Sans Harissa! A Chinaman in Tunisia

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I spent my summer in Tunisia working as an intern for iiDebate, a local NGO based in the capital city of Tunis. My interest in the country first started in 2015, my first year of university in London, when I read an article about the Nobel Prize-winning National Dialogue Quartet. I also met a close Tunisian friend at university who steadily built up my fascination with the country: a brilliant case study for a Political Science student like me. But I won’t be discussing Tunisian politics here. The topic is too interesting and complicated. It deserves its own piece. Rather, what I want to do here is report on my experience of the country: the culture, places, people and – of course – the food.

In-between existence

On a world map, Tunisia is pretty much at the centre of the world. Perched on the northernmost tip of Africa, the small country of 11.4 million people faces the southern shores of the Mediterranean, just a few hundred miles away from the picturesque island of Sicilia.

Looking northwards, it meets Europe, the vieux continent. Behind it, the great plains of the Sahara. Gazing east, the Arab world. Turning west, the Berbers and the Maghreb.  Situated in the midst of all these great powers – great civilisations even – Tunisian culture reflects this fact of the country’s in-between existence.

Tunisian Arabic is the dominant language which everyone speaks, a unique Arabic dialect unintelligible even to some Arabic speakers from other countries. Words and sounds influenced by Berber, Latin, French and even Spanish origins are alternated alongside traditional Arabic words to form a special dialect that is only spoken, not written.

Most Tunisians speak several languages, primarily due to having a French colonial history. Therefore, many Tunisians switch quickly between French and Arabic in conversations (and even English for young people), which makes listening to these conversations a somewhat surreal experience. The sounds being emitted can be, at once, both familiar and alien for an English-speaker like me in their cadences and pitch.

Tunisia’s cuisine has the same eclectic quality. Typical of any Arab country, meat and bread are staples, whilst the Mediterranean influence can be found in the common consumption of olive oil and seafood. Meanwhile, the country’s proximity to Europe means that Italian-style cafes serve up spaghetti and penne to office workers daily, typically with fries or salad.

The French culinary imprint can be found in the Kafteji sandwich, served in baguettes, probably the most popular food amongst the working class. Then there’s the African influence, or more specifically the Maghreb. Tunisia’s national dish is couscous (far better than the couscous I used to have in school) which is also a staple of Algerian, Moroccan and Libyan cuisine.

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Couscous with rabbit meat

But where Tunisia stands out from the region in terms of culinary tradition is its uniquely spicy palette. And when I say spicy, I mean very spicy. Whether it be Tunisian couscous or the local dish ojja (a special stew containing merguez, chilies, eggs and tomatoes), spicy is the only flavour Tunisians know. Whereas other North African countries tend to prefer their food cool and a source of relief from the sun, particularly in the summer months, Tunisians seem to prefer everything they eat – and I mean everything – to equal the African heat, whatever the season.

At the centre of Tunisians’ love for spice is harissa, the legendary Tunisian chili paste. It is served as a condiment with anything and found as an ingredient in everything, and though I was determined to eat like the locals, I soon found myself uttering two words every time I was ordering food: Sans Harissa! Without Harissa please! Harissa is seriously hot and, unfortunately, too hot for me (I can already see the heads of my Tunisian friends shaking in disapproval as I write this).

During my two months in Tunisia, I got the chance to sample much of Tunisian cuisine including a lot of the food mentioned above. But what I ate the most, by far, were the many kinds of sandwiches Tunisia has to offer. Sandwiches like malfouf, keftaji, mlewi and – my absolute favourite – makloub, a folded sandwich made from pizza dough filled with meat, cheese and salad. I also enjoyed some truly Tunisian street food, largely eaten by the lower classes and too “authentic” even for some locals’ tastes, such as the ayari sandwich and mraweb, a slightly seasoned raw egg that is downed like a shot.

Familiar and alien

The capital city of Tunis is located on the northern coast of the country. In the city centre, the streets boast a delightful mix of European- and Islamic-style architecture, with well-maintained rows of ficus trees and French balconies giving off a distinctively cultured aesthetic. All throughout the summer, women would enjoy the many open-air Sicilian-style cafes and shops in low-cut tops and skinny jeans, whether it be in the city centre or at one of the popular seaside towns of Sidi Bou Said or La Marsa, holding bags filled with their latest purchases in scenes resembling those of Naples or Nice.

