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.

 

Tunisia’s revolution two years later

 

Are you a glass-is-half-full or a glass-is-half-empty person?  Due to my dour, rainy Calvinistic upbringing, when I look at a half-drunk pint of beer, I tend to see a chasm of depressing emptiness in the upper half of the glass.  I envy those optimistic souls who revel in the sight of the half-pint of beer still occupying the lower part of the receptacle.

 

I suppose being of a glass-half-full or half-empty disposition affects how you view the condition of Tunisia two years after the revolution on January 14th, 2011, when the population rose up against the dictator Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, against his hateful Lady Macbeth-type spouse Leila Trabelsi, and against her Mafia-esque family, and chased them out of the country.

 

Those who see the glass as being half-full will point to how the anniversary of the revolution two days ago was marked by the gathering in central Tunis of various groups who don’t necessarily like one another – supporters of Ennahdha, the supposedly-moderate Islamist party that dominates the current ruling coalition, supporters of the main opposition party Nida Tounes, members of the trade union movement the UGTT, and some Islamic extremists who were protesting outside the French Embassy on Habib Bourguiba Avenue about French military intervention against their adulterer-stoning, limb-amputating, shrine-demolishing, music-banning brethren in northern Mali – and yet, despite the potential for trouble, the day passed off relatively peacefully.  Surely, optimists will say, this indicates that Tunisian politics, post-revolution, have acquired a certain maturity and people are able now to voice conflicting views without coming to serious blows.  (http://www.tunisia-live.net/2013/01/14/despite-revolutions-challenges-free-speech-valued-on-anniversary/; http://www.tap.info.tn/en/index.php/politics2/4644-two-years-after-revolution-divided-tunisians-rally-in-habib-bourguiba-avenue.)

 

And although I’d spent most of January 14th out of Tunis, it was pleasant to arrive back there at about 5.00 PM and find the streets quiet and relaxed – folk making their leisurely way around the shops that were open, coffee-drinkers and shisha-smokers sitting outside the cafes and enjoying the last part of the day, which had been a national holiday.  And incidentally, I liked how the clock tower at the bottom of Habib Bourguiba Avenue had had its column swathed in the red of the Tunisian flag, whilst the flag’s white circle, containing the crescent and star, had been positioned over the clock faces.

 

Meanwhile, Ennahdha’s leader Rachid Ghannouchi is definitely in the glass-half-full camp, if the following article, published in The Guardian on January 14th, is anything to go by: http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2013/jan/13/tunisia-pursuit-democracy-arab-model.  Supposedly penned by Ghannouchi himself (though I suspect his daughter Intissar, who’s contributed to the Guardian in the past, had a hand in it), the article claims that “Tunisians are for the first time the true protagonists of their history, and are engaged in an experience that will be a model for democracy in the region.”  “The governing coalition of secularist and Islamist parties,” writes Ghannouchi, “…(d)espite their differences…  have clearly demonstrated the possibility of reconciliation, co-operation and partnership between moderate Islamists and moderate secularists, an important model for the Arab world.”  He concedes that Tunisia faces severe problems of economic underdevelopment and unemployment and insists that the solutions “to many pressing demands can only be found in long-term structural change”.  Embarrassingly, Ghannouchi’s article put the Tunisian revolution as happening in January 2010, rather than January 2011, although in a later Guardian edition this error was amended.

 

I’m afraid I don’t find myself gushing with the same enthusiasm that Ghannouchi apparently is, and it’s not wholly down to my pessimistic nature either.  One concrete reason is the continuing harassment, intimidation and disruption caused by the Salafist extremists whom Ennahdha has not done enough to curtail, either because of incompetence, or naiveté, or – if you’re a conspiracy theorist – silent complicity in what the Salafists want to achieve, which is a Tunisia run under Sharia law.

 

By an unhappy coincidence, the night before the revolution’s anniversary, Sunday 13th, I joined some colleagues for a meal in a restaurant at the top of the hill in Sidi Bou Said, which is a village a little way up the coast from Tunis.  Sidi Bou Said is probably the most picturesque tourist spot in the vicinity of Tunis and it has two main claims to fame.  Firstly, the gorgeous lights and colours of the locality have attracted many famous artists over the years, both Tunisian (Yahia Turki, Brahim Dhahak) and European (Paul Klee, Louis Moillet, August Macke).  Secondly, it is the site of an important Sufi mausoleum – indeed, Sidi Bou Said takes its name from a Sufi saint who settled there in the late 12th or early 13th century – and is a place of Sufi pilgrimage.

