More Tunisian graffiti

 

One final dispatch from Tunisia, before I haul my bags over to Carthage International Airport and take my leave of the country.  Last year I wrote a blog-entry about the graffiti that has proliferated on the walls of Tunis since the 2011 revolution, and I thought before departing I would take a walk with my camera and capture a few more specimens of Tunisian post-revolutionary street-art.

 

Firstly, here’s the Rasta Man, a figure familiar now to people in the Tunis suburb of Carthage when they stroll along the Rue Taieb Mihiri on their way to the seafront Neptune Restaurant.  I’m not greatly impressed by the English-language spelling abilities of the artist, Morta, but I think I know what he (or she) means by ‘ligal it’.

 

 

Then there’s this fraught example of the form that appeared a while ago at the otherwise sedate northern end of Avenue Mohamed V, where the Italian Institute and the British Council have their offices.  It gives the impression of tension and potential violence bubbling just beneath the surface – a disturbing metaphor for post-revolutionary Tunisian society, perhaps?

 

 

Meanwhile, here are two of the more colourful examples to be found in the back-streets behind my apartment building.  All right, the second example isn’t really graffiti – it’s a piece of commercial art decorating the perimeter wall of a small kindergarten or nursery school.  In addition to Spongebob Squarepants (who was once accused of promoting homosexuality by America’s Fox News network), there are representations of Mickey and Minnie Mouse.  So I suppose by showing this picture on the Internet, I am inviting the Disney Corporation to go around and sue the arses off the kindergarten’s owners.

 

 

Here’s some good, old-fashioned, anarcho-political graffiti-ing on a wall near the downtown premises of Monoprix.  And unlike Morta, the creator of the Rasta Man, this artist got his or her English spelling right.

 

 

However, the most extensive piece of graffiti to have materialised in Tunis recently is to be found along a wall by the Trans-African Highway, at the end of the flyover crossing Avenue Habib Bourguiba.  A project called Beyond Walls 2013 that’s the work of the Union des Artistes Plasticiens Tunisiens, it consists of a long line of panels bearing a variety of single-word slogans, in a variety of languages and using a variety of designs.

 

 

Here are a few of the English-language buzzwords on show.  With the current political, economic and security situations looking extremely uncertain in Tunisia – and with a nightmare unfolding at the eastern end of the North African coast as post-revolutionary Egypt descends into the pan – I think these abstract nouns, imbued with optimism and idealism, make a fitting way for me to end my final entry from Tunisia.

 

 

Farewell, Tunis flat

 

So, after nearly three years of living and working in Tunis, it’s time to say goodbye to the city – and goodbye too to my crumbling but somehow comfortable old flat in the downtown district of Lafayette.  Here are a few pictures I took before I stripped the place of my belongings.

 

This shows the high-tech entertainment centre of the flat – powered by candles and whisky.

 

 

Every civilised abode should come equipped with a library.  Here’s my library, although admittedly it’s a rather compact one.

 

 

In the hallway, I hung this Hand of Fatima pendant before the entrance door to ward off bad luck and negativity.  As nothing bad has ever come through that door, the pendant has evidently worked.  Unfortunately, when my flat was broken into on the night of August 3rd / 4th, the burglar got in through the back door.

 

 

This is the flat’s bathroom.  It’s a sort of Tardis-in-reverse, being smaller on the inside than it looks on the outside.

 

 

Here is the kitchen, as viewed from the outside back court.  (The rear doors hanging open on either side were repaired after the night of the burglary.)  At ground door, the kitchen looks reasonable enough.  Unfortunately…

 

 

…When you look upwards, at the kitchen-ceiling, you see how its proximity to a hundred-year-old and ultra-leaky system of drainpipes on the building’s outer wall has resulted in a profusion of mould and damp.  No wonder the surface of the kitchen-ceiling has been quietly flaking and peeling off during the past three years.

 

 

Also looking upwards, this is what you see from the back court – a four-storey shaft of masonry, windows, shutters and piping that rises to a square-shaped gap in the building’s roof.  When I showed this picture to a friend, she said it reminded her of the giant chimney that Christian Bale had to climb in order to escape from the Central-Asian subterranean hellhole prison in The Dark Knight Rises.

