Inshallah Tunisia , Feb 2010
Tunisia , full name Tunisian Republic, is to Europeans what Thailand is to HongKongers , an affordable tourist destination with plenty of sun and good food . However, prior to the unrest which occurred towards the end of 2010 , most HongKongers knew very little about the place . I have the good fortune to visit this northernmost country in Africa in the days when it was still deceptively peaceful and robust with commerce .
The Japanese were the first Asians to visit Tunisia in significant numbers, followed by the Taiwanese who were introduced to the country through Japanese travel books on sale in Taiwan some 30 years ago . The number of Taiwan tourists escalated sharply in the past 20 years after a Taiwanese woman married a local man, settled in Tunis and opened a travel agency specializing in group tours for her countrymen . Hong Kong on the other hand, has organised tours to Tunisia for less than 5 years , which is regretable because Tunisia has diverse tourist attractions , ranging from fine beaches on its long coast line to desert experience in the Sahara , indiginous Berber culture and no less than 7 UNESCO world heritage sites. I'm a sucker for world heritage sites and I've plenty of photos to prove it.
Tunis Carthage, Phoenician word meaning New City (UNESCO 1979 ), once the master of the Mediterranean's maritime trade .
El Jem Roman amphitheatre (UNESCO 1979 )
mainly used for gladiator shows and chariot races
Dougga (UNESCO 1997 ) the best-preserved Roman small town in North Africa .
Door of the Dar Lacheb
Sousse (UNESCO 1988 ) The first Indiana Jones movie ( 1981) was shot here.
The medina of Sousse is a world heritage site.
Ribat Fortress , Sousse
Sbeitia- Roman ruins of Sufetula
Capitoline Temples dedicated to 3 Roman gods Jupitor, Juno and Minerva
Kairouan ( meaning military camp )
In Raiders of the Lost Ark the street scenes in " Cairo" were filmed in Kairouan.
The great mosque Kairouan .
Kerkouane( UNESCO 1988 ) Punis city of Cape Bon, the most complete remains of the Carthaginian civilisation.
Tunis Medina old quarter (UNESCO 1979 )
Tunisians have a strong homogenous national identity , yet the Tunisian culture is a hodge.podge of three thousand years of multi-ethnic influx through a parade of invaders and traders due to its stategic position .Carthage Phoenicians, Jewish, Romans, Vandal, Byzantines, Arabs, Turks Ottaman, Spaniards and French all left their mark on the country.
Tunisia gained independence from France in 1956. Habib Bourguiba , the first president, insisted on an anti-Islamic fundamentalist line and carried out many social reforms with regard to education, women's status and economic structures ; but at the same time increased his own powers to become a virtual dictator. On November 7, 1987, his newly-appointed Prime minister and constitutional successor, Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali , impeached him and he was dismissed after a team of medical experts judged him unfit to govern on grounds of senility . The takeover is called either "the medical coup d'etat" or the "Jasmine Revolution", the second being Ben Ali's preferred term .
Notwithstanding the term being borrowed by certain Chinese dissidents attempting to arouse copycat protests in China in the weeks after the street tumults in the Middle East , it has nothing to do with China or the Jasmine tea. Jasmine is Tunisia's national flower, imported into the country by the Andalusians of Spain in the sixteenth century. Jasmine came from the word yasmin, Persian meaning "gift from God". In Tunisia a man who wears jasmine on his left ear indicates he's still single ; by tradition offering white jasmine is a proof of love, while offering odorless winter jasmine is a sign of insolence . The flowers are gathered at night because the fragrance is more powerful after dark, small bouquets are then collected by young boys and sold in the streets the next day.
Traditional hooded heavy wool cloak
Going about town it is obvious why Tunisia, with its liberal social norms and broad gender equality, is rated the most European of North African countries, and as pre-marital sex is accepted by 1 in 10 women and 1 in 5 men , it has probably the most relaxed sexual attitude in all Arab Countries . Female travellers should therefore not be surprised to be constantly accosted by amorous Tunisians . I caught on fairly early that the magic phrase to decline any unwelcome proposal without causing offence is :" Inshallah ! " which literally means 'God willing ' .Having to invoke Allah's approval appears to dampen even the most arduous pursuit . Luckily it works equally well with welcoming proposal, as when Salim and I agreed simutaneously Inshallah that I should visit him at his home .
