Under the Tunisian Sun

A version of this article was published in T: The New York Times Style Magazine


The crowd that gathers at El Firma on a desolate stretch of land outside Tunis is as sexy and stylish as any in the world.  There, two young Tunisian brothers, Sadri and Iyed Tej – one trained in Nice, the other at the legendary Institut Paul Bocuse in Lyon – have turned their father’s 1920s colonial farmhouse into an almost impossibly beautiful restaurant and bar: in one room, antique cushioned chairs reupholstered in fuchsia and furs play off the rough, warm texture of the old stone walls; in another, the long narrow dining room leads to a large plate glass window revealing a tumult of vegetation outside, lit from below.  But the design, the work of another Tunisian, Mona Merchi, is full of subtle genius.  Embedded in the window is a rectangular frame of lush matte-black marble that contains a gas fireplace so that in winter the flames appear to float in the window, dancing amid the green leaves of the palms beyond.  And on a soft night in early fall, when the seating moves out into the large open courtyard, the young Tunisian fashionistas just home from Paris or Rome sit on couches backed by elaborate antique headboards while their mothers, classic and even more stylish, remain at the tables deep in conversation in a jumble of languages; above it all, a canopy of sheer curtains billows sensuously in the soothing breezes of the North African night.

I have been searching for this Tunisia.  In the US and Europe, the country may be known primarily as a cheap package tour beach destination, but in Egypt, where I lived for three years in the mid-1990s, I often heard how much more modern and advanced Tunisia is than the rest of the Arab world.  Tunisians themselves repeat this claim like a catechism – some will add ‘civilized’ and then smile at their own impudence; others, revealing their prejudices, will say ‘European’ – and among my Egyptian friends we debated whether this could really be true, imagining a kind of chic paradise with the charms of the Arab world and none of its difficulties.  But over the last few years I found another reason for wanting to go to Tunisia: the Arab world’s capacity for modernizing has become one of the central questions in American political life and I thought Tunisia, as the Arab country that most wants to be seen as modern, might hold some answers.


The capitol, Tunis, is closer to Italy than to the deserts of southern Tunisia, as many of its residents are all too happy to remind me; if the country has a claim on being modern and advanced, I reason, it is to be found here.  Tunis lies slightly inland, on a lake, and is a bigger city in summer, when the warm weather brings the Calypso disco in Hammamet or the Dourade restaurant in the Grotto on Cap Bon – both an hour or two’s drive to the coast – into the city’s social orbit.  In winter, it shrinks back to a city of not even one million that feels Arab at its western edge and more European the farther east you go into the suburbs.  Its heart, traditionally, is in the western part of Tunis at the Zitouna mosque in the middle of the medina, the old walled town that courses with small alleys, covered souq, and the elaborately studded doors for which Tunisia is famous.  The narrow shops spill their wares – everything from the maroon felt hat called a chechia to gaudy brass plates etched with camels – out into the alleys, like peacocks flaunting their colors.  Still, it can be difficult to get much sense of the place by day, when wave after wave of tour buses disgorge their contents for the one-hour medina component of the day-trip from the beaches, making the ancient alleys seem as much Serbian or Polish as Arab.  But staying at the exquisite Dar el Medina, a new boutique hotel in a 19th century maison arabe, I would walk home each night through the pitch black old town, its slippery stone cascading alleyways littered with rubbish from the day’s commerce.  Feral cats poked their noses in the piles hoping for treats.  Shafts of light fell from high windows and the silence amplified the sounds of distant shops being shuttered, filling the darkness with a timelessness impossible to find by day.