 

 

Finally, this flat will always be associated in my mind with all manner of animals – with cockroaches, spiders, daddy-long-legs and slugs, which seemed to wander everywhere; with worms, which during the wet season somehow came burrowing out of the bathroom ceiling; with rats and pigeons, which occasionally found their way into the back court; with lizards, which lived in the cracks in the back court’s walls and obligingly ate a few of the cockroaches; and with cats, dead cats – once, some heavy rain washed the decayed carcass of one off the roof and down into my back court.  But here’s a picture of a more aesthetically-pleasing creature that inhabited the flat.

 

 

Favourite places in Tunis 8: Cafe le Rendez-vous des Sportifs

 

The Café le Rendez-vous des Sportifs is not so much a café as a pub, and it’s my local pub in Tunis.  Unlike many of the rival working-men’s pubs that proliferate in central Tunis, it actually looks like a pub inside, rather than like a bare, tiled cell that probably gets hosed down at the end of each business day.

 

Efforts have been made to decorate its interior.  Among the artefacts on its walls are some glass cases containing what look like old, vinyl, Arabic-language pop records; a pair of boxing gloves; a bugle; a collection of antique barometers, some of which are quite ornate; several 1950s-era painted advertisements for Coca Cola; a big, framed monochrome photograph showing four musicians riding shakily along on bicycles with their instruments strapped onto their backs (including a cello and a huge kettledrum); and a selection of small, framed photographs showing the likes of Miles Davis, Edith Piaf and Billie Holiday – I know, piss-heads and smack-heads, all of them.

 

However, the clientele is resolutely that of your average Tunis dive: noisy, chain-smoking, sometimes drunk and cranky men.  At one time it was so crowded in the early evenings that it was often a struggle to get past the entrance door, although recently the punters seem to have thinned out – due, perhaps, to the price of its beer going up by a third.  However, considering that a bottle of Celtia cost 1.8 dinar when I started frequenting it, even with an extra 0.6 dinar added on, it’s one of the city’s more economical places to imbibe in.

 

The only time I have seen trouble brewing in this pub was one evening when a group of drunken deaf-mutes looked ready to break furniture and beat people up.  Yes, deaf-mutes threatening to go on the rampage – that was weird.

 

On the sign outside, meanwhile, even the ‘o’ in ‘Rendez-vous’ looks a bit drunk.

 

 

Favourite places in Tunis 7: the Italian Club

 

 

The Italian Club in Lafayette has been a major eating-and-drinking fixture in my life these last three years, so it’s sad to report that the place looks like it’s on its last legs.

 

After you’ve charmed your way past the bouncers at the front door and scaled the first flight of stairs, you arrive at a first-floor bar.  For a long time this was the pub to go to in the district if you didn’t want a venue that was either (1) a smoky dive full of crabbit old men, (2) an ultra-bland hotel bar, or (3) an expensive club-bar reverberating with deafening music and populated by ageing, full-of-themselves playboys.  The Italian Club bar was endearingly bohemian in character.  Many of its clientele were bearded student-types and – a rarity among Tunis’s pub scene – it drew a fair number of women too.  There was no music and you could actually have a sensible conversation, although the Italian sports channel on the inevitable TV screen was turned up a little too loud when there was football on.

 

If you ascend two more flights of stairs to the very top of the building, you find yourself at a rather good Italian restaurant.  In its day, the Italian Club restaurant attracted a lot of expatriate diners – indeed, it was about the only venue in Lafayette visited by as many foreigners as locals.  Accordingly, the menu was a tad pricy (especially if you fancied some wine), but it was worthwhile if you wanted to have a proper night out.

 

Alas, the Italian Club has taken a nosedive in the past year.  The bar has seemingly lost 99% of its clientele.  This was partly due to the beer being cheekily bumped up from three dinars a bottle to five dinars within the space of a couple of weeks; partly due to a decision to change the personnel behind the counter that, reportedly, was unpopular; and, I suspect, partly due to the opening of a rival bar on the seventh-floor terrace of the Pacha Hotel ten minutes’ walk away.  During my handful of visits to the Italian Club pub in 2013, it was so empty that I felt like I was drinking in the on-board bar of the Marie Celeste.  The restaurant seems to have lost its appeal too.  When I took a group to it last month, we had the place to ourselves for the entire evening.

