This week’s dream
Tunisia, North Africa’s democratic oasis
Visiting Tunis today, “it’s hard to imagine there was ever a time when the city didn’t feel so uninhibited,” said Sebastian Modak in The New York Times. The cosmopolitan capital where the Arab Spring democracy movement began nine years ago has been reborn since the ouster of dictator Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali. Young Tunisian artists and entrepreneurs have returned from abroad in droves, and though the country’s recent presidential election didn’t seem to electrify the populace, optimism is in the air. The energy is particularly noticeable in Gammarth, a Tunis suburb “so packed with bars, it resembles a theme park for adults.” I make friends quickly at a nightclub where everyone is dancing like nobody’s watching. “This would never have happened so openly even 10 years ago,” one reveler shouted to me.
“Tunisia has a bit of everything, from Roman ruins to beach resorts.” I started my trip in Tunis’ outskirts, in the popular seaside town of Sidi Bou Said, where the buildings’ white-and-blue color scheme can make you think you’re in Greece. After popping into galleries and sipping tea at a rooftop café, I walked all the way to Carthage—the famous ancient city destroyed and then rebuilt by the Romans. I saw all its sights in a day but “could easily have returned for repeat visits.” Once in Tunis, I enjoyed a memorable meal at a roadside stall, where I talked to a young entrepreneur who spoke excitedly about Tunisia’s future but was there for lablabi—bread smothered with chickpeas, spiced broth, and chili paste, “the kind of comfort food you can just eat and eat.”
Nothing topped the days and nights I spent in Tunis’ medina. The 1,300-year-old heart of the city is so dense and labyrinthine that taxi drivers refuse to enter. Luckily, I was given an impromptu tour by a local who showed me mosques, madrasas, music schools, and mausoleums, which still draw the Muslim faithful and seem to occupy every other corner. Cats were also everywhere, even hiding in gaps between bricks. “Cats are the soul of this city,” my guide said. “The place is full of secrets—I think they know them all.”
At Sidi Bou Said’s Villa Kahina (kahinavilla.com), rooms start at $149. ■