Refuelling: The Food of Tunisia

Tunisia is a wonderful country to cycle around, but it’s an even better place to eat around. One of the beauties of long-distance cycle touring is the capacity to eat like a goat: grazing on anything and everything all the time. Hungry? You will be.

Lemons and garlic at Tunis market
Lemons and garlic at Tunis central market

Two unique and inescapable ingredients distinguish Tunisian cooking from the rest of the Mediterranean.

1. A nose-snorting chilli paste called Harissa:

Harissa by the tin. Serve with olive oil and bread. For breakfast.
Harissa by the tin. Serve with olive oil and bread. For breakfast.

2. Tinned tuna:

Tuna in tins. With tuna, of course.
Tuna in tins. With tuna, of course.

There is no reason at all that I can think of for why the Tunisians love tinned tuna so much. It’s not like Tunisia is land-locked; there’s 1,148km of Mediterranean coastline to fish in. And it’s certainly not like the Tunisians don’t know how to cook a fish (which I suspect is the reason why the English buy tinned tuna). I can vouch for that.

Fish.
Fish.
Ex-fish.
Ex-fish.

But despite this oceanic bounty, the Tunisians will serve tinned tuna with every conceivable dish. If it can be served with, beside, on, in or under a dollop of tinned tuna, you can bet your last dinar that it will be.

I once asked for a green salad, expecting a plate of leaves. I got half a head of lettuce, a tin of tuna and an egg. In my country that’s called a salad Nicoise. I wasn’t complaining – I like tuna – but the menu in this restaurant also listed a salad Nicoise. What would THAT come with?

Tuna is so popular that it can take chefs by surprise when you ask for something without tuna. I ordered a ham sandwich in Tunis and the chef (on auto-pilot) smeared it with a layer of tuna, before sheepishly scraping it off again.

These two ingredients, tuna and harissa, are so ubiquitous that you can assume they are present in every dish, unless otherwise stated. Needless to say, Tunisia is not an easy place to eat if you are a vegetarian who doesn’t eat fish. Or if you have delicate bowels that can’t take a dash of hot sauce.

Talking of vegetarianism, there is actually one reason I can think of for Tunisia’s obsession with tinned tuna: it’s cheap meat. In Tunisia, if you can afford meat, you eat meat. Being a Muslim country, it’s usually chicken or lamb, occasionally beef, but you can also try your teeth on camel or (if not Muslim) wild boar.

Rotisserie chicken. Eaten in quarters, halves or wholes.
Rotisserie chicken. Eaten in quarters, halves or wholes.
Rotisserie chicken, in close up.
Rotisserie chicken, in close up.

The classic Tunisian meal is based around couscous. Couscous is semolina rolled with water and salt. It’s made at home and it takes a day to make 50-100kg, then about three weeks to dry in the sun (hence why it’s made in the summer). After that, it lasts for a year. In Tunisia, the couscous is small and fine; in Morocco they make bigger granules.

Couscous is prepared in a couscousiere, which is a two-tiered pot-steamer. In the bottom you cook your spicy meaty stew and in the top you put the couscous, together with carrots, onions, potatos, chick peas – or whatever you’ve got in the larder. The stew is made with lamb, merguez sausages, fish or camel and, as it bubbles away, its meaty steam cooks the couscous and vegetables and infuses them with flavour.

Merguez couscous.
Merguez couscous.
Camel couscous.
Camel couscous.

I can assure you that it is perfectly possible to get bored of steamed vegetables, but luckily couscous is not the only dish of the day in Tunisia. Ojja is almost like a curry, with garlic, peppers, onion and tomato, a bit like a Kashmiri rogan josh. It’s never served with rice, but is mopped up with a French-style baguette.

Ojja. Plenty of chillies. Like a curry, but without rice.
Ojja. Plenty of chillies. Like a curry, but without rice.

Another speciality of Tunisia is the tagine. You probably already know what a tagine is, so I’ll confuse you with a photograph:

Tunisian tagine: nothing like Moroccan tagine. More like a quiche. Super tasty.
Tunisian tagine: nothing like Moroccan tagine. More like a quiche. Super tasty.

