If you ask many a European tourist who visited Tunisia pre-2015 attacks, Sousse would have probably been on their list (if not the only place on their list). Sadly many of these all-inclusive packages meant that most people stayed only in their resort – a different story altogether. But the horrible attacks in the Port of El-Kantaoui killing 38 people had an explosive effect on tourism here. It almost vanished overnight.
Four years on, tourism has picked up a little. But it’s nowhere near what it used to be, I’m told by Aziz – my Airbnb host. My visit to Sousse was safe and uneventful. And in the process I discovered it is much more than a line of seaside resorts.
Go back through time to the first centuries of Islam, and you’ll find a unique example of Arab military coastal architecture in the Medina of Sousse. Its enchanting Medina has a big mix of commercial activity and historical monuments dotted along its zigzag alleyways. It has mighty 8m high walls strengthened with several solid square turrets built by the Aghlabids in AD859. If these walls could talk, I’m sure their stories could entertain for years. After all, they’ve got over a millennium of people, lives, events and rulers that they’ve witnessed. How many structures in the world are able to make that claim?
At the heart of the Medina is Souq Er-Ribba – a riot of activity with incredible colours, haggling traders and boys trying to squeeze their heavily loaded carts. Further along is the 8th century Ribat (fort) – the oldest monument in the Medina. It was sadly closed when I went, so I missed seeing the small antechamber as you enter – one of the final lines of defence. From high above, boiling liquids and objects were thrown down on unsuspecting intruders!
#protip: Go up the narrow spiral staircase of the watch tower, to see incredible views of the Medina.
The most interesting Medina gate: Bab El-Finga; the French had their guillotine outside this gate!
Port of Kantaoui
It felt strange going for a morning walk in a place that, just 4 years ago, had been the site of a terror attack killing 38 innocent people. Port El-Kantaoui was by far the most touristy place I’d visited in Tunisia, but beautiful in its own way. It’s received a lot of criticism for being artificial and soulless (it was built in 1979 as a tourist centre, with shiny white architecture designed on the basis of a Tunisian village). But today it was calm, with the morning sun shining and reflecting off the water and boats sparkling in the sun.
For me, I was most inspired by time’s ability to heal. Yes, it most definitely is not the mass tourist hub that it once was, but people are slowly coming back. The sound of children laughing, the smell of fresh coffee, the familiar negotiations between vendor and tourist on some knick-knack are beginning to fill the air again. This inspires me. The warmth and hospitality of Tunisians I met everywhere really touched me, and I can only hope in time, everyone looks beyond the past and gives this gem of a country a chance.
La Baie Des Anges
Aziz (my Airbnb host) told me about this stunner of a view point – with no people, no signs; just you overlooking the beautiful town and sea. It’s a few minutes walk from a roundabout in a wealthy suburb in the town of Hammam Sousse (about 15 mins from Sousse by louage – shared taxi). As you walk past well-manicured, desert palm-lined streets with wonderful houses, use Google Maps as a rough directional guide. When you come to the roundabout right next to the location indicated on Google Maps, you’ll need to head off-road and through the bushes to reach this place and its magnificent view.
What do Tunisians think of life post the 2011 revolution?
Being my inquisitive self, I was very interested to know the local perspective on the state of affairs. Is it what people wanted? Was there a sense of regret? So I asked Ahmed (name changed to protect identity) of what he thought of life post-revolution.
Ahmed really missed some aspects of pre-revolution life: the attitude of people, the respect they had towards others, the emphasis on education and the relative stability of the economy as tourism was at its peak (Tunisia used to be quite the hotspot for European package holidaymakers). But at the same time, Tunisia was under a dictatorship and freedom of speech was a distant dream. Post-revolution, the ideal life that many Tunisians thought they would attain failed to come to fruition. With the subsequent terrorist attacks in 2015, tourism tanked. Media attention and travel advisories meant European package holidaymakers went to Spain and Morocco instead. A key pillar of the economy crumbled. Ahmed felt that the country was ruled by a group of people who had little experience in governing, economic planning or development – wages rose with little productivity, cost of living increased and the economy was (is?) on shaky ground. Despite all of this, his gratitude and appreciation for the newfound liberty and freedom of speech was unmistakeable. Something he said can’t really be understood by someone who’s lived in a democracy and taken such freedom for granted all their life. But he dreams of a Tunisia that one day will combine the best of both worlds.
Meet Aziz and hear what he loves most about Tunisia
I find it really interesting to see what people miss most about their country when they go abroad.
