Welcome back to Tunisia


It’s just over two weeks since I returned to Tunisia and a lot has obviously been going on during that time.  Here is a round-up of some of the stories that have made the news headlines recently.




Sometimes it’s difficult enough drinking in the bars of downtown Tunis – thanks to the near-lethal miasma of cigarette smoke that fills them, and the shifty demeanour of some of the regulars, which encourages you to do your boozing with your back against the nearest wall, and the acrid taste of Tunisia’s national brew, the chemical-laden Celtia beer.  On top of those things, you don’t also want to contend with the possibility of an invasion by a hundred fat bearded blokes in smocks and sneakers smashing bottles and furniture and bellowing “Al-sharab haram!”, which means “Drinking is a sin!” in Arabic.  Though to be honest, I’ve been in a few Tunis pubs where this could happen and nobody would notice any difference.


Anyway, a day after I returned to Tunisia, the printed and online media were full of tales about how Salafists – oh, how I’d wanted to spend at least a few days back here without seeing that word in print again – had attacked an establishment called the Horchani Hotel in Sidi Bouzid, the town in central Tunisia that in late 2010 saw the first stirrings of the Tunisian Revolution and the Arab Spring.  The Salafists burst into the hotel on September 3rd and ransacked its bedrooms and kitchens, as well as smashing up the hotel-bar and its contents.  This was the culmination of a four-month campaign whereby Sidi Bouzid’s bars had been forced to close down one by one because of Salafist violence or because of the threat of it.  The Horchani Hotel had been the last hold-out.  With it out of action, the town is now dry (http://observers.france24.com/content/20120906-tunisia-sidi-bouzid-runs-dry-after-salafists-destroy-last-remaining-bar-hotel-horchani).


Alcohol is something that Salafists don’t like drinking and naturally they think it isn’t right for anyone else to drink it, either.  So it’s awfully thoughtful and generous of them to take action on the public’s behalf like this, without even pausing to consult anyone first.


According to the September 5th edition of La Presse newspaper, which reported the incident with the headline SALAFISTS STRIKE AGAIN WITH IMPUNITY, the local forces of law and order didn’t bother to turn up until well after the damage was done – despite being informed that trouble was brewing a quarter-hour before the invasion took place.  The hotel’s owner, Jamil Horchani, also told La Presse that among the guests in his hotel at the time were a couple of Dutch holidaymakers who “through their interpreter, swore to never again set foot on the soil of this country, after the moments of terror that they experienced.”  Seeing that this story was also reported on the BBC news website (http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-middle-east-19481835) – it was the third most-read article there at one point – and it has since appeared on at least one holiday website too (http://news.cheapholidaydeals.co.uk/salafist-muslims-ransack-hotel-in-tunisia-because-it-serves-alcohol/), I suspect there will be plenty of potential tourists who, after reading about it, will decide not to set foot on the soil of this country at all, ever.




Two artists whose works were displayed this June at the Printemps des Art Fair in La Marsa are now facing prison sentences of up to five years for ‘disturbing the public peace’.  The exhibition led to riots by Salafists – yes, them again – who believed some of its contents to be ‘blasphemous’, and by criminals who’d opportunistically crawled out of the woodwork to do some looting and pillaging.  (http://www.tunisia-live.net/2012/09/03/campaign-to-defend-artists-accused-of-disturbing-public-order/)


The fact that the artists, Nadia Jelassie and Mohamed Ben Slama, are accused of being responsible for the disorder (which resulted in the imposition of a curfew for several days), rather than the Salafist / criminal mob who actually carried it out, is in itself mind-melting.  However, I fail to see what is so outrageous about their artworks anyway.


Jelassie contributed to Printemps des Arts a sculpture that dealt with the practice of putting people to death by stoning.  Though the fact may be uncomfortable for some Tunisians, stoning is still a feature of certain Islamic societies.  There have been recent reports of it happening in the northern Mali town of Anguelhok, which at the moment is controlled by militants acting under the jurisdiction of AQIM, al-Quaedi in the Islamic Maghreb (http://www.aljazeera.com/news/africa/2012/07/201273021254165201.html).  And here’s a link to a short film that Iranian-born comedian Shappi Khorsandi made last year for Amnesty International, highlighting the situation in her home country: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IQGqerNE3MY.