The meandering, organic alleys of the medina give way to the rational grid of the French-built Ville Nouvelle, just to the east, which feels less like a little Paris and more like a provincial town in the Midi with now-faded pretensions of grandeur.  Its streets are full of symbolism: it is still Avenue de France that joins the old city and the new, while Place de l’Indépendance divides the Cathedral and the old French Residence, the two seats of French colonial power; Avenue de Paris turns into Avenue de la Liberté at Place de la République, and most of the Tunisian leader’s allies (and rivals) have streets named in their honor.  I had pictured the Ville Nouvelle as frozen in an early-20th century French administrator’s vision of modernism, thick with small bistros left over from the days of the French Protectorate, but only Chez Slah comes close: a spare, white-walled restaurant from the 1960s situated on a particularly unpromising block that serves spectacularly fresh fish, the only crispy frites in the country, and mousse au chocolat with a large communal bowl of crème fraiche.  Desolate at 8:30 on a Friday night it is packed by 10:00 and it seems that everyone is greeted as an old friend.  Families arrive, the waiters in their white tuxedo jackets teasing the little girls, and I know that when these girls have grown up and moved away to France or wherever origins and opportunities take them they will look back on this period as a golden, carefree age; the waiters will loom large in these memories – indeed, the whole idea that there could be a place where waiters become friends and adopted fathers – but, by middle age, it will all seem too idyllic to have been real.

The rich have decamped from Tunis en masse, migrating to the northeastern suburbs: Carthage, Sidi Bou Said, La Marsa, Gammarth, each with a small town center and many of the country’s best restaurants and nightspots.  Most of these are new developments of beautiful white villas – almost everything in Tunis is white, dating back to the medina – done in an unadorned style reminiscent of Le Corbusier and early modernism but with a few simple arches in reference to local architectural traditions.  The jewel of the area is the village of Sidi Bou Said, which is perched on a cliff overlooking the Gulf of Tunis; here, the white walls are flecked with aquamarine windows and flowering vines in purple or red, giving it the feel of Mykonos or Cordoba – the last owing to the many Andalusian Arabs who fled Spain after the 15th century Christian reconquest.  Like the medina, Sidi Bou Said swarms with tourists from late-morning to early-evening and then, suddenly, as a gentle breeze begins and the sun fades away it becomes, once again, a retreat for young Tunisian couples who gather at the terraced Café Sidi Chebaane to watch the hills of Cap Bon, just visible across the azure waters, recede into the night.

Tunisia has always been a schizophrenic place.  The seat of several great empires and speckled with ancient ruins built by both Carthage and its rival Rome, it has long marketed itself as a cultureless, ahistorical beach destination.  It was a stalwart Western ally during the Cold War and now, again, in the war on terror, but it has also hosted everyone from the FLN, the radical Algerian independence group, to Yasser Arafat’s PLO when it was still in its rogue phase.  And, today, despite its pride in being the most modern and advanced Arab country, Tunisia has had only two presidents in its almost 50 years of independence, both fond of 99%+ votes at election time.  Tunisia may have a minimal military presence compared to most Arab countries – it is the country’s eternal good fortune that the national army was too small at independence to seize power – but there is a large police presence, press freedom on a par with Libya, and, by reputation, a high degree of intelligence surveillance.  As a result, there is a folkloric quality to the way Tunisians recount their modern political history, as if what I’m hearing is a mythological, agreed-upon version shorn of details that might create awkward moments for the teller or invite recrimination.  So, when I ask about the embarrassing number of hagiographic portraits around town of the current president, Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali, I am told that the fault lies with Habib Bourguiba, the first president – now dead, and therefore in no position to retaliate – as if Ben Ali, who has been president for close to twenty years, were new to power and still struggling with his inheritance.

But there are other kinds of freedom – economic, social – and here Tunisia has succeeded where much of the Arab world has failed; indeed, except for the absence of democracy, Tunisia looks a lot like the secular, modern, free enterprise Middle East George Bush says he wants to bring into being.  It has a burgeoning middle class, as I discovered on a visit to the French supermarket and department store Carrefour, which Tunisians talk about as if it were the name of a small town and not merely the anchor tenant of a shopping center about 15 minutes outside Tunis. I went to try to find a favorite local wine – one of the true pleasures of Tunisia – and wandered into a world of people pushing giant carts piled high with every conceivable good down vast, American-suburb aisles towards one of Carrefour’s 53 mobbed checkout lines.  It was madness, maybe, but a healthy sign all the same.

