One of the reasons that activity around here has been lighter than usual is that I was on holiday last week and, quite frankly, had better things to do than following the antics of the children who dominate UK politics.
As the title suggests, I was in Tunisia. However rather than just lying on a beach and trying not to get sunburnt, I spent much of my time exploring some of what is left of Tunisia’s cultural heritage with three other Brits as well as observing the locals.
Rather than do a boring “what I did on my holiday” post, I thought I’d note down my observations (via either interaction or looking out of the windows of the minibus) as well as pass on some of the information provided by our local guide during the week in order to give a flavour of the place. In between making notes I also managed to find time to take some pictures. About 500 I think. Once I’ve sorted through them I’ll post the worthwhile ones.
Modern Tunisia is a country that is a mix of Arab, Muslim and French (being a former French protectorate) and the influences of all three are very visible.
Weather wise, the daytime temperatures generally reached a balmy 15C or so (a bit warmer down Sahara way) but chilly out of the sun as well as in the morning and evening. A dry heat though, not humid.
I suppose that the first thing to note is that something like 97% of the inhabitants are Muslims and this invariably shapes modern Tunisia much like Christianity has done so in Europe and Judaism in Israel. Yes this means plenty of mosques, almost no booze and certainly no sighting of pork products but for all of that it is not an overtly Muslim country as, say, Saudi Arabia or Iran appear to be.
One of the noticeable ways in which this is apparent is through looking at the female population. For their first post-colonial president education was a priority and he made it compulsory for all children, regardless of gender, up to the age of 16. As a result of this and his commitment to equality women are well represented in politics, education, health and plenty of other fields.
They also dress, very often, especially amongst the younger generation (students, young professionals), in a very Western way. Sure, they are quite conservative in so far as very little skin is shown but jeans, trousers, fitted tops, knee high boots etc were very much the order of the day. However it could be that slightly more skin is shown outside of winter. A few of the older women still wear the haik but for the middle aged and the young by far the most common piece of Islamic wear, when worn, is the Hijab. I say when worn because I would estimate that no more then 50% of the younger generation wore it. That percentage varies depending on where you are – more in some of the rural areas and in the Holy City of Kairouan but less in Tunis and other cities.
As with all things though advertising is generally the first place where boundaries are pushed and I saw a number of billboards featuring women who were, by Western standards, modestly dressed but by local standards were certainly displaying a lot of skin such as bare legs below the knee, short sleeved tops or, in one, a vest top.
Given that it is a Muslim country, alcohol is generally not consumed by the natives – at least not in public anyway – and as such the only bars I spotted were in areas that cater to foreign tourists. Alcohol is though available in hotels and, somewhat ironically, the country is a wine producer and, having sampled it, isn’t too bad a one either.
Instead they tend to drink to coffee and if you thought the UK had a lot of coffee shops then I’m afraid you haven’t seen anything yet. The coffee shop – usually independents, the only chain I saw was Lavazza – is their equivalent of the pub and, as you can smoke in them, is not it seems an endangered species in the way that the pub might sometimes seem to be. They also like their coffee strong so if, like Leg-iron, you like to mainline your caffeine then I’m led to believe you will quite like it there. The men tend to spend a lot of time in the coffee shops, to the extent that I did sometimes wonder if the anyone in the entire male population actually had a job. They also didn’t seem to stir from them at prayer time either.
The official language of the country is Arabic but French is also widely used and taught in schools from a young age (English is introduced a bit later). In the main urban areas all the signs were in both Arabic and French although French was less common in the villages and in one or two of the places on the outskirts of the Sahara I saw the French equivalent on a signpost painted over. In some places in the north of the country the Andalusian influence, especially on architecture, is noticeable, reflecting the history of the Moors who settled there after they were expelled from Spain in the late 15th Century.