Also displayed was a painting by Ben Slama, which was condemned for showing God’s name spelt out by configurations of tiny ants – allegedly, this reduced Allah to the level of puny insects that scurry around in the dirt.  But in fact the Koran depicts ants as being an intelligent species that even possess their own language.  (See http://www.quransource.com/miracles/en/hy/content.asp?f=scientific_80 and http://quran.tanyt.info/index.php?lang=en&sura=141)  And as I’ve said before on this blog, it seems only logical that artists should glorify God, if they want to glorify Him, by pointing out the wonders of His handiwork in nature, both big and small.  (As a little kid in Northern Ireland, I was made, Sunday after Sunday at my local church, to sing the children’s hymn All Things Bright and Beautiful, which concluded with the lines: He gave us eyes to see them / And lips that we might tell / How great is God almighty / Who has made all things well.)


But what both works are guilty of is the fact that they encourage people to think a little.  And thinking, of course, is anathema to the Salafists, or at least to their most extreme, vocal and violent elements.  Unfortunately, it seems increasingly to be anathema to the Tunisian government too.




Meanwhile, Rachid Ghannouchi, leader of the supposedly moderate-Islamic Ennahdha Party that is the main component of the Tunisian government, has threatened to sue Britain’s Independent newspaper.  This isn’t because of anything the newspaper itself said.  Rather, it’s in response to an interview that the newspaper’s veteran Middle East correspondent, Robert Fisk, conducted with Walid Muallem, who is foreign minister to Bashir al-Assad, the mass-murdering and weasel-like president of Syria.  During the interview, Muallem claimed that in the run-up to last year’s Tunisian elections, Ennahdha was generously funded by the Emir of Qatar.  The reporting of this claim has clearly upset Ghannouchi.  (http://www.tunisia-live.net/2012/08/31/head-of-islamist-ennahdha-party-to-file-suit-against-the-independent/)


Now, as a trained journalist, I know that under British law (well, under English law at least – I did my training in London) you have to be extremely careful in repeating contentious comments made by your interviewees.  Printing such comments can leave your publication open to being sued for libel as much as the individuals who made them.  However, it seems mean-spirited of Ghannouchi to go after the Independent, one of the few British newspapers that doesn’t view the world through a belligerent right-wing prism, and in particular to go after Fisk, who is one of the very few British journalists who gives the Arab cause a sympathetic hearing.  Even Ghannouchi had to admit that he regarded Fisk as “a respectable man.”  So why not simply sue Muallem, a leading figure in a far from respectable regime?


Actually, I suspect that Ghannouchi is still sore at the Independent for an extremely prickly article that Fisk wrote about Tunisia back in February this year.  In it, he portrayed the post-revolutionary Tunisia as a hellhole of unemployment, censorship and rising religious extremism, something that’d been achieved with the connivance of the government.  At the time, I thought the article was overheated – for his research, Fisk seemed to have spent too much time hanging out with his Tunisian journalist mates, who were being unnecessarily paranoid and exaggerating their case.  Now, however, I’m not so sure.  Here is what he wrote: http://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/africa/poisoned-spring-revolution-brings-tunisia-more-fear-than-freedom-7237464.html.




However, one piece of good news – slightly good news – has appeared on the economic front here in Tunisia.  The unemployment rate seems to have plateaued and even gone down a little.  According to the country’s National Statistics Institute, in the second quarter of 2012, unemployment dropped from a hefty 18.1% to a still-hefty but slightly better 17.6%.  Evidence, perhaps, that following the revolution the economy is finally chugging into life again?  (http://www.silobreaker.com/unemployment-rate-down-05-in-second-quarter-of-2012-5_2265973905841717291)


Unfortunately, shortly after that figure was announced, this happened: http://www.tunisia-live.net/2012/09/14/at-least-3-dead-28-wounded-after-clashes-at-us-embassy-in-tunisia/.


And still it isn’t over.  Coming soon, to a French embassy near you…  http://world.time.com/2012/09/19/french-satirical-cartoons-spark-ire-in-the-arab-springs-birthplace/.  Oh, bollocks.