Sunday, 4 May 2014

Tunisia: land of warmth. With an afterthought about Britain's cold shoulder

As the time approaches for us to leave Tunisia, I’ve been thinking about all the aspects that have struck me about this smiling country, before I head back towards my own, with the rather sterner face it seems to want to cultivate these days.

What shall I miss about Tunisia?

First of all, warmth of early summer, to be replaced by the cold and grey that has returned in Britain. And which, as we shall see, rather reflects the attitudes of these two nations.

Because I shall also miss the easy, warm-hearted people we met everywhere we went in this short break. All those people who did what they could to help us when we needed it, and always ended by wishing us welcome to their country or, quite simply, welcome.
I shall miss the honesty we encountered. People who told us they would meet us at 8:00 were there at 8:00 or a little before. If we agreed a price of 120 dinars, then the charge they made was 120 dinars. It made life feel safe and easy.

I’ll also miss the food. A lot of fish, in a country only 95 miles across, and in which I don’t think we ever got more than about 30 miles from the sea, but varied, interesting and delicious. And accompanied by harissa. 

Harissa: wonderful with every meal
You don’t know harissa? It’s the wonderful, deep red hot sauce that sets your tongue a-tingling, followed shortly afterwards by your throat. There’s something wonderful about being able to have harissa at every meal, breakfast, lunch and dinner. The hotel had a great pancake chef at breakfast time, and a cheese and ham crêpe with harissa is a wonderful start to the day; going on with highly-spiced food at lunch and dinner takes things forward just the way I want.

In addition, being able to wrap up with a mint tea – and why not with pine kernels floating in it? – just finishes off the experience perfectly.

What about the things I’ll be happy to do without?

I thought that I might mention the call to prayers. In Marrakech, that certainly got to me: it woke us each day, and not just in the form of a simple statement that God is great or anything – that assertion would be followed by what sounded like “my most recent essay for the school of advanced imammic studies” and went on for what like ages. Particularly at 6:00 in the morning.

But here in Tunisia it’s all so much more discreet. God is great, we’re told, maybe three or four times, as though to say “well, that’s it, I’ve let you know this would be a good time to pop in for a prayer, now it’s up to you.” Since the statement and the prayer are two of the five pillars of Islam, that sounds like a pretty reasonable call, especially as it really doesn’t disturb any of the rest of us.

I also thought I might be happy to get away from people who pester us for money, but that’s barely happened. Again, it was far worse in Morocco. Here, people invite you to buy from you but take “no” as an answer, politely and immediately. I was going to say that I didn’t like the small numbers of people who seem to attach themselves to us, and try to show us things we can already see, obviously for some small payment. But I won’t say even that, since to my embarrassment the last time I got irritated by a man who insisted on following us into a restaurant, it turned out he was the proprietor and was trying to show us to a table. So perhaps it would be better to say nothing.

So really I have nothing to complain about in this country. It’s my first visit, but it won’t be my last. And this holiday was just what a holiday should be: a real break, a real rest and wonderful change.

The saddest aspect? I saw some mixed couples, which should have been a matter of great satisfaction: such couples are the phenomenon that will save us from ourselves, if anything can, by showing that underneath all superficial differences, we really are all one race. But today the thought occurs to me that if either half of the couple was from Britain, then they would find it hard to settle there.

Because we’ve decided that people from nations like Tunisia are beneath us and walls are needed to keep them out. All in the name of immigration control. And so we knock down bridges.

I’m just glad that Tunisia doesn’t share that attitude or, to get back at us for our ill-placed contempt, don’t cut off their own noses, and ours, by refusing to share their charm-filled country with the rest of the world.

The Tunis Souk
Lively, cheerful, colourful bustle
The warmth rejected by British cold


Anonymous said...

I am glad that you are echoing my own view of what according to me is the nicest of the 3 Maghreb countries.


David Beeson said...

I don't know Algeria at all, but Tunisia certainly seems exceptionally pleasant.