I was in Tunisia in September 2001, and despite the short period, saw much that impressed me. I’d wondered about Africa for years, not knowing what it held, and yet wanting to see it – any of it, all of it. The little I saw I’ve turned into a few vignettes which I hope you enjoy.
I have not included the entire text as these stories will be published in the near future. If you wish to read the full text or enquire about publishing rights, please contact me here.
1. Necessary Evil
The Oriental Palace Hotel wasn’t the most impressive hotel in Tunis – that distinction belongs to the strangely inverted Grand Hotel du Lac (a structure resembling a pyramid stood on its point) – but it was listed as “five star” in our guide book and, with exchange rates, was affordable. We booked a room from Italy and looked forward to Mediterranean Africa’s first class treatment.
2. The Spice of Life
Tunis is a quiet place, saccharine even, a market town of amber hues and the scent of sandalwood. Habib Bourguiba, the main boulevard, is a tree-lined concourse illuminated in the night by art-nouveau fixtures (think: arches over entrances to the Paris Metro); they turn the city a golden-orange like the Saharan sand. Lining the avenue are moderately-priced hotels, artisan collectives, the city’s only mall, and an off-beat church or two.
3. Attacking Carthage
We walked in Tunis, and it was always hot. We left the Hotel Carlton and walked west. It was mid-morning. At the newsagent stands alongside the road – little cardboard kiosks catering to walkers and drivers pulling over to the sidewalk – the glossy magazine covers were rippling and warped from the blistering, direct sunlight.
The train was stifling, a poorly-ventilated local linking Tunis to Carthage and beyond. Despite the rich, eastern suburbs it eventually served – La Marsa, Sidi Bou Said, Le Corniche – it shuttled a motley crew to points prior. We passed through areas with names like La Goulette (the gullet), Le Bac and Le Kram, where locals got on, sweated, and got off. At Le Bac, the doors smashed open beside us, and a grizzled face with one pulpy socket empty of its eye poked in. He was filthy; his hands were scabbed and black from grime. He held fast to the doors as he swung his head inward and about. When he entered the car fully, the doors rattled shut behind him and he moved through the crowd muttering prayer, or curse, or entreaty.
4. Cafe Life
Tunisian cafes are dark and suffused with a smoky moodiness, and though they lack the life and light of Paris, they are no less integral to one’s day. The Cafe Ezzitouna is within the medina and is dark and oaken rich in color. It is quietly respectable (its name means “The Cafe of the Mosque of the Olive Tree”), and its customers are Medina shop clerks on their breaks. Dim yellow lights light wooden benches along the walls; some are covered with flat, green cushions, some are bare. Every few spaces there is a round pedastle table with copper inlay, and on each is an ashtray. The wet heat of the room is barely disturbed by the dark fan rotating against the carved ceiling, a pattern of squares and crosses. People talk softly if they talk at all.