Tunisia: The Next Big Travel Destination
I'm sitting in the garden of the Mornag Eco Farm, outside Tunis, Tunisia's capital, dipping slabs of flatbread in olive oil and honey and basking in the Mediterranean sunshine. I have bicycled here with a friend—a twelve-mile journey past mosques and a giant soccer stadium, across wetlands and a scruffy beach—to an undeveloped slice of rural Tunisia. We are meeting Amine Draoui, a hydrology engineer who had been working in France and was vacationing in his native Tunisia when the Jasmine Revolution swept his country. He decided to stay and now owns an ecotourism company that teaches organic farming and leads hiking trips into the nearby mountains for young Tunisians and a few Western adventurers. Before the movement that unseated Tunisia's dictator in January 2011 (and launched the Arab Spring), security forces had regarded the mountains as a potential sanctuary for Islamic militants. "They were generally suspicious of everyone and made it difficult to obtain permits to hike there," Draoui says. "Nowadays, all those restrictions are gone."
He leads me around the experimental farm, through an olive grove and herb gardens of fragrant thyme, basil, and coriander. We wind up at an igloo-like apiary, where Draoui is considering importing bees and teaching tourists and local kids how to harvest the honey. Nearly three years after Tunisia's democratic revolution, Draoui tells me, "the atmosphere here is wide open—there's a sense that anything is possible."
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That feeling of a society unleashed practically knocks me off my bar stool that same night, when I visit the year-old Le Plug Rock Bar on a pier in La Marsa, a beachfront suburb north of Tunis. At happy hour, I take a seat beside the large open windows overlooking the bay, order a Celtia beer (the local brew), and take in the scene. U2 blares over the sound system, the air is thick with cigarette smoke, and waitresses with lip rings and tight denim cutoffs dart among tables fashioned from fifty-five-gallon red metal oil drums.
Some ninety-eight percent of Tunisia's population is Muslim, but this boisterous scene is far from any stereotypical image of the conservative Muslim world. The country has always looked toward different religious and cultural models, including southern Europe and Morocco—the cradle of Sufism, the mystical, tolerant form of Islam that spread through North Africa centuries ago. Tunisia is as Mediterranean as it is North African. "This bar is really all about freedom," says Salim, a Marlboro-smoking college student. He's wearing a black T-shirt that proclaims, "Dear God, thanks for women, beer, and football." Le Plug, Salim continues, "reminds us that we're not a country of Islamists. We're a lot of things. We can't be pinned down."
From this vantage point, it's almost hard to imagine that over the past three years this country has witnessed protests and street battles, the overthrow of a dictator, short-lived interim governments, clashes between Islamists and secularists, and the near collapse of its economy, which is largely reliant on tourism. Extremist Islamists are accused of assassinating a prominent secular politician last July. The killing set off protests that led the ruling Islamist Ennahda party to agree to step down in November and turn over the reins to a nonpartisan interim government. (At press time, new elections were scheduled for the spring.) And yet despite all the recent turbulence, this North African nation of 10.7 million—sandwiched between Libya and Algeria—is experiencing a surge of optimism and opportunity. A sense of freedom is percolating throughout the country, influencing everything from interior design to offbeat tourism ventures like Draoui's. With a democratically elected government, a famously tolerant society, an educated citizenry, and a sizable middle class, this is the one Arab Spring country that just might emerge as a success story.
I visited Tunisia in the tumultuous aftermath of the revolution, but this time I've returned to experience newly unfettered Tunis and to explore less traveled parts of the country. After a few days of wandering the French colonial boulevards and labyrinthine medina of the capital, I set out for Dougga, one of the best-preserved Roman settlements in all of North Africa. Sixty miles west of Tunis, it's an astonishing site consisting of a beautiful facade of a small Roman temple, the foundations of private homes, a still-intact grid of streets, an amphitheater, thermal baths, and The Capitol, an imposing shrine to Jupiter. On the stone plaza, I can make out a mosaic map, bordered by sea nymphs and other divinities, cheeks puffed out like tuba players, depicting the world's prevailing winds.
The complex provides an extraordinary image of life in an outpost of the Roman Empire two millennia ago, but until now it's been virtually ignored by travelers. That's slowly changing with the help of a few new small hotels—and their determined innkeepers—in the town of El Kef, forty miles from the ruins. I have a reservation at the year-old Dar Boumakhlouf, the guesthouse of Faouzia Alaya, the former director of the local conservation society. Faouzia has gambled that Tunisia's new spirit of openness will pay off in travelers eager to explore the country's multi-layered past, and there's no better place for that than El Kef. A city of 45,000 built on a mountainside high above a fertile plain, it was seized from Numidia by the Romans in 106 B.C., then conquered by the Byzantines, who laid out the medina—one of Tunisia's best preserved—before surrendering the city to the Arabs in the seventh century. In the early seventeenth century, the scholar Sidi Bou Makhlouf arrived from Fez, the spiritual capital of Morocco (some 1,000 miles west), bearing Sufism. French troops marched into El Kef from nearby Algeria in 1881 and soon declared Tunisia a protectorate.
