Imagine wherever you went in Australia there’d be posters, bigger than billboards, of a smirking Kevin Rudd staring at you, one hand on heart and the other fiddling with his shirt sleeve. Imagine if the same picture also adorned bus stops, notice boards, buildings such as banks and post offices, if it dangled from flag poles and peeled from cafe walls, or was Blu-Tacked on windows in department stores. About the only place exempt might be a pubic toilet.
Well, in Tunisia, wedged between Algeria and Libya on Africa’s Mediterranean coast, President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali’s heavily Photoshopped image is everywhere. And has been for more than 20 years because Ali keeps changing the constitution to allow himself to serve yet another five-year presidential term. He’s in his fifth such stint now. And there’s not much chance Ali (or his Reassemblement Constitutionnel Democratique [RCD] party) will ever likely be threatened at the ballot box for this is effectively a one-party state.
At the national elections last October, Ali achieved his worst result, with only 90% of the vote. This down from a high point of 99% in 1989, 1994 and 1999. A semblance of an opposition party is tolerated, although any candidates must be authorised by a Constitutional Council, an institution firmly under the thumb of Ali’s party.
My first afternoon in the capital, Tunis, and I head down the main thoroughfare, Ave Habib Bourguiba. It’s wall-to-wall cafes and banks and hotels and barber shops and tabacs; and men smoking furiously.
This is the off-season for tourists, so I come in for some “focused” attention from shop owners keen to flog me fake Armani or Diesel or Berbery. “Bonjour,” they all say. It’s friendly but very, very persistent. And the hard sell gets more concentrated when I venture just on sunset into the medina; a rabbit warren of covered alleys and nooks and winding lane ways, and with more tea houses and souvenir stalls than you can imagine. The way is packed and raucous; silversmiths hammer as does a cobbler, shop owners shout, caged birds tweet, and delivery boys yell to all to make way. Progress is slow, so I take tea. It’s fresh mint, with a floating layer of pine nuts. It’s delicious. And all around me men smoke. The Muslim call to prayer rises and rings loudly through the air.
I amble again; not sure where. The next invite is in English (not French for a change), and from an elderly well-dressed man wearing a traditional Tunisian fez-style hat but without the tassel. The invite is to a special Berber craft display “just down this street, just around the corner, just for tonight. Photo, photo,” he urges, mimicking a camera held to his face with his hands. I kindly decline. Repeatedly. According to my guidebook, the worldly Paul Theroux fell for a similar scam, as he confessed in The Pillars of Hercules. It’s harmless enough; you end up uncomfortably off the beaten track at a designated shop, and out of keenness to find your way back, you might agree to buy something in exchange for a guided escort back to the main walkway.
Dinner, a little later and still lost in the medina, is chicken couscous and legumes du jour. The portion could feed three, but I do my best for two, and the whole time I’m eating, a sickly thin cat circles the table eyeing me and its opportunity. When I’m done, the waiter puts down his cigarette, walks to a side door and “clears his throat”, and before taking the plate away, piles the chicken bones and leftover meat onto my napkin and hands the feast to the fretting feline a few metres from my table.
On the way back down Ave Habib Bourguiba, and “bonjour” is now “bonsoir”, I see through the curtain of smoke that Cafe de Paris sells beer. This is rare, but indicative of Tunisia’s more tolerant and pragmatic approach to matters of faith, family and a functioning economy, at least in comparison to most of its Arab neighbours.
For one thing, Ben Ali is tough on anti-Western fundamentalists. This has won him many friends in the West. And his political longevity — albeit at the expense of democracy — has cultured real stability. This, foreign investors like too. Meanwhile, textiles and motor component exports to Europe comprise a large and growing chunk of GDP. And with considerable investment in resort facilities and infrastructure, particularly along a pristine coast, tourism is booming. So the country gets an encouraging tick from ratings agencies, and the World Economic Forum, according to The Economist, ranks Tunisia as the continent’s most competitive country.