 

When I arrived at the restaurant on Sunday evening, everyone was talking about a fire that’d done severe damage to the mausoleum the night before.  The staff in the restaurant speculated that the fire could have broken out accidentally, though as Salafists have been targeting Sufi shrines, both in Tunisia and across northern Africa – they consider the veneration of saints in Islam to be blasphemy – it seemed more likely to be an act of vandalism.  Indeed, the authorities have since confirmed that what happened at Sidi Bou Said was arson. (http://mideasti.blogspot.com/2013/01/mausoleum-of-sidi-bou-said-destroyed-in.html.)

 

Before entering the restaurant I’d suspected that something was up, because the street outside seemed to contain a lot of people – too many, at that particular point in the evening, for them to be tourists – and they seemed to be hanging about rather than heading anywhere.  It transpired that a government minister was dining in a restaurant across the street and these people had gathered to protest – presumably about the destruction of the mausoleum and about Ennahdha’s seeming inability to prevent such carnage happening.  When I left the restaurant I was in a couple of hours later, the crowd in the street had become even denser and it took some careful manoeuvring to get through it.  I have to say, though, that it was probably the most genteel, most middle-class-looking crowd of protestors I’ve ever had to worm my way through and they gave off no vibes of impending violence.  One man had even come along to protest in a wheelchair.

 

However, after emerging from the far side of the crowd, I saw coming up the hill a squad of policemen.  They weren’t in riot gear, but they were armed with batons and one guy at the back was furtively carrying a gun for firing tear-gas canisters.  So it didn’t seem like a good idea to loiter in the vicinity.  (The crowd gave an ironic cheer when the cops came within sight of them.)

 

It wasn’t until the next day that I discovered that the crowd wasn’t on the street to make a protest about the burning of the mausoleum at all.  The government minister in the restaurant was actually Tunisia’s foreign minister, Rafik Abdessalem, who was entertaining some visiting dignitaries from the Gulf.  Abdessalem has been embroiled in controversy recently.  He’s been accused of using public money to fund some expensive (and possibly scandalous) stays in Tunis’s Sheraton Hotel.  (http://www.tunisia-live.net/2013/01/02/foreign-affairs-minister-embroiled-in-controversy-over-hotel-stays/)  The folk outside the restaurant were indignant taxpayers, determined to make Abdessalem aware of their discontent.  I heard that eventually Abdessalem and his guests had to be escorted to safety via the restaurant’s kitchen.

 

Incidentally, Rafik Abdessalem happens to be Rachid Ghannouchi’s son-in-law.  If I were a Tunisian, I might be starting to wonder if there’s an unwritten rule demanding that all my country’s leaders, pre-revolution and post-revolution, bestow nice favours on their in-laws.

 

A glass-half-full person would no doubt point to those protestors the other night in Sidi Bou Said and say it’s wonderful that citizens in the modern Tunisia aren’t afraid to let their politicians know what they think of them.  No longer are they willing to tolerate any crap from their ruling classes.  As a glass-half-empty person, though, I have to say that when I see such reminders of mindless Salafist vandalism on one hand, and of old-style corruption-nepotism on the other, my heart sinks.  Either because of incompetence the main ruling party here seems unable to stamp out the two spectres of religious extremism and corruption, or because of self-interest it seems unwilling to stamp them out.

 

However, to end this entry on a cheerier note…  Here are a few photographs of the achingly lovely Sidi Bou Said on a less turbulent day.

 

 

It’s quiet… too quiet?

 

Following the shenanigans last week in Tunisia, whereby protests against an allegedly ‘blasphemous’ art exhibition in north-of-Tunis suburb La Marsa led to street violence and the imposition of a series of curfews, common sense seems to have prevailed.  A mass post-mosque demonstration, planned for Friday by Islamist groups of varying degrees of moderation / extremism, was finally called off and, come Friday, very little happened.  (http://www.tunisia-live.net/2012/06/15/live-updates-june-15ths-call-to-protest/.)  As a consequence, the curfew was lifted on Friday evening.  It’d be reassuring to think that the common sense displayed then will continue, though to be honest I’m not holding my breath.

