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.



Actors and Directors


An exchange between Johnny Depp and Ricky Gervais, from the first series of Gervais’s TV show Life’s Too Short:

“You know, I’m working with a great director just now.  A guy the name of Tim Burton.  You ever heard of him?”

“Of course.”

“And the film itself is really brilliant…  And, um, I’m playing a very interesting character.  Do you have any idea who my leading lady is on this film?”

“In the Tim Burton film?


“Helena Bonham-Carter?”

“How’d you know?”

“Stab in the dark.”

“She thinks you’re an idiot.”


It’s hard to believe now but there was a time when Depp made films for directors who weren’t Tim Burton.  However, of late, his partnership with the tousle-haired, black-clad director of all things gothic has increasingly dominated his career.  Some would say it’s made Depp’s career rather stale.  Yes, he was great in the 1990s when Burton gave him roles in Edward Scissorhands, Ed Wood and Sleepy Hollow.  However, having been force-fed Depp-Burton versions of Willie Wonka, Sweeny Todd, the Mad Hatter and Barnabas Collins in quick succession since the mid-noughties, I suspect modern audiences hope that Depp and Burton, like a married couple whose marriage has lost its magic, might want to spend a little time apart from each other.


Anyway, this has made me think about regular collaborations between other actors and directors.  Back in cinematic history, of course, Humphrey Bogart and John Huston were a prominent acting / directing duo, as were John Wayne and John Ford.  More recently, we’ve had Robert De Niro and Martin Scorsese and more recently still, Samuel L. Jackson and Quentin Tarantino.  Here are a few of my own favourite actor (or actress) / director team-ups.  Note that I’ve excluded performers who appeared in numerous movies directed by their spouses, which means there’s no mention of Gena Rowlands and John Cassavetes or, for that matter, Mr and Mrs Tim Burton.


Dick Miller and Joe Dante.


Craggy New York character actor and former middle-weight boxer Dick Miller made his name in the 1950s and 60s appearing in films directed by the human B-movie factory that is Roger Corman – for example, It Conquered the World, Little Shop of Horrors, The Premature Burial, X: The Man with the X-Ray Eyes, The Wild Angels, The St Valentine’s Day Massacre, The Trip and most famously 1959’s A Bucket of Blood (in which he played a very bad avant-garde sculptor called Walter Paisley who starts faking his art by murdering the annoying Beatniks at his local café and covering their bodies in clay).  When Corman moved into producing and encouraged young, up-and-coming talents to do the directing for him (on low salaries and with low budgets), Miller got passed on like a family heirloom to Corman’s prodigies – Jonathan Kaplan (1973’s Student Teachers), Jonathan Demme (1975’s Crazy Mama), Paul Bartel (1976’s Carquake), Allan Arkush (1979’s Rock ‘n’ Roll High School) and James Cameron (1984’s The Terminator – Miller is the hapless shopkeeper who furnishes Arnie with his weaponry).


However, his longest and most prolific partnership has been with Joe Dante, who by my calculations has cast him in 13 movies, from 1976’s Hollywood Boulevard to 2009’s The Hole.  Dante usually puts Miller in blue-collar roles – security guard, pizza delivery guy, garbage collector, truck driver, taxi driver and in the case of Murray Futterman, his memorably harassed character in Gremlins and Gremlins II, snowplough driver.  Furthermore, in honour of his most famous role, three of Dante’s movies – Hollywood Boulevard, The Howling (1981) and the Dante-directed segment of Twilight Zone: the Movie (1983) – see Miller playing a character called Walter Paisley.


Klaus Kinski and Werner Herzog.