Socially, the first president, Habib Bourguiba, was a secular modernizer in the Ataturk mold (famously, he once tried to ban Ramadan, the Islamic month of fasting) who soon after independence pushed through a Personal Status Code that gave extensive rights to women, among other things.  Bourguiba was ahead of his time but he was also of his time: in the 1950s, secular, modern nationalism was the official ideology almost everywhere in the Arab world.  It was a period of optimism, of the imminent reclaiming of the greatness of which every Arab is so conscious.  In retrospect, it is unfortunate that the West (and in particular the US) didn’t recognize its long-term interest in seeing this project of Arab modernization succeed; instead, it was mostly hostile, fearing that success would expand Soviet influence or threaten Israel, though Tunisia was largely exempt because it backed Western foreign policy in the region.  The 1967 war was the culmination of this period of hope and the fighting was so brief, the failure for the Arabs so absolute, that for many in the region it discredited the whole venture of Western-style modernization.  As a result, Arab governments – which are still run by the heirs to the modernizers, now without ideas to offer and reduced to just clinging to power by brute force – have spent the last 40 years beating back an insurgency by the shadow image of Western-style modernization, which is the return to tradition, to the past, to Islam.  In Tunisia, the Personal Status Code is still in force but tradition has visibly reasserted itself in recent years, encroaching on the spirit of the law; elsewhere, Arab women have always found ways to exert more power and influence than is written into the letter of the law.  As a result, outside a few rich enclaves northeast of Tunis and the beaches of Hammamet in summer, the gap between Tunisia and other North African countries has visibly narrowed and the people walking the streets of Tunis – even the women – look much as they do in Cairo or Casablanca.


I meet Anouar Brahem in Carthage, the center of an empire savaged by the ancient Romans.  I wanted to talk with Anouar about cosmopolitan Tunis because I have always thought of his music as something like the unofficial soundtrack to Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities: evocative of distant places without ever quite being one place in particular.  As it happens, his music is Tunisian, but it incorporates everything from Andalusian-Arab maluf to avant-garde jazz so there is nothing else in the country that sounds quite like it.

Anouar suggests we meet at Villa Didon, the very hip hotel built among the ruins.  At first, I take the setting as a polite way of reminding me that Tunisian identity has many layers and deep roots and that it didn’t become cosmopolitan with the arrival of the French.  But later, when I stay at Villa Didon, I realize Anouar’s choice also says something about his music.  With its Vitra furniture and sleek white rooms, Villa Didon is a hotel that its detractors say could be anywhere, but to create a hotel in the Arab world that feels like it really could be anywhere and is not just a pale imitation of someplace else – where the design details are so perfect that it could hold its own in Barcelona or Antwerp – is a heroic achievement and calls into question why this, too, can’t be part of what people think of when they think of Tunisia.  This is precisely what Anouar struggles with: his music is contemporary and cosmopolitan and as much Keith Jarrett as traditional maluf, but as Anouar puts it, “When I went to Paris to play my music, nobody wanted to hear that.  Ah, you are Tunisian?  So play your traditional music please.  But my only ambition, my only hope, was to play my music, you know.  Because they had this idea that Tunisia is only traditional things.  It’s one image.  They are not so interested in the things that are modern.”

Anouar worked with the filmmaker Ferid Boughedir on Halfaouine, a coming of age story set in the district north of the medina, where Anouar himself grew up.  The film first showed at Cannes in 1990 and quickly became the biggest success in the history of Tunisian cinema, reflecting what Ferid calls the ‘mass auteur’ tastes of Tunisian audiences who turn out in droves for what, elsewhere, would be small art-house films because they so rarely have a chance to see their daily lives represented on screen.  The district of Halfaouine dates to at least the 13th century Hafsid empire and is today a warren of small white houses and winding alleys unchanged by the tourism that pours into the nearby medina.  It is regarded as a fairly traditional district, which makes it a powerful setting for a film Ferid made as a defense of tolerance in the face of a growing Islamist threat. “The fundamentalists are saying you should take the dogma” – of, say, a strict prohibition of alcohol – “and apply it to reality,” Ferid explains.  “But what I’m saying [in this film] is, look, in our history it’s the contrary. Our society is, in fact, deeply tolerant if the person shows he respects society…We made the pacte fundamentale between the religions before France came here.  And the abolition of slavery happened in Tunisia before Europe.  A lot of people think France came here and brought with her the ideas of equality and democracy and it’s not true.”

