Beyond the concrete and boredom of an off-season Tunisian resort, Annie Caulfield finds a land rich with history and warmth.
Illustration by Claire Jones
“How nice to see you!” The middle-aged man blocking the pavement beamed at us. I had no idea who he was but I knew what he was doing. “Don’t you recognise me? I am the waiter in your hotel.”
We were staying in a very small hotel with three waiters and none of them looked like him. Also, he was the umpteenth person that day who’d joyfully greeted us in this manner.
He wore a suit that looked as though it had been pressed under a mattress overnight and the thin black loafers on his feet were split in two places. We said it was nice to see him too, and started to move away.
“This is my home town.” He held his arms wide. “Please, if you have any questions…”
“We’re fine, thanks.” I tried to be definite but polite. His eyes looked so tired and those shoes… No need to humiliate the man, whoever he was.
“Have you seen everything…Have you seen…?”
He named the two main sights of Monastir. First, the vast mausoleum of former ruler Habib Bourguiba, with its gilt cupola, twin minarets and collection of memorabilia displayed around the marble sarcophagus of the man who controlled Tunisia from 1957 to 1987. Then there was the Ribat of Harthema, the castle where Zeffirelli filmed Jesus of Nazareth and more importantly, the Monty Python team filmed Life of Brian.
The man who wasn’t a waiter from our hotel kept grinning when I told him we’d seen these sights and more.
“In that case you must be hungry. My brother has an excellent small restaurant in a traditional Bedouin setting, very cheap, authentic atmosphere…”
That was enough. We shook our heads and walked away. I glanced back and expected him to look angry, or be stepping after us with a new approach but he was just standing there watching us go, looking slightly embarrassed.
There were thousands of people in Tunisia who were better at this tourist hustling, known as Bezness, than this man. They’d have been more persistent and maybe tried the trick of playing a little politics; “Oh you westerners, all on Facebook liking the Arab Spring but you wouldn’t give a few coins to someone for showing you a nice restaurant.” This was the sort of crack we’d heard around town.
It seemed to me that this tired man was someone new to Bezness. Maybe he had been a waiter somewhere once, using his very good English, but now he was on the streets, joining the ranks of Tunisia’s unemployed, who numbered close to 20 percent of the population.
Unemployment and a corrupt government were at the heart of the 2010 uprising in Tunisia that overthrew the despotic Ben Ali, Bourguiba’s successor. A man called Mohamed Bouazizi set fire to himself to start this “Jasmine Revolution”. Streets were named after him and billboards hailed him as a martyred hero. Many of these were now defaced. The disillusionment was immense.
Along the corniche in the resort of Sousse, young men in cheap leather jackets hung around watching the tourists, or the grey winter sea. There was nothing else to do.
Sousse had a dense complex of concrete hotels, catering mainly to package tourists. Its beaches were bleak and the whole ugly mess of the development was like something that had washed up on the shore from 1970’s Spain.
We were there offseason but Walid, a twenty year-old who hustled around our hotel, told me it had been pretty bad all year.
“People are nervous of terrorists and also broke. I think even Germans are broke.”
Walid hustled custom for the very good spa down the road. He seemed to keep himself above the more common kind of Bezness that was rife in Sousse – entertaining Northern European women. Usually these were women well over 30 with Tunisian men well below 30. The women could be providing the price of a coffee, a pair of trainers, a ticket out.
One alternative to Bezness was taking illegal boat routes into Europe. This all or nothing flight by Tunisia’s young men had the chilling nickname “burning”.
Bezness, “burning”…There were two other words that kept coming to mind on Tunisia’s coast, “And yet”.
And yet the tranquil gardens around Sousse had bright oranges and pomegranates as big as my head. There were beautiful old markets, mosques, museums and historic mansions to nose around. There were sweeping views from the rooftops of tumbledown restaurants. There wasn’t a single person, even when we refused to be hustled to do this or that, who was in any way unpleasant or threatening.
Your first impression will probably involve disappointed swearing. But give it a chance. Because it really doesn’t take long to get to, “And yet…”