I visited Tunisia between the two terrorist attacks of 2015; just a few days after gunmen opened fire on tourists in the Bardo Museum in Tunis, killing over 20 people, and just three months before at least 37 people were massacred on a hotel beach in Sousse. It was my first time on the African continent. These are some of the things I saw and heard.
On the plane, I am handed a little tourist form: Name, Address, Occupation, Father’s occupation, Purpose for visit, Address in Tunisia… I fill out my correct name and address and write “English Teacher”. For address in Tunisia I write, “Hostel”.
The man who takes my form is unimpressed. “Where is your hostel? Address? Booking confirmation?”
“Oh, I’m so sorry! I hadn’t realised I would need it now,” I tell him, “I have to go to an internet café to get the details…” I’m staying with a Couchsurfing host and later meeting up with some activists, but he doesn’t need to know that. After five minutes of arguing, he lets me go.
A bored voice blares through the tannoy system every five minutes: “We would like to remind you that all areas of the airport are non-smoking.” Everyone is smoking. I sit at a café to get my bearings and order a coffee. “Avez vou wifi?” I ask the waiter. “Oui,” he says, and disappears, never to be seen again.
The cafe is packed with people and smoke. The women who share my table are discussing the World Social Forum, which, until now, I had neglected to realise would be held at the exact same time as my visit.
I know I’m being ripped off when the waiter charges €5 for my coffee, but I can’t prove it.
Outside, the sun is blazing. My taxi driver dances in his seat while driving, singing and occasionally slapping my thigh.
My couchsurfing host is a young Tunisian woman who shares a flat with another girl in Le Kram, a slither of Tunis between the sea and a big lake, a train ride from the centre. It’s the flatmate who greets me. She’s a Computer Programmer and spends most of her time frowning into her laptop screen and typing a million words a second.
Thunder claps over Le Kram as I wander the streets in the hope of finding something to look at, or something to eat. Everything is a struggle in a new country. How much are things? Am I being overcharged? How do I even ask the price?
There’s something weird about the prices in the pizzeria. Fortunately, the workers are very friendly and they patiently explain that a Dinar is divided into 1,000 millemes, not 100 like in most currencies. So the unnerving sum of “5,600” is actually little more than €2.50.
My green salad arrives with a strange sprinkling of tuna garnish. I eat it anyway. The storm hits just as I make my way back outside.
My host tells me, with some embarrassment, that we’ll have to visit the police station in the morning. She explains that the last time she hosted a couple of backpackers, they were walking along the road together when an apparently friendly man said hello to her and asked about her friends. “Are they staying at your house?” he asked her. When she said yes, he whipped out a police badge and told her that it was illegal to host foreigners without permission and that she must go immediately to the police station and register them.
For anyone reading this who isn’t aware, Tunisia is considered the great success story of the Arab Spring. In January 2011, protesters successfully toppled the regime in record time with minimum casualties, and Ben Ali, the dictator, left the country amidst much celebration. If that’s true, what the hell is up with these secret undercover police and the tight regulations in the airport? I didn’t even have to show a hostel confirmation for Iran.
I ask my host, “Was there really a revolution here?”
“Oh yes,” she assures me, “there was a revolution.”
“So, what’s changed?”
She thinks carefully for a few moments. “The prices went up.” She explains that the price of bread has risen by up to five times since Ben Ali left the country, and that he had subsidy schemes for the farmers to keep the prices down.
“People drive more recklessly now. There is more crime.”
It’s raining. I’m at the train station. A man runs for the train which has just started to move out of the station. He calls to the train driver, who slows the train to a halt, allows the man to climb on and the glides out of the station, leaving me gaping in amazement.
I stop by a man selling rolls from a cart. He has little puffs that look like fried dough that he fills with ominous sprinkles from different metal trays: something that could be cheese, something that’s almost certainly a spicy tomato, olives and again a sprinkling of tuna. I’m feeling shy about ordering food, not knowing what these ingredients are or how to ask about them. I don’t know how to ask the price. I point to the one that a man has just bought and he makes me one the same. People nearby are giggling at my butchered attempts at French, but not in an unfriendly way. The man takes the smallest coin from my outstretched hand.
The woman in the Tourist Information Office hands me a map and primly dictates the places I must visit. She draws lines across my map, showing me the way to the museum, carefully omitting the fact that 21 tourists just died there, and some monuments. “What about the World Social Forum?” I ask her.
