1. Old Tunis is really old. When I was little, my Tunisian father regaled me with bedtime stories of strong, intelligent women in the hopes that I would grow up to be one. His favorite tale to tell was that of Dido, the Phoenician princess who established Carthage, the ancient city on which Tunis is founded, around 814 BC. The story goes that following a series of unfortunate events (widowhood, refugee status, near destitution), Dido found herself on the shores of North Africa, where she asked a Berber king for some land as a refuge. Thinking he was getting the far better deal, he graciously agreed to sell only what could be encompassed by an oxhide. Cutting the hide into thin strips and resewing them, Dido managed to form the surprisingly large perimeter of Carthage. It went on to become one of the most powerful empires in the Mediterranean, an epicenter of trade and conquest stretching west to Morocco and north into Italy. There were long and bloody battles with other empires, the rise of famed General Hannibal, and military tactics that involved marching elephants over the Alps (though the Battle of Carthage resulted in decisive Roman victory and the end of Carthage). You can still visit the ruins of Carthage, now a suburb of Tunis, and the empire’s ancient port is also well preserved. Some of the most impressive works of art from this period are housed in the Bardo Museum in the center of the city.
Ancient ruins of Carthage. Photo: Wikipedia/Commons
2. You can stay safe. While not immune to the growing spread of violence across the region, Tunisia has been largely shielded from the sort of terror that emerged in neighboring Libya. However, the recent ISIS-led terror attacks in Sousse and Tunis, both in tourist locations, have put the country on edge. The government has responded by issuing a state of emergency and passing a controversial anti-terrorism law, but Tunisia has neither the money nor the resources to actively combat terrorism, the roots of which are tangled up with economic marginalization and political oppression. In spite of these attacks, cafes are still serving coffee, the men are still smoking sheesha, children are still walking to school, and people are even back to sunbathing on the beach. It’s the cliched truth: life goes on. Though the US and UK governments warn about the possibility of another terrorist attack, Tunis does, by and large, feel safe. Take some precautions, as you would anywhere: be vigilant with your surroundings, don’t walk alone at night, and avoid political demonstrations.
3. You don’t walk, you doolesha. Doolesha is an old Tunisian dialect word that roughly translates to strolling at a slow pace for pleasure, and it’s the only way to explore the old medina (city). Once the burned embers of Carthage cooled, the Arabs came and built the UNESCO World Heritage-recognized medina, long before there was UNESCO, or any vehicle wider than a horse’s flank. The old city was built around the Zaytouna Mosque (open to visitors; women should cover their hair, and everyone should cover their limbs), which you can use as a sort of compass, though rest assured you will get lost at some point. For lone female travellers, the hoots, whistles, kisses, and ‘compliments’ found in so many cities across the world will be the soundtrack to your walks, particularly in the souk and downtown. A pair of dark sunglasses and headphones can help block the gazes and drown out the noise.
Traffic jam in the medina. Photo: Sarah Souli
4. Insha’Allah is a way of life. The Arabic for “God willing” is both a staple phrase and a fatalistic acknowledgement common across Islamic countries. Tunisia is 98% Muslim, and God wills all here, whether it’s your food order, the weather, or the political unification of the country. It’s used whenever referring to the future, which can be slightly scary when you tell your grandmother you’ll see her tomorrow and she solemnly replies insha’Allah. But most of the time, it’s a nice reminder that things are blissfully out of our control. Might as well embrace it.
5. Tunisia has a split personality. For much of its postcolonial history, secular nationalism was prioritized over Islam in Tunisia (President Bourguiba famously drank orange juice on national television during Ramadan). Islam remains a strong cultural and political force here, but a certain class of Tunisians have adopted more secular ways of life, and these different identities co-exist awkwardly. Tunisia’s Revolution – the spark for the Arab Spring – started when a street vendor set himself on fire in December 2010 after being humiliated by a municipal officer. The act became a catalyst for protests against the secular, but corrupt, regime of Ben Ali. After the Revolution, Islamic politicians were voted in, mosques reopened 24/7, and conservative dress seeped into the streets. At the same time, plenty of women are bareheaded; many Tunisians prefer a secular government; and lots feel connected, however nebulously, to Europe.