Saturday, May 10, 2008

Tunis: the real picture behind the curtain

Welcome to the heaven of Mediterranean-style corruption!

The wheels of the airplane screeched in protest as flight Tunis Air came to a halt on the runway of Carthage airport. The passengers applauded enthusiastically, and shortly after landing many amongst them lit up cigarettes impatiently as they waited for their baggage to arrive. The Tunisians are fanatic smokers and couldn’t stand the two-hour flight from Istanbul to Tunis. The fact is that although I was boarded a flight Athens-Tunis to reach the capital of this Mediterranean country no one had told me, nor any other passenger for that matter, that we would make our way there via Istanbul. We were duly informed of this on departure from Athens’ Eleftherios Venizelos Airport.

Despite the fact that I have travelled a lot in the Arab world and I think I can safely claim to know it very well in comparison to the average traveller, Tunisia remained amongst the countries I could count on the fingers of one hand that I had yet to visit. So close to Greece and at the same time so far. When was the last time that news from this north-African country reached the pages of Greek newspapers or TV screens? I personally remember that the last important news which arrived in the West from Tunis was back in 1985 when the Israeli Air force bombed the PLO headquarters leaving many dead in its wake. Then there was another in 1994 when Yassir Arafat left the city which had hosted him during his exile to return to Palestine as the nation’s leader rather than a terrorist. Ah yes… and then when the Tunisian capital proudly opened its arms to Italy's former PM Bettino Craxi; a fugitive in his own country and throughout Europe for numerous corruption scandals. However, from 1994 he lived lavishly in his Hammamet mansion in the company of strapping teenage lads from the poor neighbourhoods of Tunis along with their low-life pimps and smart-suited Sicilians. Thus he lived his final days up until 2000 in the lap of Tunisian luxury. Other than that however, I can’t remember hearing more news from Tunisia…

With this in mind I arrived at the capital of this small country of 12 million to meet with a French friend of mine who decided to make this her home for the past 15 years or more.

Leaving the airport, I pay no heed to the dozens of local volunteer taxi-drivers who attempt to lure me into accepting a ride with them to the centre charging five times the usual price and with no taxi-meter (a distance worth 7 dinars and taking 15 minutes to reach the center and for which you can pay up to 30 dinars in other words about € 17). I select my taxi with due care and imbued with an attitude of self-confidence I announce my destination to him in French. This in itself takes a good deal of negotiation as it seems he is set on taking me to the hotel of his choosing (a favour for which he is certain to receive some reward). “No!” I say sharply “I want to go to this address please!”.

Looking out of the window on the way towards the city I can guess what lies behind the evident lack of news coming out of the country. The image of the father of the nation can be seen everywhere; on gigantic billboards adorning the walls of public buildings and at bus stops. The life-long 72 year old president Ben Ali with his raven-black dyed hair smiles to his subjects reminding them that it is he who decides what is and what is not news in this country as has been the case for the past 21 years of his term as president (don’t ask how… using one of the tried and tested ways with which all dictators extract power: conspiracy, coup d'etat or the two combined).

It was not my plan to give this piece a political tone, but honestly the regime is so ridiculous and laughable (of course, not if you are a citizen of this country in which case I am sure it instils nothing less than fear). The constant hymns for the enlightened leader are understandable (from the in-flight magazine of Tunis Air to the French-language papers, all of which seem forced by law to publish a photograph of Ben Ali, complete with dyed raven-black hair, on the first page. No matter what the occasion, just as long as his face appears religiously). However, the standard of propaganda is so basic and practically primeval that any serious person finds himself wondering just how it could be possible for an regime to use it without realizing that it is nothing but farce.

It could be said that all this is the result of a network which fails to comprehend the mental outlook of the locals. Despite this all this information was whispered to me by many of the amazing Tunisians who I was fortunate enough to meet during my visit. Educated and cultured people, artists, scientists, young and old, patrons of the various wonderful out-door cafés in the Bourguiba central avenue with whom I conversed for hours topics such as art and politics over Celtia beers and strong French café au lait or direct as the locals say. People suffocating under the ugliness of a completely corrupt regime which under the excuse of the war against Islamic terrorism and its unreserved support of the USA follows and controls everything through its secret police installed on every corner, regular police force of hundreds of heavily armed men patrolling the streets and snitches who record discussions of the locals to rat on them to the authorities.

Perhaps the most colourful face in this ridiculous regime is to be found in the First Lady along with her extensive family (brothers and sisters, cousins, aunts and uncles, close friends, etc.), who despite their humble origins have no qualms about filching the national wealth of the country without –of course- suffering any restrictions or sense of remorse. Mrs Leila Trabelsi and her groupies brazenly line their pockets from their pre-prepared measures including programs of mass privatization, scandalous loans from the banking system, the black real-estate market, exports and imports and other illegal activities which were they to take place in any just state hundreds of fraudsters would be sent to the docks. And all this at a time when the average Tunisian citizen earns 200 dinars a month (about € 120) and when one in every two university graduates remains unemployed. Despite the remarkably low prices on the market one finds oneself wondering how on earth the people survive.