 

Still.  It was fun while it lasted.

 

Extracts from the secret Tunisian diary of Ian Smith, aged 47-and-a-bit

 

 

December 8th, 2011

 

I arrived home this evening and discovered that the part of the street immediately in front of my ground-floor flat was being used for location-filming by a film or TV crew.  They’d cordoned the area off to traffic, and pedestrians had to use the opposite pavement.  A railway-like track had been placed on the road-surface and a camera and cameraman were mounted on a trolley that trundled along this track, keeping pace with the actors who were prowling about the pavement outside my front windows.

 

There was a huge crowd of local people watching and it was difficult to distinguish between who was an onlooker and who was a member of the crew.  The entrance to my building was clogged with kids, sitting on the doorstep, determined to observe every moment of the proceedings.  Hours later, they were still there, watching the very last crew-members gather up and load away the very last pieces of equipment.

 

I wonder what the nature of the film or TV show was that’d persuaded the crew to use my street, with its dilapidated coffee houses and wee shops, graffiti-ed walls and piles of left-out rubbish bags (messily eviscerated by feral cats), as a location.  I hope they weren’t making a gritty, squalid crime drama, populated with low-life and set in a Tunis slum.

 

 

September 3rd, 2012

 

I arrived back from holiday to find my ramshackle old flat surprisingly intact and in order.  No leaks, no blocked drains, no electrical faults, no bad odours.  I was pleased by this until I opened the doors in the end wall of the kitchen and looked outside into the flat’s little ‘back court’.  Near the drain in the corner there was an odd-looking puddle – a grey and somehow furry puddle.

 

I approached the thing, wondering what it was.  It stank to high heaven.  After a moment, I began to discern an outline among the furry gloop: two hind-legs, a torso, two more legs, a small head…  I realised I could just about see a cat in that puddle – what had once been a cat.

 

I knew that during the preceding days Tunis had seen its first autumn rains.  My guess was that the cat had died up on the roof sometime before and during the intense summer heat had practically liquefied.  Finally the rain had washed it down into my back court.

 

I doused the whole back court in detergent and, when my nose could no longer detect the reek of decomposing cat, I scraped the remains off the ground and sealed them within four layers of plastic bags, and added them to the neighbourhood rubbish-heap on the street outside.  That’s about the most disgusting thing I’ve ever had to do in my life.

 

 

April ?th, 2013

 

Late one morning I was walking along Avenue de Paris, away from Avenue Habib Bourguiba.  A number of street traders were, at intervals, hawking stuff from the side of the street – from stalls, from barrows, from panels set out on top of cardboard boxes, from sheets laid over the pavement.  I know that the legal status of these guys, selling their wares in this impromptu manner, is pretty suspect.  Anyway, part of the way along the avenue, I noticed that a white pick-up truck was drawing up beside each of these traders and a bald middle-aged man was sticking his head out of the driver’s window and shouting something in Arabic at them.

 

As soon as they heard this guy, the street traders would panic and clear their wares away in an instant.  One trader grabbed the ends of the sheet he had spread across the pavement, snatched everything up in a bundle and ran off with the bundle swinging over his shoulder, like a cartoon burglar with a sack marked ‘swag’.  Another did something similar with a large square panel from which he’d been selling DVDs – the panel turned out to be hinged in the middle, so he closed it like a giant book, with the DVDs inside, and made off with it under his arm.  Another trader again was manning what I thought was a stall but was actually a kind of barrow, with little wheels at the bottom and handles sticking out of its end – so he just grabbed the handles and trundled the thing at top speed around a corner and into a side-street.

 

I was walking at the same rate that the pick-up truck – pausing, revving up and shooting on to the next street trader – was moving at, so we more-or-less kept level the whole way along Avenue de Paris.  Thus, I witnessed these little scenes of panic again and again.  I assume that the cops had started a street-trading crackdown operation and were working their way along from Avenue Habib Bourguiba; and the fellow in the pick-up had some street-trading connections and was warning them just in advance of the cops.

