I am currently enjoying a couple of days off work in Tunis, on account of it being the Islamic festival Eid al-Adha. Yesterday, Friday, nearly every shop and business was closed in the city and most of the citizens were indoors – ready to feast on the sheep that, tradition dictates, they should buy during the run-up to the festival and then kill and cook, as a way of commemorating the sacrifice that Abraham was willing to make of his son, Ishmael, on God’s instructions. (God finally sent Abraham a sheep to sacrifice instead.)
With no work commitments, and the Tunis streets suddenly free of traffic, yesterday seemed like a good time to do something I haven’t done in a while – to go for a walk and take a few photos.
The first thing I noticed when I stepped out of my flat was the sudden and disconcerting absence of sheep bleating. The previous day, the households in my neighbourhood had contained so many recently-purchased and still-breathing sheep that the street sounded like a farmyard. Well, those sheep had just been put to the blade. There were a few tell-tale signs of this, for example, the odd, lately-removed sheep-fleece placed discreetly on the pavement alongside the other domestic refuse.
Also, in a side-street, I noticed that this pool of water lying alongside the kerb had taken on an unsettling hue.
Now I’m not complaining about any of this. I’m not some lily-livered animal-loving Westerner moaning about the Tunisians being beastly to their sheep. I grew up on a farm and I think it’s good that people, if they’re going to eat meat, get an occasional reminder of where that meat really comes from. It doesn’t just turn up on the supermarket shelves as anonymous ready-to-cook strips inside cling-filmed packets. So the Eid al-Adha custom of buying and slaughtering your own sheep and preparing it for the oven is an excellent way of reconnecting yourself with your food source.
Anyway, the main place I wanted to look at during my walk was Habib Bourguiba Avenue between Place du Janvier 14 2011 (where the famous clock tower stands) and the Tunis terminal for the TGM railway line – where the avenue passes below the concrete flyover of the Trans-African Highway. From what I’d seen of this area whenever I’d passed through it on a taxi, it was clearly becoming a popular spot for the practice of an art-form that has flourished since the 2011 revolution, when dictator Zine El Abadine Ben Ali was driven out and the brutal grip of his police force was loosened. Though not necessarily an art-form that even the most ardent revolutionaries among the Tunisian population would approve of – graffiti.
There’s a wall running along an old factory site on the eastern side of the highway, which I knew had been used as part of a street-art project run by a French-Tunisian group calling itself KIF KIF International. Sure enough, I found the wall decked out in the standard graffiti fonts (‘street soul’, ‘graffonti’, ‘subway’), plus the usual colours and images that you’d find on a graffiti-ed wall in any big European city.
I knew some of the concrete supports holding up the flyover had become canvases for Tunisian graffiti artists too – and some of them, from what I’d seen out of the taxi windows, had looked quite elaborate and colourful. However, I’d expected most of the graffiti on those supports to be brief and brutalist, as it was on this pair.
Who are Black Bloc 13, by the way? Are they any relation to the gang in John Carpenter’s Assault on Precinct 13? And do they really f*** blood?
But I was surprised at how many of the flyover supports had been extensively, imaginatively and – yes – artistically worked on. In fact, there were so many mini-murals there that the area was in effect an open-air gallery. This may have been part of the KIF KIF International project too, although the variety of themes and styles on the supports suggests a very different set of artists from those responsible for the standard urban-graffiti artwork on the wall. Here is a selection of what I found.
Street art seems to flourish in times of political uncertainty and tension. During the worst years of the Troubles in Northern Ireland, where I come from, you were guaranteed to find some amazing murals adorning the street-ends in towns like Belfast and Derry / Londonderry – almost 2000 such murals have been documented in the province since the 1970s. However, I hope that Tunisia’s post-revolutionary wave of street art doesn’t go entirely down the Northern Irish route and end up, for a large part, commemorating a lot of sectarian strife and glorifying a bunch of terrorists. (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Murals_in_Northern_Ireland)