2011 they’d be able live their lives with rather less interference and intimidation from sociopathic thugs.  However, while there’s a struggle going on in Tunisia between those who want their society to be secular and liberal and those who want it to be restrictive and pious, I imagine most liberal Tunisians would prefer it if Femen took their provocations elsewhere.

 

Having representatives of a particular brand of feminism piling in from Europe and trying to antagonise the more sanctimonious sections of Tunisian society by waving their boobs at them isn’t helping those liberals who’d like to win the debate in a sober and reasonable manner.  Rather, it’s playing into the hands of those bearded, gimlet-eyed extremists who’d like to convince the more swayable members of the population that tolerating even a little bit of liberalism and feminism in Tunisia is the thin edge of the wedge – which will finally lead to a hellish situation where all your daughters are running amok, topless.  Also, it’s worth remembering that Tunisia, for all that the Salafists have tried to change it, is still probably the most liberal country in the Arab world.  As one commentator said on the Internet recently, women get treated an awful lot worse in Saudi Arabia – why don’t Femen go and protest there?  (http://www.democraticunderground.com/10022925795.)

 

It also perplexes me that Femen should be using topless protests to highlight the supposed oppressiveness of Tunisia when, in fact, if a lady whipped off her blouse and bra on a street in a Western European city, it wouldn’t be long before she attracted the censorious attention of the police there too.  Indeed, not so long ago, if a woman had done such a thing in Ireland, she’d probably have ended up incarcerated in a Magdalene Laundry.

 

Still, when you see some of the religious specimens ranting against Ms Sboui, it’s difficult not to feel a spasm of anger at the underlying injustice of it.  Organised religion has created a huge amount of human suffering over the centuries, by propagating ignorance, encouraging bigotry and – witness the recent revelations about the Catholic Church – quietly permitting child abuse on an industrial scale.  Furthermore, religion has inspired wars and mass persecutions (e.g. the Crusades, the Inquisition) that have resulted in vast numbers of deaths.

 

On the other hand, to the best of my knowledge, nobody has ever been killed by a tit.

 

(c) The Daily Telegraph

 

Oh, hold on.  I take that back.

 

Tunisia’s new boss – same as the old boss?

 

Last Sunday, a friend and I walked from Tunis’s historical suburb of Carthage up to the pretty, white-and-blue-painted and jasmine-festooned village of Sid Bou Said.  On the way we stopped at the Basilique de Damous El Karita, which was the first Christian monument to be discovered in the area (http://www.robertjewett.com/damous-el-karita-basilica/).  These days, the basilica exists as a pillar-studded field at the side of the Boulevard de l’Environnement — a big, busy road with a concrete drain running along its verge that, despite its name, isn’t particularly environmental-looking.  A little closer to Sidi Bou Said, we visited another early Christian site just off the Rue du Maroc, the Basilique de Saint Cyprien, which offers a fine view of the beach and sea at Amilcar (http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Tunisie_Basilique_St_Cyprien_2.jpg). The day was bright and warm and the sky was flawlessly blue.  There were even a few tourist-coaches on the prowl, packed with northern Europeans.  I suspect they were from Germany – a country whose holidaymakers have always seemed pretty imperturbable in the face of potential political unrest.

 

You wouldn’t have thought there was much wrong with Tunisia on Sunday, then.  But in fact, on the political, economic and social fronts at the moment, things here seem far from rosy.  Admittedly, a calm has descended since early February, when the assassination of opposition leader Chokri Belaid spawned demonstrations, strikes and allegations of murderous government conspiracies.  But the calm reminds me of how the Northern Irish thriller writer Colin Bateman, in his 1996 novel Of Wee Sweetie Mice and Men, described Belfast shortly after the mid-1990s peace deal.  The metaphor Bateman used for the newly-negotiated peace that suddenly pervaded the long-suffering city of Belfast was of a ‘skin’ resting on a ‘rancid custard’.  Tunisia’s current calm does feel about as fragile as a custard skin, and the mass of political, economic and social worries it sits upon is pretty unappetising too.

 

So – what has happened here since the dust settled following Chokri Belaid’s funeral?

 

Firstly, Tunisia has got a new government, although it’s composed of the same three parties as the previous government: Ennahdha (the main player), Ettakatol and the Congress for the Republic (the junior partners).  Negotiations to widen the government’s appeal by bringing more opposition parties on board failed.  What is different now is that three ministries that had been in Ennahdha’s control have been handed over to politically ‘neutral’ ministers.  These three ministries include the Ministry of the Interior, which had previously been the responsibility of Ali Larayedh, who is now Tunisia’s new prime minister.  (http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-africa-21711345; http://www.tunisia-live.net/2013/03/08/prime-minister-designate-names-members-of-new-cabinet/.)  It’s fair to say that during his stint as Minister of the Interior Larayedh did not cover himself in glory, so many people here aren’t holding their breath for the success of his premiership.  Indeed, most Tunisian people no longer seem to be holding their breath about any improvement in their national politics, a state of disillusionment described in the following article:  http://www.tunisia-live.net/2013/03/08/survey-finds-low-levels-of-trust-for-political-leaders/.  (A Tunisian journalist I spoke to recently said flatly that if he’d known how things were going to pan out, he’d never have participated in the revolution two years ago.)

