It’s been almost a month since I moved to Tunis, and many folks have been asking about my initial impressions. My response: Tunis and I are still learning each other. And really, that’s what it is. For whatever reason, Tunis is hard to decipher. Besides the obvious preference for pink/fuchsia in interior decor (don’t ask), the undeniable tea culture, and the fact that most women seem to wear platforms, it’s been hard to get a handle on it so far. In many ways, Tunisia is the most culturally novel and nuanced place I’ve come across in my travels thus far.
Situated on the tip of North Africa, this African/Arab/Mediterranean city has so many influences. Besides the diversity of Africans living here, the French, the Italian pizzas and Roman influences in the city of Carthage which was once the most powerful city in the then-modern world (even more than Rome, definitely on my to-do list!), the most obvious thing about Tunis is the Arab or Islamic influences.
Arabic is literally everywhere. It’s part of the reason I opted to move here – to improve and hopefully consolidate the two years of Arabic I took in grad school. Boy o boy, I’m quickly finding out – as my teachers did warn a number of times – that the local Arabic dialect rules supreme. So far my vocabulary of Tunisian Arabic is restricted to “asalem” (hello), “aeishik” (thank you – but which literally means ‘more life to you’) and “shuai-shuai” (little). Initially, I was quite disappointed that my Arabic-consolidation plans have been thwarted so, but now I take solace in the fact that I can read the Arabic littered on billboards and so on, and even recognize words I came across in school. I might just look at getting an Arabic conversation partner once I get settled in.
Settled in? Yes, settled in. My big headache. I have been apartment searching since, well, day one – and even a week in September when I first visited for training. To say that the process is energy draining would be an understatement, but on the plus side, I’m getting glimpses and a feel of different neighborhoods in Tunis. So far I’ve seen about 30 apartments – at least – basement type apartments in charming villas; apartments in tall, modern buildings; apartments with much character in the traditional blue and white buildings Tunis is known for; you name it, I probably done seen it. Initially I was looking for an S+1 (salle de sejour + une chambre/living room and a bedroom), but now I’m exploring S+2 or S+3 options with my flatmate. Yes, I know. How is it that I have a flatmate, but no flat?
It probably has something to do with the fact that this is actually my first time seeking out an apartment of my own. Yes, yes, I have lived in actual houses/buildings throughout my travels, but for the most part this search process has been mute. In college, I lived on campus – came with the package. While studying abroad in France, all we had to do was toss a coin to determine who would live in which apartment. In Senegal a friend found an apartment close to his house and alerted my roommate and I. He handled most of the agency transactions on our behalf. In Italy and D.C., three families graciously opened up their homes to me by virtue of our Mount Holyoke and Johns Hopkins SAIS connections. I’m currently living with an awesome family – again, thanks to the SAIS network – while I continue my search. Today I am so thankful for each of these housing angels; I cannot imagine the amount of stress I would have had to endure.
Besides my being a first-timer, it turns out that the Tunisian real estate industry can be a hard sell. True, there are many empty apartments in town – especially since tourism took somewhat of a nose-dive following the revolution – but Tunisian real estate agents can be a bit vulture-ish in their approach, especially if they figure out that you work for a certain international company. You’ll never see price hikes faster than during an initial encounter with an agent or apartment owner! I am West African and as such should have this whole bargaining thing down, but for some reason, they always throw me off. I am quite undone in this place, it’s eerie. But anyway, my flatmate and I have not given up. I believe we will find our physical place here in due time. Until then, the search continues!
The food. Perhaps the one area where you see the most external influence. In downtown Tunis the range of “African” restaurants is a testament to intentional marketing; the African Development Bank and its 1500+ workers from all over Africa all have lunch. For the most part the food is Ivorian (atieke) and Senegalese (yassa poulet, tchiep djen, etc), but the Tunisian coucous also features prominently. That said, I’m a bit surprised – and disappointed – there’s no Ghanaian restaurant in town; another reason I can’t wait to find an apartment with a well-equipped kitchen! The host of restaurants in the Lac region – there’s an estuary in Tunis! – are impressive; we already have our favorite –
it’s called… I can’t remember name right now, but let’s just say it’s the Tunisian version of HoneySuckle in Accra – a British/Irish pub style restaurant with a widescreen, mini-concerts, and the feeling of not being where you are. The zinger to it all – No alcohol is served. In the entire Lac region! So yeah, it’s our little escape :)
Prior to moving to Tunis, I’d been told my experience here as a black woman might be a little…distasteful. Apparently local men tend to put African women in a specific category; think howls from about 5 cars yester-eve while I waited for a taxi; one of which flashed its headlights, and made to pull over at the curb. To be honest, Tunisia is the first place where I’ve had my guard up right from day one. Not just because of the ongoing political turmoil, but also because there seems to be a fair amount of hostility in the air. Right from the airport with my 7+ hour wait for a visa, to looking for a taxi – I got zero help from even the uniformed personnel who were obviously supposed to give assistance. Since getting here and talking to many other Africans and expatriates, I’m learning there’s somewhat of a veil between the Tunisian society and everyone else – even for someone who is Muslim, speaks French and some level of Arabic.
Could it be remnants from a not-so-distant past of highly controlled freedom? Could it be because this is actually the first time I’m actually very different in a largely homogeneous society? Could it simply be that by listening to others on what to expect I’ve invited that reality into my life? It’s all in a jumbled up mix. That said, I have met some really kind and interesting Tunisians already, one of whom I met in 2008! I cannot tell you what comfort there is in knowing at least one local before moving to a new place. There’s also my fellow basketball mate who is always full of smiles, some of my colleagues at work, and then those taxi drivers who were actually sympathetic to my plight and offered advise on which neighborhoods to concentrate on for my apartment. There’s hope yet.
And so, my initial impression of Tunis is this: I’m still finding my place, my rhythm and tempo, and so until then, I’ll give Tunis a pass. Who knows, the issue could be me; Tunis was fine, going on her business until lil ol’ me came along. Heck, I haven’t even been to the sea-side yet with its turquoise blue expanse. If my experience in Senegal is any indication, these things take time. Each new place requires a new map, and each unfolds its wonders in its own time. We’re still learning each other, there’s much to explore.