Yes, this is a Tunisian tagine: absolutely nothing like the more famous Moroccan tagine. Thank goodness. This tagine is way nicer. It’s almost like a quiche, with lots of lightly whisked egg. Often served cold. Yum.

Finally, I give you the brik. It is nothing like the English brick. Thank goodness. Instead it is a sort of deep-fried Cornish pasty, filled with whatever the chefs got in. Usually tuna, of course, but sometimes an unexpected burst of boiling fat will sear your tongue. It’s often served as a starter and comes highly recommended – just don’t watch them prepare it if you’re trying to avoid oily fat.

Brik. With tuna (inside), of course.
Brik. With tuna (inside), of course.

Talking of deep frying, here are some more random deep-fried objects:

Assorted fried goods. With tomato and onion.
Assorted fried goods. With tomato and onion.

When Tunisians are not eating couscous, tuna or harissa, they are probably eating baked goods. These are usually a toothsome blend of French patisserie and Tunisian taste. This creates such delights as the Tunisian pizza:

Tunisian pizza! With tuna, of course.
Tunisian pizza! With tuna, of course.

The Tunisian pasty:

One Tunisian pasty for the road. With tuna, of course.
One Tunisian pasty for the road. With tuna, of course.

And the Tunisian deep-friend sandwich, known as a fricasse:

Fricasse. Super oily. With tuna, of course.
Fricasse. Super oily. With tuna, of course.

Galettes, a kind of pancake, are served up everywhere and stuffed with cheese, ham, egg, harissa, tomato, onion, chips, mechouia salad – and tuna, of course.

Preparing galettes on the side of the road. With tuna, of course.
Preparing galettes on the side of the road. With tuna, of course.

Luckily, there ARE limits to the Tunisian use of tuna in baking. You can get decent French baguettes, pain au chocolats and croissants and pretty much every region has its own speciality sweets, all without tuna.

One sweet I didn’t take a photograph of was the Corne de Gazelle of Tataouine, in the south of Tunisia. This is a baked hard cone of pastry (the horn of the gazelle), filled with nuts and seeds and then slathered in syrup. My teeth still hurt from the sugar-rush.

Sweets. Make sure you have sesame seeds, dates and loads of syrup.
Sweets. Make sure you have sesame seeds, dates and loads of syrup.

Biscuits are popular and come in a variety of shapes, like stars and moons and hearts. They probably shouldn’t be called biscuits, actually, because they are very soft – more like the cakey bits of Jaffa Cakes, which are famously NOT biscuits. Perhaps biscuits are taxed at a higher rate in Tunisia as well.

These “biscuits” do not, however, come in a variety of flavours. They are basically flour plus jam. The jam can nominally vary in flavour, but they all taste the same. I advise you to avoid anything purporting to be “chocolate” – it will only disappoint you. The “chocolate” is a brown substance finely sprayed onto the surface of the biscuit, so as to give the appearance of abundance, but it is nothing but appearance.

Lemony biscuits. Very floury and crumbly.
Lemony biscuits. Very floury and crumbly.

Beyond the colonial boulangerie influence, Tunisia has its own native baking tradition. Tunisian bread is flat and often flavoured with yummy things like cheese and olives. And tuna and harissa, obviously. In the country, it comes out of ovens like this one:

A bread oven at a farm.
A bread oven at a farm.

And it looks like this, all lovely and warm like a jumper just out of the tumble-dryer:

Bread! From a campfire at Ksar Ghilane oasis.
Bread! From a campfire at Ksar Ghilane oasis.

Or like this, topped with cheese and impregnated with harissa:

The best bread in the world: impregnated with harissa.
The best bread in the world: impregnated with harissa.

When you enter a Tunisian restaurant, a basket of some sort of bread will be dumped on your table, accompanied by a saucer of harissa. Eat it: it’s free. Quite often you’ll get a plate or two of salads as well. In fact, by the time the main course comes around, you won’t be hungry!

Tunisia does a good line in salads. Salad mechouia is a green splodge that tastes of burnt peppers. It can be very spicy, so dip before you add harissa yourself.

Salad mechouia - with tuna, of course.
Salad mechouia – with tuna, of course.

And, being a Mediterranean country, Tunisia is abundant with fresh vegetables, ripe for the salading.

