TUNISIA: Timeless and Contemporary
by Barbara Barton Sloane
The atmosphere in the vast, cream-colored marble lobby of the Khamsa Hotel in the Tunis suburb of Gammarth fairly crackles with energy, suspense and anticipation. Upwards of 200 attractive, business-attired 20-something men and women sit at low tables that ring the lobby, drinking coffee, smoking cigarettes or standing in small groups near the door to a meeting room. Waiting. They have come to a recruiting session hoping to be hired by one of the several airline companies conducting interviews here. Interviews over, now all that remains is to hear the words: “you’re hired!”
I asked if I could join a group of four young women huddled anxiously together on a sofa. They were uniformly dark-eyed, pretty, and two of the gals sported perky pony tails. They were receptive to my questions about their interviews and chances of being hired. Ashraf, slender, soft-spoken and pert in a trim navy pants suit, explained: “We are here because this is a big opportunity for us. We do not have so many chances for jobs. To become a flight attendant for Qatar Airlines would be great!” I wished them good luck, and joined three young men, smoking and feigning an air of indifference. Once we began talking, however, each echoed the young women’s enthusiasm and hopes of landing a job. As I emerged from the dining room a few hours later, there they still were. The waiting for results continued long into the evening.
These young people, bright, attractive and eager to be a part of the global scene are a sure symbol of Tunisia today. This tiny country, squeezed between two very large ones – Algeria to the west and Libya to the east - is, like its neighbors, decidedly Arab and Muslim yet differs emphatically, being secular, with both feet planted solidly in the 21st Century. Since Tunisia’s independence from France, it has had two leaders, Presidents Bourguiba and Ben Ali, both strongly committed to insuring that their country, while situated in the heart of Islamic North Africa, remains secular and Eurocentric.
In the world we live in today, we must choose our travel wisely. We pay close attention to government alerts and before we go, we want to make sure that our destination will be welcoming and safe. Tunisia is that and more. It stands alone among Arab countries with a message that comes across loud and clear: “Come visit us. You are welcome here!”
Having never visited Tunisia before, I was thrilled to receive an invitation to spend a week there with a colleague. I did a bit of pre-trip research and learned that Tunisia was once the center of the ancient Carthaginian civilization that was ultimately defeated by the Roman Empire. In 1883, the French made the country a protectorate. Then, under the leadership of Habib Bourguiba, Tunisia was granted its independence in 1956. France today still has a strong presence here. As our university professor cum guide explains: “Over 1,000 French companies do business with us and Air France operates several flights each day to Tunis and other cities. Also, most of us are bi-lingual, speaking both Arabic and French.” Indeed, Tunisia’s different facets constitute a frontline territory between Europe and Africa, North and South, East and West, the desert and the sea.
Tunisia has not experienced the levels of political violence as in neighboring Algeria, although it hasn’t escaped some random terrorist attacks, generally accredited to the al-Qaeda network. That said, Tunisia is a liberal, tolerant society and most Tunisians are quite relaxed about their faith.
Women in Tunisia
Conditions for women in Tunisia are better than just about anywhere in the Islamic world. President Bourguiba was a staunch supporter of women’s rights. He banned polygamy and ended divorce by renunciation; he placed restrictions on the tradition of arranged marriages and gave women the right to refuse a proposal. Bourguiba regarded the veil worn by Muslim women as demeaning and banned it from schools. This is not to say that you don’t see countless women still covering their heads with a scarf - jeans, backpacks and headscarves abound. Tunisia is now seen by many as something of a model of how a moderate, secular and relatively open Arab state can resist fundamentalism.
Our first day of sightseeing took us to the capital city of Tunis and its old town medina, ancient and intriguing. The medina is enclosed by ramparts and gates, and as we entered, we stepped back in time. Here we found labyrinths of light and shadow criss-crossed with lanes and alleys. Amid the hum and buzz of vendors hawking their wares, there was the constant, tinny sound of metalworkers hammering intricate designs on brass, and permeating all, the sweet, musky smell of incense. We seemed to walk forever and made sure we stayed very close to our guide because to lose him meant we might never find our way out of this maze.
