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.

 

 

Trams

 

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.

 

 

Ojja

 

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

 

 

Awwww.

 

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.

 

Rachid against the machine

 

In the past fortnight I have noticed two opinion pieces in the British media concerning the Arab Uprising.  Incidentally, the ‘Arab Uprising’ seems to have become the BBC’s new term for describing what had formerly been called the ‘Arab Spring’.  Presumably this is because the political and economic sunshine in North Africa and the Middle East has not been summery, or even particularly spring-like, since events in Tunisia kick-started the thing nearly two years ago.

 

One was by Gerald Warner, who is described in his now-defunct Daily Telegraph blog as ‘an author, broadcaster, columnist and polemical commentator’.  Some, especially those who have to grit their teeth whilst wading through his columns in the Scotland on Sunday every week, would translate ‘polemical commentator’ as ‘right-wing tosser’.  In his December 2nd column in the SoS, he used recent events in Egypt to pour scorn on liberals who’d dared to believe that the Arab Spring / Uprising would produce anything other than chaos, bloodshed and hardline Islamic oppression: “Old Middle Eastern hands could have told the starry-eyed Guardianistas that democracy on the Nile does not produce the same outcome as on the banks of the Thames.”

 

(http://www.scotsman.com/scotland-on-sunday/opinion/comment/gerald-warner-after-the-frenzy-of-the-arab-spring-comes-the-harsh-islamic-winter-1-2671175)

 

The other piece was authored by Mehdi Hasan, a journalist involved with the Guardian, New Statesman, Al-Jazeera Television and the UK edition of the Huffington Post.  One of Warner’s despised Guardianistas, Hasan is something of a punch-bag these days for Britain’s right-wing commentators – only rarely, it seems, does the Spectator columnist Rod Liddle write the name ‘Mehdi Hasan’ without preceding it with the words ‘the idiotic’.  A Hasan-penned article appeared in the New Statesman on November 29th, wherein he conceded that “recent events in Egypt don’t help those of us who desperately want to be optimistic about the future of the region”.  Nonetheless, he declared defiantly: “But do you know who I trust? The Egyptians. And the Bahrainis. And the Jordanians. And the Syrians. Whatever the season, spring or winter, they will have their freedom.”

 

(http://www.newstatesman.com/politics/2012/11/ignore-neocons-i-refuse-give-on-egypt-or-arab-spring)

 

Now in my entire life I have never agreed with a single word that Gerald Warner has written, and if I ever did I would probably rush to the nearest clinic to check if I was suffering from the onset of Alzheimer’s disease.  I find it particularly ironic that Warner should mouth off about the horrors of Sharia law, considering that in the past he’s excused the murderous regimes of Franco and Pinochet on the grounds that because both fascist dictators were devout Roman Catholics (as he is) they couldn’t have been that bad.  The moral code Warner would like us all to live under might not go as far as advocating the death penalty for the sin of apostasy, but it certainly wouldn’t be a barrel of laughs either – I imagine it would be as much fun as living in Eamon de Valera’s Irish Free State circa 1935.  Still, the recent antics of Egyptian president Mohammed Morsi have made my heart sink.  Morsi seems to have split his country down the middle with a giant political chisel in his haste to approve an ambiguously-worded constitution that would allow Islamists to make life miserable for Coptics, Sufis, pesky liberals and uppity women.

 

(http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2012/dec/09/egypt-hopes-betrayed-mohamed-morsi)

 

Where does that leave the other country at the forefront of the Arab Spring (sorry, Uprising), Tunisia?  By a coincidence, Rachid Ghannouchi, leader of Ennahdha, Tunisia’s supposedly moderate Islamist party and the biggest player in its post-revolution government, also turned up in the British media lately.  He was interviewed in the Guardian last week by the firebrand (though on this occasion noticeably deferential) left-wing journalist Seumas Milne.  Interestingly, Ghannouchi identified the ‘Scandinavian’ model as the one he was most eager for Tunisia to follow.  But don’t worry, all you devout Salafists out there, he wasn’t talking about Swedish permissiveness or Danish pornography (‘hot love and cold people’, as the saying used to go), but the Scandinavian economic and social model, where more than a little of capitalist society’s profits goes to a creating a decent safety net for the less well-off.  Folk in hard-pressed parts of Tunisia like Siliana and Sidi Bouzid would tell Ghannouchi that there’s a hell of a long way to go before the economic and social climate there is anywhere near as comfortable as it is in Scandinavia.