For Aziz from Sousse, this was the warmth and closeness of people in Tunisia. Tunisians are an extremely friendly and caring people; there is a great sense of closeness and intimate involvement between friends and families in each other’s lives. What might feel like encroachment of personal space or smothering in some parts of the world, is normal in Tunisia. What that does mean, is that your community of friends, neighbours and family will always be there, ever-present, through good times and bad, whether you like it or not 🙂
It also struck me how sometimes, the things we miss can be seemingly small, mundane elements that are part of our everyday lives. For Aziz, this was the bidet/hand shower in the toilet – a common presence in the Arab and Asian world. Something that almost goes unnoticed in everyday life, but has a marked impact when absent.
Getting from Tunis to Sousse
Pretty straightforward. I took the train from Gare de Tunis to Sousse (Ville) Station. SNCFT (Tunisian Railways) runs about 8-10 trains a day. Trains take 2hrs, and cost ~8 Tunisian Dinar TND (~$2.80). I bought tickets half an hour before my train was due to depart and I was fine, but apparently in summer the route can get a bit busy so you’re advised to book a few days in advance. The SNCFT website typically has all the latest information, but can at times be temperamental.
Getting around Sousse
From Sousse (Ville) Station, it’s a short walk to the Suburban Louage (shared taxi) stand which is just by the Medina. I waited for a yellow louage to leave towards the little town of Hammam Sousse (about 15 min drive from Sousse) where I was staying. The fare is fixed – 1 TND (~$0.35), which you just pay the driver as you get off. The Port of El-Kantaoui and La Baie des Anges were within walking distance (30-40 min) of Hammam Sousse.
Kairouan: Tunisia’s Holy City
Street Food: Hello Brik
I got to Kairouan on Friday evening. This mystical Holy City is widely considered the 4th holiest city in the Islamic world after Mecca, Medina, and Jerusalem because of its Great Mosque. Since most of the neighborhood eateries were closed, I thought I’d try the famous Tunisian “Brik”, which a street food vendor was busily making with a large group of people waiting in line.
Brik a l’Oeuf au Thon is a delicate wafer-thin round bread that’s filled with a mix of mashed potato, harissa, tuna, cheese, capers and egg. These ingredients are thrown into the flattened dough with swift rapidity, expertly mixed in seconds, wrapped up and thrown into hot oil to be deep fried.
There was nothing more satisfying than biting into the crispy deep-fried dough and its warm homely filling, with cheese melting on your tongue, followed by the fiery kick of a healthy dose of harissa. All for just 1.3 TND ($0.45). I had to go for a second helping!
Kairouan apparently had always been a travellers’ hub – either for trade or pilgrimage. So the town is used to people from faraway lands. It was here that Islam gained a foothold into North Africa and it has maintained its significance as a seat of Islamic scholarship to this day.
In Kairouan’s Medina, apart from the main thoroughfare, you’re free of traders trying to sell you things. Instead you’ll see carpet makers toiling away, together with tailors, cobblers and other tradespeople. As life winds down in the afternoon, the Medina becomes even more charming with the golden hue of the sun and long shadows bouncing off the ornate doors and the blue window shutters. And the buzz and hustle of the morning is replaced by a sweeping calm and sense of quiet.
This date-filled semolina cake drenched in honey is a Tunisian delight; a calorific explosion that Kairouan is known for. Best place to try it out? The Segni Patisserie in the Medina.
Mosque of the Three Doors
One place that was especially magical at dusk in Kairouan was the Mosque of the Three Doors. Founded by a holy man from Córdoba, Spain in AD866, its facade has strong Andalusian influences. On top of the three arched doorway were ornate friezes of Kufic script (the oldest calligraphic form of Arabic script) interspersed with floral reliefs that looked like they were dipped in gold at sunset. This brought back a memory of my 7th grade English teacher, Mrs Sheriff, who insisted that beautiful flowing hand script was instrumental in life. It was at this point that my love and appreciation for beautiful script and calligraphy began. And Arabic calligraphy can really be something.
Bir Barouta: the legend of golden goblets
Legend has it that an Arab General Okba’s horse found a golden goblet buried in the sand in AD 670 and it was here that the site for Kairouan was chosen. This goblet apparently turned out to be one that has mysteriously disappeared from Mecca a few years ago. When the golden goblet was picked up, water gushed out of the ground, so people gathered that the water came from the same source that supplies the holy well of Zem-Zem in Mecca. This well still survives in the heart of Kairouan’s Medina at Bir Barouta, where a sleepy camel turns the wheel to draw water for people to taste. From my interaction with the camel (where I was most enthusiastic and it looked at me blankly), I gathered it wasn’t in the least interested in seeing me or any other visitors ;).
