Quote: "I expressed a verbal appreciation of the fascinatingly first class highways in my passable high school French. Abdel responded with a hint of a gloat that the country was as good as anything in the West of Europe. I would have agreed with the comparison had he not pounded a few shallow pot-holes and flown past a couple of beggars at a malfunctioning traffic light...."
I left the southernmost country in Africa destined for the most northern nation on the continent. The strange thing was that the cheapest options available involved spending a few hours outside the continent in a stop-over either in Paris, Rome or Dubai. I chose to mount Emirates given the pleasant experience I had the last time I flew on this airline, the highlight being generous space in economy class which I find to be a must for a lanky individual on a long-haul journey.
After a lazy waltz through the thousands of Dubai duty free shops ten hours later, I embarked on my onward six hour journey to Carthage airport in Tunis. When I emerged through customs, there was no one to meet me and I panicked momentarily. I was about to pull out my laptop to search for the last email I had received from my hosts when I spotted a board with a name that I recognised – that of a colleague from our Lyon office who was joining me on the four day assignment. The driver, Abdel, had confused our arrival times and we had an uneasy laugh about it on the way to the car.
When I heard that I was being dispatched to Tunis, I expected a hot dusty city with burka clad women concealing their faces. Surprisingly, it was fresh air, cool temperatures and although the women were of the Arabic persuasion, they were dressed like Europeans with all the takings of modern fashion, beautiful skin and long, flowing hair.
Deterred by folklore of such countries that claim that the hands of thieves are chopped off and imagining what they do to fornicators, I decided to halt my admiration of the women and instead expressed a verbal appreciation of the fascinatingly first class highways in my passable high school French. Abdel responded with a hint of a gloat that the country was as good as anything in the West of Europe.
I would have agreed with the comparison had he not pounded a few shallow pot-holes and flown past a couple of beggars at a malfunctioning traffic light. We eventually arrived at the hotel located in an area known as El Menzah VII and I retired for the night as the hard work was scheduled to commence the following day.
When dawn broke, I opened the curtains and took in an aerial view of the city. What struck me most was that almost all the houses and buildings were painted white. As soon as I set up my lap top at the client's office, I decided to Google the reason for this as Abdel had mumbled something unconvincing when I enquired in the car. It turned out to be a popular search item with similar questions about other Mediterranean countries like Greece and Spain. A plethora of explanations were proposed by online 'experts' including keeping the houses cooler, the use of white-wash on the buildings and the blue and white colours of the Greek flag.
Our host, Salem, took us out to lunch where I was treated to the freshest and tastiest fish of my life. I noted in this and the other restaurants we were to visit, that Tunisians do not drink much alcohol but smoking and the consumption of strong shots of black tea was a pastime of the majority.
The conversation centred on the recent Arab revolution which began in Tunis and spread to a number of countries with various long-serving Presidents being displaced. Salem's view was that, although their overthrown Head of State Ben Ali was a dictator, he had surrounded himself with technocrats who developed the country. Tunisia, he said, had a more enviable economy than Libya and Algeria despite not having mineral resources like these two neighbours. He concluded that things seemed worse following his departure with the economy having dipped and people not knowing what to expect from the government of the day.
We left the restaurant two hours later, a routine that we were to repeat for the remainder of my stay. Long lunches seemed to be the order of the day which the locals compensate for by working until the early evening. The restaurant we visited was in an area that resembled Fifth Avenue New York with various perfume and clothing stores and the big apple feel was compounded by the numerous yellow cabs that patrol the town.
We took a drive that evening to a part of the town called La Medina and dined at a restaurant known as the Dar el Jeld. Our table was close to an old man playing a very discrete tune on a stringed instrument known as the kanoun. No sooner had we made our orders than an array of various starters was placed on the table; it was explained to me that this was customary in most fancy restaurants. I enjoyed another sea-sourced culinary delight while admiring the ancient Arabic architecture. As we departed, I followed my hosts lead in proffering their palms to the doorman for him to sprinkle perfume on their hands on the way out; another common theme in all the restaurants we would visit in the few days I was in the country.
Three days of relentless paperwork passed with us repeating the long lunch-fancy dinner routine of the first day. Dark Africans are as common in Tunisia as Mongolians in Mangaung so I was very pleased to meet, on my last night, a fellow Kenyan to whom I had been introduced on Facebook. We spent most of the evening looking for a nightclub but it seemed as if the only places open were smoking dens for men. We ended up at a spot built into the sea and the ambiance created by the waves slapping the walls was not enough to keep us there having been put off by the techno-like music and immature crowd of campus students.
On the final morning, our hosts surprised the Frenchman and me with a hamper each of chocolates and other treats for our "wives back home". Then we were treated to a tour of Sidi Bou Said, a small historic town, not far from the Carthage airport, where every single building was white with blue windows. It is a popular spot for tourists with great sea views and a bustling market place for all kinds of memorabilia. A friendly man on the street insisted on taking a picture of me with a live falcon he was carrying around even though I had run out of Dinar to pay for the brief touristic experience.
As Abdel dropped me off at the airport, he warned that I hadn't seen Tunisia if I hadn't travelled to the popular beach destinations of Sfax and Hammamet. I vowed to return one day, but with a painfully long journey to make back home, I was not sure that was a promise I was bound to keep.