Distance Walked: ~5 km
Tunis is in some respects a more walkable city than Cairo. Without the same population pressure (the population of the whole of Tunisia could fit into Cairo a couple of times over), and without encroaching desert to set limits to expansion, the city is simply easier to move around. Fewer people in more space. The generally wide streets, apart from in the oldest parts of the city, are a legacy of French colonial planning and, in more recent developments such as Lac and Nasr, globalized city norms. The latter is one of the few parts of the city with a concentration of high-rise residential buildings, driven by the need to house workers of the BAD (Africa Development Bank), Libyans and others who have recently expanded the capital’s population. Lac has some of that, but is home to more commercial buildings and embassies, an area heavily influenced by the Saudi investment that built much of it. In general, though, it is a pleasant city to stroll around, with most buildings of 2-3 floors only, a changeable and interesting sky overhead, and space to move.
There are hazards. Some sensitive buildings still sport outcroppings of barbed wire a year after the revolution – the Interior Ministry and the Libyan Embassy downtown, for instance. At the moment a sanitation workers’ strike means one has to step around the occasional pile of refuse sacks. In places, cars parked on the pavements mean stepping out into the street. Rain has left patches of mud here and there. Nothing too difficult.
After a meeting this afternoon with a charmingly cynical radio journalist, I stepped out into rush hour and decided to walk home from the city centre. This gave me a chance to process the conversation as well as get my legs moving. Journalists are professional cynics, so interviewing them has the pleasant side-effect of making me seem, to myself at least, as a sunny optimist. The media scene in Tunis has become chaotic and somewhat rancorous after years of stark repression. It is a complicated and uncertain time, as media professionals try to navigate a newly free (mostly free) landscape in which much is expected of them. My sense so far is that they are not confident of their ability to build media of the kind demanded in a young democracy, given the habits – particularly habits of thought – that the bad years engendered in them, and the lack of clear legal and economic frameworks within which to operate. I have much to learn in the next few weeks. I think journalists here also sense they have much to learn, with high stakes.
My route took me from the busy downtown past the aforementioned Libyan Embassy, heading north-west. On one side, other diplomatic and municipal buildings squatted between private houses and small businesses; on the other, recreational areas including one of the city’s several football (soccer) stadiums. Football is, of course, a serious preoccupation of much of the population. Football-mad writer and philosopher Albert Camus grew up next door, in Algeria, but he would surely have found a comfortable niche here. Tunisians watch and play football more or less universally. To not play football in this society, I have been told, is just odd.
I crossed Route X, which separates downtown Tunis from many of the residential areas – happily there are bridges, although I dare say my Cairo-honed street-crossing skills would get me across anyway. North of X stretch areas of low-rise housing and small pockets of retail and light commercial buildings. The architecture and street layout feel very Mediterranean here, not the bland globalism of Lac or Nasr. White houses, often accented in blue or with tile, mostly nestle behind white concrete walls.
As I entered my neighbourhood, I decided to find some food. “King Fast Food” served up a very tasty, and typically spicy, shawarma sandwich for 2.8 Dinars (just under $2/1.4 Euros/1 pound 20) and I was ready to walk up the hill to the house in which I am staying.
The city is too spread out to make walking everywhere an option. Taxis are more or less essential for getting to meetings – and so far they have been good experiences. But this weekend I hope to find time to get into the old city of Tunis, the Medina, where walking is the only sensible option. My kind of place.