Tunis | Stigma

Approx read: 3 mins

A nation battling stigma. That’s the Tunisia I know.

Until my return last week on business, my only experience of the nation was punctuated with being in the capital the same day IS militants massacred 38 tourists on a beach near Sousse. Scary, yes. Forgettable, no.

Tunisia, heard of it? The standard reply is ‘yes, of course, North African place. Its where the Arab Spring started and where IS militants killed tourists’ and the discourse stops right there. Not that what is said is wrong. It’s fact.

A desperate young man set himself alight in the town of Kasserine in 2011 and the protests that followed grew into the unstoppable social force that created the Arab Spring. Governments and dictators across the Arab world were toppled by the oppressed in a movement that showed how society can mobilise and change nations. Then just as Tunisia emerged as the success story of an Arab-people’s revolution, the IS was at its zenith in the region and dragged the county backwards as a no-go area with attacks on tourists.

The economic stagnation has been hard. But Tunisians are fighting back.

Keen to impress someone from the deep South Pacific, the Tunisians I dealt with last week were suave, urbane and keen to inform me on some facts and to dispel the bad press they’ve been getting since 2015.

This is not a land of violent revolution. When Prime Minister Zine El Abidine Ben Ali was ousted in the Arab Spring after 24 years of rule, the vacuum was huge. Day Zero of no government in Tunisia didn’t produce fractured gangs of armed men under warlords looking to loot and gain power, but a peaceful move to civic order and then free and fair democratic elections. 

Fast forward to 2018 and the economy has survived, projects are financed and – critically – the aeroplanes are flying tourists back into the resorts on the Mediterranean coast that bring precious revenues and jobs.

So is Tunisia an Arab paradise?

Hell no. There is a huge chasm between those in Tunis, Marsa, Sousse and Hammamet with money or influence, and, well, everyone else. A quiet café at any street side table on leafy Avenue Habib Bourguiba will give observers ample display of a microcosm representative of Tunisian society.

Every citizen goes to its nation capital at some stage, and on the afternoon of my surveillance, Western-influenced Tunisian workers strolled their lunch time away in and out of shops intermingling with Tunisians dressed fashionably but with a moderate nod to their Islamic faith. And then there were the rural. The dress, mannerisms and segregation from what everyone else seemed to represent on Tunis’ main commercial street is a harsh and simplistic judgement on a whole swathe of a beautiful nation. Until it is reinforced by my local contacts there.

‘Oui, nous sommes une nation de deux peoples.’

Tunisia was the heart of ancient Carthage and for much of its history was the Phoenician city that rivalled Greece in military, economics, science, culture and art.

History is not lost on modern Carthaginians. They are both proud of where they came from and of the self-determination they have hard-won in the last decade.

Images by Mike Left

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An avid international traveller, surfer, lover of the oceans, writer and researcher.