 

Ironically, one of the side-streets that a trader fled down was called Rue des Entrepreneurs.

 

 

Favourite places in Tunis 5: Le Plug

 

It’s tempting to describe Le Plug in the northern Tunis suburb of La Marsa as one of the very few heavy metal / electronica bars, if not the only one, on Tunisian soil.  But actually it’s not on Tunisian soil at all.  It’s on water.  You find it at the end of a pier called the Kobel El Hawa, a hulking baroquely-architectured structure on short, thick columns that protrudes into the waves off La Marsa’s shore (http://500px.com/photo/23572999).  I know, it doesn’t really look like a pier at all, but I’m going by the free online dictionary’s definition of a ‘pier’ as being a ‘a platform extending from a shore over water and supported by piles or pillars, used to secure, protect and provide access to ships or boats; or such a structure used predominantly for entertainment’.  So there.

 

The place is no doubt silent at the moment on account of it being Ramadan, but for most of the year Le Plug treats its patrons to music, loud music – heavy metal and rock during the earlier days of the week and techno on a Saturday.  (One metal-admiring friend told me dismissively that Saturday there was ‘techno and twats’ night, although I’ve been in Le Plug on Saturdays and the clientele seemed an awful lot less twattish than you’d encounter in an equivalent venue in the UK.)

 

The heart of Le Plug is up two flights of stairs at the highest and most seaward point of the Kobel El Hawa.  As you go through the entrance door there’s an alcove immediately on the right, curtained-off in the evenings, that is home to a miniature tattoo parlour.  Facing the entrance, meanwhile, is a bar-counter, behind which hang a skull-and-crossbones and a Union Jack defiantly emblazoned with the old war-cry PUNK’S NOT DEAD.  To the left extends a terrace, once open to the sea but now sealed in by windows, with a dance floor along its middle, with seats and tables at its sides and with small cobwebbed chandeliers and at least one mirror-ball dangling from its ceiling.  There are toilets halfway along this terrace and from what I’ve seen of the male one, they conform to the proud standards of rock bars the world over – the wash-hand basin has always been unspeakably blocked up and the walls are unappealingly slathered in what appears to be chocolate cake.

 

Outside, below the final staircase climbing to Le Plug’s entrance door, there’s a long rectangular space that’s been converted into another drinking area and has a second counter at its end.  On the long wall running along the back of this area, an artist has painted a rather natty mural showing the workings of some huge and intricate machine.  The mural is oddly organic-looking, in a Joan Miro-meets-H.R. Giger way, and it also incorporates bits of Leonardo da Vinci and Salvador Dali.

 

The staff at Le Plug are keen to discourage people from using cameras on their premises, as if they don’t want pictures of the place turning up on social media.  I would understand them wanting to keep the existence of their bar quiet in a country where there’s a small but troublesome bunch of religious nutters who no doubt regard heavy metal and techno as the embodiments of pure evil, but they already have a considerable online presence – they have a website (http://le-plug.com/) and they were recently the subject of a feature on the local English-language news website, Tunisia Live Net (http://www.tunisia-live.net/2013/02/15/le-plug-a-home-for-alternative-music-in-tunis/), so I don’t see what difference a few photographs would make.  Anyway, the last evening I was there, I did surreptitiously snap a picture of a detail on that epic wall-mural.  It depicts a frog in a Da Vinci-esque Vitruvian Man pose – I’ve posted the original here too so that you can compare them.

 

 

Favourite places in Tunis 4: Majestic Hotel

 

Just before I first visited Tunis as a tourist, about three years ago, I’d read on a couple of travel websites about an old Art Nouveau hotel called the Majestic, situated on Avenue de Paris, a bit shabby nowadays but still atmospheric, and supposedly not too expensive to stay in.  The trouble was, search though I did on the Internet, I couldn’t find any way of booking a room in the place.

