Tunis/ian mosaic

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My first international puppet mission took me to Tunisia. In the plane, I read the sections of The Fifty Years War by Ahron Bregman and Jihan el-Tahri that relate to the PLO’s exit from Beirut in 1982. Arafat, the last to leave, sailed to Tunis on the Atlantis, closely followed by the Israelis who had promised the Americans not to kill him…

After invading Lebanon in 1982, the Israelis pushed as far as Beirut to which they lay an 70 day siege. West Beirut, at that time, was occupied by the PLO 500, 000, Palestinians, Muslim Lebanese civilians, the 85th Syrian brigade, was encircled by the Israelis. “During that time, anybody who approached Beirut would see hundreds of canons and mortars all aimed at the heart of the city. From what was once a school building in Ba’abda (outskirts of Beirut) with a full view of Beirut, Israeli artillery officers were directing the bombardment that subjected the Palestinian districts to saturation bombing. The artillery fire would occasionally stop to allow Israeli planes to unload their bombs on Beirut, and then start all over again. Electricity and water would occasionally be cut and supply of food stopped. All these things were done to put pressure on the Lebanese government, and, through it, on Arafat and his PLO to leave Beirut.” (p. 169) And it worked….

Working for a Palestinian, I am very aware that the relationship many Lebanese have with Palestine and towards Palestinians is problematic, often it leads to rude outbursts, hostility and discrimination. It was great to experience a country where saying “ana filistini” (I am Palestinian) consistently opened doors, arms and hearts wide.

A problem with the wheels lead to an emergency landing and got a lot of “alhumdullilahs” from the Shia pilgrims on board as we touched the ground. I was happy to hop onto the tar at the end of the stairs and know I was on “top African soil”. Our man in Tunis, Elyes who has taken part in a puppet art residency with our foundation in Beirut, waited for us, and two hours late, we rushed off to our first meeting – at 8.30pm on a Friday evening. Anything seemed to go in Tunis, it appeared. This kind of set the tone for the week, actually…

An exciting place to be, just over a year after the revolution. In many ways it reminded me of South Africa. Something uncertain and crisp in the air, people are searching, exploring, reclaiming, pushing the boundaries. And of course, they are worried. Because nobody knows where the country is headed… The Salafists have a radically different view of Tunisia’s present, past and future as the modernists have. Everywhere, publications, often hagiograpies of Bourguiba, the Father of the modern Tunisian state.

Doc à Tunis, the Tunisian documentary festival opened with a film on some remarkable women activists, which in some ways made me think of the role South Africa’s women played in the struggle.

I spent my last night at Plug In an underground bar, above the Mediterranean, where I’d gone swimming early in the morning, 10min from our house in La Marsa. My friend Henda, a feisty journalist, knew everyone there, including a guy who had been in the inner circle of those students and activists who started the revolution. At the back end of an old big building, a friendly blend of hipsters, revolutionaries, dreamers and travellers were seizing a space to express themselves, to have fun.

Sitting on the roof top of the Intercontinental up above Avenue Bourguiba with a group of Tunisians, someone tries to shoo away a swarm of insects, hovering above our tables. And suddenly, one of them says: dégage, dégage! Everybody starts laughing. (dégage means move over/piss off in french and was one of the slogans chanted by the crowds in the streets to oust former dictator Ben Ali.)

Down below, Tunis’ equivalent of Cairo’s Tahrir Square has been renamed Place du 14 Janvier 2011. But there are still tanks in Ave. Habib Bourguiba and barbed wire and nobody quite knows why…

On International Day against Imperialism, a drama teacher organises a public intervention near the tanks, on the steps of the Municipal Theatre. Hundreds of people watch and cheer. Street performances are rare and a very new thing in Tunis. In the meantime, to bring some magic to places where arts and culture are hard to find, he has taken it south, to the desert city of Tataouine. Graffiti art often makes reference to the Che, but also the great Palestinian cartoonist Naji al-Ali who created Handhala, his most famous cartoon character and  German playwright Bertold Brecht. I’m thinking of revisiting Mother Courage and her Children.

