Friday, 1 March 2013


The sea is glittering with sunlight as the boat approaches the port.  A handful of Tunisians are knocking back their beers before it’s time to head for the car deck.  The boat is three hours late so it’s after midday when we emerge outside from the port buildings.  At customs our bikes had to go through the x-ray machine, I still don’t know why.  But at least we hadn’t had to open up all our bags.     We wonder how long it would take the cars to pass through with their roofs overloaded with fridges and TVs and all kinds of other household goods, but Slim later explains that each Tunisian can, once in their lifetime, import stuff from abroad without paying duties, which suddenly explains all those overloaded cars.  A bit like Crackerjack, without the cabbage.

Slim and his wife Faten are hosting us and as they live out of the city we are saved the shock of riding into Tunis centre.  Instead we mooch up the coastal road through other suburbs to La Marsa.  At some point we ride past Roman ruins dotted amongst houses set inside walled compounds.  Those soldiers we see are guarding the President’s palace.  This is Carthage, what once was the mighty Carthage, capital of the Phoenician’s western Mediterranean empire, until the Romans finally thumped them, and made it a base for their African exploits.   We realise that this little coastal stretch is the wealthiest part of the nation.   We’d read that Tunisia is probably the most progressive nation in the Maghreb/Arab World and of course everyone is waiting to see how the revolution here will change things.  Two years on and the new government has yet to agree on a new constitution, there’s talk of a rise in Islamic fundamentalism and only two weeks ago one of the main opposition leaders, Chokri Belaid, was assassinated. As we roll into La Marsa we pass students milling around.  But they’re not burning tyres or waving banners.  Just chatting, joking, holding hands.  Whoah! Holding hands! Could this be a revolutionary gesture in itself?
We are greeted by Faten’s delightful mum, Dalila, who invites us into their house, a cool ground floor apartment on a low-rise block, tucked behind some greenery.   She chatters away in French and it takes us a little while to catch up with her.  After a cup of tea and a little conversation and time to shower we take a wander around to the cornice.   The neighbourhood is very tranquil and relaxed.  Late afternoon call to prayer sounds.  We take a mint tea on the front.  On the way back I get a haircut.  The fellas in the barbers look surprised when Gayle sits down to wait.  Women’s rights may be enshrined in law here, but some public places are still male preserves.  When Slim gets home in the evening we go with him down to the shop to fetch some snacks and beer.  He’s very relaxed and talkative and we try not to bombard him with questions.  He’s working in a consultancy firm that advises on building projects.  Faten, who works for the Red Cross, gets home a little later in the evening and the TV is switched on to catch the news.  The Prime Minister has said he would resign if he could not get agreement to dissolve the existing government and form one of technocrats until fresh elections are held.   His own party does not agree with him. The assassination seems to have worked – stalling any political progress and emphasising the divide between the majority Islamic party of Ennahda and the centre left secularists.  Each evening a political talk show broadcasts, discussing current and past episodes in the political history of the nation.  Slim tells us that before the revolution all that was shown on TV was folk singing and dancing.  He and Faten speak excellent English so they are saved from our lousy French.

not just mosaics in the Bardo
We do a little sight-seeing, wandering the old medina of Tunis and visiting the Bardo museum which lays claim to the largest collection of Roman mosaics in the world.  The mosaic collection is fabulous, with an enormous piece displayed from the ceiling to the floor in the entrance.  There are rooms full of mosaics illustrating the sea world and all kinds of animals, Roman gods and Christian references, life on the farming estates, mythical beasts and classical legends.  This part of the Roman Empire was an agricultural centre that provided food for Rome.  Trade was good, and the wealth is shown in the buildings and mosaics left behind.  For some reason the best part of the collection is very hard to find – only one unmarked staircase leads to it.  We almost leave without finding it.   
in the medina
In the busy centre we pass through the square in front of the train station.  I notice a shifty fella clocking us and comment to Gayle about how hard it is to spot the dodgy geezers – there are so many young men hanging around with nothing to do.  As we walk down a narrow street a man tries to shove past me – unusual because even in busy places there seems to be no physical contact.  I instinctively reach down to the zip pocket on my trousers where all my cash is – the zip is half undone but the cash is still there.  I quickly turn around and one man slips behind me whilst another makes a show of dropping his lighter and going to pick it up.  I step out into the road and they disappear into the crowd.

Another day we visit Sidi Bou Said, probably the prettiest village in the best location in Tunisia – with a view over the sea to the hilly peninsula of Cap Bon.  August Macke and Paul Klee stayed here around a hundred years ago, and I can’t imagine much has changed.  Spread over a hill are the traditional houses, mostly bright white with blue paintwork, overlooking the ruins of Carthage and Tunis in the distance.  There’s a traditional merchant’s house to look around and an elegant old palace built by a wealthy American, full of traditional stucco and wood carving, tile work and marble.  The village is a nice place to hang out - there are a few cafes and quite a lot of couples wandering the pedestrianized streets.  Not much noise, just the wind in our ears.  And I’m sure Paul and August will also have come away with a stuffed toy camel or a gaudily-painted ceramic hand of Fatima as a souvenir. 

1 comment:

  1. Lovely photographs. Got the Crackerjack ref., but cabbage? Glad you foiled the pickpockets - i got pickpocketed in Marrakech - my own fault and I knew when it happened - they undid a zip to get my purse too.