So rich and colorful is El Kef's past that Faouzia accompanies her spectacular multi-course dinners with erudite lectures about the city's culinary and cultural history. The night I'm there, a waiter brings in a platter of bourzguen, a dish indigenous to El Kef and consisting of couscous blended with sugar and almonds and covered with a layer of dates. He puts it down beside a plate of knef (lamb steamed with rosemary) and bowls of yogurt. "You can tell the whole story of El Kef from what you're eating," says Faouzia. The Berbers, a tribe that dominated the Maghreb before the seventh-century Arab invasion, introduced couscous, she explains. Andalusian Muslims brought the dried fruit after their 1502 expulsion from Spain. After two hours of non-stop eating—and the most delicious history lesson I've ever had—it's time to walk off the meal. Faouzia's son, Tarek Chokki, a twenty-eight-year-old law student at the University of Tunis, leads me on a stroll through town. "We didn't have much of a revolution here, unlike in Tunis," he says. "Things were mostly quiet." We stop at the town's popular gathering place, at the top of the medina: Café Sidi Bou Makhlouf, six rickety metal tables and chairs on a flagstone plaza in the shade of a mulberry tree. Over cups of tea, we breathe in the scent of jasmine from nearby gardens and watch a group of young locals at the next table, chatting in Arabic sprinkled with French phrases. Next to us is the three-domed zaouïa (shrine) of Sidi Bou Makhlouf, a pilgrim- age site for Sufis from across the Maghreb. Tarek tells me that a mob of fundamentalist Salafist Muslims tried to damage the shrine two years ago, but irate locals drove them off. "This town has a reputation of being very open-minded, and we don't have much use for the Salafists," he says. The fundamentalists recently launched a half-hearted campaign to shut down the city's bars but got nowhere. "You can't take the beer away from the people," Tarek says with a laugh.
From the FertIle, ruin-studded plateau near the Mediterranean coast, our three-man traveling team—a young driver; my guide and translator, Hatem Bourial, a veteran newspaper columnist and TV talk show host; and I—speed by van across the industrial heartland. This is a dreary zone whose phosphate factories and mines became breeding grounds for discontent during the last days of the dictatorship. Then we follow a causeway across the Chott el Jerid, a crystalline salt pan that forms a barrier between Tunisia's north and south. Ksar Ghilane, once a military post, is a tourism gateway to the Sahara, although the business has almost disappeared since the revolution. It's five-thirty in the evening and the heat has begun to subside when Hatem and I arrive at this man-made oasis fed by boreholes. We walk to the stables on the settlement's outskirts, where Belgessam, a wiry and unsmiling Bedouin guide with a white turban, helps us mount a pair of docile camels, then leads us into the desert. The burnt-sienna dunes rise like waves, rippled by the wind and speckled with tufts of desert grass. Dropping down near-ninety-degree slopes, the camel almost jolts me from my saddle. The sun bathes the dunes in a luminescent glow and casts elongated shadows on the sand walls behind us. "It is like a frozen orange sea," says Belgessam.
After an hour-long ride, we reach the ruins of Tisaver, one of a six-hundred-mile line of Roman forts in Tunisia and Libya built in the second century to secure the southern frontier of the empire from Berber attacks. Today it's a silent, windswept pile of stones. Belgessam disappears with his camels to deliver food and supplies to nomads camped a couple of miles away, leaving Hatem and me to explore the ruins. I pass beneath an ancient archway and inspect the foundations of Roman legionaries' quarters. Contemporary invaders have sprayed some walls with graffiti—namely boasts in Arabic of sexual prowess. A gang of teenagers roar out of the desert on dune buggies and swarm over the fort, searching for a good vantage to observe the sunset. Then Belgessam reappears and we remount the camels, trekking back to Ksar Ghilane in the gathering darkness.
the next day, after a long drive east, we catch the ferry to Djerba, a large island off the southern coast that has some of Tunisia's most beautiful beaches and luxurious resorts and, remarkably, one of the last Jewish communities in the entire Arab world. Hatem and I order freshly caught shrimp at one of the many seafood restaurants that line the harbor of Houmt Souk and, toward evening, walk down the sandy streets through Hara Kabira, the Jewish quarter. In all of my travels across the Arab world, I have never seen a Jewish enclave as thriving as this one. Mezuzahs hang on every doorway, and boys in yarmulkes wander home from their yeshivas, past kosher butcher shops adorned with Hebrew signs.
