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by Mira Doria
What can I say about Tunis? I’d always known the name, from earliest childhood, because of the war. The image then was of hot sun, sand, the rumble of army tanks, men suffering through an alien landscape, fighting and dying in their tropical kit. Terror, blood and sand.
Tunis also means Carthage, legendary haunt of Dido and Aeneas, of Hannibal, Scipio Aemilianus, Gaiseric the Vandal king. North African St. Augustine studied in Carthage during its brief Christian era. His notorious concubine, with whom he stayed for thirteen troubled years, was Carthaginian.
The ruins of Carthage lie to this day on the summit of the hill of Byrsa, where, so myth tells us, Queen Dido cut a hide into thin strips encircling the whole hill, after she was offered as much land as could be covered by a single hide. A motley collection of Roman and Phoenician remains lie strewn on the site, while layer upon layer below ground testifies to the grandeur and terror in which succeeding generations and races spent their lives on this wind-ravaged hilltop.
When the local man whose hospitality I was enjoying asked me quite calmly to marry him, I thought of my long-dead relatives who had taken on the grim challenge of North Africa before I was born. “Tunis?” they would have said in shocked disbelief. “What on earth are you doing in Tunis?”
My excuse of Carthage would have made no impression on them. Hard-headed practical men, they had little time for history or any kind of fanciful living. We are put on earth to work hard without complaint, they would have said, to remain in our allotted places, do no harm to others, and die with grace when the time comes.
Women especially were born to stay home and be content with their lot.
They were always slightly suspicious of me, sensing somehow very early on that I would not grow into a modest, passive member of the family who would live and die in the expected grateful anonymity.
There was always a half-veiled hostility in their relations with me. They were descended from Grandfather’s second wife, while I, though so much younger, came from the line of his first. This baffled them, made them feel cheated somehow, less authentic in their own eyes. So I became the target of their unease, the changeling who no matter what I did could never quite please or satisfy.
Why think of them now, all so long silent in the grave? Blood calls to blood, even when the memories are not all happy ones, and North Africa was theirs long before I claimed it as my own. Would I care if they knew, as I stood there with my feet firmly planted on the tiled pavements of the old medina of Tunis? My world was not theirs, and they would never understand the compulsion that brought me here to breathe in Tunis and make it my own.
Whatever suspicions they might have had, there was nothing between my host and myself but words. A mild good-humoured friendship was developing as we dodged about razor-wired streets, discovered cafes that remained open to order quick lunches for two, and somehow bought time to investigate the better book shops in the city. It was a strange, hallucinatory time, freezing cold, dangerous, yet so compelling I did not want to leave.
Tunis is different to other North African cities I know, coolly blue and white like Greece, bounded by sea. The women are freer, with fewer in traditional dress and veil. Young people hold hands and flirt and sometimes even kiss with impunity. The men are small and quiet and polite.
Except when they are rioting. What starts out with genuine grievance too often turns into a criminal brawl when young men are involved. The ugly armed confrontations over, disgraced President Ben Ali gone, the more hard-headed were still not satisfied. Camping out in small tents in the city centre, they vowed to stay there until all their many demands for reform were met. Restless, angry, with energy to spare, they linked arms regularly and jumped up and down in the street, shouting a defiant “Yay, yay, yay.” Crowds gathered, amused at these performances, taking out cell phones to record these vain attempts to provoke the authorities. Unimpressed, the heavily armed soldiers remained guarding their tanks and the razor wire barriers that extended around many key parts of the city. The police were nowhere to be seen.
Life in Tunisia went on as always for most people. Children were delivered to school, housewives shopped at the usual little stalls, banks and post offices were open for business, those men and women who still had jobs went off early to their places of employment. But others were not so lucky. There were fresh graves to be tended, repairs carried out on homes damaged by the spillover from the riots. Many people had lost their jobs through the death and destruction visited on the city. Rubbish was piled everywhere on the streets, blowing over the beaches. Millions of dinars worth of cars, many brand new, were stolen and torched, shops looted, innocent people assaulted. Both business and private premises that might in the remotest way be connected with the presidential family soon disappeared in flames. Hotels and restaurants closed. Their usual foreign visitors with money to spend had fled at the first signs of trouble. Tunis was a cold blue and white ghost town.
Still it had its charm, and its long history. I spent a freezing day on the summit of the hill of Byrsa, examining what had survived long after the last inhabitants of Carthage vanished into the ground. For hours I was the only visitor, until a well-wrapped couple with their small boy arrived. They did not stay long. The wind swooped up from an icy sea, tearing into everything, scouring already scarred statues, assaulting the palms, flattening anything frail that lay in its path. No wonder most people in antiquity did not live long, I thought, escaping in the end to the comparative calm of the museum. Presumably the ancients considered strategic importance well before personal comfort, and rightly so, in that dangerous unpredictable world.
A small plump man in his thirties followed me around, commenting on everything, marbles, oil lamps and amphora, coins, all the sacred and household litter of the dead. I saw Hadrian’s lover, his handsome face damaged by some later jealous rival who feared a resurrection of kinds. Some of the faces were famous, others unknown, lost along with those who created them.
