Tunisia: Sea, sand, medinas and the Arab Spring

Cain Burdeau
Associated Press

Tunis, Tunisia

The colors of Tunisia’s landscape change hourly with the light of the Mediterranean sun. Vermilion, sapphire, olive green, white, gold and ocher can all be seen in the sky, sea and sand.

Visitors may be surprised by the varied hues of these contrasting landscapes: azure sea and white-sand beaches; verdant plains, olive orchards and vineyards; deserts with oases of date palm trees; forests in the north and the rugged Atlas mountains. They complement a nation where a fusion of cultures birthed one of the Arab world’s most vibrant, and inspiring, examples of democracy.

“There is no question about the uniqueness of Tunisia, particularly in the Arab context,” said Safwan Masri, a scholar, Columbia University administrator and author of “Tunisia: An Arab Anomaly.”

Many stories, landscapes

In Sfax, the second-largest city, a walled medieval Arab quarter known as a medina reveals covered markets, winding streets and an old courtyard where desert caravans and their camels once rested.

“Here, there is a lot of history,” said Ahmed Charfi, a 32-year-old guide as he walked toward the medina’s central mosque, built partly with the stones of Roman ruins.

North of Sfax, in rolling plains, stones have also been salvaged from an enormous Roman amphitheater with gladiator rooms inside, its remnants still looming over the town of El Jem.

Other places tell ancient stories too: the ruins of Carthage, the capital of a Mediterranean empire founded in 814 B.C.; the 2,500-year-old Ghriba synagogue on the island of Djerba; cave-dwelling indigenous Berbers who live near the Sahara Desert; and many beautiful mosques and medinas.

But Tunisia also has a compelling modern history and a culture of progressive Islamic teachings. The country’s first constitution dates to 1857. Women won the right to vote in 1957. (In Saudi Arabia, women didn’t vote until 2015.) And a revolution in Tunisia in 2011 sparked the Arab Spring.

A melange of French and Arab cultures reflects Tunisia’s 75 years as a French colony. The country attracted famous European artists and writers like Paul Klee, Aldous Huxley and Simone de Beauvoir.

Tradition and modernity both stand out. In rural villages, fields are plowed by mule and stooped women in long dresses pick vegetables. In the hilltop town of Sidi Bou Said, young men and women laugh and talk at outdoor cafes and even hold hands in the street, a rarity in the Arab world.

Tunis, the capital

Most trips to Tunisia begin in Tunis, the sprawling capital. It’s a bustling, traffic-hectic city with French-colonial districts, trendy business areas and residential neighborhoods where roosters and stray dogs roam.

The medina lies at the city’s heart, with winding passageways, covered markets, ornate palaces, busy cafes and the revered Al-Zaytuna mosque-university. Vendor after vendor sells glittering jewelry, rich silks, hand-woven carpets, traditional dresses, shoes, hats and handcrafts, all in an exuberant palette of colors. Doorways show vibrant blues, yellows, reds. Vines crawl up walls. Blue-painted awnings and shutters line streets; cafes are embellished with intricately-patterned ceramic tiles.

“This is called the souq (market) of shoes,” said a shoemaker as he sat on a stool working. He learned his craft from a master and makes gorgeous wedding shoes from dried animal hides: “Cow, camel, sheep.”

Explaining the medina’s geography, he said, “Over there, there’s the souq of only perfumes. There is the souq for hats, too. Then we have one for traditional women’s dresses.”

Terrorism and tourism

Though the medina throbs with people, there are few foreigners. Tourism has dropped off dramatically since terrorist attacks against tourists and the government in 2015, putting a chill on Tunisia’s democratic progress.

“There are not many tourists,” bemoaned Becher Amduni, 36, sweeping in front of a sandwich and pizza shop as a TV transmitted prayers from the nearby “Great Mosque,” the Al-Zaytuna.

Tunisia’s entrenched authoritarian president was driven from power in January 2011 amid protests that became known as the start of the Arab Spring. The Tunisian uprising, called the Jasmine Revolution, inspired similar movements across the Arab world. But darker forces emerged. In 2015, as Tunisia was establishing a new constitution and government, terrorists attacked a beach resort near Sousse and the famous Bardo museum; a bus carrying presidential guards also was bombed.

Since then, Tunisia’s government has taken steps to “better secure its borders, clamp down on groups and individuals suspected of militancy,” said Masri, the Columbia researcher.

This year, major travel groups are again booking tours to Tunisia. Still, there’s an atmosphere of uneasiness. Expensive hotels screen visitors. A synagogue in central Tunis is surrounded by barbed wire and guards. On highways, police stops are frequent.

Friendliness, though, prevails. Brini Imed, 53, a professor and bookseller at an outdoor market in Sfax, is a good example.

“We live in paradise here,” said Imed. “Yes, you can compare it to paradise.”

He stuck his finger in the air and cited Aboul-Qacem Echebbi, a famous Tunisian poet whose verses are part of the national anthem. Imed then listed Tunisian culinary delights: “We have a good gastronomy. Fish, olives, olive oil.”

Yes, and date-filled pastries, spicy soups, harissa, omelette-filled sandwiches, couscous, lamb’s head, zesty salads. When a visitor concurred, Imed responded: “Do you want to eat at our house?”