Michael Totten

The North is a Garden

The fine old Tunis medina is an ancient maze of twisting streets, carpet stalls, cafes, shuttered windows, arched passageways, minarets, hanging baskets, gypsum lamps, scavenging cats, and secret paths. Western rap music battles it out with crooning exotic Arabic melodies. Middle aged men suck the hookah pipe while younger men stike metal with hammers and wood with chisels making the crafts sold in souk stalls. If you take a walk at just the right time you’ll hear the haunting muezzin’s call to Muslim prayer from the stunning, towering, arching Great Mosque in the center. This is the East in its glory.
Leave the medina through the arch to the east and you’ll find yourself in the Cité Nouvelle. In the space of 100 feet you can walk from the Middle East to France, and you can do it without leaving Africa.
The French were here to stay. Block after block after block was lifted straight from metropolitan France and dropped wholesale just south of the ruins of Carthage. The windows of fancy apartments open onto streets above sidewalk cafes, patisseries, chic clothing stores, and brasseries. The building stock is unmistakably French, and it’s in better condition than much of Marseilles and Paris. Some former French colonies are Third World disasters, but Tunisia is rich. If it lags behind Europe, you’ll hardly know it. Tunisia doesn’t have much oil, but what it does have is worldliness, sophistication, smarts, and an acute business acumen.
You will see some women with a hijab on their heads, but they are distinctly in the minority. Unlike in the Sahara you’ll see women in the cafes, sometimes with husbands and at times on first dates, often with girlfriends and sometimes alone. These are partly, if not mostly, liberated women, and you’ll feel a lot more at ease here because of it. The streets full of men in the south have an edge.
Walk to the end of the Cité Nouvelle at the edge of Lake Tunis. Catch the light rail line at the Tunis Marine station and in just 20 minutes you’ll be whisked to the ruins of Carthage, now a bedroom community for wealthy Tunisians who built an enourmous marble mosque that will stop your breath.
Keep going past the “Carthage Hannibal” station and get off at the cliff-top seaside village of Sidi Bou Said. The streets are finely cobbled, the walls washed in white, the doors and window trim painted with blue from the sky. Now you’ll think you’re in Greece and will be forgiven if you forget that you haven’t left Africa. Every Mediterranean civilization has landed here in Tunisia adding to the stonework, the psyche, and the bloodlines.
Find yourself a cafe. Feel the cool wind off the sea to the north. It will massage the fury of the Sahara out of your muscles and back. Gaze across the shimmering torquoise waters of the Gulf of Tunis to the twin-horned mountain that was the ancient home of Hannibal’s pagan god Baal. Put some jasmine behind your ear. Go on. You can buy it from one of the boys in the streets for a dinar. The Carthaganians did the same thing right here 1,000 years before the rise of Islam, before the Romans sacked Carthage, before the Arabs built Tunis, before the French came and built the cafe you’re now sitting in before they went home to nurse the wounds of their loss back in Europe.
Women don’t cover their hair here. They dye it, at least some of the younger ones do. They might even pierce their nose and offer you a cigarette. They wear fashionable Western clothes and hang on the arms of their boyfriends. You would think them Europeans if you were led to this place with a blindfold, if you could not hear the Middle East on their tongues.
Tunis is surrounded by fields of green. To my Sahara-scorched eyes and skin it looks like a jungle and feels like Canada. What it’s actually like is the South of France with its rolling green hills watered with rain, its trim farmhouses shaded by trees, and more vineyards than you would ever expect in a Muslim country. Most Tunisians live here in this garden landscape with its climate fit for human beings and other living things. The connection to Europe is obviouss, the connection to the arid conservative south a lot less so.
As an insult to Spain, some in France used to say Africa begins at the Pyrennes, that craggy chain of mountains amputating Spain from the rest of Europe. This is a lie. Africa does not begin at the Pyrennes. Nor does it begin at the Barbary Coast, at least it does not in Tunisia. Africa begins at the Sahara, a day’s drive south of here. The narrow shelf of green between the small sea of water and the great sea of sand is a place all its own. Civilization both ancient and modern burrows deep into the soil and the souls of those lucky to live here.