Travel: A View From Tunisia

Tunisia
Jami’ al-Zaytuna (the Mosque of Olive)

by Lenna

A few weeks ago, I visited Tunisia. Just the idea of setting foot on African soil was thrilling to me, and even more so because I was visiting a Muslim-majority country. Tunisia is where the Arab Spring began in December of 2010, following the self-immolation of Mohamed Bouazizi in Sidi Bouzid.

The town of Sidi Bou Said (not to be confused with the aforementioned Sidi Bouzid, which is a different place, 300 km away) was my first stop, and while it’s quite lovely, it’s a bit of a tourist trap. Situated along the coastline, the town reminds me of the coastal towns of Greece. The smooth white buildings are decorated with blue accents and deep green vines with sprays of pink flowers. There are a few restaurants and lots of shops where you can buy trinkets. It’s worth visiting, but I was eager to see Tunis, which is about a 20 minute cab ride away.

Tunis: cobblestone street at night
Tunis: cobblestone street at night

Tunis is not terribly touristy, and the people are very friendly. English is not widely spoken, though most people speak French as well as Arabic. Tunisia was colonized by the French from 1881-1956, and they’ve certainly left their mark. I had difficulty finding a restaurant that served Tunisian food, but it was easy to find restaurants that offer French food, with menus printed in French. One evening I was stopped by a security guard at the entrance of what looked like a restaurant because it turned out to be a pub. It was open to the public, but he realized I didn’t really want to go into a pub, presumably because I was wearing hijab. Had I not stumbled upon that establishment, I might have thought there were no bars in Tunis, since they don’t seem to advertise.

The lovely St George’s Anglican Church graces the downtown, near the famous arch that precedes the bazaar. The day I visited the bazaar it was sunny and 90°F (~32°C). The bazaar was packed with people, and became even more crowded as the evening approached. By 5 PM, the bazaar begins to shut down, and by 7 PM, the shops are shuttered and the crowds have gone.

Near the bazaar is the only obvious masjid I saw in Tunis. Al-Zaytuna stands out in part because there are so few, especially compared to places like Istanbul. I don’t remember hearing the adhan at all while visiting Tunis, whereas it rung out over the land in Istanbul. This absence was disappointing, since I so love to hear the call to prayer.

I walked the cobblestone streets for what seemed like a very long time, trying to find the hotel, which was already reserved through an online service. I kept asking people along the way where it was, only to be met with blank stares. Finally a man in a jewelry shop took it upon himself to find the hotel for me. He left his shop and we wound round and round the narrow streets, asking various people along the way, making our way through what seemed like a maze. Finally we came to a small door that had been cut out of a huge, ornate door from an earlier era. The sign for the hotel was hardly bigger than a dinner plate, and I’m quite sure I would have never found this hotel had it not been for the shopkeeper’s help.

This is the hotel ROOM, not the lobby!
This is the hotel ROOM, not the lobby!

I’ve stayed in hotels all over the world, some of them quite beautiful, but none could match the Dar Ben Gacem in Tunis. I could live in this hotel and be happy forever. Converted from an old residence, the place was filled with charm and elegance, and graced with such ornate embellishments, it reminded me of a miniature Alhambra. Every corner of the place, in the room and on the grounds, was comfortable and inviting. Breakfast is served whenever guests roll out of bed and make their way out to the courtyard, and it’s quite a spread. Eggs, toast, fruits, pastries, coffee and a sour homemade lemonade I thought was delicious. I highly recommend Dar Ben Gacem for visitors lodging in Tunis.

One of my favorite things about the city was the outdoor cafes lining the streets, where people congregate in the evenings. I got some lovely French pastry and an aromatic tea with pine nuts floating one top–something authentically Arab at last. I realized later the shop had charged me double, but it was still inexpensive. The prices in Tunis, outside the airport, are quite reasonable, and it seems perfectly safe to walk at night, even on some of the side streets, which are not necessarily well lit.

Mint tea with pinenuts.
Mint tea with pine nuts. Yum! 🙂

If you take a taxi in Tunisia, be sure to negotiate with the drivers. If you’re willing to pay whatever they quote, they are likely to charge you as much as $40 (US) to drive you  from the airport to Sidi Bou Said. But if you look at all the cabs lined up, waiting for passengers, you know it’s a buyer’s market. If you offer $15, there will be a driver who will take your offer, even if they seem reluctant at first. You can also save money by taking the trains, which are pretty good, though it can be a little tricky buying a ticket if you don’t speak Arabic or French.

I almost met an untimely death in Tunis, which I suppose is as good a place to die as any. I was looking down at my mobile and stepped out in the street in front of an oncoming train, completely oblivious. Someone yanked me back to the sidewalk, just in the nick of time, alhamdulillah.

My stay in Tunis was brief, so I didn’t really get to experience the full flavor of the city before it was time to leave. Since there are no direct flights to the US, I returned via Paris, where I spent a couple of days, marveling at the relative wealth. The French have plundered Africa and turned Tunis into an impoverished mini-Paris. Even though Turkey was also savaged by laïcité, it still feels like a Muslim country, but for me, Tunisia does not.

Still it was a lovely place to visit, and I enjoyed it very much.

***
What did you think of this article? Let me know below in comments. You also reach me via email at lenncat@protonmail.com or find me on Twitter: @LennCat.

3 comments

  1. Sounds like a lovely country minus the fact that they have bars in Muslim countries…but at least the guard had enough decency to stop a hijabi from entering a the bar.

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      1. From my knowledge alcohol was never explicitly forbidden in any in as Islamic polity per law, meaning the sharia rules were part of the ethos but never fundamentally enforced. But now secular laws, even of they ban the proliferation of alcohol, are used to regulate booze…the larger picture is the loss of Islamic ethos.

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