Travels in Tunisia – Part I

Lee Jia Wei 22 May 2014

One of my favorite things to do on holiday is judge other tourists. This time it is 2013, Tunis, in a little café off Avenue Habib Bourguiba, and what about the American family that just walked past? I inferred that they were stupid and belligerent, because it is OK for a member of a minority to be xenophobic. But alas. Even in Tunis, tourists were depressingly average. Thankfully I was not one of them. I was not average. At best I was mediocre. The sort that agrees to guided tours by a toothless perfume salesman who leads you into a darkened alleyway and demands 500 dinars in compensation. I make no apologies.

This trip was a conscious attempt to prove-by-holiday that I was edgier than my colleagues at Cambridge. Marco Polo on loyalty miles sating his thirst for adventure upon the Bosom of the Arab Spring. Of course, as several kindly local waiters informed me I was about 2 years late to the party. Appropriately enough, Bourguiba Avenue had forgotten that it was once host to the seminal political moment of our times, and now seemed content being the Champs-Elysee on a budget. Taking in a somewhat disappointing Arabic coffee and choking on the strident Andalusian heat wave, I wondered if I shouldn’t have taken up Thomas Cook’s £300 Tunisian beach resort offer instead.

One of the various local kindly waiters pointed out that the beating heart of the revolution was Sidi Bouzid, where Mohammed Bouazizi set himself on fire and tipped the proverbial milk can. So I got in a van the next day and had my driver brave 5 hours of irrational Tunisian traffic to get there. Everyone was clearly surprised to find a Chinese guy milling around (konnichiwa being the Mandarin greeting of choice), which made it hard to judge if they were excited by my mention of Bouazizi or simply by my foreignness.

I expected to be somehow riveted by Sidi Bouzid, but perhaps that was asking too much. A world-weary coffeehouse owner told me between coffee breaks about how the revolution gave them the freedom to speak, to criticize President Marzouki, complain about rising food prices, raise hell when bars are set on fire by Salafists. Political sentiment is tedious, but there was a flavor of irony in standing next to Bouazizi’s memorial while a child begged me for money. The memorial itself was a wheelbarrow sculpture, perched in front of an enormous poster of Bouazizi, his arms spread in Messianic repose, and scrawled like an obscenity across the face of the wheelbarrow in spray paint: For those who yearn to be free.