One area where the country reminded me of family holidays in the Canary Islands and Portugal 25 odd years ago was the sheer amount of construction, both in progress and apparently abandoned, going on. From new apartment blocks in places like Tunis and Sousse to partially built detached properties in more rural areas the country sometimes appeared to be one large building site. The roads are also a work in progress – quite literally in some places where two sections of tarmac were being connected whilst traffic flowed around the road builders.
Transportation is the that curious mix of old and new with each big settlement having its own airport. Vehicles are generally European brands with some Japanese and no American makes that I saw. There appears to be a countrywide train network if the tracks are to be believed but I can’t say I saw a train outside of Tunis. Plenty of buses to be seen – even some bendy ones. Motorbikes and bicycles area used by many. And at the end of the scale there is still the humble donkey hauling a cartload of produce. Indeed the motorway signs actually specifically mention them alongside things like tractors as methods of transport which are forbidden to use those fast roads.
Unlike the UK, Tunisia still has traffic cops – lots of them – and they aren’t hesitant in pulling vehicles over to check that the driver is insured, licensed, has paid the correct taxes etc. They even have the sleeping policeman but no speed cameras as yet.
They are, refreshingly, not huge on H&S or anti-smoking. Yes, hard hats and high visibility vests are present but courses like ladder safety awareness and how to use protective barriers to inconvenience everyone within a half mile radius aren’t. The motorcycle helmet was uncommon and seat beats did not appear to be compulsory. People of all ages crossed roads at every opportunity and liberal use of the horn by drivers was common.
In what will no doubt be music to Dick’s ears, there are no shortage of Tabac’s in the country and smoking/non-smoking appeared to be down to the property owner. Given this and the number of people smoking I can imagine that the likes of Deborah Arnott would have a heart attack if they ever set foot in the place.
In the north of the country Tunisia is actually quite a fertile place. They grow most of their own fruit and vegetables (although not the banana) and the olive tree is their equivalent of New Zealand’s sheep, with something like 10 trees for everyone in the country. Given that the population is somewhere around 11m, that is an awful lot of olive trees! Agricultural land can only be owned by Tunisians – a legacy it appears of the amount of effort it took it get it back from the French after independence. Foreigners are allowed to farm but must rent the land from a local.
In the south, in the desert regions, they farm the oases. These are not the two trees and a pool of water but rather several hundred to several thousand palm trees, the females of which are cultivated for the dates. Dead palm fronds are used to keep the sand out and the wood from dead trees is used in furniture and sometimes construction.
The local currency is the Dinar, which holds up quite well against Sterling (about 2.2 to the £) and the Dollar (about 1.4 to the $) although the cost of things is relatively cheap in comparison. Wages are quite low – especially in the service industry – and tipping is expected, especially at tourist sites. Some of the tourists spots have lots of people, many of whom are children, trying to sell you tat. So much so that I did wonder to myself what the Arabic for ‘piss off’ was after the umpteenth time of being asked whether I’d want something. Also, try to carry plenty of loose coinage as we seemed to get through it very quickly and always remember to check your change.
Sousse can be described in two words: tourist trap. Driving and walking though the place I wanted the earth to open up and swallow me. A place to be avoided if your idea of a holiday isn’t going to a foreign country and doing there exactly what you’d do at home.
Tunis airport takes the inane security levels usually found at airports to seemingly new heights. Before we could even get into the terminal building itself on departure all bags had to be scanned. With only one scanner in operation this meant a bottleneck – perfect for any wannabe suicide bomber. Then, from the gate to the plane tickets were checked three times. Once by BA staff and twice by the cops. Not sure what the point of the second two was.
Politically the country is in an interesting place right now – hardly a surprise given that they had a (relatively) peaceful revolution within the last year which saw the overthrow their second president. They have a new government, Islamic, but it appears that their sole purpose is to write a new constitution, not to make wholesale changes. The discussions on this are quite open with the process being broadcast on national TV and there appears to be active engagement from the population in the matter. Quiet optimism appears to be the order of the day. We did suggest though that the best thing they could do was give their politicians as little power as possible.