Unassuming North Africa

“The Mediterranean is an absurdly small sea; the length and the greatness of its history makes us dream it larger than it is” (Lawrence Durell, Balthazar)

I see a slender land, a small waist of a women, gentle and swaying on the top of North Africa, protruding its head out just a little and pulling its body back from the embrace of the Med. The Med sea ties Fez and Tunis together with Cordoba who is winking from the other side of the sparkling blue water. The three cities make the Three Musketeers, all playing similar roles from the 9th century that sealed their fate. Once booming centres of knoweldge, learning, innovative ideas and a lifestyle that characterizes their people’s spirit, the Three Musketeers worked together, plotted against each other at times but settled for a mischievous relationship in the end.

A country tells a lot about itself by its looks and position. Tunisia is a humble, dignified territory that sits in relative comfort from the rest of North Africa. It does not shout about its identity like Morocco with its tantalizing fragrances or loudness. Tunisia feels like it has fallen off the map, an almost island that held a second name, the Roman Africa, Ifriqiyyah. In the Middle Ages deeply connected to Morocco, Andalus and the Abbasid rulers. there were vibrant routes from Tunis to Fez, to Tangier to Damascus to Timbouktu carrying tales, spices and morals. Tunis was right in the centre of it all and the Maghrebi Hajj route, also called Claudius’s Route could take you to the furthest east.

Today Tunis, the Paris of North Africa, is a small city that can only be accessed by the sea and is the 17th country I enter around the Med. The surrounding countries of Libya and Algeria are deemed to be too dangerous to travel so most people fly or take boats from Marseilles, Genoa, Palermo, Trapani or Salerno. Whatever shore you choose, the Mediterranean sea hosted four great empires: The Assyrian, Persian, Grecian and Roman empires. It is also connects twenty five countries each with its lifestyle, way of thinking and philosophy that is shaped by the slivery, glittery blue mass of water.

Tunis was visited and loved by Ibn Battuta and his diary entries speak of his meeting with its sultan in 1325. Tunis is also the birthplace of Ibn Khaldun and I anticipate the city just as enlightened and vibrant as the two men’s mind that lit up history and philosophy for life. The former with his epic travels, the latter setting the foundation of what we call sociology today. It is because of Ibn Khaldun we started to study societies in a structured manner.

It is beyond exciting to walk on the streets that are named after people with such legacy. Going to the train station on Ibn Khaldun avenue is a stark reminder of depth, meaning, significant lives that left a huge mark on our historical and spiritual reservoir. Ibn Khaldun tells us that there are two types of people: the Hadaris and the Badawis. Hadari is a society deemed to be civilized through their systematic organization of life. Like most of us, living under organized rules, obeying those we elect into power and use our democratic rights to change. The Badawis, on the other hand, are an apolitical, dynamic system that function without rules, yet they are also the reservoirs of change. They move constantly, fight, struggle and live off whatever is available on the land. We all have a Hadari and a Badawi in us- we love and hate rules and we love and hate the freedom of not having them.

I am already in love Tunis before I settle in with its vibes because it was the centre of Andalucian culture in North Africa offering refuge to those expelled from Andalus. It seems I know the Arab world intimately having lived in Egypt and Morocco and visiting most posts of the Arabs but each country is a new terrain I want to inhabit. Shading my eyes from the dazzling sun, we step out into the chaos as we get hit by the familiar smell of the sand, dirt and every day life and I know I will be following one rule here. If you truly want to understand the people here, you do not just look, you GAZE. In each gaze you will sink deeper and deeper into the psyche of people who started the Arab spring – seemingly the most polite, sophisticated men and women, carrying a different behaviour to our own, yet underneath there is a sense of love for justice that runs in the blood of Tunisians. I will be gazing unassumingly, though. After all, it is a country where 98% of the people notice gazing.

I truly hope it is much more than camels and couscous.