I attended a marvellous and huge Iraqi-Palestinian (mixed with Tunisian traditions) wedding held in a lavish hotel located on Tunisia’s stunning Mediterranean coast a couple of weeks ago. Tunisia is an interesting nation, a small, naturally diverse and beautiful country, it enjoys social and political stability, a relatively good economy (far better than other North African nations, and I didn’t see one beggar for instance), and an increasingly profitable tourism market (see the ‘visit Tunisia’ posters plastered all over the tube at the moment). For the visitor, the excellent weather, very favourable prices, the stunning coast and the safety are all attractive (and most of the western tourists in Tunisia go on package tours, not bothering to see much of the country outside of their compound hotel and perhaps an afternoon coach trip to the market/historical site). But, as an independent traveller, and one interested in seeing in the country and not just lying in the sunshine, I was surprised at how few other visibly western people were to be seen in the capital city of Tunis, some days I didn’t spot any.
Tunisia is also one of the most liberal Islamic countries in attitudes towards women, there were many women wearing no head covering at all, and those that did normally had small brightly coloured ones coupled with jeans and tops just as you might find in London on Paris. In fact the day I came home from Tunisia, walking in my hometown of Acton (West London), I saw many women wearing flowing black robes and/or total face coverings; I saw none in Tunisia. The people also seemed nice and welcoming, I was never hassled by salesmen or ripped off in shops or restaurants (being with Arabs may help). The Arab speakers I was with were in constant conversation with the local people we meet, all interested in where they were from and to hear details of the wedding we were attending (which was a major boon to the Tunisian economy!).
On the bad side, Tunisia is a dictatorship and a police state. I knew that President Ben Ali was not exactly open to the democratic process before I arrived (it is a secular nationalist regime, and has been since the colonial power, France, vacated the scene in 1956), but I was not expecting the cult of personality and police presence that I encountered. A picture of the President in morning dress and with lots of medals and ribbons attached to his chest, is present in every shop, restaurant, museum and hotel. There are also huge posters of him throughout the city and suburbs (and I assume across the nation). The President strikes heroic poses, putting his hand on his heart (‘I’m With Ben Ali’) or waving to the little people, in the souk (market) of the medina (old city) of Tunis, there was even bunting with the picture of the president on it. All this is quite alien to me, although British culture dose have some personality cults (celebrity mags, the Daily Express etc), they are not always totally favourable, and the scale of the Tunisian operation is vast. Imagine a huge billboard of the Queen in Trafalgar Sq, then again in Leicester Sq etc, add to that a regal pic of her maj in every shop and you have the Ben Ali model. The Tunisian’s will not openly talk about politics, especially with a foreigner, but from what I have learnt about Mr President and his regime, he’s not a very nice man. On the other hand the country is supposed to be very safe for tourists (and locals…. Unless you say the wrong thing). This is because there are armed police and roadblocks everywhere, our taxi was stopped once and the driver asked for his papers. This is a regular occurrence. When visiting the spread out remains of Carthage, we accidentally strayed into the orbit of the Presidential Palace/compound, which is not a good idea. We were question by a secret service guy, backed up by a small regiment of heavily armed soldiers and police. Not a nice experience, but still a fascinating one (and of course, I can say that because I don’t have to live under that regime. Some of my Arab friends told me that they are in favour of the checkpoints etc, it makes the country safe and the economy for everyone is better for that. Would we be here if we couldn’t walk the streets safely? I counter that you have a low opinion of people if you think they need a military strong man to keep order).
Anyway, back to the better points of Tunisia. Firstly the coast really is stunning, my hotel had a private section of totally unspoiled beach (you could even take a camel ride into the desert). But my main interest was the city of Tunis and the remains of the ancient city of Carthage.