Tunisian tomato salad. Like an English tomato salad, except this one tastes of actual tomatoes.
Tunisian tomato salad. Like an English tomato salad, except this one tastes of actual tomatoes.

But mostly you’ll get a chopped salad buried under tuna and egg:

A salad. With tuna, of course.
A salad. With tuna, of course.

A post on Tunisian cuisine would not be complete without mentioning drinks. Juices are blended at street stalls: lemon, orange, carrot… Whatever blends, gets drunk. Coffee is an Arab speciality, coming in tiny glasses and as black as your soul. The English word “coffee” comes from the Arabic, incidentally.

So does the word “sugar” and you’ll understand why if you ever take a tea with a Tunisian. Every meal is finished off with a glass of tea, with a twist of mint and an inch of sugar in the bottom.

Tea. Serve with an inch of sugar and a twist of mint.
Tea. Serve with an inch of sugar and a twist of mint.

Phew. I don’t know about you, but I’m stuffed. I know I’ve missed out all kinds of dishes (e.g. Kamounia, a spicy meaty little number), but just like my cycle tour it’s been only a brief taste of Tunisia.

Eating and cycling are made for each other. The one makes the other all the better and they find perfect harmony in Tunisia.

Tunis Martyrs’ Day Violence: Why and What Next?

Last Monday, I followed a protest in Tunis that was violently dispersed by police, using tear-gas and baton-beatings.

It is a delicate thing to comment on political protest in a country you have only been in for a month. But we all have eyes to see (except under tear-gas attack) and we all have brains to interpret for ourselves. My previous post demanded further explanation, so that is what I attempt here.

Since Monday, I have spoken to actual Tunisians, both in person and online, to find out more about the background to the protests and to ascertain how much support there is “on the street” for the protesters.

First, though, the official explanation for why the protest was broken up by the police. The government ruled a month ago that no protests were to be allowed on the main street in Tunis, Avenue Habib Bouguiba. The reason they gave for this ruling is that repeated protests and counter-protests (including one by radical Salafists in which they attacked the national theatre) were damaging commercial activity on the street and interrupting the flow of traffic down one of Tunis’ main transport arteries.

It should also be added that protests are allowed in the rest of Tunis (so far as I have been told) – and, indeed, our little march was politely escorted by police through the city to the union building, where it officially ended. That such a demonstration was permitted is certainly a step up from the days of Ben Ali.

So far, so reasonable.

Avenue Habib Bourguiba: nice, wide, pedestrian-protest-promenade…

(An obvious, although not necessarily relevant, counter-observation is that Habib Bourguiba is plenty wide enough to accommodate both traffic and protest. There is a vast promenade running down the centre, between the two vehicular lanes, that would be perfect for a leisurely march – were it not obstructed by barbed wire, soldiers and military vehicles…)

… Plus soldiers, tanks and a statue of Ibn Khaldoun.

That is the official line, but what did my proverbial man on his hypothetical street say?

To tell the truth, in all my conversations, interviews and casual chats, I am yet to meet a Tunisian who whole-heartedly backs the protesters (aside from the protesters themselves, naturally).

One man, when I asked him why the police attacked, said simply that the protests were forbidden. I pressed him further, asking him if it was political, but he waved an irritated hand at me and reiterated: it was forbidden. His closing of the topic reminded me of the political silence under Ben Ali. Not a good start to my information-gathering.

Others, thankfully, were happy to talk politics – and this freedom of speech is another genuine joy of post-revolutionary Tunisia.

One of my new Tunisian friends, a charismatic fruit-seller and fine art photographer, told me that he was sad to see photographs of the protests on my Facebook wall. He said they were ugly (I can’t disagree). But he also disapproved of the protesters. He told me that they were friends of Ben Ali and that they had started the fight by throwing rocks at the police – so of course the police attacked back.

I did see people throwing rocks at the police, but they were kids – teenagers – certainly nobody who would ever have been in the pay of Ben Ali. And nor did they start the fighting. The first rocks I saw thrown were a good half hour after the protesters had been set upon with batons and tear-gas.