Front of the house
Salim , which means 'flawless' in Arabic, lived in a typical Tozeur house with his large family. Since the big sister, Lateefa ( meaning gentle and kind ), got married and moved out , the household now consisted of 2 elderly parents and 6 other siblings . The sitting room had 2 beddings in the corner and another one next to the sofa as the 2 bedrooms at the back could not provide sleeping space for everybody. The kitchen's in the front of the house, next to a flight of stairs with no bannisters, which I climbed gingerly to reach the flat roof top . From my vantage point I looked down into the backyard and was astonished to find 2 horses, a few chickens and a dozen sheep all packed into the small space !I don't speak French or Arabic, and my hosts scanty English, so it was after a lot of body gestures and exaggerated facial expressions that I surmised that as most of the adult children were out of work, they kept the animals to supplement the income, apparently a common practice among the Tozeurens . The family's as friendly as Tunisians come, and the mother even agreed to let me take her picture, apparently a brave act for an Arab woman of her generation.
animal husbandry in the backyard
girls will have fun
Tozeur is an oasis in southwest Tunisia, famous for its palm trees and dates, as well as being the filming location for the Star Wars saga and Raiders of the Lost Ark . Gallivanting around town one evening I landed by chance in President Ben Ali's favourite Pizza restaurant in Tozeur, an equivalent to Chris Patten's custard egg cake shop in Hong Kong. As proof, Hochmi Zoobi , the son of the owner, showed me the picture of his father with the President . I wonder if they hid the picture now that the President's been ousted ?!
Pizza Berber Zaabi Abdesselem, Tozeur
The Chebbi family was not the only home I invaded . The Berber home if anything, was even more interesting.
The Berbers have inhabited Tunisia since the beginning of recored history, and like all indigenous poeple anywhere, their culture and identity were undervalued and under threat, but things took an up-turn when the government started actively promoting Berber culture as a tourist attraction in the past few years . The Berbers are known for their green eyes, ginger hair and pale skin, though there are Berbers with Arabic and African features too , a reflection of their complex mosaic of European, Sub-Saharan African and West Asian genetic profile .
The Berbers are traditionally oasis farmers or herders , adapted to the harsh Sahara climate by living in cave houses ( troglodyte houses ) dug underground . These houses are practically invisible from the outside ; the only sign they are dwelling places are the whitewashed lower walls, painted to discourage scorpions .
Door to the house
A single tunnel like passage led to Mariem's house, which was a 10 meter pit dug out of the ground. The door, decorated with a blue hand of Fatima to stop the evil eye, was the only entrance to the core areas of the house. The flat base of the pit forms the central courtyard , and rooms were cut into the walls of the courtyard to serve as living , sleeping areas as well as the kitchen. All the rooms and work areas for grinding corn and wheat were on the ground floor, while storerooms for grains, dates, olives and wine were cut into the rock above . The rooms were more spacious on the inside than one would expect ,the windows were small or absent and the doors to the house and the rooms were low so as to avoid the strong desert sunlight and sandstorms , maximizing cooling shade in the daytime while insulating the inhabitants against the cold desert nights . Another ingenuity was the sophisticated and practical water system : rock cut drains ran along the top rim of the pit , then turned downwards to underground cisterns where the water was stored .
Berbers are mostly self sufficient . Mariem, like all Berber women, was adept in transforming raw material of agriculture into useful items- spinning and weaving wool from family sheep, preparing wheat into coucous, preserve fruits and vegetables ; the honey and tea she served us were all home processed .
During the day Mariem's husband worked in the fields, and her four children were all in school, so she opened her home to visitors for a fee. Nevertheless we were treated like old friends and not tourists passing through, except shamefully acting like a tourist I let myself be coerced into posing for a picture with Mariem in her wedding dress .
Mariem the Berber
Southern Tunisian terran is moon like, with barren plains and hills, craters and underground houses, so makes an ideal backdrop for films . Tamerza and Chebika, both mountain oasis, and the Midas canyon are all situated in southwestern Tunisia , where many scenes of the George Lucas movie Star Wars Episode 4 were shot. Franco Zeffirelli's Jesus of Nazareth , Roman Polanski's Pirates were also filmed around the area. Hotel Sidi Driss in Matmata where we had lunch was in fact the Lars Homestead of the Star Wars movies , and Matmata might well be the only place anywhere that a hotel is the main attraction .
Hotel Sidi Driss
Star Wars film set
Chott El Jerid Salt lake , Star Wars series film location
We passed by the Chott El Jerid endoeheic salt lake, the largest salt pan of Sahara, to get to Douz, the " gateway to the Sahara ". Dous is a major palm oasis , the largest in western Tunisia . We stopped for lunch and coming out of the restaurant I spotted Lee Tung Hai. A Korean face ! " What's a Korean doing living in Tunisia ?"I had to know. Mr Lee let on he had lived in Tunisia for a couple of years, learning the language and training to be a teacher . " No kidding !" I exclaimed and ran the 2blocks to check out his school . This is what I found out : primary education is universal for Tunisian children starting from age 6 ; the national language is Arabic,less than1% speaks chelha,the Berber language, and the literacy rate is 76%Though French has no official status, it remains an important social indicator and is often used in business . Since 2000 English is taught from the age of 12 . A teacher's salary is around 700 dinaris while doctors earn about 1000D. There's no income tax .
