Bon Jour, Tunis

It’s not quite 6am, still dark, and I wake to the call to prayer from the mosque a few blocks away. Another call to prayer begins from a mosque in the opposite direction. The voices harmonize in spite of differences in cadence. The sound is unexpectedly reassuring, a nice way to start the day. I’m in Tunis, the capital of Tunisia, the first country to demand and win democratic reforms in 2011 following “Muslim Spring.”

One of the old city gates in Tunis.

Tunis is the place of the powerful City of Carthage (here, pronounced like “barrage” instead of “carriage””), originally settled in 800 BC by the Phoenicians, which is modern day Lebanon. The connection to Lebanon felt personal since I was in Beirut a couple of weeks ago. And then I remembered that everything and everyone is ultimately connected, especially in this part of the world. And, um, it’s not about me… Anyway, Carthage was eventually overtaken by the Roman Empire –remember the Punic Wars? — because of its strategic location on the Mediterranean. On my first day in town, I visited the ruins of Carthage as an orientation to Tunisia’s history. There isn’t much left of the city’s grandeur but the ruins are an important connection to the country’s past.

The public baths at Carthage. They were as tall a the highest column in the photo and were the city’s most important communal meeting place. .

More recently, Tunisia was occupied by the French between 1881 and 1956. The Tunisians escorted them out, but France’s influence remains — the French left behind beautiful mansions and public buildings, as they did in Beirut. Although Arabic is the national language, “bon jour” is still the greeting of choice and when Tunisians speak to me, they try French first. Most also know English. As I walk through downtown, it’s clear the economy is in dire straits. Except in the wealthiest neighborhoods, most buildings are in disrepair and the shops are quiet. The pandemic and global inflation have hit Tunisia very hard.

These two are dressed so typically for men in their age groups. Before the revolution in 2011, Muslim women were not permitted to cover their heads. Now most of the older ones do.

I’m staying in a traditional “dar” in the old medina, which is the historic center. Dar Ben Gacem is a large family house built in the 17th century My host, Aziz, says the dar is not a hotel, but a guest house, and you are family when you stay there. In Tunis, the feral cats are family too. They are everywhere, but more docile and less influential than the cats of Istanbul.

I spent a few hours with Aziz wandering through the Medina, and hearing stories of its history. The Medina is an important place of worship for Sufis, a branch of Islam that is considered progressive and pacifist. Most Tunisians are Sunni Muslim, much more conservative. Tunisia’s constitution identifies Islam as the country’s official religion. Inside the Medina, the souks (market places) are loaded with traditional clothing, sweatshirts, spices, rugs, and souvenirs. The souks here remind me of Marrakesh, but with fewer tourists and more cigarette smoke.

I loved the stories Aziz told me about Medina doors. Traditionally, the size and design of your door suggests your status and wealth.

Traditionally, the big doors were opened for carriages and horses. The smaller door is for guests and members of the family. When they entered, the short door required them to bow, and thereby show respect for the family.
The hole in this door originally provided a way for rich people to share what they have with poor people without either having to identify themselves. Humility for the rich. Dignity for the poor.

Tunis has a national museum of modern art that displays only Tunisian artists. It is small but impressive.

I took a photo of this wonderful, whimsical painting.

This painting lead me to a bit of unexpected travel magic today. Wandering through the souks again, I came across a small shop that had a whole wall of this artist’s paintings! The young man who runs the shop was thrilled to share what he knows about Othman Khadraoui. He was a Berber from the south who became a friend of the family before he died a few years ago. Khadraoui’s art has become well-known among Tunisian art-lovers. All of his works are painted on glass. I bought this one for almost nothing. But the important part was the connection.

Khadraoui was self-taught, a Berber from southern Tunisia with 7 children.

And speaking of connections, hello? I didn’t find anyone who could tell me why Mexican revolutionaries are mentioned on Tunis walls, but we can guess.

Today, I fly back across the beautiful Mediterranean to Munich, where my Vienna strategy of wearing six layers of cotton probably won’t work. Guten tag!

19 comments

  1. I learned a lot from this post Kim. It’s one of the reasons I like your blog so much. But what impresses me most is that you seem to be able to develop connections between yourself and the people around you no matter where you are in this world. Wonderful!

  2. Thank you Kim. You continue to impress me with your travels and succinct and informative writing. I generally begin one of your stories by googling your location on a map, and then I know where you are.

    1. Thanks Rosaliene. I probably should have added that Islam teaches that the rich should help the poor and should not brag about or disclose acts of charity. I know now the refugees coming in on boats to the Greek Islands must have been surprised when volunteers took selfies with them. On the other hand, they had bigger things to worry about.

  3. This is my first read of your blog and I enjoyed it immensely. You gave so much life to the people and the country with your style of personal writing. Loved it! Thank you so much for sharing. Look forward to more than to seeing you soon!🥰

    1. Thanks Cynthia! You can sign up to receive notices when I post something — although not sure how many more posts there will be. I seem to like San Miguel just fine 🙂

  4. Oh, Kim, why is it your blogs and photos make me feel as if I’m off in exotic lands with you. I love the history you share of each place on your map, and the photos are exquisite. I particularly liked the doors and the Berber artwork in this one. You are a travel-writer par excellence!

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