Unstoppable sex-crazed schizophrenic German force meets unmoveable insane-dream-obsessed German object?  The relationship between Kinski and Herzog could be euphemistically described as ‘tempestuous’ and it was that way from the very beginning.  Their first collaboration, Aguirre, Wrath of God, saw Kinski lose his cool so spectacularly that he fired a gun at a film-crew tent and blew a fingertip off one of the extras.  Herzog, in turn, was said to have held a gun on Kinski to force him to continue filming, although Herzog denies this.  Meanwhile, 1982’s dragging-a-steamship-through-the-Peruvian-rainforest epic Fitzcarraldo was right up Kinski and Herzog’s street – they eschewed the use of special effects and did it using real steamships in real rainforest.  By this time Kinski was so off his head that supposedly one of the local Indian chiefs approached Herzog and offered to kill him.


(c) Werner Herzog Filmproduktion 


Kinski and Herzog’s other collaborations were Nosferatu the Vampyre (1979), in which, miraculously, Kinski managed to keep his cool during the four-hour make-up sessions required to turn him into the bald, toothy, Spock-eared and talon-fingered nosferatu of the title, Wozeck (1979) and Cobra Verde (1987).  Herzog was so unbearable during the filming of that last movie that original cinematographer Thomas Mauch ended up walking off the set and Herzog himself didn’t employ Kinski again.


Shelley Duvall and Robert Altman.


The huge-eyed, gangly and charming Shelley Duvall was rarely absent from Robert Altman’s movies during the 1970s – she was in Brewster McCloud (1970), McCabe and Mrs Miller (1971), Thieves like us (1974), Nashville (1975), Buffalo Bill and the Indians (1976) and Three Women (1977).  With her distinctive appearance, it was inevitable when Altman agreed to direct Popeye for Disney Studios in 1980 that he asked Duvall to play Popeye’s girlfriend, Olive Oyl.  (Indeed, Duvall was initially reluctant to accept the role because ‘Olive Oyl’ was the nickname she’d been tormented with at school.)  Afterwards, the actress and the director went their separate ways.  Duvall devoted herself to producing television adaptations of fairy stories and children’s books, though not before she got pursued around the Overlook Hotel by an axe-waving Jack Nicholson in The Shining (1980).


Oliver Reed and Ken Russell.


The pugnacious and permanently-pickled legend that is Oliver Reed had been making swashbucklers and horror movies for Hammer Films and swinging-sixties comedies for Michael Winner when Ken Russell – a director best described by the adjective ‘unrestrained’ – gave him a leg up into arthouse cinema.  Reed had small parts in Russell’s Mahler (1974) and Lisztomania (1975) but it was in Russell’s three best remembered films – Women in Love (1969), The Devils (1971) and Tommy (1975) – that he excelled.


Women in Love is famous for its saucy nude wrestling scene between Reed and Alan Bates – even now you have to ‘sign in to confirm your age’ to view it on youtube.  Of major concern to Reed and Bates before they filmed it, apparently, was the question of whose member would look bigger and whose would look smaller.  (To their relief, when they compared lengths, it was a draw.)  Two years later, Reed played Urbain Grandier in Russell’s hugely controversial The Devils, based on John Whiting’s play of the same name and The Devils of Loudon by Aldous Huxley – such passions did the film arouse that in a TV debate Russell walloped critic Alexander Walker over the head with a rolled-up copy of the Evening Standard (the paper that Walker wrote for) when the latter described the film as ‘monstrously indecent’.  In Tommy, Reed held his own as the title character’s brutal stepfather – holding his own was no mean feat in a movie that included Tina Turner as the Acid Queen, Keith Moon as the detestable child-molesting Uncle Ernie and Ann-Margaret writhing in a morass of baked beans.


(c) Warner Brothers 


Both Reed and Russell’s careers went into freefall in the 1980s and thereafter their paths didn’t cross again.  It might’ve been fun, though, to see Reed in Russell’s Lair of the White Worm (1988) – you could almost imagine him fumbling to open his trousers whilst bellowing, “You call that a giant worm?  This is a giant worm!”


Stephen Rea and Neil Jordan.


