One evening last week, Tunis experienced a violent thunder-and-lightning storm that dumped a great deal of water on it in a relatively short time. I did a late shift at my workplace the same evening. When I was about to finish the shift at 9.30 pm, I discovered that the balcony outside the top-floor office in the building had acquired several inches of water that showed no sign of draining away. Meanwhile, despite the balcony door being shut, the rain had somehow penetrated the staff kitchen inside and a huge, long puddle meandered across the kitchen floor.
I alerted the building’s security staff about the flooded balcony and the waterlogged kitchen and began to walk home. Usually, walking from my workplace to my flat takes about 15 minutes.
It’d stopped raining by then but evidence of the storm was everywhere. Avenue Mohammed V was flooded where the tramlines cross it from Avenue Louis Braille into Rue de Angola. Two trams were parked bumper-to-bumper in Avenue Louis Braille, their drivers having decided that it was too risky to try to navigate the water in front of them. I turned into Rue de Angola. The tramlines were awash there too. The floodwater rushed between the platform of the local tram-station and the opposite pavement so that the street looked like a concrete-lined waterway. At one point it spilled over the pavement and to avoid getting my feet soaked I had to monkey-climb along a railing.
I made it to Avenue de la Liberté, where I saw the first person who was walking barefoot, carrying his shoes and socks in his hands. I’d soon see many more folk like that. The avenue became more flooded the further I walked down it. In front of the Italian Club, nearly half of the road was underwater and the intersection beyond looked like a lake – cars just about managed to plough across it, looking more like boats than vehicles. The water lapped around the base of the kiosk at the top of the intersection and the people staffing it, and the squad of never-do-wells who every evening hang out by it, looked marooned. I ran and long-jumped over the water in front of the Italian Club, onto the other pavement. But I decided I wasn’t going to get home by continuing along Avenue de la Liberté.
Instead, I went up Avenue des Etats Unis and cut across to Avenue Taieb M’Hiri, which runs along the edge of Belvedere Park. The city-side of this avenue was passable, though the park-side looked inundated. I saw a string of weary-looking young men and women wading along that side, looking like refugees filing in bedraggled despondency.
I hoped I could turn off Avenue Taieb M’Hiri and go down Rue de Khartoum, then cross the road in front of the Diplomat Hotel and press on to my own street. Rue de Khartoum looked surprisingly dry. On a construction site at one end of it, work was going on as normal, as if nothing was amiss in the city tonight. At the other end, however, was a great mass of water. There were places at one corner where the pavement stood a foot or more above the road surface, but the whole pavement was submerged now. Past the other corner, the water came right up to the steps of the Diplomat Hotel. The road in front was practically a river.
It was strange how different those streets looked with so much water coursing through them. The large, wide streets were by far the worst affected because, like tributary-rivers, so many side-streets were feeding water into them.
I returned to Avenue Taieb M’Hiri, walked further along and turned down Rue Zaghouan. This street was awash too but it had a high pavement that was above the water level. However, whenever a car prowled past, a sudden tide would slosh across the pavement and around my feet.
I finally made it to the end of Rue Ibn Haytam, but I discovered that the alley that ran from there to the neighbourhood containing my flat was flooded for most of its length. So at last I decided to do what everybody else had done that night. I took off my shoes and socks, put them inside my knapsack, rolled up the ends of my trouser-legs and started wading.
I trod very, very slowly through the floodwater, which in the glow of the streetlights looked a mucky yellow-brown. I made sure there was nothing under the soles of my feet before I put my weight on them, mindful of all the rubbish I normally saw littering those streets – tin cans, broken glass, bottle-tops, wire, mouldering food and bones that’d been pulled out of refuse bags by the local cats. At one point, as I attempted to wade from a flooded road onto a flooded pavement, my foot dropped down into the trench of a kerbside gutter and I wondered in panic how deep into that gutter my foot was going to sink.
Against my expectations, when I trudged barefoot into my street, I found that it – at least, the end of it where my flat was located – was free of floodwater. I entered my flat, where the first thing I did was scrub my feet with hot water and Dettol, in case something small, sharp and dirty had pierced one of my soles without my realising it.
As I said, the walk home from work usually takes about 15 minutes. That evening, it took me more than an hour.