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|
|in the medina|