I returned yesterday from a brief sojourn in Tunis, where I attended a one-day workshop on small arms and ate inordinate amounts of food.
The last time I was in Tunis was in 2005, when I went with a fact-finding mission and spoke to brave people defying Ben Ali and his vast network of cops whose job was to silence dissent against him. On one day we went to an activist’s house and she cooked us a Brik while two policemen who had followed us there sat outside. It was delicious.
Much has changed politically of course but the capital remains unchanged, shiny and white and gorgeous. I stayed in an area called Gammarth, which is an upscale district of sprawling villas plonked on rolling hills overlooking bays of impossibly beautiful serene blue water. A taxi driver showed us a villa formerly owned by one of the Ben Ali clan somewhere between Gammarth and La Marsa, another chi-chi area full of expensive real estate and attractive foliage.
Much of our stay was spent shuttling between Gammarth and downtown Tunis, about a 20 minute ride by car along a well-maintained motorway-type road bordered by commercial parks and residential areas of mostly nicely designed white villas. French cars zipped alongside us maintaining good lane discipline and stopping at red lights. Signs accurately indicated to motorists which way to go. Upon rolling down the window gusts of clean air forced themselves into our grateful lungs.
Downtown Tunis continued the theme of being everything Cairo is not with its well laid out streets and cleanliness and friendly people. The people really are wonderful, although that might be part in due to the mystique of the Egyptian accent in the Arab world. Not my accent, obviously (which is mystifying in a different way) but that of El Sheikh Adam. I have heard tales of legend about the effect produced by an Egyptian opening his mouth and emitting sound at Arabic speakers of non-Egyptian provenance and these tales were proved true, not all the time, but on multiple occasions in Tunis, apart from one kid who looked blankly at El Sheikh Adam when he asked a question and then appealed to a woman standing nearby for translation.
(In any case several people were helpful above and beyond the call of duty, including a newspaper seller who went out of his way to walk us through the scary deserted lanes of the market area to safely deliver us to a restaurant).
For someone whose ears are attuned to Egyptian Arabic, the Tunisian dialect is absolutely bonkers and wonderful and sounds like syllables having a fight to leave the speaker’s mouth first, with French trying to break things up. Speech is delivered fast, and often loudly, with a unique lilt, and sometimes when I heard two Tunisian citizens in full flow and couldn’t grasp the meaning of what they were saying I had no way of determining whether they were pissed off or neutral or joking because of the similarity in tone to outsider ears. To listen to it is sometimes like being assaulted by the letter qaf and the letter sheen, but in a nice way, and I think that if there was a trade fair of world languages the Tunisian stall should just “Sfax” سفكس the most Tunisian sound in the world apart from shkoun. (Egypt could have “mga3las” as its trade fair exhibit).
When not listening to taxi drivers we wandered around the old market area with its wonderful doors and so on. At one mosque a self-appointed doorman demanded to know whether I am Muslim or not (based on my exotic English appearance), addressing his questions to Adam rather than get his hands dirty with the heathen. Adam informed him that I am Egyptian and understand Arabic, to which Busy Body replied that that is irrelevant because Christians can speak Arabic. I then (irony of ironies) produced my ID card whose religious field was useful for the first and last time in its history but this was not enough for Defender of the Faith who made me complete the shahada. Muslim credentials established, upon entering the mosque we realised that it was the same mosque we had just exited, unbothered by anyone, and which we had entered by a different entrance. How we lolled!
Like Egypt, Tunisia is going through a never-ending transition. While we were there a new PM was appointed who nobody seemed very enthusiastic about (and who many people had never heard of). There was a conference by the Nahda Party in the hotel we stayed in entitled something involving “etarat” which in Egypt means wheels. Adam had a good laugh about this in the bloke’s toilets with a conference delegate who chuckled and slapped him on the back and laughed about “el akh el masry” and his zany humour but refused to divulge more information about what these mysterious etarat are. There is interesting graffiti everywhere on the streets, and a demo was called for on the day we left (to coincide with Bouaziz’s death rather than in protest at our departure) but otherwise, and again like Egypt, life proceeded normally.
The highlight of this trip was undoubtedly the food part from the booby-trapped salads (I don’t eat animal products) which often house concealed tuna and luncheon meat. I ate the most delicious thing ever, a fricassee, which is fried bread filled with delicious things, purchased from a hole in the wall, and in Sidi Bou Said I was presented with a mint tea containing pine nuts, which I drank while seeing rainbows and stars, and which lasted until I got the Egyptair flight home and survived on an anaemic salad and bread roll that had clearly given up on life some centuries ago, their having forgotten to book me a special meal. And by special I mean the same as above but with some added slop roughly resembling vegetable matter.