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.