Others said that these protesters have no idea what freedom is, that they are drunk on the power of revolution, that stability and patience is needed now, not more chaos. Every time there is a protest, they say, it is followed by a counter-protest and then a counter-counter-protest and on and on and on.

Another very wisely pointed out that these protesters are giving the government just excuses not to change anything, not to make things more liberal, not to give the people more democracy. In other words: their confrontational stance is counter-productive. He told me too that there have now been demonstrations in support of the right to demonstrate on Habib Bourguiba – “A demonstration for the right to demonstrate! Pff!” His frustration was palpable – and understandable, given the many economic challenges facing Tunisian society. Not least of which is the fact that, since the revolution, foreign tourists are going elsewhere, draining away the 7% of Tunisian GDP that tourism contributes.

Man on street, day after. Banner (approximately) reads: “Tunisia martyrs, commemorated in the Lord.” Excuse Arabic!

On reflection, it makes sense that the average man on the street would disapprove of the protesters. I have written before about Tunisia’s relative social stability, compared to neighbours Algeria and Libya and their relative prosperity in comparison to Egypt and most of the rest of Africa. These combine to give Tunisians a sense that they have much to lose by disrupting life further. My school-teacher friend told me that they have enough freedom for the moment. There are more important things than petty matters like more rights for actors: jobs, for example.

On top of that fear of loss, nearly 40% of Tunisians voted for the leading party Ennahda in the elections. It’s natural that they would largely support the government over anti-government protesters. Then there are the people who are simply tired of the conflict, tired of the constant protests and counter-protests, tired of the disruptive strikes, tired of abnormality. Together these groups must make up over half of the population, so it’s not unexpected that the average man on the street disapproves the protests.

Perhaps, then, the protesters should not have our sympathy. Perhaps their message is not shared by most of Tunisian society. Perhaps, even, the police were justified in using force to disperse the illegal demonstration – particularly as protests in London frequently face similar obstructions from both government and police (note: I have never been tear-gassed in London).

But against this conclusion, I would put that the protesters I marched alongside were a diverse group. They were not all angry young men. That was the reason I joined them in the first place, when they were just fifty or so people happily chanting and marching near the central market on Monday morning. They were young and old, women, men and children. I was particularly taken by a group from the Organisation for Women and Progress: I recognised myself in them and they won my sympathy.

I set against this conclusion also that I SAW plainsclothes thugs climb out of a van and start chasing and beating civilian protesters with cudgels of wood. Ennahda strenuously denies that they had anything to do with these cavemen, but nevertheless it happened. So no matter what the man on the street says, no matter whether the protesters should or shouldn’t be on Habib Bourguiba, no matter whether their protest is justified or not, even: the running battles that took place down side-streets, far from Habib Bourguiba – so reminiscent of the actions of Ben Ali – prove to me that there is something in the protesters’ grievance.

A bad photo I took, forgive me. But those plainclothes men in that white A-Team van are about to produce white painted wooden cudgels, with which they are about beat any protester they catch. Note the police are blithely ignoring them, letting them get on with scaring the heck out of me.

Rumours abound concerning the violence. I have been told that some of the trouble-makers on Monday were ex-government (Ben Ali’s government, that is) and some were from the Ennahda party. There are rumours too that there was an explosion at the Hotel Africa on Habib Bouguiba. Almost certainly we will never fully understand the sequence of events that ended in violence on Monday.

What we do know is that, since the broken protest in Tunis, there has been a wave of sympathetic protests in Kebilya, in Sousse, in Sidi Bouzid and in other towns across the country. What it will lead to, we shall discover in due course.

###

The above is all I learnt about the protests, talking to friends in Tunis and online. Now I shall give my impression of why the protest was attacked and dispersed using violent means.

My impression was that the protesters went one step too far. They had rolled over three police lines already, each progressively more aggressive – the first linking arms, the second with riot shields, the third unfortunately had tear-gas. The crowd was so large (thousands, according to some counts) and so optimistic that it could have carried on rolling through those lines all day, if the police hadn’t used their weapons.

If the protest had been small – perhaps restricted to the fifty people I joined near the market – and if they had behaved in an acquiescent manner, instead of insisting on marching, then perhaps the police would have allowed us to remain in a kettle at the edge of Habib Bouguiba. Perhaps we could have stood on the steps of the cathedral, a noisy – but static and merely symbolic – protest.