 

Later, after I’d arrived in Tunis and found other accommodation (the decidedly not-Art-Nouveau Hotel Pacha on Avenue Kheireddine Pacha), I went hunting for the fabled Majestic.  It proved to be a hefty building on a street corner, five storeys high, its white walls adorned with ledges, corbels and balustrades so that it had the look of an ornately-iced wedding cake.  It also proved to be closed.  The corner entrance was boarded up and, although someone told me it was undergoing renovations, it gave off an aura of dereliction and decay.

 

 

About a year after I’d started living in Tunisia, I heard that the Majestic Hotel was open for business again.  The timing of the re-opening was not ideal, as Tunisia was newly into its post-revolutionary era and, thanks to the turbulence involved in unseating Ben Ali, the flow of visiting tourists had been reduced to a dribble.  Anyway, I went to investigate the rejuvenated Majestic.  As I’d expected, there was hardly anybody staying there, and the place smelt strongly of the white paint that’d been freshly applied to its already-white façade.  It did, however, look smart – as smart as it must’ve done when it originally opened in 1914 – and I had no doubt that it was a lot more expensive to stay in now than it’d been during its declining, budget-traveller years when I’d seen it mentioned on the Internet.  I was glad to have checked it out and I’ve returned a number of times since.

 

On entering the circular lobby, which comes complete with a miniature chandelier, you should ascend one of the staircases that curve up either wall to the first floor.  There you’ll encounter Le Piano, the hotel bar, which is equipped with a first-floor terrace.

 

 

The terrace is mostly sealed off from sight of Avenue de Paris by a row of railings and screens, decorated with little plant-boxes and punctuated by large stone urns that seem to cradle infant palm trees, only a clump of nascent fronds visible above each urn’s rim.  It would be nice to see more of the avenue below, but at least the railings, screens and urns – along with the big parasols that hulk over the tables – ensure that the terrace is well-shaded.

 

At the terrace’s end, a semi-circular fountain occupies a corner, while four flagpoles stand nearby bearing the Tunisian flag, the European Union one, the Arab League one and the Hotel Majestic one.  The latter flag is emblazoned with the hotel’s insignia, a curvy H superimposed on a curvy M, which seems to lurk everywhere – on the table napkins, the drinks mats, the menus.

 

 

Every couple of minutes, the calm of the terrace is interrupted by stately rumbling and jangling bell of a tram, passing along Avenue de Paris below.

 

 

During my most recent visits, a sign has been in evidence warning people in French that entry to Le Piano and its terrace is restricted to hotel guests only.  This might explain why I’ve never seen it containing more than half-a-dozen customers.  However, putting on my most imperious and moneyed air – and despite the customary shabbiness of my hair, beard and clothes – I’ve still managed to get served there.

 

Favourite places in Tunis 3: Neptune Restaurant

 

 

Half the time, it isn’t open when it ought to be open.  When it is open, and you go in, you’re received by several male waiters whose shambling gait and silent, grizzled visages suggest a platoon of shell-shocked survivors from a major military engagement during World War I – I’m a regular customer there and I’m usually only acknowledged with a weary nod, although I suppose that’s an achievement.  And then, when you’ve read the menu, you can spend a lot of time requesting various tasty-sounding seafood dishes, only to have each request dismissed with an unapologetic shake of the head or shrug of the shoulders.  Normally I end up ordering the same four or five items – fisherman’s salad, grilled shrimps, fried aubergine, chips – because that’s all they seem to have.

 

 

And yet…  And yet…  When you’re sitting on its terrace, when the sea below is a sheet of rippling turquoise, when the sun is bright and the sky is flawlessly blue, and when a waiter has just brought an ice bucket with a bottle of Chardonnay poking out of it, the Neptune Restaurant on the Carthage coast feels like the most invigorating place in the world.  Just make sure you keep your eyes fixed on the gorgeous middle distance, where the boats lazily roam to and fro.  You may spoil the illusion if you lower your head to inspect the more immediate surroundings, because the sea-facing wall of the restaurant looks rather dilapidated (and graffiti-ed these days) and the strip of beach along the wall’s base could definitely do with a tidy.

