I’d been surprised at how verdant Egypt had been, but it at least had the decency to look tropical, all palm trees and sugar cane. Despite being on the same latitude as Gibraltar, northern Tunisia looked more like France or perhaps southern Tuscany. Things got even weirder when I reached my destination, the mountains overlooking Algeria around the village of ‘Ain Draham. Here the profusion of pine and heather lent an almost Scottish feel to the highlands, one helped by the extreme changeability of the weather. I could go for a walk in glorious sunshine, sit out a hailstorm in a café, then walk home through sleet and snow.
The village itself had a slight alpine feel, no doubt because the French had built it initially as a hill-station to escape the heat. There were lots of beautiful old buildings with red, sloping roofs and contrasting green highlights. Sadly, as it’s cheaper to build a new house than maintain an old one, Ave. Habib Bourguiba was lined with old wrecks, and Arab sprawl was starting to fill the valleys below. Still, it hadn’t quite reached tipping point, and the view from my balcony whilst the sun was shining was spectacular.
It was beautiful roaming in the forests on the hills. A lot of them were filled with cork oaks. Their bark has been harvested since time immemorial for bottle stoppers, and rather than doing the tree any harm it actually causes it to take in three to five times as much CO2 as normal whilst it grows back. It also provides a great habitat for birds and animals, and provides a steady income for the locals that encourages them to treasure their woodlands. Every time you have a screwcap bottle of wine I hope you consider how you are basically destroying the Earth with your callow heartlessness. So. Evil.
I had a very interesting chat with a middle aged guy I forgot to catch the name of. He was sunning himself on a plastic lawn chair outside what I presume was his shop, on a road in the middle of nowhere. He had an easy smile, but one that showed that his front teeth had all been knocked out. Apparently he had been an air force officer, when Ben Ali had heard a rumour about a coup being plotted and sent them all to prison. He didn’t dwell on what he had experienced during his three years inside, but I would surmise it wasn’t a walk in the park. What really infuriated him though was what had happened when he got out. Every day he had to walk four miles to the nearest post office to register. That had been going on for 15 years when the revolution broke out and put a stop to it.
Apparently things like this were very common under Ben Ali. People were made to register sometimes up to three times a day at different locations. It made living a normal life, and holding down a job, very difficult, especially as they could be made to wait for a long time when they finally got there. I find it interesting, though, that this wasn’t a law, or an official policy. It was just generally agreed that something like it was a good idea, and it was up to individual officers’ initiative to work out what punishment was imposed. At the risk of Godwinning myself, I find it interesting that a similar thing went on under the Nazis. Hitler, apparently, had no real policies himself. It was up to his ministers and bureaucrats to come up with policies they thought would please the great leader, with each upping the ante in terms of extremism in an effort to get noticed.
I wonder if this vacuum at the heart of politics is something distinctive of a certain type of totalitarianism. It certainly brings home to me the smallness of most dictators. I think I had a default unthought that dictators were probably to some degree ubermensch – evil sure, but to some degree they must be great thinkers or powerful personalities. I guess the whole cult of personality builds towards that. For me, one of the most obscene revelations of the Syrian revolution is that Assad loves I’m Sexy and I Know It. The idea of such a half-man listening to this song whilst unwinding from a hard day ordering massacres makes me so angry. It also makes me realise that most dictators are probably just the front guys for a whole raft of interests, and those interests remain when the dictator is disposed. The worry is that when the dictator goes, those really in power remain, and after a period of destabilising democracy, they start to reassert themselves. Certainly that doesn’t seem a thousand miles from what we’ve seen from the Arab Spring thus far.
I asked my Air Force friend what he thought of the revolution. His face lit up. “How long have you been in this country?” I told him two weeks. “During this time, has anyone asked for your papers? Has anyone told you where you can or cannot go? For this, the revolution was wonderful. Everything else will come.”
Market day in ‘Ain Draham was interesting, as the folks from surrounding villages came in and the cafés filled up. The number of headscarves went up, and some old women had the Berber tattoos on their cheeks and chin, but everyone was still very friendly and chatty. One woman stopped me to ask about the snow in England and how bad it was. To be fair, as Premiership football was being broadcast everywhere it probably wasn’t that surprising.
Tunisia is completely sport mad, with gaps in football being devoted to handball. Apparently Ben Ali tried to promote sport to distract people from politics. Certainly there are an inordinate amount of large sporting academies everywhere you look, and Tunisia punches above its weight internationally. Sometimes I wish I cared even a tiny bit about football, as it would give me an in with about a third of the planet.
However, the cold was starting to get to me. The cold weather at home had translated itself into rain and sleet by the time it made its way down here, and going walking was becoming less pleasant. I resolved to head south and start getting warm.