My Week in Tunisia

Jeff Shucard

Enjoy the fresh kebab while your freshly dented fender gets fixed

It’s a sunny spring morning in Tunis and I am seated at a sidewalk café enjoying a café au lait, waiting for my guide, Yusef, to begin our week of exploration in north and central Tunisia. This is my first visit to the African continent, to the fabled empire of ancient Carthage.

Frenetic activity abounds. Cars on blocks being torn apart. Engines, transmissions lay scattered about the sidewalk. Islamic fashion boutiques, beauty salons buzzing with activity. Across the street goats and sheep are tethered on the sidewalk outside a butcher shop awaiting slaughter. The carcasses of their recently departed brothers and sisters hang all around them. Soon they too will become kebab. A group of children on their way to school affectionately pet the heads of the doomed sheep. They are dressed in ubiquitous global mall fashion. NY Yankees caps are all the rage. American jeans culture unites all humanity.

I love this place, its energy, the barely contained chaos. But it’s the traffic in the four-way intersection that is most fascinating: a big, anarchist bumper-car free-for-all. The proximity of the auto repair shops and eateries is fortuitous for those who don’t make it safely through—enjoy a fresh kebab while your freshly dented fender is straightened out.

I arrived in Tunisia in the dead of night after my evening flight from Lisbon was delayed three times. It was much too late to check in to my Airbnb. There was no internet service at the airport and my Portuguese phone did not work. This made it impossible to contact my host, Sema, and advise her of my predicament. I got in a taxi and asked the driver to take me to a hotel, any hotel.

“Reservation?” he asked.

“No,” I said.

He pulled away, burning rubber. I could see him eyeballing me in the rear-view mirror. We entered a grim industrial zone that looked like a perfect place to dump the corpse of a naïve tourist arriving at 2 a.m. without accommodations.

We entered the city, drove down a broad avenue and pulled up in front of a massive, block-long hotel. I ran inside and asked for a room. The night clerk produced an old wooden box of dog-eared index cards and began flipping through them. Had I stepped into a time warp? Eventually I was handed a key. An ancient bellhop in full regalia suddenly appeared at my side and took my bag. We squeezed into the tiny elevator and rattled upward. The elevator came to a shuddering stop on the seventh floor. The bellhop pulled open the scissor door. “Je suis sur le neuvième,” I said, showing him my key. He acknowledged me by beckoning me to follow him. I glanced at the elevator button panel: the seventh floor was as high as it went.

We stepped out of the elevator into a war zone. I followed the bellhop’s pillbox hat down a long, dark hallway that looked as if it had just been bombed and the rubble had yet to be cleared away. Sections of the ceiling were missing, and bare electrical wiring hung down like metal vines. Piles of plaster lay on the floor. A shoe buffing machine sat forlornly against one wall, still plugged in.

I thought of making a run for it. But where would I go? It was almost 3 a.m. Then a staircase appeared before us. We climbed up to the non-existent ninth floor.

This floor was intact and the room seemed fine, although there were no pillows on the bed. I asked for a pillow. The bellhop left the room and returned with one. I looked over the bathroom: no towels. Again, the bellhop went off to find one, then departed. I got ready for bed. Brushing my teeth in the bathroom, I noticed there was no toilet paper either.

I awoke at 8 a.m., pulled the curtains open and was astonished to see a maze of flat white sun-drenched rooftops stretching out before me. I made my way back through the war zone to the lobby to check my email. I found a long list of messages from my Airbnb host: 12:3 a.m.: Mr. Jeff, Where are you? 1 a.m.: Mr. Jeff, Are you OK? Please call, I am waiting. 1:3: Mr. Jeff, I am very worried. Please call… On and on through the night. The final message was sent at 5 a.m.: Mr. Jeff, Please, please call me. I can’t sleep.

I felt terrible this woman had spent a sleepless night due to my ignorance. I obviously had much to learn about Tunisian culture. I immediately sent her an email explaining my plight and we arranged to meet at her place in the afternoon.

Outside the hotel, a long procession of activist groups was peacefully marching along while an indifferent police presence stood by. I asked a fellow standing beside me what was going on. He chuckled and said that since the revolution (of 211), such demonstrations were routine.

Just then a large group of women paraded by. “What do they represent?” I asked.