 

 

Your safest bet for finding the Neptune in operation is Sunday lunchtime, when it draws a crowd of French expatriates and well-heeled Tunisians wanting to enjoy a dejeuner that extends leisurely into the middle of the afternoon.  On the road outside, a little old man with a stick keeps vigilant guard over the clientele’s parked vehicles, although to be honest the most threatening things I’ve seen around the Neptune have been a few packs of gang-banging cats.  Here’s the little-old-man-with-a-stick seeing off a trio of marauding French tourists.

 

 

In fact, among the eateries along or off the Route la Goulette and Rue de Maroc, the road that connects Le Kram and Sidi Bou Said and snakes alongside the TGM line with its miniature Carthage railway stations (Salammbo, Byrsa, Dermech, Hannibal, Presidence and Amilcar), the Nepture is one of the very few where you can buy an alcoholic drink.  The district has plenty of popular and trendy venues but nearly all of them are ‘dry’.  To get from the Route la Goulette to the Neptune, you have to head seawards through some picturesque Carthage backstreets.  Here’s one of my favourites, the Rue Taieb Mehiri, so tree-lined that at times it resembles a luxuriant green tunnel.

 

 

Favourite places in Tunis 2: Cafe Hannibal

 

  

 

Like any other city in North Africa, Tunis is choc-a-bloc with cafés.  The Café Hannibal — named after the Punic Carthaginian military commander, not after Thomas Harris’s debonair cannibal — is my favourite Tunis café because it’s so likably ramshackle.

 

It occupies an intersection among some pedestrianized alleys off Avenue de la Liberté in Lafayette – a T-junction formed by two open-air alleys, which is also connected to the avenue itself by two more, covered passageways.  The heart of the café is a couple of rooms in the building between the two covered passageways.  There are countless coffee-and-shisha shops catering to males in the neighbourhood, but you’ll find women here as well – and they particularly like to congregate in the building’s furthest-back room.

 

Meanwhile, out in the T-junction itself, there are scattered tables and chairs and an aged tree whose expansive branches create a green canopy over most of the outdoor seating.  In places, weird tendril-like growths hang down from the branches, while threaded through the leafy canopy are cables of clunky-looking coloured light-bulbs.  At the back of this area the café has another indoor section, provided by a long, low wooden shelter that has the look of a very tidy garden shed (one furnished with red curtains and a television set).

 

In the middle of the Café Hannibal stands a stone fountain surrounded by a low, square wall that’s decorated with sculpted lions’ heads.  I assume the fountain is defunct because I’ve never seen any water issuing from it.  Finally, in the mouth of alleyway leading in the opposite direction from the Avenue de la Liberté, there’s a big box-shaped birdcage made out of meshed wire.  Once upon a time it was inhabited by a single budgerigar, but during my most recent visits to the café even that one bird has disappeared.  Maybe it died from loneliness.  Now, when there are only a few customers around, the waterless fountain and the empty, silent birdcage give the café a rather melancholic air.

 

Favourite places in Tunis 1: Bar Jamaica

 

Bar Jamaica sits on the rooftop of the Hana Hotel on Tunis’s Habib Bourguiba Avenue.  To reach it, you go to the back of the hotel’s reception area and take the lift on the right to Floor 10.  The floor-numbers display inside the lift is a bit knackered, by the way, and it informs you that you’re passing Floor 7 a few moments before it says you’re passing Floor 5.

 

Once you get up there, you’ll no doubt conclude that the bar itself is nothing to write home about.  In fact, it looks like it was put together by an interior designer suffering from a severe case of altitude sickness. A mangy blue carpet, black walls, two yellow-orange hexagonal indentations in the ceiling, a metal-topped bar counter and two tiers of dull-surfaced mirrors behind the bar do not make for a salubrious drinking environment.

 

But the bar isn’t important.   What matters is that the terrace outside allows some of the best views of downtown Tunis you could hope for.  Here’s Habib Bourguiba Avenue seen from the Jamaica’s terrace as it extends towards the Medina.  Visible at the right is one of the towers of the Roman Catholic Cathedral of St Vincent de Paul.

 

 

Here’s the avenue as it heads the other way, towards Place 14 Janvier 2011 and La Goulette Road.  It’s just a pity that the slab-like Hotel Africa looms incongruously over the cityscape here, looking like a supersized version of one of those alien-designed monoliths in 2001: A Space Odyssey.