This kind of protest is allowed. Outside the union, not on Habib Bourguiba.

But the protesters pushed too far. The police couldn’t keep rolling back and retreating – they had to counterstrike. And once the first shot had been fired, that was it. The tragic but inevitable outcome was running battles in the streets.

(A side note: I don’t think you can ignore the part played by pride in the actions of both the police and the protesters. It reminded me of the Orwell story Shooting an Elephant. The police couldn’t accept defeat, for pride in their position. The protesters, once committed, couldn’t back down either.)

But supposing the police had let us march to the Ministry of Interior – what would have happened then? Perhaps nothing. Perhaps the crowd would have gathered there awhile, chanting, singing, making speeches. Then perhaps they would have dispersed of their own accord, their protest heard, their point made, the martyrs remembered.

But the police couldn’t let that happen. They couldn’t allow themselves to be defeated, even for the sake of injured civilians and widespread panic.

I am not naive, however. There is a strong chance that the protesters wouldn’t have stopped peacefully at the Ministry of Interior. There is every chance that the protest would have escalated and swelled beyond control.

But perhaps therein lies the real reason why the protest was broken up with such force. Perhaps the government and the police fear a second revolution to follow the first, as happened in Russia and in France. This second revolution, of course, would not be patient with the current hierarchy.

I cannot say I support a second revolution or not: it is none of my business. But I believe one thing is certain: the actions of the police on Monday – and let’s not forget the government, who provoked the violence by making the march illegal – have made a second uprising only more likely.

Repression does not breed acquiescence in the Tunisian people – you would have thought 2011 had shown that eloquently enough.

Sidi Bouzid’s memorial to the 2011 Tunisian Revolution. Or the first Tunisian revolution?

Tunis: Police Attack Peaceful Martyrs March

I was walking around the central market in Tunis this morning, when I passed by a peaceful march. They carried banners proclaiming: “Never forget why they died – Freedom and Dignity”. The marchers were young and old, women, men and children, wearing smiles with their flags. So, being in full support of marches in general and this sort of march in particular, I joined them.

We marched on past the central market and across Habib Bourguiba – the main street in central Tunis. There, the police carefully chaperoned us across the road and to the headquarters of one of the unions, where we stopped.

A quiet gathering outside a union building in Tunis.

That, I thought, was that. The chanting stuttered and ceased. Some people left the crowd, which was only ever about 50-60 people, others stood around amiably, chatting and smoking, leaning on their signs, wrapped in their banners.

I asked one of the men what this was all about. He explained that today was Martyrs’ Day in Tunisia and that these people were unhappy with progress after the revolution. That seemed fair enough and I was about to leave when a journalist tapped me on the shoulder. He added that the group intended to march down Habib Bourguiba street, but that protests there had recently been banned. This sounded more interesting.

Still, though, the protest didn’t look like much. There were no angry young men – from their dress, I reckoned it was just a small group of liberal middle-class Tunisians. Then, without a signal, we started from the union building to Habib Bourguiba, in defiance of the police presence and the banning order.

But our fifteen minute pause at the union building seemed to be a tactic because, when we got back to Habib Bourguiba, the police didn’t seem to be expecting us. No one stopped us until we got to the cathedral, where a hasty line of police barred our way. Our small, timid group was kettled and, as always in Tunisia, a crowd gathered to watch the events. I slipped outside the kettle, to look on with them.

The kettled protesters. Outside the cathedral in central Tunis.

The crowd around me grew and grew, curious Tunisians come to watch the action. Or so I thought. Then, suddenly, as if a sprint-race starter’s pistol had sounded, a great chanting rose up from the crowd of bystanders. They turned as one and started to march towards the clock tower that marks the centre of Tunis. These were no bystanders – this was the march! I cackled with glee when I realised that our small, timid group of kettled friends were merely a decoy for the police.

Chanting, whistles, cheers. And police brutality. On Habib Bourguiba, Tunis.

And with whistles and chants and defiance, we marched on and on. The protesters broke through three lines of police, the first barred our way with linked arms, the second with riot shields and the third with batons and tear-gas canisters. Or at least, we broke through until the tear gas was fired and the batons were beaten. Then we ran.

