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The Medina, Tunis.

The Medina, Tunis.

April 2012. I have an opportunity here. It is slightly more than a year after Tunisia’s Jasmine Revolution and I will try to observe, as best as one can with the limitations of time, networks, and language, my impressions of a country vitally important in this outstanding period of the region’s history.

The blue-eyed cab driver waves at me with enthusiasm. I am certain he is going to rob me.

Well-intentioned travel guides insist that travellers approach cabs at the departures entrance and not the arrivals section when exiting Tunis-Carthage Airport. That way, one’s chances of being overcharged by cabbies is significantly reduced.

I do exactly that, making my way to the second floor departures, seeing the first cab driver who seemed free. I ask him in broken French if he was free. He says yes and waves at me to come in. I ask him how much. He yells “vas-y, vas-y” and insists I enter, his light eyes underneath a white skullcap iridescent in the spring light. He tells me the trip to my hotel will cost ten dinars the moment I entered. Any charge more than five and you are being cheated. I was to be overcharged and I didn’t care.

April 2012. I have an opportunity here. It is slightly more than a year after Tunisia’s Jasmine Revolution and I will try to observe, as best as one can with the limitations of time, networks, and language, my impressions of a country vitally important in this outstanding period of the region’s history.

The road to my hotel is blocked by protesters outside what I would learn later is Tunisian state television, demanding the station be “cleansed” of journalists more loyal to Ben Ali’s regime than the post-revolutionary government led by the Islamist Ennahda party.  I hear loud noises from a crowd carrying banners and waving flags outside a solitary, monolithic building. The cabbie suggests I alight and walk to the hotel with my luggage, as apparently the police have set up a roadblock. He then asks for twenty dinars, which I hand over with exhausted brevity.

Aside from the television protests, all seems unusually placid. I check in my room and explore the city as soon as I can. The Medina is my first destination. Approaching the entrance to the souk, I try to push cliches out of my mind of a medieval casbah without success. The narrow passageways, some barely wide enough for humans let alone vehicles, prohibit light, leaving alleys without both illumination, leaving me the impression that the old Tunis exists solely in an Orientalist fantasy. Street names exist, but feel useless, rendering my guidebook’s map irrelevant. I walk with little direction save a desire to see the Zaytouna mosque. Every step I walk alone, occasionally taking photos when sparse light peers from gaps above, staying close to the walls. It’s a disconcerting place, the Casbah. Spaces exist within it empty of people and sound. I’m aware of why silence can be described as “deafening”; when silence feels present for so long in a place it seems to overtake everything, pushing out even one’s own thoughts.

I don’t find the mosque. The people I meet are mostly hawkers who give me directions without my asking, really an excuse for them to lead me to their own stalls and sell their wares. I resist every time except one. I let a spectacled man lead me to what I thought was the Zaytouna mosque. Instead, he takes me to a roof top in a souvenir shop where I can take pictures of the mosque, a mosque, that I cannot locate once I arrive. I resign myself to the situation I am in: Despite my best efforts, I have been conned. I go downstairs to face the mercantile pushiness of the shops owners. Their demeanor is both enthusiastic and overly-assertive. Their small talk approximates friendliness without genuine warmth. They ask me where I’m from.

“Pakistan—” I say.

“Ah Pakistan,” interrupts the short one. “Can I say asalam aleikum?”

Place de la Kasbah

Place de la Kasbah.

Waleikum salaam. I’ve actually been living in Canada for years.”

“Ah Canada. Better than Pakistan.” He pauses thoughtfully. “Better than Tunisia, too,” he says, an underlying frustration coating his words.

Out of sympathy, out of a desire to get a keepsake of Tunisia for my family, out of a will to simply leave the shop without the borderline harassment of the owners, I buy a jewellery box, a small, hexagonal case with a Moorish-patterned cover. I haggle the price down from 120 to 90 dinars. Feeling proud of myself, I leave the store. Five minutes later I recall a brief line from my guidebook stating in clear terms that 10 to 15 dinars is the most anyone should spend for one item in these notoriously overpriced tourist traps.

I leave the Medina with  uncomfortable haste. I leave my guidebook alone in my bag and walk without aim outside of the Casbah. Much of Tunis is coloured in blue and white. The city gleams in the Mediterranean sun along some streets. Without the exhausts of cars, the sweet smell of jasmine wafts in the air. On other streets, vehicles struggle for room along avenue narrow and wide, colonial-era edifices line the passage with satellite dishes blemishing every other apartment.

There is no visible sign of that a revolution had occurred, no indication that the changing trajectory of a region’s history came from any of these streets. I walk in the Place de la Kasbah, where the elevated National Monument lies still and monolithic in the middle of poles bearing Tunisia’s white and blood-red flag. Children play around the flagpoles under the watch of an anxious-looking middle-aged women in a hijab and flowing gown. The monument itself looks like several boomerangs made to stand next to each other. Undeniably pre-dating the revolution, it strikes me as the sort of sterile, cement marker typical of so many regimes obsessed with brutalist, modernist architecture as a representation of the country’s ostensible progress. Almost a year ago there were protests in this very spot against a regime that had marketed itself as progressive and modern. If there is still a revolutionary spirit, it cannot be seen here in the empty solitude of the Place.

I want to see some more of the city; instead I give into exhaustion and jetlag. I see a lone taxi away from the Place. The driver, bearded, thin, impressively quiet wind his way out of the city centre to where my hotel is. We approach the hotel’s rising entrance. There is a roadblock. A uniformed policemen—clean-shaven, tall, dressed immaculately in a clean, dark-blue uniform—halts the taxi. He stands next to what I can only guess is a plain-clothes security official, his cigarette, mustache and a look of confident smugness giving an impression of calm authority. The driver lowers the window and tries to understand the situation. He mentions something about the protests from earlier in the day; apparently the area, including the drive to the hotel, has been cordoned off as a security precaution. He pleads to the police officer to let him pass. When the officer says no, a button is pushed in the driver: All sense of deference or fear of authority is thrown away. Any desire to plead one’s case to an armed security official is non-existent. The driver screams at the policeman in a blizzard of gesticulation and anger. The policeman responds with his own aggressive language. I understand nothing verbally; they speak in harsh-toned Maghrebi Arabic, and all I am left with shrill motions, a fiery back-and-forth, hands raise, gestures of contention. The fight ends when the plainclothes officer—up until now attempting to placate the driver—convinced the officer to let him go through.

The exchange is over. The driver’s anger does not abate. “Rien n’a changé, monsieur,” he says. Nothing has changed. 

Depuis Ben Ali?” I ask. He says yes.

He drives me to the hotel entrance. The meter says two dinars. He asks for no more than that. I give him ten.

I think about the encounter much later. I leave for Cairo the day after. I speak to a colleague about this incident. We agree that perhaps the Arab Spring has changed little of substance. Beyond the cosmetic changes in the political status quo, systemic issues have remained: a class divide, an unaccountable security culture, a divided political culture. “At the same time,” he says. “You have to realize one thing.”

“What would that be?”

“That taxi driver would  never have dared to argue with a police officer or any security official when Ben Ali was still in power.”