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A traditional coffeehouse in Sfax

Cafes are always filled with young people, smoking, laughing and sipping on cappuccinos, no matter the time of day, with the latest summer tunes inevitably blaring in the background. But every so often, the familiar melodies of Shape of You and Despacito would be interrupted by a man’s deep hum, cackling in the crisp Mediterranean heat, flowing through every nook and cranny in the city streets to reach everyone awake and to awake anyone asleep.

Tunisia being a Muslim country, this is of course the Adhan (call to prayer), broadcast five times a day from loudspeakers atop every mosque. It summons Muslims to fulfil their duty to pray, the Islamic Pillar of Salat.

Each rendition demands my attention, the intonations so deep and captivating that it can only be described as godlike (I guess that’s half the point). But for many Tunisians, the call to worship prompts, at most, a momentary interlude in whatever hedonic activity they were doing and will quickly return to – a moment’s hesitation before the next puff or sip.

For though the country is 99% Muslim, few Tunisians observe the pious practices of their religion. Few pray five times a day, if at all. Many young Tunisians I met prefer to think of themselves as Muslims by name only, without commitment to the spiritual doctrines of the religion. A flatmate of mine during my summer in Tunisia, a pious Algerian Muslim, remarked that even Friday prayers, the most important time of every Muslim’s week, is scantily attended in Tunis. Back home, he said, there would be no businesses open or people on the streets on Fridays, except those coming and going from the mosque. In Tunis, Fridays are very much business as usual.

But perhaps that is a bit unfair. Fridays are slightly different from the rest of the week in Tunis, because alcohol aren’t sold in the supermarkets on Fridays. That seems to be the extent to which the holy day is made special in any way. At least from what I could see. But though this may seem trivial, its significance should not be understated, because Tunisians drink a lot.

Tunisia has always had a love for alcohol, one which was consolidated and refined by French colonial rule. Drinking is an integral part of many Tunisians’ social lives, especially men. In fact, the country famously produces its own wine and exports it to France. Bear in mind that alcohol is, by most accounts, forbidden in Islam, and one can see why there are deep divisions between moderate and more conservative Muslims in the country today.

Not being a wine person, I never tried Tunisian wine. What I did try was Tunisian beer – and lots of it. From the moment I arrived, many weekends (and weekdays, let’s be honest) were spent in the company of the local beers, Celtia and Berber. At the various bars I was taken to, there was never a shortage of patrons. Most tables were filled, even on weekdays. Seeing the extent to which drinking is integral to Tunisian culture was somewhat surprising but not entirely alien – I do live in the UK after all. What was slightly surreal was hearing the call to prayer in the background whilst in one of these bars, and sometimes even seeing several patrons packing up and leaving when the call is heard.

Tunisians’ fondness for drink is indicative of a more general culture of hedonism in Tunisian society, one which highly values relaxation and a style of life I can only describe as lackadaisical living. Business hours in the days are short, beginning at 10am and finishing promptly around 3-4pm, and most evenings are spent either at the bar or at the café where hours on end could be spent. Most young people I met smoke and drink – much more so than young people in London.

When I asked locals about the business hours, they blamed the summer heat (“it’s too hot to work!”) but also told me about the general Arab approach to life, which is much less manic and stressful than in the West. This attitude often manifests itself in widespread lateness, and is common across Arab countries. It even has a name: Arab Time.

In one memorable instance, at a prestigious competition I helped to organise involving projects designed to improve local communities, the teams involved were all late to the first event of the day, the earliest arriving 30 minutes after the official start time. Such collective tardiness would be impossible to find in London.

But perhaps this laidback lifestyle shouldn’t be so surprising. After all, Tunisia has some of the most beautiful beaches in the world. Blessed with the gorgeous opalescence of Mediterranean water, they are the country’s biggest tourist attraction, particularly in the summer months. Whether it was in the seaside cities of Tunis, Hammamet, Sousse or Bizerte, I spent more time at the beach in two months in Tunisia than in my whole life altogether.