Men, women and children burst out around me, staggering under the clouds of gas, stampeding at the cracking of the batons on helmets and the canisters’ explosions. Down the street and around the corner, people hacked up poisoned phlegm into the gutters and damped their eyes with handkerchiefs. The shops and restuarants hurriedly pulled down their shutters, dragging customers and bystanders inside for shelter.

We could hear the shouts from the police, hear more gas canisters fired, hear more baton cracks. I saw a mini-van of plain-clothed thugs arrive with white cudgels to beat and maim, to disperse the crowds with fear. Police, all in black, wore balaclavas – to protect themselves from their own tear-gas, or to hide their identities?

Aftermath: Protesters, press, police.

Gradually, Habib Bourguiba cleared of protesters. All that was left were shopkeepers peering out behind shutters, dazed, angry civilians and bewildered tourists. The occassional running police, the occassional beating. But the real action had shifted to the side streets, where kids were throwing stones at police, getting tear-gas in return. The kids then flee, chased by the cops, hopelessly.

Kids throwing stones. Police throwing tear gas canisters. Place Barcelone, Tunis.

But what is the meaning of all this meaningless violence? What does this demonstration of freedom mean for the protesters? What does this demonstration of force mean for the police?

I spoke to one young Tunisian school-teacher who was frustrated with the protesters. He said that they had freedom now, but they didn’t know how to use it. He said that people were asking for rights that were not important – like people with jobs asking for better jobs, or people with salaries asking for bigger salaries – when there are people without jobs, without money, without homes or food. This young man said that Tunisia needed security and that the current government couldn’t provide it. He stopped short of saying that Ben Ali could, but it was implied. He looked forward to going to London, to get a job there.

But the marchers are not merely gluttons for freedom. That much was demonstrated by the very nature of the government’s response to them. Some of these people had walked for six days from the town of Sidi Bouzid to commemorate the dead of the 2011 revolution. Today was Martyrs’ Day and any free country would accept and commemorate with the marchers the tragic loss of life under the old, despotic regime.

But instead they were met by a banning order that made their march illegal, then found their way blocked by lines of police and finally were brutally attacked with tear-gas and batons.

So much has changed in Tunisia? The next day, I tried to find out why this violence happened and what’s next for Tunisia.

Cycling to the Sahara: Tunisia after the revolution

The louage driver slaps my hand and gives me a toothy smile. “Ahh, 2011!” he says, then gives me directions to the giant hand-cart.

I’m in Sidi Bouzid. It’s a town in central Tunisia. A working town, like any other. It reminds me of Sfax, only smaller and with zero tourists and zero tourist appeal.

Except for one rather odd monument.

A statue of a fruit and vegetable cart in Sidi Bouzid.

In 2010, a streetseller called Mohamed Bouazizi set himself on fire outside a government building in Sidi Bouzid. Whatever the truth of his grievance, it was enough to spark riots. These riots blossomed into revolution. And this revolution evolved, mutated and spread: most dramatically into Egypt, most violently into Libya and most notoriously in Syria, where civil war is still bleeding.

So this is the post you’ve all (probably) been waiting for: the revolution one. I’ve waited this long because I didn’t want to make any snap judgements and because I wanted to wait until I’d come to the place where it all began: Sidi Bouzid.

Mohamed Bouazizi: a proud portrait on a rather battered post office.

On the other hand, I could have waited forever to write this post because, frankly, there is no judgement I can make that won’t be so bereft of truth as to be called empty. I’m an outsider, I don’t know what Tunisia is really like after the revolution. I can only say what I see.

I did go to Tunisia while it was still under Ben Ali, in 2008, but that was also only for a month. You can’t get more than a vague sense of a place in a month. So I’m comparing vague sense with vague sense in this post. Furthermore, I have a real problem collecting evidence. The evidence of my own eyes is almost totally without context and the evidence given by others, by Tunisians or by expats, is hard to filter.

These caveats given, I shall proceed with my judgement: what is Tunisia like after the revolution?

Better placed than me to comment on post-revolution Tunisia: a curious tortoise.