“Women’s equality at work,” the man explained.

“My wife is with them,” he added. “Mine would be too,” I reassured him.

I joyfully wandered about. A neighbourhood of exceptionally marvellous fin de siècle decrepitude appeared before me. I ordered a café au lait and croissant at a café. The men seated about paid me absolutely no attention, as if I didn’t exist. I felt like the Invisible Man. I finished my coffee and continued on my way. I wandered up and down funky sun-drenched streets, past sprawling street markets, tiny ateliers, cafés and eateries. By noon I’d had enough and took a taxi to Sema’s address in La Marsa.

Sema’s place was near the archaeological sites of ancient Carthage, my main interest in Tunisia. I had long dreamed of climbing up to the heights of Byrsa, the walled citadel, to look out over the bay in which the magnificent harbour had sheltered hundreds of war and merchant ships. Since about 12 BCE the Phoenicians had sailed throughout the Mediterranean and beyond, trading with the native peoples. Their outpost in Tunisia grew into a city and empire that lasted until Rome finally sacked Carthage in 146 BCE. How different the world might have become had Hannibal and his elephants succeeded in taking Rome.

Sema greeted me like a long-lost brother. The charming rooftop apartment exceeded all expectations. We sat and chatted over mint tea. She is an engineer in her twenties, bright and sophisticated. I asked Sema to please help me find a guide with a car. That evening she informed me that she’d found one. He would meet me in the morning.

So it is that Yusef now appears at my table. I invite him to join me for a coffee. I’m not sure he knows what to make of me. He is a university-educated tour guide used to conducting group tours for travel agencies, not for flâneurs more interested in hole-in-the-wall shops and daily life. “Let’s just stroll around, see the sights, have a coffee here and there. Tell me about your kids, your family. I’ll ask you about the nuances of your culture. For instance, why am I invisible here?”

Yusef is fine with my suggestion, but he does not answer my question. We plan a four-day road trip, but there is a slight problem: A strike by the petrol transporters has just begun, and long lines of vehicles are forming at every gas station in the country, attempting to fill up before supplies run out.

“Will we have enough gas for today?” I ask.

“Perhaps,” he replies, offering me a cryptic smile.

I immediately like Yusef, but his driving skills mystify me. We get in his car, an old battle-weary Fiat. Traffic is heavy and Yusef starts pulling on the handbrake to stop the car. This constant ratcheting of the brake handle is worrisome. These cables, I know from experience, often snap. I am afraid to ask him if he is aware that there is a pedal for this function. I’m more afraid to ask if we even have any brakes. No petrol, no brakes. This should be interesting.

We spend the morning visiting the ruins of Carthage, and the afternoon strolling through the Tunis medina. The medieval warrens are well preserved, but, unfortunately for the hundreds of shopkeepers there, devoid of tourists. The horrific 215 terrorist attacks on the Bardo Museum devastated the Tunisian tourist industry, leaving hotels and splendid beach resorts virtually empty. If tourism has picked up again, I have yet to see any evidence of it.

The following morning, I meet Yusef again to begin our journey. I follow him to the car. For a moment I am confused. I could have sworn his car was white. This one is blue.

“Is this the same car?” I ask.

“No,” he explains, “it’s my sister’s.”

“No petrol?”

“All closed up,” he confirms, “but this car is full. We have enough fuel for today. Then we will have to see.”

“Let’s do it,” I say.

If we run out of gas, I muse, there are plenty of camels wandering around. Now that would be something. And we won’t freeze to death on the side of the road under these balmy Mediterranean skies. Or starve either: all along the roadways are locals selling fresh escargot, fruit, breads, mint tea and other foodstuffs.

We arrive in the popular beach resort of Sousse, Yusef’s hometown. Like many others in the region, his family owns an orchard of some two hundred olive trees. Each winter, the entire family joins in the annual harvest. Such time-honoured tradition produces not only the finest olive oil, but a connection to nature that is swiftly disappearing as we inch our way ever farther from the taste, smell and feel of the natural world.

“Not a bad life, I would imagine?”

“A good life,” Yusef responds. “People are happy here. They have what they need. They have lived here for many generations. A better life than in the city.”

“Abundance,” I suggest.

“Yes. Exactly. Abundance.”

