Category Archives: Tunis

Tunisia: parting thoughts

I’m packing my bags, getting ready to leave Tunis. While I’ve been too long away from my family, and am happy to be going home, I’m sad to be leaving. This is a wonderful country in many respects, and it’s a great time to be here for anyone interested in politics, media, and revolutions (guilty on all counts).

Here are a few observations on visiting and doing research in Tunisia.

  1. One can, of course, do most business in Arabic. Tunisians readily understand other dialects, which is good, because their own is quite hard to learn at first, although I’m doing OK after a month. But it remains very useful to know French here as well. So this is a shout-out to all those teachers who put me through seven years of French instruction in my teenage years: thank you! English is only occasionally useful.
  2. The food is good, particularly for those who enjoy fish and spicy dishes. Like the Tunisian culture, language and people, the food is a synthesis of the many cultures that have passed this way. Among the French legacies are baguettes, which one can find everywhere, very well made. Couscous is important, of course, and served differently from in the neighbouring countries. The olives are excellent (as much as 50% of Italian olive oil sold in the US is in fact Tunisian, bottled & labeled by Italian companies, I’m told). Where it is sold, local wine is very reasonably priced. I have drunk very little in the past month, but what I tried was very drinkable. Local beers are also perfectly acceptable. If you get invited to someone’s home for a meal, expect to eat well, and a lot.
  3. Still on food: Salami isn’t salami. Well, sometimes it is, but the word applies to pretty much any kind of processed meat product, made of beef, turkey or chicken. Jambon is, of course, not ham due to halal rules, but made from turkey mostly.
  4. It is often very, very hard to get a Tunisian to allow you to pay for coffee or a meal if your meeting is in a cafe or restaurant. Never mind if they are doing you a favour by having the meeting at all. One has to be most insistent. A very generous culture.
  5. One can have bad taxi experiences, of course, but mostly taxi rides in Tunis are reasonably priced (on the meter) and range from efficient to fun. On one of today’s rides, though, I thought the engine was going to fall out of the vehicle. Most have been in good shape – this is the first time I’ve encountered one in such bad condition.
  6. As in Egypt, this is on the whole not a big email culture (although social media are very popular and important). Do business by phone or SMS.
  7. The period after the fall of a regime, particularly a dictatorship, is inevitably uncertain. Tunisians are naturally concerned about the political, economic and social direction of their country. But I think optimism is reasonable: Tunisia is going to be fine.

Goodbye, Tunisia. See you again soon, I hope.

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The Week in Brief

It’s been a busy week – good for research, less good for blogging. So here’s a few observations on what’s been going on.

Waiting for Tariq

A week ago today I attended one of Tariq Ramadan’s public events. He was here for a couple of days to promote his most recent book, and to meet Tunisian leaders and the public. Also to do a little tourism, it turned out: his Sunday afternoon event started an hour and a half late since he was elsewhere looking around.

The event at the Palais des Congrès drew an overflow crowd – only those of us with advance tickets got into the main hall, although others were able to watch on a screen in an outer room. Audience members were of all ages, but predominantly young.

Waiting for Tariq

When the star turn finally showed up, he was introduced by the elderly Tunisian intellectual Mohamed Talbi, who fought to make himself heard over a less than stellar sound system and the impatient (and loud) reactions of a minority of the audience. The interventions from the floor weren’t helpful, but perhaps understandable as instead of introducing Prof Ramadan and his book, he attacked him as a ‘Salafi’ and ‘Wahhabi.’ Whether or not one agrees with Tariq Ramadan’s variety of modernist Euro-Islam – and plenty do not – it seems to me very difficult to sustain a position that he has much to do with Salafism or Wahhabism. Prof Talbi was clearly prepared to speak at some length on his theme, but the organizers asked him to cut short his introduction (he complained about this in the Tunisian press in the following few days). The whole thing was taking on the air of a circus.

But Ramadan is quite the showman. Once he took the microphone, his charisma was evident and he managed the audience well. Apart from a few religious formulas and specific terms delivered in Arabic, he spoke in clear and persuasive French throughout. Addressing young Tunisians in particular, he urged them to develop their political consciousness and ‘lucidity,’ including by tearing themselves away from their screens and educating themselves by reading widely – they must revolutionize their minds. He identified polarization as the great challenge facing Tunisian politics, yielding a ‘sterile’ debate between Islamists and secularists. Tunisians, having won the freedom of expression, must learn to listen as much as to talk. It was important that Tunisia preserve its diverse and multilingual heritage, making sure that future generations learned good Arabic and French, and even English, in order to be open to the world. Through education, Tunisians must reconcile themselves with their history.