Tunisia post-revolution is a democracy. Under Ben Ali, it was also a democracy. The only difference is that now more than one political party is allowed. Ha.

Democratic elections were held comparatively quickly after the revolution, in October 2011, and the current government is dominated by the moderate Islamist party, Ennahda. Ennahda recently announced that the first clause of the Tunisian constitution should remain as it is: in other words, they will not be introducing Sharia (Islamic religious) law. The constitution still demands, however, that the president be a Muslim (a feature shared by 98% of the population).

That there was some doubt as to the future of Sharia law in Tunisia is something I have encountered on my trip. In Sousse, I ran into a Salafist rally held on the walls of the old medina. It was startling to see the infamous black and white flags of hardline Islamism flying over the moderate Tunisian skyline. And the locals seemed about as taken aback as I was, with many of them taking photos or film, like tourists.

Salafi flags over the medina in Sousse.

These rallies have been held all over the country, including one of 10,000 in Tunis. But even so, I met a chap who told me that of the 10 million people in the country, perhaps as many as 9.5 million opposed the Salafis. At the rally in Sousse, there were about 200 people and about fifty of them were shouting themselves hoarse in support of the speakers. The women were segregated, although not especially effectively – I saw a slightly bewildered fat white man in a baseball cap emerge from the tightly packed women in full Islamic dress. The rally was bossed by heavyset men in smart cropped beards, many wearing khaki military waistcoats and jackboots. It’s the kind of dress code I recognise from BNP rallies in the UK.

So the question of Sharia law has been answered for the moment, but for how long? The young man I spoke to in Sousse was utterly disbelieving that such a thing could ever happen in Tunisia. But the truth is that Islamist parties now have a legal platform on which to stand in Tunisia. Under Ben Ali, they were effectively silenced. It remains to be seen whether, allowed the freedom to campaign, they will be rejected or whether their calls for religious law will be heard sympathetically, as an effective alternative to Western political and economic domination.

“Stay standing, people of Tunisia – everyone is proud of you.”

Two anecdotal changes post-revolution are a reduction in litter collections (litter was already a huge problem in 2008, this makes things worse) and an increase in petty thieving – the ‘catastrophes’ my motocycle chaperone talked about. I myself have noticed two further changes regarding freedom of information: the newspapers are no longer filled with Ben Ali’s fat face and the internet browser I’m currently using has hardcore porn saved as a bookmark.

One post-revolution change that I can certainly attest to is the massive drop in tourist numbers in Tunisia. I’ve met about a dozen other tourists, hotels have been almost totally empty and, if it wasn’t for the fact that I was here during Tunisian spring holidays, I’d have felt very alone at times.

There are hopes that this summer will see an increase of tourists compared to last year – but last year was a disaster. Tourism accounts for 7% of the Tunisian economy and in 2011 tourist numbers were down over 30%. That means 3,000 jobs lost. That means more people like Ali and Walid taking to hard drink.

In Sidi Bouzid, there are still streetsellers peddling their carts, there are still beggers outside the mosque, the cafes and streetsides are still packed with young men smoking and old men slapping down cards or dominoes, under- or un-employed. Mohamed Bouazizi’s market still runs, selling post-revolutionary fruit – appetites ignore politics. And of course there’s still the governor, the police and the Garde Nationale, but they’re on our side now, aren’t they?

The infamous government building. The blue banner reads: ’17th December Tunisian revolution of freedom and dignity.’

Turning to more optimistic matters, I think there is an essay to be written about graffiti and freedom. There probably already has been. People graffiti when they are no longer scared and there is definitely more graffiti in Tunisia, post-revolution. Most of it is basic paintwork slogans, like ‘EST’ – a reference to Esperance Sportive de Tunis, one of the big football clubs here. But I have seen more political slogans, most memorably ‘Fuck the police’ (not, I presume, solely a reference to NWA) and ‘Ben Ali a l’enfer’ – ‘Ben Ali go to hell’.

Around the revolutionary monument in Sidi Bouzid, there is more peaceful, commemorative graffiti. It has been left untouched, despite decorating the walls of the local police station and the notorious government building outside which Mohamed Bouazizi set himself alight.

Revolution, liberty, blah, blah, blah.

