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.