His presentation touched on issues of religion, of course – on Sufism, for example. But he struck me as in some senses a missionary of democracy more than anything else, preaching the values of good citizenship in a newly free society. For the most part I found it a good message, delivered well. If it helped him sell some books also, more power to him.

The Old Team

British Embassy, Tunis

Among my meetings during the week were coffee with the outgoing and incoming political/press officers at the British Embassy and, later in the week, a casual dinner with the Ambassador at the very grand official residence in Marsa.

Sunset from the front entrance of HM Ambassador's residence, Marsa, Tunis

I enjoy interacting with my former colleagues in the Diplomatic Service from time to time – they tend to be intelligent and well-informed, worth talking to. But I am glad to be out of that world and in the one I now inhabit. Diplomacy’s a great career for some; for me, teaching is much more fun.

Citizen Journalist

Slim Ayedi

I’m meeting all kinds of very interesting media people, of course. It was particularly fun to meet Slim Ayedi – Journaliste Citoyen – on Thursday when he gave a presentation to engineering students at the National Engineering School (ENIT). He was simultaneously sobering about their prospects in the Tunisian economy and inspiring about the possibilities of taking control of their own projects and finding ways to build a better future for their country. He does a lot of work these days with local and international non-profit organizations working in development and media training. His brand of video reportage is very self-effacing, concentrating on amplifying the voices of ordinary Tunisians rather than putting himself in front of the camera. I hope he won’t mind me including a photo of him here, nevertheless.

The Bardo

I made some time today for a little tourism, visiting the justly famous Bardo museum. The Bardo palace complex is also home to the Constituent Assembly that is tasked with writing the constitution for the second Tunisian Republic, so this was political tourism, too.

Bardo Palace (right) and Assembly (left)

Mosaic of a bottle in protective straw covering and goblet

Sadly, the museum is undergoing extensive works, so there is only partial access at the moment (at reduced rates). Some things I would like to have seen were not accessible. Nevertheless, the mosaics I saw were quite incredible: beautiful work, and mostly very well preserved.

Mosque in the Bardo grounds

Other Highlights

I’ve been watching quite a lot of television (this is actually work, given that I’m researching media). It has been exciting to see how lively the national debate is about fundamental issues such as the relationship between religion and state, about rights in the constitution, and about the role of the media itself. Both the national (state-owned) and private television channels give significant time to such discussions, in the form of interviews and debates as well as news programmes. It is particularly fun to see people involved in this whom I have met or will be meeting in my remaining time here.

Yesterday I was invited to lunch, to experience what I was told was real Sfaxian couscous. When Tunisians do lunch, they really do lunch. Extended family, neighbours dropping in, many courses. In this case, the couscous was served with three different kinds of fish. I fear I enjoyed the food too much – I could hardly move afterwards. The conversation was lively and, like so many conversations here these days, full of politics. And in three languages, of course.

Good times.

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Street in the Tunis Medina. Note 'Ultras' grafitti

After wandering around the old city (Medina) this afternoon, I took a quick look at the Cathedral which stands at one end of Avenue Bourguiba, opposite the French Embassy – twin symbols of the period of French colonial rule, both built in the latter half of the nineteenth century.

To one side of the cathedral nave is a very fancy reliquary, approximately contemporary with the building itself. It purportedly contains part of the body of King Louis IX of France, who died of fever in Tunis at the start of his second failed crusade. Angels representing the Church and the French state support a French cathedral (very different in style from the one in which it is housed).

I can understand the historical reason why the Archdiocese might want this here. But today a reminder of the Crusades, and particularly of the aggressive alliance of Church and state power that drove them, seems an odd, insensitive choice for a prominent church in a majority Muslim country.

Also of interest, mosaics of early Popes from Tunisia or, more accurately, from the Roman province of Africa.

There was a fairly steady stream of visitors, among whom I was a rare foreigner. Saturday afternoon is for many Tunisians a time for shopping and strolling, and most seemed to be groups of family or friends out doing just that, perhaps enjoying the relative quiet of the cathedral compared to the bustle of the nearby Medina, shopping streets, and fresh food markets.

Tunisia’s Christian population is small, and its Catholic population smaller. I suspect the cathedral largely caters to resident foreigners, including refugees and those associated with the African Development Bank. But if anyone knows for sure, I would be interested in learning about it.

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Walking Blues, Tunis Edition

Distance Walked: ~5 km

Blisters: none

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.

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Tunisia Needs Tourists

Sidi Bou Said & Bay of Tunis by TheEdWebb
Sidi Bou Said, a photo by TheEdWebb on Flickr.

Tunisia needs tourists. Come! It’s beautiful. The food is great, too.

More photos available here:

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Tunis at night

Yeah. It’s pretty civilized here.

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