Lee Tung Hai in school with his colleagues
Other tourists sites we visited were : Sfax at the coast, is Tunisia's second city, Anthony Minghella filmed The English Patient in the medina ; Nabeul which is the centre of Tunisian pottery industry ; Hammamet -Tunisia's biggest European-favoured resort, is particularly known for jasmine, all over Hammamet souvenirs made of jasmine can be found . It happened to be the 7th day of the Chinese New Year, the traditional " Universal All People's Birthday", so the hotel obliged us with a birthday cake for the occasion .
Cafe Sidi Bou Hdid, a little Zawiyya shrine for holy man turned cafe
Cap Bon - Kelibia Fort
Bardo Museum - rich tradition of mosaics
Sidi Bou Said, a town of artists , is known for the extensive use of blue and white colors all over the town . Blue is the traditional colour for the window shutters, intended not just to beautify the homes but also to ward off evil spirits, a notion originated from native Berber belief. The window grid recalls the lattices of the Arab-Andalusian tradition, and the carved wood panels enable women to watch the street without being seen . The ornamental wrought iron doors are greatly admired, the ironwork also dates back to the Andalusian era .
Blue wrought iron door
Khamsa symbol as defense against the evil eye
Before coming to Tunisia I was heavily mis-directed by guide books which warn us to hide money in multiple places to deter thieves, never to access a money belt in public and always carry a false wallet to give to muggers........ but the Tunisia I saw was orderly and law abiding , at least it'd remain so for another 10 months .
Ben Ali inherited an economically-stable country, and as President , championed economic reforms that strengthened Tunisia's economy and increased foreign investment. Tunisia was European Union's first trading partner and in 1996 by signing the " Association Agreement ", became the first Mediterranean country to enter a free trade area with the EU. By 2008 tariff and other trade barriers on most goods were removed .A report published in July 2010 by the Boston Consulting Group (The African Challengers: Global Competitors Emerge from the Overlooked Continent) listed Tunisia as one of the African "Lions",and indicated that the eight African lions account for 70% of the continent's gross domestic product. The 2010-2011 Global Competitiveness Report (Davos World Economic Forum) ranked Tunisia first in Africa and 32nd globally out of 139 countries , well ahead of Portugal, Italy and Greece . Tunisia has one of Africa and Middle East's highest per-capita GDPs, managed an average 5% growth over the past decade, and boasts a relatively large middle class .
Yet Tunisia's unemployment rate has been among the highest in the world for almost two decades , especially among youth . Part of the problem is Tunisia is a typical Middle East country with high birth rates which far outstrip the growth of jobs . An alarming estimated 55% of the population of Tunisia is under 25 years .
Rising food price is going to be a key trigger factor for social unrest in many parts of the world in the near future . The burden of the human population explosion coupled with crop failure due to both man-made and natural disasters has caused the UN recently to release warning of impending global food crises. When I first came back to Hong Kong I was ripped by all my colleagues for my 2 pet issues : irresponsible ( or rather the lack of )family planning and obesity. Today obesity is the fastest growing epidemic worldwide and the Earth is crumbling under the scourge of human expansion . My problem apparently has been the ability to see issues 25 years before they become catastrophies .
A recount of the event which sparked off the uprising in Tunisia is
Twenty-six year old Mohamed Bouazizi had been the sole income earner in his extended family of eight. He operated an unlicensed vegetable and fruit cart for seven years in Sidi Bouzid, 300 km south of Tunis. On December 17, 2010 a policewoman confiscated his cart and produce. Bouazizi, a repeat offender, offered to pay the 10-dinar fine (a day's wages, equivalent to 7USD). The policewoman slapped him, spat in his face, and insulted his deceased father. A humiliated Bouazizi then went to the provincial headquarters to complain to the local municipality officials. He was refused an audience. According to the Tunisian League for the Defence of Human Rights , at 11:30 a.m. and within an hour of the confiscation , Bouazizi returned to the governor's office, doused himself with a flammable liquid and set himself alight . However, this immolation and the subsequent heavy-handed response by the police to peaceful marchers caused riots in Sidi Bouzid the next day, went largely unnoticed until Facebook and YouTube started featuring images of the riot scenes .
Bouazizi was subsequently transferred to a hospital near Tunis. In an attempt to quell the unrest President Ben Ali visited Bouazizi in hospital on December 28,2010. Bouazizi died on January 4, 2011.
A wave of suicides of unemployed graduates in despair ensued .Violent demonstrations erupted all over the country in the following weeks , protesters came together after circulating calls to rally through social networks like Facebook and Twitter, which ultimately led to the downfall of the President .
Political repression, corruption, poverty, unemployment, high cost of living
are lethal combinations and inevitably invite revolt.