 

From www.alvinet.com

 

I’m no expert on Tunisian politics but, as an outsider looking in at this new government, I can’t see how Ennahdha has benefited at all.  If they really did wish to encourage more political parties into the coalition, they’ve failed.  At the same time, they can’t claim to have consolidated or garnered any more power for themselves, since they’ve given away control of three ministries.  And only a few weeks ago, when former prime minister Hamadi Jebali proposed a non-political government of ‘technocrats’, Ennahdha said a firm ‘no’ to him, causing Jebali to pack his bags.  Yet now, a good-sized chunk of the government is in the hands of political neutrals, which makes you wonder why they bothered to argue with Jebali at all.

 

Meanwhile, three days ago, a 27-year-old man called Adel Khadri set himself on fire on the steps of the National Theatre on Habib Bourguiba Avenue in central Tunis.  By the time the flames had been put out, Khadri had suffered burns to 90% of his body. (http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-africa-21767594; http://mg.co.za/article/2013-03-13-man-dies-in-tunisia-after-setting-himself-alight/; http://www.tunisia-live.net/2013/03/13/tunisian-street-vendor-dies-morning-after-self-immolation/.)  Depending on which newspaper account of the incident you read, he did this in despair about unemployment in Tunisia or as a protest against the harassment he’d suffered from police officers whist trying to eke a living on the Tunis streets as a cigarette vendor.   Khadri’s actions echoed those of Mohamed Bouazizi in late 2010, whose self-immolation is credited with triggering the Tunisian revolution and by extension the whole Arab Spring.

 

Although instances of self-immolation have not been uncommon among unemployed, poverty-stricken and at-the-end-of-their-tether Tunisian men over the last two years – the BBC news website ran a feature about the phenomenon a while ago: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-africa-16526462 — these have generally happened in less-well known towns in the country’s interior.  But this most recent case happened in the middle of the most public and most photographed street in the capital.  Within hours, pictures of Khadri during the incident’s aftermath, badly burned and clearly in a state of severe shock, were appearing on press websites around the world.

 

Despite being rushed to hospital – the same hospital, ironically, where Bouazizi had died two years earlier – Khadri passed away the next day.  By a grim coincidence, he died just hours before Larayedh’s new government was approved by the National Constituent Assembly.

 

If Khadri’s self-immolation reminded Tunisians of what’d happened just before the revolution (and made them wonder if things had actually improved since then), another recent incident also suggested that Tunisia hadn’t changed much for the better.  A video for a song called Cops are Dogs by a rapper called Weld El 15 came to the attention of the song’s targets, the Tunisian police force, who last Sunday arrested the video’s director and an actress who appeared in it.  Both were accused of breaking Act 125 of the Tunisian penal code, which forbids the population from insulting ‘civil servants’.  The last I heard, Weld El 15 was still at large and had no intention of handing himself in, for the understandable reason that he reckoned the police would beat the stuffing out of him when they got their hands on him.  (http://www.tunisia-live.net/2013/03/12/tunisian-artists-arrested-over-cops-are-dogs-rap-video/; http://www.globalpost.com/dispatch/news/afp/130312/tunisia-detains-two-over-anti-police-rap-video-0.)

 

Reading about Weld El 15 gave me a feeling of deja-vu, since his story echoed what’d happened to the Sfax-based rapper Hamada Ben-Amor just before the revolution.  Back at the beginning of 2011, Ben-Amour’s song President, Your People Are Dying led to him being hauled off by policemen loyal to Tunisia’s then ruler Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali (http://www.aljazeera.com/news/africa/2011/01/20111718360234492.html).  The more things change, the more they stay the same, eh?

 

Still, I don’t want this entry to be wholly depressing, so I’ll finish by mentioning one Tunisian news story that cheered me up recently.  It was about students at the Bourguiba Language Institute in Tunis, who late last month tried to film themselves dancing to the Harlem Shake – something that about 90% of the world’s population seems to have done in recent weeks.  Some local Salafists, evidently not fans of the Harlem Shake nor, I would guess, of anything involving music, dancing, fun, laughter or general human spontaneity, invaded the campus in order to stop the filming – and the students, deciding to fight for their right to party, promptly chased those Salafists away again.  (http://www.moroccoworldnews.com/2013/02/80247/salafists-fail-to-stop-harlem-shake-in-tunisia/; http://www.juancole.com/2013/02.)  Yes, there’s hope for the young generation of Tunisia yet.