I think part of the reason it looked so decent was the light out here. It really is amazing. I’m not sure if it has to do with the latitude or some optimum level of dust to moisture, but it was particularly clear and made everything look wonderful. If I didn’t hate the word, I’d describe it as limpid. It also led to a remarkable range of clouds, painted in far more than fifty shades of grey, with detours through blue and purple, and highlights of white, pink and orange. I didn’t pay enough attention in Geography class to describe the moosemash of different types of clouds, or why they arose, but they were astounding. I can just see the next advertising campaign – come to Tunisia and see our clouds!
Yet even though I was always able to fill my days with walks round the medina, I’d overstayed my welcome. For all its cosmopolitanism, it was also fairly provincial. First I’d had a week of waiting for the anniversary of the revolution, and then I had been trying to get my phone to work, but had to get it unlocked first. This is a relatively unknown task in Tunisia. The first guy managed to wipe everything off my phone, whilst playing Gangnam Style to me on repeat. Over. And Over. Again. Thanks to this Awesome Guy I’ll also need your numbers when I get back. THANKS GUY!
I finally headed out and up to the old French enclave of Bizerte. The bus was filthy and so was the weather. The much admired clouds had finally decided to spite me and rain, and between that and the thick black streaks covering the windows I couldn’t see much of what was going on. It appeared to be a bucolic scene of shepherds pushing massive flocks of sheep across gently rolling green hills.
He did, however, love the view from the drawbridge that led into town. Instead of opening in the middle like Tower Bridge, it pivoted on one end. Despite this seeming fairly crazy and inefficient, it was pretty fun, as it was already very high up, and when it poked straight up it looked ridiculous. Hamdi told me people jumped off it in the summer, and I couldn’t tell from his inscrutable demeanour whether he was describing suicide attempts or not. Mind you, as he was about six and a half foot the world must have seemed that much more puny to him, and the leap much the less fearful.
After we parted, I found that the hotel I was planning on staying in was closed, and wandered down Avenue Habib Bourguiba (away from Boulevard Habib Bourguiba) wondering what to do. It was then I saw a hotel that wasn’t listed just up the street and decided to give it a go. Oh fateful day! The Hotel Oasis was a good advert for getting professional builders to do your building work for you. My bathroom was where the window should have been, leaving a sliver of light by its side and a bathroom sized space in the opposite corner. Downlighters had been installed, as every style magazine would recommend, but they were just about powerful enough to light a corner of my bed, like someone was shining a puny torch on it. More worryingly, the lift doors were held closed by wooden blocks. You had to take the lift, lurching its way irregularly up the five totally structurally sound floors, because they hadn’t actually finished the stairs. There was just an uneven ramp and lots of signs warning you to turn back.
Still, it had hot water, was cheap, and the owner was very friendly. He gave me a free ‘coffee’, or rather, he microwaved some water and stirred something black in it. Next doors wifi was very fast and didn’t have a password. The owner had an English wife who was very glad to talk to me. She had a nervous disposition and rarely met my eyes. Every time she made a joke she immediately explained it, even if I had laughed.
She told me that Bizerte was now effectively dry, as a boy had been killed by some drunk drivers, and some vigilantes had taken vengeance by burning down the restaurant that had served them. Also, another person who had been selling alcohol had had their throat cut. Actually, she wasn’t sure about that one, but probably. I mentioned that I noticed all the supermarkets had stopped selling alcohol, and she explained that it was just the supermarkets you could walk to. If it was an out of town supermarket then you could still buy it from there. She explained how people had looted the local Monoprix after the revolution. I asked if that was because of them selling alcohol. Kind of, yes, but then it could also just be because Monoprix was owned by family members of Ben Ali, so the people felt the stuff belonged to them anyway.
She was nervous about creeping Islamification of the country, and complained that very time she went to the market she saw more people with beards. Still, she felt that Tunisia was probably the best country to be in the Arab world, and Bizerte probably the best place out of that. It had been French for another seven years after the country had gained independence, and there were definitely more French noses and paler skins to be seen on the streets. She also complained about the difficulty for her husband’s family of getting visas for studying in Britain. When I explained that it was to do with the Conservatives trying to keep a manifesto promise to bring down immigration by tightening up the only things they had power over, without missing a beat she went into the perils of immigration and how Britain couldn’t possibly cope.