It should be said in conclusion, to echo my comments at the start of this post, that no conclusion, no judgement is final. Tunisia is still in the delicate phases of post-revolution. One point of note, though, is that these phases have been calmer than those in Libya or even in Egypt. Perhaps this is a sign that Tunisia has more to lose than these other countries. Perhaps it is a sign that, despite the oppressions of Ben Ali’s government, in general things were not so bad.

For a country situated between Algeria and Libya on the continent of Africa, Tunisia is well-developed, well-educated and the people here have it better than many. Tunisia has a literacy rate of 88.9%, compared to Egypt’s 66.4%. Tunisian GDP per capita is $4,200, while in Egypt it is only $2,700. Tunisia might not have the raw wealth of oil-rich Libya, but it does have a society worth preserving, seen in the friendly smiles of the people I pass on my bicycle.

The very least that can be said of the revolution is that power is no longer coalesced in one man, as it was in Ben Ali and in Habib Bourguiba before him. A servant to his country until the very end, Ben Ali fled the revolution for Saudi Arabia, charged with corruption, theft, money laundering and drug trafficking.

No doubt Tunisia is better off without him. But only a couple of days after my trip to Sidi Bouzid, I came face to face with the reality of protest in post-revolution Tunisia.

Cycling to the Sahara: Cemetaries of Civilisation

A grave is sacrosanct. A graveyard, hundreds of individual lives marked by their death, even more so. But most sacred of all are the ruins of an ancient city. These ruins are also a graveyard, not of individual lives, but of an entire civilisation.

The cemetary of a civilisation. Sbeitla, Tunisia.

Graves and graveyards are for remembering. They’re not just convenient places to put dead bodies, away from the living. A gravestone remembers a life after the body is decayed. For the survivors, it is a reminder of the person who lived.

But after a couple of generations that gravestone no longer reminds anyone of the person who lived, but instead inspires an awe of brevity, how important each moment is and how irrelevant. It teaches us that there is something beyond ourselves, a future in which we are long forgotten. That is the power of just one gravestone.

An entire ruined city leaves behind a cemetary of civilisation. It reminds us that, not only will our individual lives decay and be forgotten, but our entire way of living will also decay and be forgotten.

In hundreds or thousands of years archaeologists and historians will pick over the bones and stones of our ruins. And it will take hours of scholarly argument for these archaeologists and historians to decide something so simple to us as how the twenty-first century toilet evacuated its waste. To us, it’s almost natural to press down on a lever after we’ve taken a shit. But imagine the future philologist’s delight when he discovers that the contemporary technical word was “flush“.

So imagine the civilisation that’s vanished here. Look at these Roman baths, look at the plumbing under the floor. Can you imagine how it worked?

Roman baths, showing the underfloor heating. Or so we’re told.

Or can you recreate this Roman olive press? Would you even know it was a olive press if I hadn’t told you (and if I hadn’t been told)?

A what? Looks like a bird bath to me.

Can you imagine what the forum was like? Not that it was a market place, where people traded goods, but how people behaved here. What did Romans talk about? The three temples that stand at the head – what went on there? Were people allowed to sit on the steps to watch the hubbub below? Did children play hide and seek among the columns? Or was Roman discipline so tight that they wouldn’t dare?

The Forum. Home to a market and a civilisation.

Once you start interrogating the stones like this, it’s endless. Were the roads smooth, or unevenly paved like today? Did they have problems with litter? Did the citizens greet each other in the street, like in modern Tunisia, or walk on by, heads held down like in London? Who was the best tailor in the city? The best butcher, baker, candlestickmaker?

Where were the rough ends of town, where the footpads and cutpurses roamed? Did old men sit outside their doors and fall asleep in the sun? Were there rats? Or, intriguingly: did they build a museum to an even older civilisation?

These things would have been known and understood from birth by everyone who lived in this city. But we have no idea, no clue whatsoever, we can only guess. Not only their houses and baths are destroyed, but their customs, their habits, their fashions are also gone, completely eviscerated, just as ours will be soon.

And this is why we keep ruins in their cemetaries, why we tend the stones and the paths, why we walk slow, to contemplate our long past and brief future.

Three arches we look through. Past, present and future.