Travels in Tunisia – Part II

Lee Jia Wei 24 May 2014

While in Tunisia I paid Carthage a visit. Armed with no common sense and even less French, I contrived to get lost somewhere on the seafront. After about an hour’s wandering I bumped into some folks from Quebec, who agreed to lead me around.

Sadly the Romans had done an excellent job pillaging Carthage. Their amphitheaters were only redeemed by a stunning view of the Mediterranean. Ruins with important bits shifted to museums not being my thing, I did not find the Carthaginian Empire a real draw, and spent much of the time speaking to one of the Canadians. She informed me that they were in Tunis for the World Social Forum, a 20,000 strong conference of well-meaning and occasionally unemployed people looking to discuss important world problems. She invited me to a freedom march to inaugurate the Forum. Apparently some locals would also be taking part. An opportunity to be part of a real, honest-to-God protest? Why not?

It turned out to be a flabby, incontinent affair. Most of those marching were foreign delegations, holding flags and shouting in a language no one else understood. There were charming pockets, of course, like the Japanese geriatrics protesting amendments to the Japanese constitution, but I was mostly suffocating in overwhelming self-righteousness. I sashayed to the front of the column hoping to find a local presence. There a large group of Tunisians were holding up photographs of their deceased love ones – some had been spirited away by the Ben-Ali government, others had died in the 2011 protests, and all those marching were now wondering what their sacrifices were for. They were excited to see a foreigner joining them in their fight, and happily taught me some Arabic chants (ShoHol, horia, karama wataniYya – work, liberty, equality).

I shouted along, swept up in the euphoria. It was funny, angry and triumphant all at once. But it felt like a show, because the government would never open fire on foreigners. I should have known this given the number of policemen politely directing traffic. It all ended with a huge celebratory concert hosted next to the national stadium – apparently this was an excuse for young, handsome Tunisians to have a wild night out. Morally straitjacketed as I was, I stood around for an hour more, before hugging everyone chastely and going home.

I should say something about food. There is a lovely seafood restaurant near Sidi Bou Said, overlooking the sea. I did not go there. Operating for a week on a student budget is difficult, so I mostly grazed at various kebab joints. Tunisian kebabs are delicious, but do not eat the fries that come on the side. If hunting for more highbrow establishments, Chez Slah is atmospheric, served excellent fish and is ludicrously difficult to locate.

However the prize must go to that little restaurant tucked away in a corner off Rue Mustapha, whose name I did not take down – they served what was quite simply the most extraordinary rendition of barbecued calamari I have ever had.