“Delenda est Carthago”
Cato the Elder
Forgive me, reader, for I have sinned. It has been three months since my last confession.
Not that I care a great deal for regular blog entries, of anyone’s forgiveness for that matter. I’m still making this up as I go along and I never really know how much to put into it. I got married, I travelled to – and had guns pointed at me in – Dagestan and have now moved, lock, stock and bride, to Tunis. It’s too much. It’s narrative overload. It’s important, I get that. It gives the blog a solid arc; the office drone, the blindman and, now, jobbing global citizen, but it doesn’t feel right. It’s not an image I can associate with, or really want to. Maybe it just involves too many words. I’ve been writing professionally for a while now and I want to keep some of those words for myself. not everything is public. Not every act needs documenting.
How’s that for some 21st Century heresy?
Tunis is cold and damp. The white low French colonial buildings cling to sandy hillsides as the small city sprawls from coast to desert. Cats are everywhere. They slink like rats through the rubbish that lies in plentiful mounds on pavements and roadsides. Backstreet coffee shops and takeaways jockey for position amidst the decaying white stucco of
an empire long since retreated, providing shwarma and coffee to the pavement bound populace. Cabs are as plentiful as the cats and slightly less trustworthy. Two rides to the same location will rarely take the same route or come at the same price, the cost of the ride being calculated at whatever rate the driver ranks your gullibility against the current value of the Dinar.
The coffee shops whose presence seems to define every alleyway and ginnel of Tunis are near uniformly the preserve of the male. Men sit in large, sprawling groups, loudly debating the issues of the day while puffing hungrily on fruit flavoured water pipes, the occasional fez puncturing the thick, sweetly pungent fog with a brief glimpse of dull burgundy amidst the grey.
Outside of the deserted tourist areas of the coast, alcohol is served rarely and then, only in purely masculine demesnes. Alcohol comes with the distinct tang of aberration and those that drink seem to prefer doing so to oblivion. In a male culture comfortable in defining women in terms of virgins and whores, it seems impossible that any woman other the latter might enter these enclaves of male dominion. A perception heightened, from personal experience, when that woman happens to be western.
The suburbs, where we’ve established ourselves, stand in saccharine contrast to the unknown dangers of the centre. Here, the wide streets divide the white stucco houses of Tunis’ middle class. The revolution never made it this far. I don’t suppose much does. Here, Monoprix and Carrefour bags pack the back seats of the ubiquitous black SUVs, as young families ferry the weekly shop to and from their hillside villas, a north African take on a global ritual.
Making its way from the out to the in, is Avenue Mohamed V, taking you past the pock marked remnants of deposed Ben Ali’s RCD party headquarters, whose ultra modern exterior stands in stark contradiction to the overgrown pathways that surround it and the rudely shattered windows of the building itself. Scorch marks are still visible on the railing that separates this bygone seat of autocracy with democratic Tunisia outside.
On Avenue Habib Bourguiba in the city centre, bored policemen with machine guns stand half hearted vigil over chic urbanites, as they gather to drink coffee on the wide pavements that border the city’s main drag. This is first world Tunis. Designer shops and global brands line either side of the wide, leafy avenue, designating their territory in demarcations of aspiration and personal liquidity.
Politics are alive here. They are central to nearly every conversation as a country, fixated on events, tries to establish a new identity for itself in the sudden absence of an old one. After twenty-four years of oppression, the country seems to be undergoing a collective exhalation. It’s an old story and there’s little new in the factionalism that has erupted in Ben Ali’s wake. However, it’s fascinating to see the dynamism of the debate that’s erupted throughout the country. Protests are a fairly regular occurrence, with groups stemming from an apparently shared political axis clashing, sometimes physically, over the minutiae of their respective agendas. As here as everywhere, that factionalism can run to extremes. Through an entirely porous border, the Tunisian army plays cat and mouse with the Islamist fighters who have made the mountains their home. They’re on the streets of the capital too, demanding sharia law in a country that takes its religion in moderate measures and prides itself on its secularism. To many, the sudden emergence of hardline Islam makes no sense. Under Ben Ali these were the invisible people. Now they are here, amongst them and demanding their say in this nascent democracy. Maybe they have a right to. It’s not really for me to say.
It’s a dizzying environment in which to find yourself, but, I’ll admit, one I’m struggling to connect with. I’m always anticipating the rush of adrenalin and confusion that accompanied my arrival in Vietnam, or the overwhelming sense of awe that came with the initial relocation to Russia. Instead, all I can see are a series of tasks that have to be accomplished before progress can be made. I’ve no idea why this might be. Tunisia – Christ, Africa – are as alien as anywhere. However, I find myself struggling to engage with it and that’s to squander a huge privilege. I’m, quite literally, dislocated and that’s something I’m having difficulty reconciling myself with. I don’t know why, I can’t work it out. Sometimes I blame Makhachkala. I was there recently and the experience quite intense. Now I’m left with the feeling of another destination being little more than another flight, or a new home, little more than a search of the classifieds, when it should be the other way round. This has to be more than a mechanical process. This has to continue to mean something. The alternative is to concede that the world’s capacity to awe is finite and that’s not only a pretty repugnant thought, but an illogical one too. I don’t accept it.