 

(http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/video/2012/dec/04/rachid-ghannouchi-scandinavian-economic-model-tunisia-video)

 

Meanwhile, it’s disappointing that Seumas Milne, whose past articles in the Guardian have included The Problem with Unions is they’re not Strong Enough, Five Reasons Public Service Workers are Right to Strike, The Return of Anti-Union Propaganda, The Right to Strike is being Threatened by the Courts, An Assault on Unions is an Attack on Democracy Itself, and A Generation on, the Miners’ Strike can Speak to our Time, didn’t ask Ghannouchi about why his government has fallen out so badly with his country’s trade union organisation, the Union Géneralé Tunisienne du Travail (UGTT).

 

The UGTT has been vitriolic about the Tunisian government and Ennahdha in particular.  It blames the country’s political leaders for the violent police handling of protestors, including trade unionists, who were demonstrating about the lack of jobs in the town of Siliana in late November and early December.  It also blames them for a recent assault on trade unionists in Tunis while they commemorated the assassination of UGTT founder Farhat Hached (killed in 1952 by La Main Rouge, a French paramilitary group seeking to prevent Tunisian independence).  The attackers were allegedly members of the League for the Protection of the Revolution, a faction supporting Ennahdha that had already been accused of responsibility for the death of opposition party Nida Tounes activist Lofti Naqdh back in October.

 

In fact, so incensed was the UGTT that it had planned a general strike in Tunisia today, December 13th, though the strike was called off yesterday after last-minute negotiations between it and the government.  As yet, I haven’t seen any details of what was agreed.  (Knowing the keen sense of rivalry that Tunisians have with the Egyptians, I can’t help suspecting that the UGTT and the government agreed to compromise only because they didn’t want Tunisia to look as hopeless as Egypt looks at the moment.)

 

Ghannouchi, and Ennahdha generally, must be feeling lonely at the top these days.  Not only have they earned the ire of the UGTT, but the ultra-religious Salafists – a group they’d spent the last year trying to be civil towards – have been saying beastly things about them too, most notably Nasreddine Aloui, the Salafist imam of Ennour Mosque. This followed trouble in late October in Tunis’s Manouba district, which resulted in two Salafists being shot dead during a confrontation at a local police station.  Interviewed on a live TV show, Aloui called for a jihad against Ennahdha, whom he denounced as puppets of the US government.  He even waved a kafin (a burial shroud) in the air while he called on young Salafists to sacrifice themselves in the upcoming war on Ennahdha.  Predictably, his call-to-arms didn’t impress government minister Samir Dilou, who happened to be appearing on the show at the same time.

 

(http://www.tunisia-live.net/2012/11/02/imam-incites-salafist-youth-to-fight-ennahdha-on-live-television/)

 

Hindsight is both a wonderful and a worthless thing.  However, Ennahdha could have done things better in the year or so since it became the main party of power.  It could have paid less attention to political wrangling and bickering and focused more on the economy, which many would argue was the real driver for the revolution.  Poor folk – including many unemployed young men – living in the country’s interior rebelled against the old Ben Ali regime because they faced shockingly grim economic prospects.  Richer folk living along the Mediterranean coast rebelled because the Mafia-like way in which the country was run – if you had a business, Ben Ali’s gruesome in-laws, the Trabelsi clan, invariably came calling looking for a cut of your profits – whittled away the money you already had and deterred entrepreneurs from setting up new operations and generating new money.

 

At the same time, Ennahdha was over-lenient with the Salafists, whose behaviour gave outsiders the impression that the country was unstable, discouraging tourists from visiting and making potential foreign investors think twice about putting money in it.  Some viewed the appeasement of the Salafists as being part of a secret, sinister plot by Ennahdha to gradually move Tunisia towards being a hardline, Sharia-controlled state, and I’m sure Ennahdha politicians, as Islamists, would like to see Tunisians being a bit more Islamic than many of them are at the moment.  But I’m inclined to think this was more down to political naiveté and inexperience.  They tried to be reasonable towards the Salafists, assuming that they’d be reasonable back.  This didn’t happen.  The Salafists seemed to believe that having the right to express their opinions and to protest peacefully also give them the right to attack TV stations, galleries, bars and embassies.  And as Nasreddine Aloui’s TV outburst showed, they didn’t take it well when, finally, the authorities ran out of patience and began to meet force with force.