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At a beach in Jen Island, near Bizerte

This approach to life is a far cry from London’s notoriously stressful environment. Whereas Londoners despise slow-walking pedestrians with the intensity of a thousand suns, all Tunisians are slow-walkers. Whereas Londoners see downtime as mere lulls between important events like exams and job interviews, Tunisians take pride in thoroughly enjoying the present moment, relishing it the same way they relish each sip of coffee and each puff of tobacco.

If there was one thing about Tunisian society that took time to get used to, it was this. In the first few days in Tunisia, I would get strange looks for closing taxi doors too hard, for taking food to go, for getting to work on time. I certainly became more understanding of such an approach to life as the summer wore on, with each trip to the beach and each evening spent in a café enjoying round after round of thé à la menthe – my favourite drink in Tunisia (Celtia a close second).

I love Tunisia*

I want to sum up my experience of Tunisia by telling you about a conversation I had. It was at a training event where young people from Douar Hicher and Mornaguia, two poor suburbs on the outskirts of Tunis, were brought to the capital city for a day for leadership and skills training. These participants were picked out for their low socioeconomic status and for being at high-risk of radicalisation. Most of them were around my age.

I was helping with the running of the event, and as I made my way around the room, I stopped and chatted with a few of these young people. They introduced themselves and I introduced myself. They asked me questions, and so I answered.

I told them about my background and what I was doing in Tunisia. I told them about my experience of their country: how I loved their food, how I found Harissa too spicy, how I found the streets of the capital so beautiful, how I loved bathing in the summer sun on their beaches. I also told them about London: how much it rains, how fast-paced everything is, how much more expensive life there is, how I loved that everything in Tunisia is cheap.

I told them about my experience of Tunisia similar to how I’ve told you about it in the sections above. It was at this point that one of them asked:

“So you like Tunisia?”

I quickly responded, giving the answer I had already given dozens of times before whenever this question was posed to me:

“Yes! I love Tunisia.”

To which the response was:

“Oh. We hate Tunisia.”

I hope it’s clear why this conversation is important.

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Manich Msamah – a protest against a new amnesty law for corrupt officials of the former regime, translation being “I do not forgive”

The fact is that the Tunisia I’ve described above is not Tunisia. At least not completely. Rather, it is my experience of Tunisia – just one experience out of many possible ones. It is just one chapter of a book, just one story in a sea of many. My story, in this case, being a fundamentally privileged and unrepresentative one.

The fact is that a tourist is an ugly human being. These are the words of Jamaica Kincaid in her essay A Small Place, where she writes about tourists visiting her native country of Antigua. Rich tourists to countries like Antigua and Tunisia are ugly because they enjoy the beauty of a country whilst ignorant and, even worse, indifferent to the problems and actual conditions of those who actually live in these countries. Tourists see mysterious rundown buildings as authentic and quaint – locals see them as schools or hospitals that were never repaired.

My experience of Tunisia is very much like that. I arrived as a rich foreigner and found myself primarily navigating around the bubble of the rich capital city. Most of the people I hung out with are also rich. Where I did leave Tunis, it was to other relatively rich cities around the northern coast like Bizerte and Sousse. I never left the North to see the interior areas of the country where people don’t have access to beautiful beaches and manicured streets. I didn’t even make my way to poor suburbs of the capital, places like Douar Hicher and Mornaguia.

In defence of myself, I did not come to Tunisia as a tourist. I came to work for a fantastic local NGO that was set up after the revolution with the goal of developing the potential of young Tunisians to become active citizens and even leaders in their communities. But that does not mean that Kincaid’s critique does not apply to me, because it has important implications for how I evaluate my experience.

And so if asked that question again, I would have a different response.

So you like Tunisia?

I loved every second of my time in Tunisia. But my experience is not an experience that many Tunisians get to have or will ever have. What’s more, the Tunisia I saw was its richest cities with their beautiful beaches and manicured streets, not the Tunisia which is rundown and neglected where many problems exist and many people are suffering.

I hesitate even to say that I’ve been to Tunisia when I’ve only really been to a small part of it. The age-old cliché of barely scratched the surface certainly applies in my case. It is for this reason that I hope to visit Tunisia again, so that I may continue reading the book which I’ve only just begun.

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Posing for a photo in Sousse when a strong gust of wind created this moment, an apt summation of my summer in Tunisia