 

 

Meanwhile, the view south from the Jamaica lets you look along Avenue de Carthage to the hill that’s the site of the Cimetiere El Jallaz, the city’s main necropolis.  The cemetery was most recently in the news in February, when the murdered Tunisian politician Chokri Belaid was laid to rest there.

 

 

And here’s the National Theatre, which is located across the thoroughfare from the Hana Hotel.  It looks like an ornate doll’s house when viewed from its neighbour’s tenth floor.

 

 

The Bar Jamaica will be forever engraved on my memory because I was up there on the afternoon of January 13th, 2011, which was the moment when the Tunisian Revolution (and by extension the Arab Spring) seemed to kick off for me.

 

For half-an-hour I’d been walking around the avenue below, aware of the tense atmosphere.  Most of the street-side cafes were shut, their chairs tightly stacked and pushed in against the entrances, their parasols folded inwards so that they stood along the pavements like clumps of withered flowers.  I’d found one place, a men’s coffee shop, which remained open – it was opposite the Ministry of the Interior building, which had a lot of policemen stationed in front of it.  (Bizarrely, whilst drinking a coffee there, I remember watching a Ministry cleaning lady dressed in a blue smock and a headscarf plodding to and fro among those cops, presumably going about her usual cleaning duties.)

 

Further up the avenue, there were yellow public-transport buses parked at the front and sides of the National Theatre, with troops sitting inside them.  Three or four police land-cruisers waited in front of the French Embassy and another busload of troops were positioned where Avenue Habib Bourguiba narrows and becomes the Avenue de France (which continues to the Medina).  Several green trams had ground to a halt, one after another, on the tramlines that loop around the top of the avenue from Rue de Rome to Rue de Hollande, and these contained a number of very troubled-looking passengers.  Eventually though, the trams started moving again.  They inched their way off the avenue with arthritic slowness.

 

When I passed the junction where Rue de Rome meets Avenue Habib Bourguiba, I saw that it was blocked up with riot cops.  They glared across the avenue to the opposite junction, with Rue Jamel, where a crowd of youths had gathered.  While I was in the vicinity a couple more police vans pulled up, and then I saw one of the riot cops load a canister into a tear-gas gun.  At that moment I decided it was time to remove myself to a safer vantage point.  The easiest-seeming thing to do was to hop into the Hotel Hana’s lift and ascend ten storeys to Bar Jamaica.

 

After the oppressive atmosphere at street level, things felt entirely different up at the bar.  The view of central Tunis seemed as enchanting as ever, the sea to the east blue and serene.  The people and vehicles on the avenue had shrunk to toy-like proportions and the troubles associated with them suddenly seemed distant and inconsequential.  The ranks of armoured, helmetted policemen, manoeuvring on the avenue in accordance with where they thought the protestors were going, now looked to me like groups of scuttling beetles.

 

I’d just bought a beer at the bar when I heard a loud and prolonged rattle of gunfire.  It came from the northern side of the terrace, from where you can look along the Avenues de Paris and de la Liberte and see the big, green hump of Belvedere Park.

 

 

Now a grey haze of gunsmoke hovered in the air several blocks to the north, perhaps above the nearer end of Avenue de la Liberte.  I remember noticing that on the rooftop of a lower building next door to the Hana Hotel, a guy had been sitting eating a late lunch off a small folding table.  The moment that the gunshots rang out, he sprang to his feet, snatched up his lunch-plate, then snatched up the folding table, and bolted inside through a rooftop doorway.  Meanwhile, nearby on the terrace, a young Tunisian woman lamented in English, “It’s like Bagdad now!”

 

I judged the gunfire to have occurred halfway along the route I normally walked to get from my apartment to the centre of Tunis.  Needless to say, I suddenly felt an urge to give up on the idea of returning home that day and to spend the rest of it up at the Bar Jamaica — like the hero of Robert Burns’ epic poem Tam O’Shanter, to “sit bousing at the nappy, an’ getting fou and unco happy,” whilst declining to think of the problems that might “lie between us and our hame.”  However, I summoned my courage and left soon afterwards.  Though that afternoon I did make my way home in a very roundabout way.