 

Wiser heads will say that a revolution is never an event and always a process.  One Tunisian acquaintance of mine, who’d been schooled in France and therefore knew all about the French Revolution (which is credited as lasting a decade, and led to Napoleon, the Bourbon Restoration, the July Monarchy and two more revolutions in 1830 and 1848), told me: “We will set up a new government…  And if they are no good, we will throw them out and set up another government…  And if they are no good, we will throw them out too…”  Unfortunately, this fact has not been appreciated by some other Tunisians, who expected their living standards to rise the morning after Ben Ali and the Trabelsis had fled.

 

It certainly wasn’t appreciated in the West, where the modern news media is obsessed with catering for short TV-conditioned attention spans.  Every news item becomes a narrative, invested with a quick, easy-to-digest structure that has a beginning, middle and end, and receives a title as catchy and glib as a politician’s sound-bite.  Thus, what happened in Tunisia and Egypt in 2011 became the ‘Arab Spring’ – an event, not the first stage of what was likely to be a long, gruelling and torturous process.  Liberal Western commentators were only too happy to hail it as the day that Arab societies shook off their oppressors and turned into democracy-loving, equal-rights-for-everybody Shangri-Las.  And when this didn’t happen, right-wing Western commentators were only too happy to pronounce the whole thing a catastrophic failure that would usher in a new Dark Ages to North Africa and the Middle East.  A lot of people would be advised to hunker down, study their history books and exhibit a little patience.

 

What happens next in Tunisia?  Elections are supposedly due next year and it’s conceivable that Ennahdha could lose power.  If they do, will they – and their fans in the League for the Protection of the Revolution – accept defeat gracefully?  Or will there be a massive schism and a potentially destructive stand-off like what’s happening in Egypt just now?  I think there are grounds for optimism, because Tunisia isn’t Egypt (and despite what the narrative-obsessed Western media has told people, the Tunisian Revolution is a very different beast from the Egyptian one).  Tunisians are better educated, their country (thanks to the myriad outside influences that have figured in its history) has always seemed more outward-looking and the Tunisian army – which would have a major role to play in solving a constitutional crisis – has, until now at least, behaved with integrity.

 

One thing is for sure.  The West should get over the idea that it’s sensible to support the likes of Ben Ali, Mubarak or even (the rehabilitated) Colonel Gaddafi on the grounds that “Okay, he’s a bastard, but at least he’s our bastard.”  Gerald Warner, for example, sings the praises of Mubarak, who “was the best friend the West had in one of the most tinderbox areas on Earth; he made uneasy peace with Israel, kept the lid on smouldering fanaticism and was a reliable ally.”  Maybe so, but he was still a bastard, a corrupt bastard who robbed his people blind.  As did Ben Ali, his wife and her kin.  And sooner or later, with such bastards running (and robbing) the show, the general population will rise up and get rid of them.  I often think that if, back in the days of the Blair government, Cheri Blair had been following Leila Trabelsi’s example, siphoning off Britain’s wealth and dishing it out to her relatives like the actor Tony Booth and the journalist Lauren Booth, incensed Daily Telegraph readers and Spectator readers would have been the first to storm the barricades.

 

Of course, if Western powers have been backing this or that dictator until their moment of departure, they needn’t expect any love from the population afterwards.  It might seem realpolitik to support a bastard, but surely it’s even more realpolitik not to support an eventual loser?

 

If anyone qualifies as an ‘old Middle Eastern hand’ that Warner mentioned in his quote at the start of this entry, it’s Robert Fisk, the Independent’s correspondent for the region.  He made a pertinent remark about the Arab Spring / Uprising phenomenon in an article a month-and-a-half ago: “It is a slow business: every reader of this article will be dead of old age before the Arab ‘revolution’ is complete.”  Mehdi Hasan may be optimistic about it, but I’m afraid he’ll have more than a few grey hairs before he finds out if his optimism was justified.

 

(http://www.independent.co.uk/voices/comment/regardless-of-whether-obama-or-romney-wins-americas-relations-with-the-arab-world-will-change-8229921.html)

 

I was there…

 

And just to prove that I wasn’t bullshitting in my previous post, about being at the scene of the action on January 14th, 2011, the day that the Arab Spring really kicked off…  Here are a couple of photographs taken outside the Ministry of the Interior building in Tunis on that fateful day.