The martyrs who have suffered serious injuries have not been able to access any support to take care of their medical needs nor cover their bills. Some were flown to other countries, where solidarity networks kicked in. The families of those who died have been left destitute. The commission of enquiry, proved itself to be toothless…

While we were there, the Salafists used “occupy” tactics and camped outside the TV station. Human rights and civic organisations are trying their best in conducting workshops in civic and rights education. The Islamists are well organised though and have been for longer than some of the parties that now fight for a secular, modern democratic state.

Tunis is young – the streets and its cafés are filled with under 35 year-olds. Not surprisingly, they took to the streets to demand change.

Beyond the politics, Tunis and the bit of Tunisia I got to see are beautiful! The old city, the Medina, is a huge souk  – the biggest and most beautiful I’ve seen so far. The architecture is of immense beauty to me and having been drawn to Islamic architecture since I was a teenager, it was a special experience to study the proportions, wander through the streets, spot small, exquisitely crafted details. Generally, what I most liked about Tunis was the  quality of life: People, not cars rule this city. There are transport choices, including train, meter cabs (all yellow and with a meter, so we never ever had to haggle over fares), buses and the métro, which actually is the name for the tramway. The streets are wide and perfect for cycling, walking and traffic is mellow – no beep beep, no sweat crossing the street. The only bad drivers we encountered were Lebanese… (that’s a joke).

I ate more tuna in Tunisia than in the past 20 years. That’s not a joke. Almost everything I ordered or bit into, revealed itself to have tuna in it. Everywhere we went, we were offered small, neatly tied and adorned fresh bunches of jasmine flowers. Tea, black tea that is, is served in small glasses with pine nuts or almonds floating on top. Most delicious.

One evening, wandering around Sidi Bou Said, I was drawn to an open door. Inside the kitchen, I could see an old woman preparing dinner. I observed her quietly for a moment, then as she spotted me, I smiled and commented on her food, in French. She smiled back and gestured I approach and taste. I politely refused, while obviously wanting to see her kitchen from inside as much as taste what was in her pot, then relented and took the spoon she handed me. A tasty vegetable salad, with brinjal, tomatoes, zucchini, capers, and other ingredients.

Wanting to ride the train home, I bought a ticket from Tunis to La Marsa one night. We  had rented a house, 20km from the city centre, in what turned out to be a beautiful sea side resort. It even has a cinema, Zephyr, which was showing The Artist. So, back to the “guichet” where I bought my ticket. I merely asked for a single ticket to La Marsa, paid and walked to the platform. Once in the train, the controller arrived and on seeing my ticket told me, Madame, you’re in first class, this is a second class ticket. I jumped up, ready to change wagons but after apologising, the controller said it was ok, the train was about to leave, I should just stay. I did, hoping the next Tunisian caught with the wrong ticket on a French train will get the same treatment… but when the election results came in a few days later, I walked away in dismay at the score the right-wing candidate had achieved.

Looking back, I’m a tad amazed at all we managed to do and see in one week because we actually had meetings back to back, all day long, in Tunis and on our second day, in Nabeul, a sea side town – capital of Tunisian ceramics – 60km from the capital. We met a huge amount of puppeteers, drama teachers, drama school and theatre directors, students, human rights workers, producers, artists, and of course, some of the foreign agencies/centres that do give support to local arts initiatives. Everywhere we went, we were welcome with open arms. It was a beautiful week, where I gained a glimpse into a beautiful country with warm people. Needless to say, I look forward to spending a couple of weeks there later this year.

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About Tales from a Small Country

I'm a project coordinator and features writer with a passion for the seventh art, a keen interest in culture and mobility, as well as social and environmental subjects. Half French, half German by origin possibly explains why I am drawn to divided countries and diverse societies: I called Cape Town in South Africa home for over a decade before coming to Beirut in early 2012. Besides people watching and cats, I also love Tripoli, Lebanon's second city.
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