The shops’ offerings were appealing, well-displayed and well-made, from skull caps in black or white knit (I bought one of each) to carved wooden bowls to baubles strung together to make bold, bright necklaces. We traipsed down every lane and everywhere we looked there were new things to buy! The essential oils were particularly beguiling, evoking the exact scent of each flower, and the nice part, they came in roll-on containers and were about $4 US. There were bins brimming with spices in colors of yellow, green and red and candles of every size and shape. You will certainly find exotic gifts here to bring home and it will be easy on the wallet – provided you bargain with the shopkeeper, and, of course, bargaining is part of the fun and it is expected! The “turquoise” large bauble necklace I bought was a bargain. The vendor shaved off a dollar or two. He and I both ended up with a price we were happy with. Win-Win. The medina is a pulsing, living thing, a place of indefinable charm and mystery. This bazaar differed from most others in that the atmosphere was happy and non-aggressive. You will feel comfortable here.
White and Blue and Beautiful All Over
We left the narrow, close confines of the medina for the fresh air of Sidi Bou Said, the elegant and chic resort by the sea. There we found bright white, blue-trimmed villas with fuchsia bougainvillea spilling from terraces. At a sidewalk café perched on a hill with steep terraces set spectacularly on the cliffs and overlooking the gulf below, we sat on kilim covered banquettes and watched men seriously absorbed in smoking their chicas (water pipes). We drank espresso so strong it had a real jolt and ate delicious doughnuts sweetened with honey called boubalouni. Sidi Bou Said is a tourist haven yet even on a summer evening, you can have it to yourself by wandering through the silent backstreets. From our vantage point, we looked across the cliff tops to a monastic fortress and lighthouse built in the early years of Arab rule. Dar Ennejma Ezzahra is our next stop in Sidi. It is the French Baron d’Erlanger’s monumental and beautiful folly which was built between 1912 and 1922, its architecture a mixture of Tunisian and Romantic Orientalism. This edifice is now home to the Centre of Arab and Mediterranean Music and we saw stunning musical instruments through the ages, a collection of cultural heritage worthy of both study and preservation.
Power to the Palm Tree
The city of Hammamet on the Cap Bon peninsula is 40 miles southeast of Tunis and is rightly called Tunisia’s garden resort. The land abounds with eucalyptus and citrus trees and flowering shrubs. A major expansion has taken place within the last five years causing the government to enact a local law prohibiting hotels built higher than the tallest surrounding palm tree. This has not, however, stopped Hammamet from expanding horizontally with hotels rimming the seashore in each direction as far as the eye can see. In fact, “Las Vegas by the Mediterranean” came quickly to mind. To further this image, the hotels all vie for guests by offering elaborate nightly entertainment and 70’s-style discos. By day, there’s lots to occupy you: two major golf courses, para-sailing, windsurfing or just hanging around the hotel pool, and in summer, Hammamet is the site of Tunisia’s annual cultural festival.
Before leaving Hammamet, our guide told us of a renowned pastry shop here that makes just one thing: makrud, a tiny, triangular-shaped envelope of dough filled with dates or almonds. Although makrud can be purchased throughout Tunisia, this place is known to produce the best. Pulling up to the shop, we found people standing 5 deep at the counter buying boxes of the pastry. We were given a sample and decided on the spot that we must take some home. It tasted kind of like baklava and was delicious. For about $2.50 we bought a box that must have contained at least 2-3 pounds of makrud, enough to share with friends and family – and then some. I think we’ll still be eating this goodie through Thanksgiving and Christmas.
We were looking forward to our visit to Carthage and its acres of Roman ruins. In its day, Carthage was a thriving maritime center that became the third largest city in the Roman Empire, before being destroyed by Arab invaders from the east in 692 a.d. Virgil wrote of the ancient port of Carthage in the first century B.C. and it has forever more been suffused in a legendary aura of romance, power and decline. This is Tunisia’s best-known archeological site and its ruins are scattered over a very large area. To tour it completely you’ll need a full day. We had only a few hours to walk amid the pillars and statues, some almost wholly intact and preserved but many standing only a little above ground level. Still, if you approach Carthage with some imagination and a willingness to be impressed, it has a good deal to offer. I was mesmerized by a marble statue of a young woman executed perfectly, her eyes gazing wistfully into the distance, the look on her face virginal and sweet, and the robe that she wore flowing about her feet so realistically that it appeared to be stirred by a warm breeze that just then wafted through the cypress trees.