Byrsa is the dwelling place of a million ghosts. Even the solid tomb of Saint Louis, I discovered, contains nothing at all. In fact, nothing remains of the great Crusader King but one single finger, and that is far away in France.
Tunis is as much about death as life. American servicemen – and a few women – who died in war were gathered from many parts of North Africa and buried here in a cemetery ablaze with spotless marble stones. The Jews have a Star of David, everyone else, a cross. The most recent ghost is to be found in Sidi Bou Said, the hilly outskirt ‘village’ of Tunis, the mirror image of where young Mohamed Al Bouazizi set fire to himself in despair, sparking off riots across the Arab and Berber world.
We talked to the gardener at the American cemetery, admired the Roman brick cisterns and what remains of the aquaducts nearby, had coffee in an empty café in Sidi Bou Said. The rain came down, falling straight into the sea far below. A few stragglers returning from work in the city laboured homewards up the hill, heads covered. The owner of the art gallery across the road, leaning in the doorway in a futile search for customers, gave up, and began closing the shutters. It was time to leave the darkening streets to their ghosts.
Tunisia smells of dust and incense and antiquity. Even half-deserted, there is a surprise round every corner, a barrow full of artichokes or pomegranates waiting to be sold, beautifully painted shutters and doors, sudden glimpses of the sea between narrow walls. There are wonderful inscrutable names, Gammarth, La Marsa, Salambo, La Goulette, where I had to stay for safety while my host went off to rescue refugees trapped on the Libyan border.
He was late back. I paced the balcony, wondering what I would do if he had been killed or captured somewhere out in the desert. I spoke no Tunisian, a dialect all on its own, had only my passport, a notebook and the clothes I stood up in with me. The rain came down. Stray cats dived for cover. The streets were deserted, apart from the occasional patrolling police car. Over on the beach, fishermen continued to repair their boat. Used to suffering, they ignored the icy downpour that soon soaked them through. Marvelling at the patience that I could not share, I sat down just out of the rain and began to write.
Night gradually claimed the bay, forcing the fishermen home. I slept uneasily, hearing the wind tearing at windows and doors. A distant booming like cannon sounded several times through the night. When the veils of rain cleared, I could see the scanty lights of Carthage wavering in the wind, yellow reflections of Sidi Bou Said higher still, it seemed, closer to the void of heaven.
In times of anguish, write. It concentrates the mind. By the time we were reunited on a mellower afternoon in La Goulette I had completed the outline of a novel and written some chapters as well. Days before, we had discussed the possibility of a novel in jest while leafing through books in the new bayside mall. Love and revolution, death and new life. Why not? Why let experience go to waste? Soon we too will be no more than ghosts, said my host, asking that I would ensure he was given the burial appropriate to his faith.
The promise was given, and now we wait to see what the next months will bring.
As for the other, more difficult request, no decision has yet been reached. After long years of freedom, an acceptance of marriage can seem like a defeat. Can I live with another person breathing the same air, shadowing my footsteps? The thought of explaining myself, life, work, motivation, already makes me tired. This veteran soldier takes my arm crossing the street, insists I wear a scarf when the wind runs riot. A gentle man, yet with a will of steel. Afraid of nothing, not even standing naked before God. Ready to cast himself unthinking into the pyre for a righteous cause. Could we domesticate each other?
Today this is a puzzle as big as the world. Tomorrow I am due in Tripoli. Yes, these are desperate times, but pledges made before the riots cannot be lightly broken. And I need colour, drama, new scenes, to put everything in perspective. Tripoli, Benghazi, are other names I have known all my life. The blood is still flowing there. Young Walid is waiting, desperate for a new life away from death and the desert. Duty first, pleasure later. Can something be arranged before he is marked down? Each new day is a nightmare for him now. We have so much, these people so little.
Tunis will wait. It has been patient for thousands of years now, watching the generations live and strive and die within its walls. It has been destroyed and rebuilt, survived through invasion and famine and plague. It is as much a force of nature as a human construction. One small life present or not will make no difference. Yet I must remember that on the other side of Gammarth my quiet host awaits an answer. He is disciplined, restrained. Disappointment shows only for a second in his eyes. He does not shout or give way to the wild emotions of the moment. All the more reason to consider carefully, and be kind. However we try to rationalise, in fact, we do not belong just to ourselves.
The open palm rather than the clenched fist. More fearful in its way than the storming of Tripoli. Am I ready to surrender the narrow path, step out onto an uncharted plain? Libya will tell me. Lion-hearted Libya, that outcast orphaned child, will show us the way. The outcome of this next adventure will decide everything.
A life in Tunis beckoning. My long-ago relatives would be appalled. Triumphant as well: See, we always told you there was something wrong with her, something missing, she was never really One Of Us. I have told my host of these men who battled North Africa once, who disapproved of almost everything that was not part of their own way of life. And they would be surprised that you are here with me in Tunis? he asked. Amazed? He smiled gently at this, quite unconcerned, not using the harsher words we were both imagining. He is a gracious and wise man, and just may be the one to provide me with a safe haven at last. In the heart of the storm, they say, even in the desert, there is a beautiful peace.
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