Human Rights watchdogs had labeled Tunisia an autocratic repressive police state : no one openly launched criticism of the regime , all protests were severely suppressed and dissidents were jailed . Freedom of the press is guaranteed by the constitution but self-censorship is widespread . All these were not obvious to me as a tourist though I was taken aback when told we must not under any circumstances take pictures of the army, police or any government buildings . Police present was everywhere ; they frequently stopped and searched individuals and vehicles , sometimes demanding bribe money . We stopped for gas at one point and idly I took a photo of a building, unaware a policeman was harrassing a driver at a corner of my picture frame. The policeman saw my camera and charged at our tourguide, who swore in the name of Allah I was not photographing him. I suspected money changed hands and I was let off . The lack of political discourse and press freedom, or vibrant opposition through which people can channel their grievances leave them no choice but take to the streets to vent their frustration .
The idle picture which almost got me into trouble
President Ben Ali's picture on all public buildings and major streets
Corruption is another lightning rod for revolution . President Ben Ali 's second wife, Leila Trabelsi, and their extended family, referred to by the populace as the quasi-mafia, is often cited as the nexus of Tunisian corruption . Some calls the Tunisian revolt the " first WikiLeaks revolution" because US diplomatic cables filled with details of government corruption and extravagance of the Ben Ali family were leaked by Wikileaks just at the time the Tunisians were protesting,further adding fuel to fire.
Leila Ben Ali
Leila, a former hairdresser, is dubbed ' the Imelda Marcos of the Arab world
' because of her lavish lifestyle and love of designer clothes . Leila loves
fast cars –the family had more than 50 –, luxury homes and frequent shopping trips to Dubai, during which she is said to have spent hundreds of thousands of pounds. Their daughter Nesrine, nicknamed the Tunisian Marie Antoinette, used to fly luxury foods, including ice cream from St Tropez to her beachside mansion by private jet ; while her husband Mohamed Sakher El Materi kept a pet tiger named Pasha, which he fed prime cuts of beef . Leila's brother Belhassen Trabelsi, is rumored to have been involved in a wide-range of corrupt schemes, property expropriation and extortion of bribes. The family owes Tunisia's only airline as well as the TV station and a major "independent" newspaper. The French State prosecutor had recently requested extradition of Leila's 2 nephews, Imed and Moaz Trabelsi, who were accused of stealing a mega-yacht belonging to a French businessman, Bruno Roger, from a French marina. The theft, widely reported in the French press, came to light when the yacht, freshly painted to cover distinguishing features, appeared in the Sidi Bou Said harbor. Ben Ali himself is said to have amassed a ￡3.5 billion fortune, much of it kept in France, besides illegally acquiring real estate and other assets abroad . After the Ben Alis fled the country videos show millions of euro's and priceless jewelry stashed in the palace . The Swiss government has since announced that it was freezing millions of dollars held in bank accounts by Ben Ali's family.
How would the tumult affect the rest of the world ? There's no way to predict how the politics would play out in the volatile Middle East in the coming years .
Tunisia was a close ally of the West in combating the al-Qaeda militant operating in the region. The Ben Ali governmental policy had been pragmatic rather than ideological ; the Tunisian Constitution guaranteed freedom of religion ( most Tunisians are Sunni Muslims, the second most common belief is atheism, then Judaism ), no political parties could be based on religion and hijab was prohibited in school and in government offices. A National Solidarity Fund was set up by Ben Ali to provide opportunities to impoverished youngsters who were vulnerable to recruitment by terrorists. Political violence was rare until recently, but militant Islamists have become an issue of concern for the authorities. A suicide bomb attack on an historic synagogue in the resort of Djerba in 2002 killed 21 people . A dozen suspected Islamists were killed in shoot-outs. with security forces in and around Tunis at the end of 2006 and the beginning of 2007What is certain is that al-Qaeda is following closely all the developments in all the Middle East countries . In a video released on January 13, 2011, the Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb voiced support for the demonstrators, offering them military aid and training.
But Bravo Tunisia ! Having endured the tumult of their own revolution, when trouble started in Lybia Tunisians traveled far and wide to serve food and bring supplies to refugee camps along the Libyan border. Generosity and compassion, they said , are part of the spirit of their revolution. This was the Tunisia I knew .
Tunis before the uprising
Throughout the weeks of unrest I worried about the good people I met during
my trip . Seven million tourists arrive at Tunisia each year and 50% of the
workforce are engaged in tourism, which was brought to a virtual standstill
when all the Western countries issued warnings about travelling there . Among many others I thought of was Hanen the young trainee cook in Tunis who was engaged to be married in the summer, and just like any bride-to-be she was eager for my medical advice on removing some teeny pigmented blemish on her cheek ; Mohamed the university student who looked after his father's shop in the Tunis medina after class , where I spent a most enjoyable hour shopping for earrings .......... and I wish Tunisia all the best this side of Paradise .