"We work hard to keep our community together, and we're holding out," says Yusuf Kohen, a septuagenarian in a prayer shawl, inviting me to sit with him inside the Synagogue of the Kohanim of Djirt. One of twelve on the island, it has stained glass windows, blue-and-white arches, and columns fringed with gold. Tunisia's Jewish population numbered 105,000 in 1956, but increasing tension and fallout from the Six-Day War drove out almost all of them. Of the remaining 1,500, about 500 live in Tunis, the rest here on the island. Residents worry about the protests Salafists have mounted in front of the Grand Synagogue in Tunis, and hardliners in Parliament have tried—so far without success—to write a law into the new constitution that would criminalize contact with Israel. But multiculturalism still rules in Djerba. After services to celebrate Shavous, the holiday commemorating God's handing down the Ten Commandments to Moses on Mount Sinai, men, women, and children throng the main promenade. Muslim teenagers on motorbikes cruise by and wave hello. Locals greet me with "Chag sameach," Hebrew for "Happy holidays." Somewhere in the distance, a muezzin begins to call the faithful to prayer.
Back In tunIs, Hatem takes me to his favorite corner of the city: Sidi Bou Saïd, the artists' colony named for a Sufi holy man who retreated here in the thirteenth century. In the Ottoman era, wealthy residents built vacation homes in the neighborhood; during French colonial rule, painters such as Paul Klee, drawn by the seductive Mediterranean light, established ateliers; and literary greats from Cervantes and Flaubert to Colette and Simone de Beauvoir wrote there. Today, Sidi Bou Saïd is a maze of cobble-stoned alleys lined with whitewashed stone houses and artists' studios, with window shutters and arched doors painted peacock blue. Bougainvillea climbs the walls, and every turn produces a vertiginous view of the Gulf of Tunis. It could almost be a mountaintop village in the Sporades of Greece or a slice of the Amalfi Coast.
We head down a cliffside path to the Centre of Arab and Mediterranean Music, in the Ennejma Ezzahra Palace. Considered a masterpiece of traditional North African architecture, the palace was constructed in the early twentieth century by Baron Rodolphe d'Erlanger, a French Arabist, musical scholar, watercolorist, and preservationist. Its fortress-like exterior conceals elaborate interior spaces: veined pink-marble walls, arabesque friezes in white stucco, and gilded wood ceilings. Today, the center hosts such diverse acts as Parisian jazz quartets and "Arab electronic" musicians from the Maghreb. Apparently, business has never been better. "People are using culture as a form of defiance to the Salafists," says Mounir Hentati, the center's curator, as he leads me through a miniature Persian garden filled with fountains and Seville orange trees. Despite a recent attack on a Sufi mosque not far away, he is optimistic. "Tunisia has always been an open country, and we would never accept the idea of going backward," Hentati says. "Nobody will convert Tunisia into Afghanistan."
But given Egypt's continuing struggles, is there a chance that Tunisia could be swept up in similar violence? Despite the recent political turmoil, there are reasons to trust in Tunisia's stability. For one, its military is small, weak, and averse to intervening in politics; during the 2011 revolution, the troops sat on the sidelines. Tunisia's constitutional process has also been far more inclusive than that of Egypt. Tunisians are likely to put their trust in the ballot box rather than force a violent, Egypt-style counterrevolution in the streets.
On one of my last evenings in Tunis, I return to the Centre of Arab and Mediterranean Music for a performance by whirling dervishes from Istanbul. The event itself is a vote for tolerance: Hentati has invited them to dance before an audience of Tunisian Sufis, whose mystical form of Islam has been threatened by the ultraconservatives. I walk down a moonlit path to the palace entrance and take a seat in a columned concert hall. The stage lights darken, a trio begins to play a haunting melody, and three dervishes, dressed in tall maroon kepis and wide white skirts, sweep into the room. Eyes shut, heads tilted back, arms raised, the men begin to spin. Around and around they twirl, skirts billowing upward, their facial expressions frozen into masks of devotion. Afterward, I join the throng of excited Sufis in the courtyard, conversing happily about the performance. Then I walk alone down the cliffside path, through the streets of Tunis. The lights twinkle across the way in Sidi Bou Saïd, the moon rises over the Mediterranean, and I pray that this diversity and tolerance—so rare in this part of the world—will endure.
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