Everywhere we go for the next few days—Kairouan, El Jem, El Kef—the markets are chock full of produce. Great heaps of fruit and vegetables, nuts and grains, as well as all the edible creatures of land and sea. So, too, the abundance of history. Tunisia is a millennial layer cake of civilizations. This living connection with the ancient world ignites my imagination.

The next morning Yusef meets me at my hotel with yet another car. The petrol strike had better end soon before he runs out of cars to borrow. We drive along roads bordering vast olive tree orchards, through modest villages, past camels wandering about, and we arrive in El Jem in time for lunch. The Roman amphitheatre here, a magnificent, awe-inspiring structure, rises out of the centre of the dusty unassuming town like a giant spaceship from the distant past. I stare at it in disbelief as it comes into sight, unable for an instant to comprehend how something so remarkable could exist in the middle of nowhere.

We lunch in a cramped little eatery just a block from the amphitheatre. As I chomp away on my kebab, gazing upon the greatness that was Rome, I imagine that these theatres were to Roman communities what the extravagant shopping malls of today are to us now: vast amusement centres designed to pacify the plebeians while the empire goes about its business.

From El Jem we head for the marvellous Roman forum temples of Subaytila, then leisurely begin making our way back to Sousse, where we must drop off car number three. It has been a wonderful trip; I’ve seen more than I can readily process and made a new friend.

In Sousse, Yusef leaves me at a café while he makes the final car arrangements. I have a coffee, open my map and look over my notes. Before long Yusef returns in another car that looks familiar. Yes, it’s his younger sister’s again. We’ll use it for the drive back to Tunis—but what’s this I see? Two young women in the back seat, Yusef’s sister and a girlfriend joining us for the drive.

The young women, dressed in jeans, are shy at first, but I am determined to shed my Invisible Man persona, to take this last opportunity before leaving Tunisia to be seen. Hayfa, Yusef’s sister, is a successful entrepreneur. She manufactures a line of women’s clothing. Her friend is an agronomist. I use an old classroom icebreaker to get them talking: Canadians, I explain, know very little, if anything, about Tunisia. What three things would they want Canadians to know about their country? They think about it and return with their answer: cuisine is one; the seaside, the beautiful beaches is two; and their culture—the welcoming, sincere nature of the people is three. I applaud their choices. “I couldn’t agree more,” I tell them.

From there we go to music. Have they listened to Leonard Cohen, Neil Young, Joni Mitchell? No, they haven’t. They dial these iconic names up on their phones and in a minute, we’re listening to “Everybody Knows” and “Carey.” By the time we reach Tunis that evening, we are old friends trading contact info. But I still have one bit of unfinished business. “Why am I invisible in your country?” I ask.

They don’t understand, but Yusef does. He smiles and explains the question in Arabic. Now they get it. They think it over for a minute. “It’s a way we show respect,” they tell me. “You have white hair, you deserve respect.” We share another laugh. “Thank you,” I say, “that’s just perfect.” Yusef and I exchange a knowing smile.

They drop me off at Sema’s. Yusef and I embrace. We promise to stay in touch. I sit on my rooftop terrace that evening and reflect on my experience there. Tunisia is the only democratic country in the Arab world; political and social activists demonstrate freely and, according to my guide, there is freedom of the press as well. The Tunisian Code of Personal Status of 1956 abolished polygamy and arranged marriage and gave women the right to run for seats in Parliament. I never for a moment felt unwelcome or unsafe anywhere I went—aside from Yusef’s unique approach to braking. The cuisine, the mint tea and coffee were delicious. I fulfilled my dream of standing upon the Byrsa Hill and gazing out over the splendid sea and I followed the 3, year timeline of Phoenician, Roman, Moorish, Ottoman and French culture that has played out here in the towns and cities themselves, and in impressive museums and archaeological sites throughout the country. Best of all, I leave Tunisia feeling that now I too am a small part of this fascinating land having offered my new friends a generous slice of Canadian culture: the wind is in from Africa and last night I couldn’t sleep

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Jeff Shucard

Jeff Shucard was born in Paterson, New Jersey. He attended the Minneapolis School of Art and Franconia College. After a decade of foreign travel, he settled in Vancouver for twenty years and worked in education and music. Now he lives in Portugal.


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