 

In particular, it’d be reassuring to think that the ultra-Conservative Salafists will now engage in some reflection and understand that, by creating a ruckus every time they observe something that offends their fragile sensibilities, they are making themselves greater and greater pariahs in Tunisian society.  Just about every Tunisian person I’ve spoken to lately has been heartily sick of their petulant dramatics.  Admittedly, it’s likely that they weren’t directly responsible for at least some of the mayhem that occurred last week.  When the real Salafists get annoyed at a perceived lapse in public morality and hit the streets to aggressively protest, there are plenty of opportunist low-life around who are all too happy to call themselves Salafists and join the disorder too – though rather than shout for the sanctity of the Koran, they head for the local Magasin General, smash their way in and make off with whatever catches their eye in the electrical appliances department.  I’ve also heard conspiracy claims about elements from the old Ben Ali regime, who’ve been crawling out of the woodwork, inciting and rabble-rousing and generally doing their best to make a bad situation worse in the name of destabilising and discrediting the new, post-revolution Tunisia.

 

Still, whoever the culprits may be, these crimes happen while the Salafists are agitating.  If they don’t like having the blame for everything laid at their door, they should try engaging their brains before they engage their mouths and their fists.

 

Meanwhile, I’m starting to feel a bit sorry for Rachid Ghannouchi, leader of the moderate-Islamist Ennahdha party, who the middle of last week called on his supporters to join the protest march planned for Friday.  This was in spite of the Tunisian government, of which his party is the biggest component, calling for those protests not to take place.  Indeed, as Friday drew near, the government warned that demonstrations wouldn’t be allowed to take place – http://www.tap.info.tn/en/en/politics/15682-no-permit-for-fridays-march-interior-ministry.html.  I suspect there are now members of Ennahdha who regard Ghannouchi as being like a mad relative that families in old gothic horror stories had to keep locked in the attic for everyone’s safety.

 

At the same time, however, the reactions of several government ministers to last week’s events were shamefully mealy-mouthed – they criticised the rioters, yes, but almost in the same breath condemned Tunisia’s artistic community and talked about introducing new anti-blasphemy legislation.  (http://www.aljazeera.com/news/africa/2012/06/201261313558863257.html.)  Who, I wonder, would be responsible for analysing each new work of art and judging whether it is blasphemous or not?  The Salafists?  If that were ever the case, I think Tunisia’s art scene would be a bit on the wee side.  Understandably, Tunisia’s Union of Artists is pissed off about this and is calling for governmental resignations: http://www.tunisia-live.net/2012/06/15/union-of-tunisian-artists-calls-for-minister-of-culture-to-resign/.  Also, as well as being craven, the government’s attempts to be all things to all men doesn’t make sense from a law-and-order point of view.  Why give a bunch of religious hotheads at least part of what they want, if you’re trying to stop them from rioting?  Won’t they just riot again when they discover something else – tight jeans, beachwear, DVDs, booze, rock ‘n’ roll music – that raises their ire?

 

One section of Tunisian society that surely had the right to protest last week were the members of its tourist industry, which employs about 400,000 people directly and is believed to impact upon the livelihoods of nearly a million more.  In fact, at the weekend they did march on Habib Bourguiba Avenue in Tunis, peacefully, calling for better maintenance of public order than the past few days have seen, so that foreign holiday makers aren’t scared away. (http://www.tunisia-live.net/2012/06/16/tourism-sector-demands-better-enforcement-of-public-order/.)  There’d been signs that the Tunisian tourist economy would perform better this year than it had in revolutionary 2011, especially as the current weakness of the Tunisian dinar against foreign currencies should be reeling in visitors.  God knows what damage has been done now, however.  It can’t even be argued – as had been argued on previous occasions – that last week’s disturbances took place in areas far away from the tourist sites.  For example, La Marsa and Sidi Bou Said are popular stops on the Tunisian tourist circuit and they both witnessed trouble last week.  (https://www.osac.gov/Pages/ContentReportDetails.aspx?cid=12541.)

 

(It’s ironic that Sidi Bou Said should be affected by unrest sparked off by a couple of paintings, considering that one of its biggest claims to fame is Paul Klee’s arrival there in 1914.  Klee was supposedly fascinated by the quality of the light and colours he found in the village.  I wonder if he’d have been quite so enamoured with the place if today’s crop of Salafists had been running around at the time.)

 

Still, in the midst of all this mess, I suppose there’s one big crumb of comfort for Tunisians.  At least they aren’t living in Egypt.