The Holy City
That would be Kairouan, a three hour drive from Tunis. This city is famous for its Great Mosque and is considered the most important religious site in the country. “What a hell of a place to put a holy city” wrote The Times’ military correspondent in 1939, complaining about the heat. Kairouan, because it is situated inland from the tempering breeze of the Mediterranean, can get incredibly hot in summer. In October, we had a comfortable 70-75 degrees, weather made for café sitting and observing the lively street scene which enfolded about us. Robed men and head-covered women bustled about, donkeys pulled carts laden with twigs and branches, shepherds by the roadside guided their flocks with staffs and there sprawled out before us, the awe-inspiring, sand-colored Great Mosque. Surrounding this vast, several football fields-large site were the ubiquitous vendors. Here their specialty is carpets. Kairouan is a UNESCO World Heritage site, and is Islam’s fourth most holy center. You may visit certain parts of this monument but be aware that the mosque’s prayer-hall is closed to non-Muslims.
The Tip of North Africa
As our Tunisian tour came to an end, we decided to head toward the northernmost part of the country, Bizerte. Driving a couple of hours from our Tunis base, we came to the “untouched, true” Tunisia, if you will. The land here is agricultural with fertile fields growing wheat and barley. Vineyards and olive groves abound. We passed through dusty villages with kids playing in the rubble and, however small the town, there was always a table set up outside a storefront where men sat, drank tea and smoked – and they were never, ever joined by their women!
Enroute to Bizerte, we get a sense of a definite shift – in people, in traditions, in the way of life. We stop at Utique, a small town dating from 1105 B.C., affording us our finest opportunity to observe the aboriginal people, Berbers. Their ethnic dress is a riot of colors: reds, yellows, purples, the women in long, flowing skirts, heads wrapped in bright, gauzy scarves, wrists jangling with layer upon layer of gold bracelets. The men wear dark colored robes flowing to the ground, the traditional djallabiyya.
In Bizerte, we found a port city known not as much for resort as for industry. However, this place is definitely worth a visit, as it has a monumental heritage covering centuries of strategic importance and is still very much the preserve of Tunisians. We visited Bizert’s Kasbah with its massive walls and on top, a promenade where we had a view of the port - brightly colored boats and fishermen stringing their large, lacy nets. We explored the Old Town with hidden passages, arches and walls painted in pretty pastel shades.
On our way back to Tunis, we made a stop at Raf Raf, about 18 miles southeast of Bizerte. The beach here is surprisingly undeveloped and private. We stood on a cliff top looking towards Cap Farina glistening in the sun, the waves crashing below us – a pure and peaceful moment. The beach is an almost endless curve of white sand backed by dunes, forest and sloping fields of fig, vines and rustling cane. We were told that even on weekends when this beach is very populated, it’s easy to find one’s own secluded cove and escape the crowds.
The Bardo Museum
We saved one of the highlights of our trip for the last day when we visited the Bardo Museum in Tunis. Housed in the former royal palace of the Bey, this museum has the largest collection of Roman mosaics in the world. The building itself is spectacular, built up over the centuries and surrounded by gardens full of Roman and Punic statues. The mosaics are splendid and awe-inspiring. Viewing them so bright and vivid is like looking through an album of color snapshots. These mosaics offer a direct and beautiful visual record of what was considered important by this extraordinarily powerful civilization. The collection is too vast to take in on a single visit but even a glimpse of some of the designs will flesh out a picture of Roman life and times. Two artworks that I think back on with a smile: one, a glorious rendering of a scene from Homer’s Odyssey where Odysseus sails past the Island of Sirens, and his men, to prevent temptation, are all tied to masts. The more things change…. The other, in one of the fresco rooms, among the rare surviving fragments - a wall painting depicting a bottle of wine wrapped in straw, a bag full of eggs and a leg of lamb. Ah, the good life!
Strangers into Friends
Our guide summed up the Tunisian experience very well: “Here in Tunisia, one kills four birds with one stone. You have a country that is Arabic yet European; you are in Africa and here you can experience the wonders of the Islamic world.” He went on to explain: “Tunisians are a liberal people and the idea welcoming strangers is a centuries-old tradition. It is a cosmopolitan country which offers exploration of an historic and exotic land.” When we arrived the Tunisian people were but strangers. We leave with strangers becoming friends. Tunisia welcomes you.
If You Go:
Tunisian Tourism Office
1515 Massachusetts Avenue
Washington DC 20005
Tel: 202- 466-2546
The Tunisian Cultural & Information Center USA
168 Madison Avenue
NY NY 10016
Director: Naima Remadi
Corinthia Khamsa Hotel
Les Cites de Carthage-Gammarth-Tunisie
Tel: 216-71 91 11 00
Photos courtesy of Sloane Travel Photography