I take a breath outside and enter Cafe de Paris. It doesn’t take long for someone to approach. Mohammed is the first. He is competent in at least four languages, and sits down, orders a citronade but we hardly converse because his mobile never stops: “I do deals for Italians, like a middle man. Maybe you want to export to Australia?” he says hurriedly in between calls. We discuss my planned itinerary but he avoids talk of the president when I ask, except to say; “Ben Ali, good man.” Mohammed is mid-30s, lives at home with his mother, younger brother and his older brother’s new family. In the time it takes to drink one beer (a very decent local lager), he’s had three cigarettes (and I’ve probably had one). Another phone call prompts his exit, but on parting he warns: “Be careful Aussie, you’re on your own, and you go deep into the country; these are primitive people and they are very poor. You look out.”
Eight days later, I’m back in Tunis for my last afternoon in the country and his advice could not be further from the truth. In Sousse, three hours south on the east coast, I was offered Islam on one corner and sex on the other, but never once felt threatened or unsafe. And being out of season, accommodation rates halve. It does feel a bit weird being the only guest in a 35-room hotel though. Further south, but inland in El Jem, a passenger in a shared taxi (the louage system of mini vans is the main form of public transport) offered me his seat (and the final available) because we discerned I’d missed the last train south to Sfax.
But no one ever wanted to talk politics, except in Le Kef, a mountain town in the far west, close to the Algerian border, and much colder than expected because of recent snowfalls nearby. Wandering down Ave Habib Bourguiba (yes, there’s one in every town — he was the country’s first president when France granted the country’s independence in 1956), I pause and glance at my map under a street light. A man approaches and begins speaking in French. I interrupt him to say my French is limited, and he deduces my accent, saying: “I can’t speak English very well, but do you know Tom Manual, guitar man?”
Took me a while to digest this; in a frontier town that once housed Carthaginian mercenaries but later succumbed to Ottoman dominance, this son of a Berber herdsman and I stand in the bracing night air discussing a Tommy Emmanuel, the Australian guitar virtuoso. Our chat continued in a nearby cafe. Turns out Chaouki is seasonally unemployed, like many of his countrymen, during the six-month winter downturn in tourism (the rest of the year he works at a resort hotel on the northern coast). A CD left behind by a guest was his introduction to our Mr Emmanuel. Of Ben Ali, he is scathing. Perhaps his audacity had someone to do with the alcohol on his breath: “Le Kef very friendly, but the system is not.”
“You mean the political system?”
“Of course. This a dictatorship. Strong. No demokratia. Once they get in, they never get out. Bad government.” My new friend joins a card game soon after with old men. Later, I ate fresh sea bass, grilled, with salad, and washed down with a glass of French rosé. Two pre-dinner beers and the bill totals about 10 dollars.
Press freedom in Tunisia, I also learn, is an oxymoron. Strict censorship applies across the media spectrum, although internet access here may not be as draconian as Conroy’s proposal. According to The Economist, the Paris-based media watchdog, Reporters without Borders, ranks Tunisia’s press as one of the world’s least free. Conversely, there look to be many daily newspapers on sale, but the range of opinion expressed is likely very limited.
On the other hand, conditions for Tunisian women (at least to Western eyes) are better than in most countries in the Islamic world. Much of the freedom and equality they experience is due to President Habib Bourguiba’s forceful campaign for womens’ rights that date back to the early years of his rule in the late ’50s. He banned polygamy and ended divorce by renunciation. Strict laws discouraged arranged marriages, and even gave women the right to refuse a marriage proposal.
He even banned the hejab (veil) from schools, denouncing it as an “odious rag”. These days women have a choice whether to wear it or not, and many choose to. But in most of the cafes I sat and sipped, very rarely did I see a woman inside, for this is still a very patriarchal society. Away from urban centres and beach resorts, the public realm is very much a man’s world.
So, having followed the rough trajectory of an equilateral triangle through the northern half of the country for more than one thousand kilometres, I’m back in Tunis for a few hours. In another hazy cafe I happily sip and linger over my last mint tea — (no pine nuts this time), smoke passively and watch patiently with this football-mad nation, the local grudge match between Tunisia and Algeria.
Before heading to the Gare de Maritime I take the opportunity to visit the “toilette”, and wouldn’t you know, there was President Ben Ali staring down at me taking a pee. I shook my head, washed my hands, grabbed my pack and headed to the port to board an overnight ferry bound for Sicily. For the record, Algeria beat Tunisia in a penalty shoot out.