The majority of the young unemployed living in the capital spend hours parading the central Bourguiba Avenue and fall prey to the male prostitution which is shockingly prevalent. At Café de Paris and in every central meeting point around the city in tourist areas and even down the innocent looking lanes around the city hundreds of young men sell their body, which quite simply is the only thing which is truly theirs. And this they provide for around 10 dinars or approximately € 6. Their customers come in the form of obese middle-aged Italians and other western tourists who visit the country specifically in search of cheap -and good- sex. Many of these young men are students or underage and their activities are far from hidden. Indeed it is widely-known what is going on, but an overwhelming silence reigns over the issue. Among those who know all that, is of course Mrs Leila, her family, friends and admirers who parade the streets in expensive luxury Peugeots and build luxurious mansions in the chic area of La Marsa some kilometres from the city centre.

Now, why don’t we hear about all this here in the West? First of all because that situation does not bother the “international community” (i.e. the USA that supports this regime) and secondly because in this dream land foreign journalists are few and far between, and live and work under constant control and threats. The last victim of this strict censorship was the international network Al Jazeera. Its offices in Tunis were quickly shut down and its correspondents were kicked out when the channel described Ben Ali’s regime as dictatorial. Then, as if this was not enough, even the website of Al Jazeera (along with many other websites considered suspicious by the regime, such as were blocked so locals would be protected from potential contamination through such poisonous propaganda.

Of course, all this holds little interest for the casual visitor who chooses Tunis for his short vacation. They all want to go sightseeing, visit the impressive archaeological site of ancient Carthage (where a public servant employed as guard of the ancient treasures, tried to sell me authentic Roman coins that had been unearthed in the area, for € 50 each), to admire the wonderful mosaics in the famous Bardo Museum (that are on display under the worst possible conditions at the mercy of open windows and humidity), to taste the rich local cuisine, to shop in Medina, the superb old town with perhaps the most wonderful oriental bazaar that I have seen in the Arabic world, and to take plentiful pictures of the idyllic resort of Sidi bu Said under the amazing sunset and the expensive villas of Mrs Leila Trabelsi’s friends that I have mentioned before.

The truth is that Tunisia is an ideal destination for the average European tourist. Located next to Europe, it has an excellent Mediterranean climate, friendly people and maximum safety for the traveller (due to the extreme police measures under which nothing passes unnoticed). In Tunis you will not be confronted with scenes of extreme poverty such as in Egypt, as the country is in relatively good economic condition compared to most of the Orient. You will not find women hidden behind veils, because the regime has in fact made important steps towards the emancipation of women. In general you will not see the violent side of extreme Islam, even though a large percentage of the population are turning once again to the security of the Islamic tradition in reaction to the increasing corruption and challenge of the dictatorial regime. My French friend suggested I check the foreheads of the men passing me on the street and sure enough two in ten bore a scar across their forehead from continuous bowing in prayer.
Anyway this article is supposed to be a tourist guide so I am afraid I have somewhat diverted from the subject. However, perhaps not. Some travellers to this wonderful country may be interested to learn what is hidden behind the façade. If you were expecting me to write about the country’s history or to suggest what to buy and where to shop or what to eat, I’m afraid you’ll be disappointed. For those of you in search of such you will see I have provided very useful tips at the very end of this text, filled with such information.
Finally, my advice to those of you who choose Tunis and its beautiful surrounding-areas for a small two or three day trip, is keep your eyes open. Delve beyond the idyllic images that the average tourist sees, while on his way to shop for throw-away souvenirs to decorate his living room or to be photographed smiling in front of fountains that carry no name. Most of the people you will meet in that land, particularly the young, would sell their soul to the devil to get out, to go to a place where they could live free and with dignity. When passing control at Carthage airport in Tunis, you should well remember that. And should you be a reporter reveal it to no one; you will not meet with a welcome…
Useful info
When to go?
Tunis can be visited all year round. Hot summer months should be avoided if you cannot stand high temperatures.

How much will it cost?
Three days in Tunis for two can cost up to € 1,000 with air fare, accomodation and food covered. Shopping expenses at your own risk.

Who to fly with?
€ 350 with Tunis Air (via Istanbul from Athens and direct from Tunis) every Tuesday and Thursday.
In about the same price, you can also fly with Alitalia daily via Milan or Rome.

How to move around?
By taxi which is extremely inexpensive if the driver is not trying to rip you off. Fifteen minutes drive from the airport to the city center costs some 7 dinars (4 euro), while you can move around just about anywhere within the city with 2 or r dinars.
If you go to Sidi bu Said orMarsa chose the train that costs about one uero for 45 minutes of an interesting ride in wagons packed with noisy and cheerful young people.

Where to stay?
You should definately stay within the city where everything is close. I did not stay in a hotel so I could not guarantee any as of its quality. Nevertheless, prices seemed to me reasonable (50-70 euro a night for a double) in four-star hotels. But you can always go for a luxurious 5-star like Africa and pay some 120 euro a night.
See some of the hotels here.

Where to eat?
You should eat where Tunisians do. I definitely recommend the El-Abed restaurant inside the Medina for its delicious lamb chops. Ask about it and you'll find it in the labyrinth of the old city's narrow streets.
Also, the Capitol on Bourguiba Avenue, next to Cafe de Paris, where you can eat well with 6 dinars (3-4 euro), until 10pm because it shuts down early.
Last but not least, should you find yourself around the amazing fruit market of the Marche Central, search at the back side of the complex to find a little restaurant with no name that was ran by a black Tunisian back in the 30s (with this piece of information I searched and found it). There, you'll eat spicy keftagi, a local explosive delicacy made of hot peppers, tomatoes, eggs and whatever else the cook feels like using.

Related Links
History of Tunisia in brief (wikipedia)


Anonymous Anonymous said...



9:34 AM, May 13, 2008  

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