She looks at me with staged puzzlement. “There’s nothing like that here,” she says.
“Yes, it started today,” I tell her.
“Oh no, I think it was last week,” she says.
“No, it’s definitely today,” I repeat. I grab the address from my notebook and read it to her. “Is there a bus that goes to there?” I ask.
“No,” she says, “no bus. It’s very far away.”
I walk and walk in the rain and rain, getting cat-called and heckled and pissed off. I need to buy a sim card to contact the activists, but this apparently simple task, coupled with the Tourist Info visit and the fruitless search for internet, somehow swallows the whole day.
I finally meet the activists in a pub in the city centre, along with some international people from Spain and France. They’re talking about all of the horrendous things they saw at the Social Forum that day—fights between nationalists from different countries; a stall supporting the Iranian Regime and all manner of greenwashing propaganda from various multinational corporations. I feel a little better about not having gone.
I go to use the internet in a hip artsy place that appears to be the only one in the capital with a wifi connection. I get lost on the way back, and when I return, there are only two people left. They are both Tunisian, but one speaks good English. He tells me about a commune at the edge of the city, which sounds interesting. I ask him about Choucha, the refugee camp in the desert by the Algerian border, abandoned by the UNHCR two years earlier. He’s very scornful at this, gets narky and points a lot with a raised voice. His position seems to be that they should go back to where they came from and that they’re just being stubborn by staying there. He’s an individualist anarchist and apparently doesn’t give a shit about other people, but when he starts ranting about the Tunisian revolution not being real, I take a bit of notice. One phrase that I often hear repeated by people I meet is, “During the so-called revolution.”
I’m starting to wonder what kind of “Revolution” this so-called “success story” was..
There’s a reggae rave in a tent in the road. Boys with dreadlocks dance a jig with interlinked arms; a girl in a hijab flips a peace sign and grins. There are police lining the side of the road when everybody leaves, and I’m left in doubt as to whether it was legal or not.
On the train back to Le Kram, the woman across from me is wearing a tiny skirt and heels. When an old man sits down next to me, opposite her, she makes a show of putting her make-up on very slowly and carefully in front of him. He watches her, smiling. The train creaks along, painfully old and slow, covered in shonky graffiti tags.
I have one more day to myself before two full days of meetings and my host has told me I really must go to Siddi Bou Said. It’s all blue and white. I take pictures of pretty blue and white things.
The sea should be close to here. “Ou est la mar?” I ask people. When I finally find the beach, I discover it’s a building site. I drink a coffee at the only restaurant there, with sand in my toes.
It’s become a morning habit to take a roll from The Egg Seller with his metal table, close to the central train station. He boils the eggs in a pan on a rocket stove and then skilfully cracks them, rolls off the peel in one smooth movement and slices the egg into a roll. I give him about 20p and we chit-chat about the weather while I munch. Tunisian street food rocks.
On my way to a bar with friends one evening I see the woman who was putting on her make-up on the train being escorted to a police car by two cops. I stare after her, wishing I could somehow do something useful.
In one of the meetings people are discussing the rise of Jihadism in Tunisia, and I learn that it is the country exporting the highest number of fighters who go to join groups like ISIS in Syria. One of the Tunisian activists explains that “during the so-called revolution” there was a lot of energy on the streets and many young people became politically conscious for the first time. When Ben Ali left and the revolution was deemed a success, that’s when they lost their opportunity to go and gather the youth together to do something positive. Unfortunately, the Radical Islamists got there first.
Most bars close around midnight, but we are a big group of international people with plenty more to talk about, and most of us are leaving in the morning. We get invited into an underground restaurant, which turns out to be a sex bar. A French-Tunisian woman in our group hangs her head with shame the whole time we’re there. We don’t see any sex, or at least I don’t, but there are several women wearing sexy clothes dancing or chatting with men at the tables. One of the German women from our meetings won’t believe me that it’s a sex bar. When she finally believes me, she says she wants to leave immediately and the gathering starts to break up.
On my last day, I see that same woman from the train shuffling along the road in dowdy clothes, her arm linked with an elderly man. Who is this woman? Whoever she is, this woman and the sex bar and the jihadists and the undercover police are part of Tunisia just as much, or maybe more, than the bright white and blue façades of Siddi Bou Said.
As I write this article, Tunisia is hit by a new wave of social unrest. Where this will lead remains to be seen.