 

Looking at the pictures now, I’m struck by how static and oddly undramatic they look.  However, I defy anyone to take a dramatic picture of a huge crowd — even a revolutionary huge crowd — when they’re stuck right at the back of it.

 

 

 

 

Respect for the Tunisians

 

Isn’t it time that the Tunisians got some credit for what they’ve achieved in the past year?

 

Just over a year ago, on January 14th, 2011, they concluded a month of protests by assembling in front of the Ministry of the Interior building on Tunis’s main avenue and demanding the departure of the country’s corrupt and long-reigning president, Bela Lugosi-lookalike Zine El Abidine Ben Ali. 

 

Considering how Ben Ali and his legions of secret-police troglodytes had kept an iron grip on Tunisia for two decades, this seemed it a bit much to hope for.  Nonetheless, the people’s will prevailed and the tyrant packed his bags (with, among other things, half of the country’s gold reserves) and fled.  In the process, the Arab Spring – still reverberating today in Syria– was born.

 

I was on the avenue that morning on January 14th, incidentally.  If you were familiar with pre-revolutionary Tunisia, the sight of so many people crammed into the avenue in front of the hulking Ministry building, waving protest-placards handwritten in Arabic or English – “Give back our money!” ranted one – was mind-blowing.  Even 24 hours earlier, in Ben Ali’s police state, the thought of a public protest in front of this Orwellian symbol of his rule seemed inconceivable. 

 

And yet here they were – not just young men, but women, children and old folk.  For many, this was surely the first ever protest they’d been involved in and they looked understandably fazed.  At the back of the immense crowd, pressed against the windows of the Benetton store on the avenue’s far side, were many ordinary-looking citizens who obviously agreed with the sentiment but were nonetheless fearful about joining in with the anti-Ben Ali chanting.  Meanwhile, kids who’d managed to shin their way up the avenue’s lampposts seemed more interested in posing for photos taken by the Western tourists who were wandering about in bewilderment. 

 

In short, it was something of a shambles, but it was a beautiful shambles — people power in action.

 

On October 23rd last year, in post-Ben Ali Tunisia, constituent assembly elections were held.  These passed with relatively little trouble and were judged to be fair by international observers.  Indeed, although many commentators had predicted that disaster and chaos would fill left the void left by Ben Ali – these pessimistic commentators included Muammar Gaddafi in Libya and most of the columnists writing for the right-wing press in Britain – such disaster and chaos did not materialise.  Tunisian people, as a whole, have behaved reasonably and sensibly. 

 

Yet little of this has been reported in the Western media, which seems fixated on the demonstrations, violence and multiple deaths that continue to occur, with depressing regularity, in post-Mubarak Egypt.

 

Of course, things here could still go pear-shaped.  The unemployment rate, most recently reported at 18.9%, shows how Tunisia’s new politicians have their work cut out economically.  (The return of the five billion dollars that Ben Ali and his family are supposed to have harvested from the country while running it as a kleptocracy would obviously help to get the economy moving again.)  Strikes are commonplace – I only have to look out of my window and see the winter rain beating against the rubbish heaped on the pavements, the result of industrial action by the rubbish-collectors, to know that. 

 

The press, having enjoyed a brief freedom after Ben Ali’s departure, has found itself under pressure again — most worryingly with the arrests of three staff-members at the Attounisia newspaper and the trial of the owner of the Nessma TV station.  

 

And despite some fine words recently about building a secular democracy by Rachid Ghannouchi, leader of the popular moderate-Islamic Ennahdha party, something needs to be done on the ground to curb the antics of the Salafist extremists, who have been hassling citizens and businesses deemed not to be God-fearing enough.

 

But despite these many issues, all things considered, the Tunisians have done well to get this far without any major disasters.  So why hasn’t this positive fact received more coverage in the Western media?  Part of it must be due to the perception in journalistic circles that good news just isn’t interesting.  Who wants to report relative tranquillity in post-revolutionary Tunisia when there’s mass bloodshed to report in post-revolutionary Egypt? 

 

But I can’t help feeling too that there’s an element of racism at work.  The Tunisians so far have made a reasonable fist of this democracy thing – and you know, Arabs just aren’t supposed to do that.