Ferid describes a scene from the film in which the shoemaker, a known drunkard, is about to play music before an audience at a wedding and salutes them with ‘cough syrup’ that everyone knows is alcohol.  “This is not hypocrisy,” Ferid says, “I would call it elegance.” I had a cough syrup moment myself at the Café de Paris in the Ville Nouvelle, which is one of the few that sells beer.  I took a table on the sidewalk under the trees that line Avenue Bourguiba and ordered a Celtia, the local lager that comes in small green bottles with gold foil necks.  The waiter shifted nervously.  I had, inadvertently, acted without elegance: beers could only be ordered inside, behind the large windows that no more hid what was going on than did the shoemaker’s cough syrup bottle but showed that even as I was making a personal choice to transgress I was respecting that society wished I wouldn’t.  This insistence on elegance lends a speakeasy secrecy to many of the best nightspots in Tunis, which is why they can be so difficult to find.


The first thing I notice is the giant plastic palm tree towering over the compound.  An explosion of light bursts from the trunk and then changes color as it cascades down to the tips of the fronds.  There’s nothing especially secretive about an exploding palm tree, except that its location on a small side street in a residential neighborhood outside Tunis means I never would have stumbled upon it.

This is the entertainment complex called the Plaza Corniche and the palm tree is the least of it.  The garden and adjoining restaurants are filled to excess with relentlessly kitsch Americana of the pink flamingo variety: “Chinese” hanging lanterns, street signs, roadside diner bric-a-brac, neon signs.  The underground disco, with its strip lights and suburban bachelor pad seating, is a paean to San Fernando Valley, like a Boogie Nights film set.  This is not an ironic take on kitsch; it oozes sincerity.  And perhaps as a result, the Plaza is immensely popular: jet-set Tunisian girls, rough-featured Libyan ministers, local playboys, Algerians on the make, offspring of the political aristocracy, and alcohol-soaked European expats all gather in its cluttered confines.  This mix is something truly rare – in my experience, almost unprecedented – in the Arab world, where religion gets all the attention but social class is just as much a determinant of identity and rich Arabs tend to socialize in a world unto themselves.  Partly this is insecure snobbery; partly it is that the reality of their lifestyles would horrify most of their poorer compatriots.  But at the Plaza Corniche, they all feel at home.

I find the gracefully aging, rheumy-eyed owner, André Backar, holding court at a dinner table, telling all who will listen about his successes.  This is charm, not braggadocio. André’s almost child-like need for affirmation is so transparent that his otherwise unbelievable life story, by the time it is finally told, comes to seem inevitable. Abandoned by his father and then orphaned by the premature death of his mother, André is sent off as a boy to Tunis to find his father; which he does, working in a garage, but the man will not take him in, so André spends his remaining pocket money to go to La Marsa, just outside Tunis near the current-day Plaza, where he is adopted as a kind of mascot by American servicemen stationed there – this is just after WWII – who, when their base closes, give him a visa to the US as a parting gift.

It takes André an hour to tell the story to this point, full of practiced but extraneous detail.  It is late; I am tired.  Untold events will get him to America, a stint as a shoe salesman at Saks, and eventually the fortune and United Nations Plaza residence that await him.  But the story, even in its early chapters, has turned the bizarre atmosphere of the Plaza Corniche into something beautiful, the measure of one man’s unrestrained gratitude for the country that took him in and saved him from penury, and not, as it seemed at first, merely an exercise in monstrously bad taste.  But there is something else, too. America, even in its most kitsch form, is a symbol of all things modern and in a region so often seen as hostile to both it would seem folly to open this shrine to the banal comforts of American life.  Yet the Plaza is adored because this is an idealized America of easy liberty, delightfully bad television shows, and greasy onion rings, an America untied to the wars and injustices that have brought it so little credit in the region. It is the true America, many would say.  And now, when I look out at the plastic palm tree still bursting its colors into the Tunisian sky, I see a kind of love.


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