The Great Mosque in Kairouan is the oldest in North Africa and one of the largest. I thought I’d spend an hour thinking and reflecting here. About how grateful I was to have the opportunity to travel for a few months, and how just maybe, I could find a way to potentially do this full time one day. At the very same moment a man – who might have been the muezzin (person in charge of reciting the call to prayer) – came up to me. I initially thought he was going to ask me what I was doing here and ask me to leave. But instead he just told me to follow and in broken French welcomed me, explained the story of the mosque and the significance behind a lot of the engravings and structures. I didn’t understand much of it, but felt great comfort in the warm energy he exuded.
Later as I was reading that evening, I came across a quote which was most apt: “Have faith in your journey. Everything had to happen exactly as it did to get you to where you are going next.”
I’m a firm believer that everything in life happens for a reason, even if we may not understand what that is in the moment. No experience ever goes in vain nor is it time wasted. It just makes you stronger. And teaches you more about yourself. So as hard and bleak as things may seem along the journey at times, I try and remember that this too shall pass. And in the meanwhile, find whatever helps give you strength to get through that – whether that’s an oasis of tranquility like this beautiful mosque, friends that help you laugh like you haven’t before, family that’s always there for you or a good opportunity to sweat it out.
Sidi Abid Al-Ghariani
This zaouia (shrine) dates all the way back to the 8th century, and was built by a Kairouaniese scholar called Al-Jadidi. Once you enter, you are led to a courtyard paved with marble having beautiful black geometric patterns. All I felt was extreme airiness, solitude and light. The shrine was also used as a place of teaching where scholars would impart knowledge on religious and literary subjects to students gathered in the courtyard. My imagination immediately conjured up an image of a group of students sat on the floor one afternoon, the sun streaming in, the scholar talking about his passion, and a cool breeze blowing. What an amazing place to sit and learn.
The Slow Life
People in Kairouan, like the rest of Tunisia, love to sit and pass time just staring at life go by, or play a game of sorts, or chat with friends, laugh and discuss politics and sport in the numerous cafes that dot different corners of the city.
You’re spoilt for choice with the thick and strong Turkish coffee (ahwa arbi) with a splash of orange blossom or rose water. But the two most common drinks? A Tunisian ‘capucin‘ (espresso macchiato) and freshly squeezed orange juice. And you can find both on street cafes for just 1-1.5 TND ($0.33-0.50). It takes a while to adjust to the slow life, but once you have – it’s the most blissful way to be. Hectic? Doesn’t exist in the vocabulary.
Tunisia’s carpet making capital
Story has it that the Ottoman governor’s daughter was the first to weave a carpet in the city for one of the mosques in the 19th century and the tradition continued, making Kairouan the carpet-making capital of Tunisia.
Having a look at carpets is a staple experience in Kairouan. You can try avoid carpet shops all you like but at some point you cave. It all begins with an innocent glance after which you are ceremoniously brought inside by the salesmen (men sell, women make the carpets here). It soon transpires that the salesman has only recently met someone from Sri Lanka who bought a carpet and oh what a beautiful country it is and how wonderful Sri Lankans are. Simultaneously, carpets are rolled out for me to take a look. The salesman tells me that because he loves Sri Lanka so much and I am such a welcome guest, I get a 20% discount.
I am then shown what a Herculean effort it takes to make one, with majority of the processes being manual. I gently mentioned that I didn’t want anything and I’ll think about it. Knowing that I probably will never return, the discount suddenly improves to 40%, which ‘apparently shouldn’t be the case for such a beautiful carpet’, but because he loves Sri Lanka, and my fellow countrymen, I get the special offer. With my polite but firm refusal, charm and hospitality suddenly disappear and effusive phrases are replaced with mutterings and curses as I find my own way out. The salesman has immediately focused his attention on the next unassuming passerby.
After the third time this charade happened (in different shops), I couldn’t help but smile at the whole act. I wished I could warn the next innocent person who walks by but decide that the experience is a must-have, so smile and walk away.
Getting to Kairouan from Sousse
I took a suburban shared taxi (louage) to the Station Louage de Sousse – which is slightly south of the city and from where all the intercity louages (white with a red stripe) depart from. This louage station is massive and you’ve got louages departing for different parts of the country parked in designated areas. Here, I went to the ticket office to buy my ticket in advance of getting in the louage. Then began the painful process of waiting until the louage filled up (the drivers never leave until the louage is full) – this can take anywhere from 10 minutes to more than an hour.
Getting around Kairouan
Kairouan is a relatively compact town, so I walked from the louage station to my hotel in the centre and then the Medina (where a bulk of the activity in Kairouan takes place).