Tunis is a big city; most of the inhabitants of the Country live in or around it. The old city (the medina) is a wonderful maze of streets, unchanged for centuries, containing monuments, mosques and the wonderful souk or market. This is a proper market for the local people, and not tourists (though there are some tourist bits). The fish market was extraordinary, with a smell to remember for life (in a good way), and the clothes part also interesting (as they mostly sold tight jeans, fashionable tee shirts and branded trainers which the local young men wear). There was also some real craftsmanship on show, I was particularly impressed by the hat workshops, where the traditional felt hat of the country is made, and wood workshops where chessboards and much besides were made. There are also some traditionally dressed figures in the souk, old men wearing the red hat and constantly smoking black cigarettes, some of the cafes are very atmospheric indeed (not to mention smoke filled, like everywhere unfortunately). The Zitouna Mosque is in the middle of the souk, and buildings dating from the 8th century onwards. It is a beautiful oasis of calm in the middle of a really mad market (which makes Oxford Street look deserted, remember these are narrow alleyways). Next to the old city you have the Ville Nouvelle, or new town, started by the French in the 1880’s, when they took over rule from the Ottomans. The new town has big boulevards and grand white buildings, just like a mini Paris, and the café culture is very similar (though strops surprisingly early). Here we have a white stucco national theatre, a bizarre hotchpotch of a Cathedral (with a huge figure of Jesus and his outstretched hands above the monumental doors) and the grand French Embassy. There is also a metro line, which takes passengers on a causeway over Lake Tunis, to the suburban towns beyond (including Carthage, and almost to the place where we stayed). All I’ll say about the metro is that it was an ‘experience’, and that most of the stations didn’t have name signs. Food wise, I’d highly recommend Dar El Djed, a fabulous and luxurious restaurant in the old city (but at prices you would pay in a London Pizza Express type place). Dining in a former Ottoman mansion with a beautiful courtyard, carvings and doorways, is a real visual pleasure (never mind the food). They even splash rose water on your hands as you leave (not compulsory).
Looking for the remains of Roman Carthage (they destroyed anything before them) is not easy, and you’ll have to take cabs (which cost insignificant amounts). The remaining sites are disparate and of varying quality, but overall well worth seeing. The highlights were the Antonin Baths, a huge Roman bath complex (only the underground, but now effectively ground level, section remains, which is still very impressive), and the Carthage Museum and grounds (some remains and lots of random columns), which has a now ex-Cathedral next to it (another French import), and it is very bizarre to go into this large space and find it completely empty and devoid of all the usual religious trappings. Nearby the beautiful village of Sidi Bou Said is also well worth a visit, the small (care free) streets of white houses with blue ironwork bustle with flaneurs (mostly Arab). It is an exclusive location, where many wealthy people live, and has some excellent restaurants. We dined on a terrace overlooking the sea and with the lights of the city shimmering in the distance as the sun set, it was a cosmopolitan crowd and the food was a fusion of classic French and Tunisian cooking (the food in Tunisia has many cultural influences).
Back to Tunis, but a rather anonymous suburb, and the Bardo Museum, housed in the former Ottoman rulers’ palace. The building is a treasure in its own right (though not form the outside), with courtyards, carvings, grand rooms and ceilings to amaze the eye. The museum contains a huge collection of mosaics, mostly from the Roman period, but some before and others well after. This collection is a real joy, some of the scenes are so vibrant and striking. You can see how important the sea is to Tunisia in the museum, many of the mosaics have maritime themes (Neptune is a good one), and fish (the de facto national dish) are often to be seen somewhere, even in the most unlikely settings. The museum also houses statues, sarcophaguses and other artefacts from ancient Tunisian history, and in well worth a several hour investigation. When I was there, at first it was totally empty, but then a fleet of coaches arrived, and the museum was buzzing with guided parties (many German and Italian, none British that I noticed) for about an hour, and then calm descended once again.
The wedding was an excellent party with some wonderful traditional Arab music (a large band and four different singers), and the guests of all ages very much enjoyed themselves. Another night we also went to a club in La Marsa, a very nice town outside of Tunis, which was actually a big restaurant and bar complex with a subterranean nightclub. The whole place was lovely (especially the garden with hundreds of lampshades of all hues sparkling and hanging over our heads, the perfect location to while away a few hours putting the world to rights on a beautiful evening), I had tea and cake in the restaurant at about midnight before braving the club. The DJ did his own thing, and played a very mixed bag of Arab pop tunes and some clear Tunisian favourites. I was possibly the only white person present, and the rest was made up of British/European Arabs attending the wedding and mostly locals, women and men, all having a good time. When you go to an Islamic country, drinking and dancing are not what first spring to mind, but they are most certainly present in Tunisia.
There are lots of there things to say about Tunisia and their culture, but that’ll have to wait for another day.