The 52 Places Traveler
The 52 Places Traveler visits the Tunisian capital, where the Arab Spring began, and finds artists, entrepreneurs and activists creating the future.
Oct. 29, 2019
“This would never have happened so openly even 10 years ago,” one of a group of young Tunisians shouts to me over the bass pulsing out of refrigerator-size speakers.
We are at a garishly lit, open-air nightclub in Gammarth, a suburb of Tunis so packed with bars it resembles a theme park for adults. There’s a swimming pool, and a few people in the crowd seem like they’re just a cocktail away from jumping in. Everyone is dancing like nobody’s watching. Smoke spirals into the night, from cigarettes held between fingers that are high in the air, bobbing along to the beat. Onstage, 4LFA (pronounced “Alpha”), a rapper from Tunisia’s southern region, has the 100 or so spectators singing along to every word.
His set finishes well after midnight and I get ready to say goodbye to my new Tunisian friends. I’m told there’s a whole other act to follow and, plus, there’s a cool jazz bar around the corner that we’re going to after, so “Come on, Seb,” get it together.
The Arab Spring started in Tunisia in the final weeks of 2010. Nine years later, it’s hard to imagine there was ever a time when the city didn’t feel so uninhibited. That feeling of freedom earned it a place on the 52 Places list for this year. When I visited, the country had just gone through the first round of its second free presidential election and was preparing for legislative elections and a runoff between two political outsiders for president. The winner has since emerged: Kais Saied, a conservative law professor who has been given the nickname “RoboCop” for his emotionless delivery.
Numbered squares on walls signaled where campaign posters were permitted. On multiple nights, there were a handful of campaigners shouting slogans into megaphones on the tree-lined Avenue Habib Bourguiba downtown and a corresponding heavy police presence, but mostly it seemed like business as usual. And while I expected to meet people electrified by political change, I mainly encountered cautious optimism mixed with insouciant shrugs toward the politicians.
“We have our own daily problems to deal with,” said a roadside souvenir vendor who asked to be identified only by his first name, Karim. “I don’t think even now that we trust that politicians are the answer. We have to do it ourselves.”
I should mention, Karim was speaking to me in fluent Spanish, something he just “picked up” by chatting to tourists. He also spoke to me at length about the collapse of Thomas Cook and what it means for tourism in Tunisia. (Like in other places popular with package-deal tourists, it’s bad news.) At one point, he quoted John Maynard Keynes. Then, as I was leaving, he asked if I wanted to buy one of the tchotchkes he had for sale. Underemployment, where it’s commonplace to find taxi drivers with master’s degrees, is one of the problems to which Karim was referring. With so much distrust in change coming from the ruling elite, it’s perhaps unsurprising that voter turnout in the country was significantly lower this year than in the first free parliamentary election in 2014.
Karim wasn’t the only person I spoke to who was taking the future of the country into their own hands. Following the Arab Spring and the toppling of Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali, who ruled the country by decree for 23 years, young Tunisian artists, entrepreneurs and activists educated abroad came back to the country in droves.
In one of my most memorable meals in the city, I met some of those young returnees at Chez Naceur, an unassuming roadside stall in the refreshingly downtempo neighborhood of La Goulette. We were there for lablabi, an ingenious concoction that involves taking chunks of day-old bread and smothering them with chickpeas, a deeply spiced broth and harissa chili paste. It’s the kind of comfort food you can just eat and eat and eat — until you amaze yourself that yes, you did just inhale that entire bowl of pure carbs.
Anis Kallel, 25, returned to Tunis in 2018 after studying in the United States and co-founded Flouci, a mobile money platform that he describes as a “financial inclusion pipeline.” “There’s still a lot of red tape leftover from the old days,” Mr. Kallel said. “It’s going to take time for that to change, but now is also an opportunity to be part of that change instead of waiting for it to come from above.”
Amina El Abed, 30, a strategic communications consultant who has been back and forth from the country for a decade but most recently returned in 2017, agreed. “It’s such an exciting time to be here, with so many people doing important things that could never have happened before the revolution,” she said, pointing to youth-led, homegrown civic engagement and watchdog organizations like Al-Bawsala and I Watch. And, despite some apathy over the latest election, it is an exciting time, not just as a citizen, but as a visitor. Tunisia, often overlooked in favor of tourism powerhouses like Morocco and, historically at least, Egypt, has a bit of everything — from Roman ruins to beach resorts to a cosmopolitan capital where, after just six days, I wished I could tack on a second week.
If you go
Taxis might seem plentiful in Tunis, but at certain times you can end up waiting an hour for a vacant one to drive by. Before you arrive, download Bolt, a taxi-hailing app. You’re charged a premium — sometimes double what you’d pay if you hailed a cab and convinced the driver to turn on the meter — but it’s still very affordable. It also has the benefit of removing language issues in explaining where you’re going: You pay in cash at the end of the journey, but you also program in your destination and get the price when you order the cab.