Although consistency may not have been her strong suit, she was a genuinely lovely person. The next day she brought in the weekly paper she got. She hated watching the news because it was all about politics, which bored her, but she read the paper every week, “mostly just to see who had been killed.” That might seem like a somewhat unusual statement, but Arabic papers are famous for their lurid crime pages. Now, a cynic might think this has something to do with a fearful population being more malleable, and more appreciative of a strong police force, but there is a grim fascination to them. They’re told as morality tales, such as the one that featured on the front page of the copy she brought me. It was about a woman who had stabbed the hairdresser she worked for when he wouldn’t give her an advance. Despite being in fairly simple French, there was something about the way it was told that I couldn’t quite get at first. It was only after reading it a couple of times that I worked out what was going on. I at first took it as incidental that she was living with her boyfriend, but I realised that this was given as the whole reason why a woman was capable of such a violent act. Once on the slippery slope of living in sin, stabbery could only but follow.
The view from my sliver of window was over an upturned applecart of a city, the typical tumescences sprouting from the messy undergrowth of the unplanned Arab quarter, showing that whatever planning regulations might have been in place pre-revolution were definitely off the books now. The Ville Nouvelle had some decent buildings, laid out in the shape of a Union Jack. Everything was soggy in the persistent drizzle, and didn’t look the better for it. The medina was just around the corner from my hotel, but unless they were building in concrete quite some time ago, it wasn’t that old. I made my way through its twisting streets down to the old port, soaked in misery and long term economic decline. On the whole, a more depressing protuberance could surely not be found anywhere on the earth.
It overlooked a new marina, the biggest on the Mediterranean. Or rather, it overlooked the idea of a new Marina – the developers had run out of money, leaving a wasteland surrounding a large number of berthings and no boats. What probably isn’t clear to you, is that it was planned to be this way.
Ben Ali’s regime, his much touted ‘economic miracle’, ran on bad debt. The international norm for loans that go bad, and never get paid back, is 2%. The official government statistics showed the rate as somewhere between 22-30%, and most analysts reckon it was closer to 40%. Banks didn’t lend money on the basis of the loans’ viability, but on political say so to allies of the regime. They were then allowed to pay themselves huge salaries whilst doing very little work towards their purported goal. When the money ran out and the project wasn’t finished, the bank wasn’t allowed to confiscate any of the debtors’ wealth. When the banks ran out of money and had to be recapitalised, the EU and the IMF stepped in.
It’s an interesting form of corruption, responsible for all the shoddily built and skeletal mega-hotels that fill Tunisia. Officially, no-one is committing a crime, and as GDP measures economic activity, not useful economic activity, it looks like the country is thriving. Meanwhile, apart from a few jobs in construction, seemingly done by the blind from the available evidence, very little wealth trickles down to the vast majority of the population
The medina also started to appeal to me. It was resolutely quotidian. There was nothing there aimed at tourists, but lots of blacksmiths and shops selling pots and pans. Not only was this an out of the way town, but it was an out of the way country. Again and again, Tunisia kicked something off, but then watched as all the excitement happened somewhere else. Their greatest home-grown dynasty, the Fatimids, promptly decamped and took Egypt, founding Cairo. The medina had been provincial from Phoenician times, it really didn’t have to impress. That didn’t stop the kasbah from having lovely little whitewashed streets that I’d have wandered for much longer if there had been more than about five of them.
Whilst the rain had stopped, the wind was persistent, if gusty. It could be nice in the sun, standing atop an old fort above the chaotic sprawl town, my only companion a dog tenderly licking itself. Yet at night I had to layer up as it did get a bit chilly. I was tempted to make a pun about the town being called Breezerte, but I’ve listened to enough of The Bugle to know that that way madness lies.
Still, when I heard the next day that the road would likely be out for the next eight days, I headed back to Tunis and found another way round. Sure, I find joy everywhere, but I have my limits.