Irish director Neil Jordan’s films seem to need the presence of Stephen Rea.  Whether he’s in a main role – Angel (1982), The Crying Game (1992) – or a supporting one – Michael Collins (1996), The Butcher Boy (1997) – or just turning up in a cameo – The Company of Wolves (1984), Breakfast on Pluto (2005) – the lugubrious-faced Belfast actor apparently adds some talismanic luck to the artistic success of Jordan’s work.  The Rea-less Mona Lisa (1986) is an outstanding exception; but, looking at the likes of High Spirits (1988), We’re no Angels (1989) and The Brave One (2007), none of which had him on board, the general rule for Jordan’s films seems to be, no Rea, no good.


Sheila Keith and Pete Walker.


A combination of exploitation cinema and social commentary, British director Peter Walker’s 1970s horror movies were memorably grim – serving up (for the time) disturbingly graphic violence, attacking institutions like the judiciary and the Catholic church, and generally showing how depressingly grotty life was in 1970s Britain.  What helped their impact immeasurably was his repeated casting of Scottish actress Sheila Keith, familiar to several generations of British TV viewers for her appearances as prim ladies of a certain age (often aristocrats or nuns) in cosy situation comedies like The Liver Birds, Some Mothers do ‘Ave ‘Em, Rings on their Fingers, The Other ‘Arf, Bless Me Father, Never The Twain, A Fine Romance and The Brittas Empire.  But there was nothing cosy about the chilling harridans whom Keith played for Walker, in House of Whipcord (1974), in House of Mortal Sin (1975) and most subversively in Frightmare (1974), in which her Dorothy Yates character shifted gears between being a confused, pathetic, middle-aged housewife and a demented brain-eating cannibal.  Apparently, she found these roles liberating compared to her normal acting fare.  And the now-classic stills of Keith in Frighmare, wielding a Black-and-Decker drill, grinning, and splattered with a victim’s cerebral tissue, suggest an actress who enjoyed her work.


(c) Miracle


Walker cast her in two later horror movies, 1978’s The Comeback and 1982’s House of the Long Shadows, but neither was to the standard of their earlier work.  The Comeback at least has an interesting idea – an elderly couple (one of whom is Keith) take gruesome revenge on a faded rock star whom they believe induced their daughter to commit suicide.  Confronting the rocker at the end, Keith admonishes him in a hate-filled voice for his decadence and depravity and even his lewd bodily ‘contortions’ onstage.  This would’ve worked if the rock star had been played by someone properly decadent like Mick Jagger or Iggy Pop but, laughably, he’s played by Jack Jones, housewives’ favourite and singer of the Love Boat theme.  Jones’s performance was likened by one critic to a ‘hibernating bear’.


Roy Kinnear and Richard Lester.


The portly and eternally flustered-looking comic actor Roy Kinnear was a fixture in the films of American-based-in-Britain director Richard Lester during most phases of Lester’s career.  Kinnear turned up in the second of the movies Lester directed with the Beatles, 1965’s Help!, then accompanied Lester when he moved on to directing the surrealist black comedies 1967’s How I Won the War and 1969’s The Bed Sitting Room, and then provided comic relief in Lester’s The Three Musketeers and Four Musketeers in 1973 and 1974.  Around this time too, Lester cast Kinnear in his British disaster movie Juggernaut (1974), giving him a role with more depth than usual – he played Curtain, the luckless entertainments officer who has to keep a cruise-liner-load of passengers amused after it transpires that a terrorist has placed six bombs on board the ship.


Only during Lester’s box-office peak – 1980’s Superman II and 1983’s Superman III – did Kinnear fail to make an appearance in his old friend’s films.  The two were reunited in 1988 for a belated second sequel to The Three Musketeers, The Return of the Musketeers, but tragedy awaited.  During filming in Spain, Kinnear was thrown from a horse and suffered a broken pelvis.  The following day, in hospital, he died of a heart attack.  Lester was so upset by the experience that, apart from a concert film for Paul McCartney, 1991’s Get Back, he hasn’t directed a movie since.


(c) United Artists


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.