For a panoramic view of Tunis — and a fancy night out — head to the rooftop of Dar El Jeld, where you can try modern takes on traditional Tunisian dishes, washed down with local wine.
While in Sidi Bou Said, the small seaside town on Tunis’s outskirts, I stayed at the brand-new Villa Kahina, set on the top of a cliff overlooking the Mediterranean. Painted in whites and blues, and run by a hospitable multilingual family, it’s the ideal place to spend a few days relaxing, before or after joining the rush of Tunis proper.
The Bardo National Museum is tragically most well-known to many foreigners as the site of a horrific terrorist attack in 2015. Today, it’s heavily secured — at first I thought I had taken a wrong turn into a government building or embassy — and is a must-visit. The collection of mosaics housed in a 19th-century palace will leave you breathless.
I started my trip in Tunis’s outskirts, which, if the crowds were anything to go by, are far more popular with tourists than the city itself. Sidi Bou Said sits on one side of a bay that opens into the Gulf of Tunis. Send an unlabeled postcard and your recipient might assume you’re on a Greek island. The uniform white and blue color scheme, which once bewitched artists like Paul Klee and August Macke, messed with my depth perception. When the sun was high in the sky, it was hard to tell where one pristine white wall ended and the other began. On clear days, it was as if the sky was an extension of the town.
Sloping streets wind up and around town — oftentimes I’d end up where I started without knowing how. There are independent art galleries and rooftop cafes where you can sip on mint tea while watching the sunset and listening to the call to prayer.
A short train or taxi away — or a longer walk, if you’re feeling as ambitious as I was — is Carthage, that famous city of antiquity that was such a thorn in the Romans’ side that Cato the Elder ended every speech to the senate with “Delenda est Carthago,” or “Carthage must be destroyed.” Destroy it they did, but the Romans built a new city in its place, and much of that is still remarkably well-preserved. With a single all-inclusive ticket, I hit all the sites in one day, but could easily have returned for repeat visits. I ended my day at the Baths of Antoninus, one of the three largest Roman bath complexes ever built. The ruins are so intricate and vast that it’s easy to mistake them for the city itself.
But as engaging — and tourist-friendly — as Tunis’s outskirts are, I didn’t learn its true appeal until I stayed a few nights in the Medina, in the heart of the city. The labyrinth is so dense, the roads so narrow, that most taxi drivers refuse to enter, dropping you off on its outer edge. Founded more than 1,300 years ago, the Medina is divided into souks, marketplaces that specialize in different trades — from metalwork to leather goods to medicinal herbs. Transitions between them are sudden: One second you’re surrounded by the elaborate dresses used in Tunisian weddings, the next you’re hit by a cloud of perfume as you enter Souk El Attarine, where perfumers have mixed botanicals since the 1200s.
People live and work in the Medina, but cats run it. Napping on the stoops of elaborately ornamented blue and yellow doors; walking in clowders a dozen strong, right down the middle of the street; hiding in the gaps formed by missing bricks: they’re everywhere.
“Cats are the soul of this city,” Jemal Ben Saidane, who goes by wildtunis on Instagram, said, as he gave me an impromptu tour of the Medina, where he grew up. “This place is full of secrets — I think they know them all.”
Down one narrow alleyway and into an open courtyard, a man played the oud, a stringed, lutelike instrument, to a small crowd of women. We walked past a music school, where through the window you could see a teacher and a group of students trading sung choruses, each more haunting than the last. There are mausoleums seemingly on every corner where the Muslim faithful come to pay their respects at the tombs of important Tunisian religious figures. At Al-Zaytuna Mosque, the oldest in Tunis, the adhan, or call to prayer, is done the old-school way. The muezzin climbs the minaret at prayer time and sings, unamplified, over the Medina. From the rooftop Panorama La Medina cafe you can just hear him, competing with the loudspeakers from mosques farther away.
Unlike in more heavily touristed places, like Morocco, where vendors can be so pushy travelers may get anxious, I found myself largely unbothered. That might be chalked up to my appearance: my Colombian-Indian mix was often mistaken for Tunisian. At least a dozen times, I was asked for directions — by Tunisians.
But either way, soon after sunset, there was no one to pester me, even if they wanted to. Like a light switch going off, the Medina suddenly transforms after dark. The souks close in a chorus of metal shutters being pulled to the ground. The giant doors that separate them from each other and the rest of the Medina are locked until the morning, an age-old tradition meant to deter thieves (and which, today, makes Google Maps implode in confusion).
Once I moved hotels, from Sidi Bou Said into the Medina, my nights took on a routine. Coming from somewhere on the city’s outskirts — dinner at a street stall in La Marsa or a nightclub in Gammarth — the taxi dropped me on the Medina’s edge. I walked through the stone streets washed in rusty yellow lamplight. There was no sound except my footsteps. There was no one around to watch me take a wrong turn, double back, then take the same wrong turn. Other than the cats, of course.