A veil of mist hides the Atlas, and before us lies the coast of La Goulette, Tunisia. On the dock, a trio of camels ambles past while a group of musicians play, whirl, and dance. We are being welcomed to North Africa!
The smallest country in North Africa, Tunisia boasts a cultural mixed heritage of Phoenician, Roman, Byzantine, Arab, ottoman and French nations—all of whom have come and gone with the passage of years. Wedged between Algeria and Libya (“Full of fanaticals,” grumbles our guide, Rall,), Tunisia is a new and hopeful progressive democracy. Its women are fully emancipated, and polygamy is a thing of the past. Women vote, drive cars, and have rights in all things—including the right to divorce. Rall informs us that for the men in Tunisia, this is a difficult thing. “Women can divorce a man when she wants to, and the rule is that if she has three children, the only thing the poor man can take out of the house is one suitcase!” Surely not, we all cry. “No,” Rall protests. “It’s true! The women have the power.”
Actually, it was a woman whose power lay behind the great ancient nation of Carthage. Princess Dido, in 814 BCE, made sure that Carthage thrived as an extraordinary civilization until the Punic Wars brought it to its knees. Today we are taken to the site of ruins—not ruins of Carthage, for these were completely obliterated by the vengeful Roman conquerors—but ancient tombs unearthed quite recently which belonged to an ancient people. Carthaginians? Perhaps. There are also ruins of Roman baths and aqueducts which exude, as such ruins always do, a sense of timelessness.
Tunis is also very much about the present. Commerce bustles in the Medina, and in the carpet shop we visit, and we run hands over carpets made of camel hair, lambs wool, and cashmere. Some of the carpets are made for everyday use—we fall in love with one woven of lambs wool and colored with natural Berber indigo dyes—but some would be at home in the palace at Versailles. Deals are made here and in the Souk nearby, where bargaining is an art. I always think I am a good bargainer, but I feel that here I am only an amateur!
Culture is also at the heart of Tunis. At the Brado National Museum, we stand in awe before ceiling-to-wall mosaics taken from Roman ruins around the country. These are all from different periods—Roman, Byzantine, Ottoman. Some of the subjects are familiar. Here is Ulysses and the faithful Penelope. There is Neptune, triumphant and surrounded by his court. Here are fishermen or hunters going about their business, or a lady at her toilette. Rall leads us to stand in front of a huge mosaic that spans an entire wall and tells us it is the largest complete Roman mosaic in the world. We believe.
In sharp contrast to recent violence in this part of the world, the people we meet today are friendly and welcoming. They are multilingual, conversing with us in Italian, French or English, and not once do we hear an angry or unfriendly word. “In Tunisia,” says Rall, “We have just begun the democracy. It is not easy. For sixty years we have had someone tell us what to do, and our brains have gone to sleep! Now we must wake up and think for ourselves!” He is outspoken about politics. “Look at the fanaticals in Iran and in Syria and Saudia Arabia,” he says, grumbles. “The clerics are worse than the poor fools who throw the bombs because they twist the teachings of the Koran. In Tunisia, we have a protection against such things. In our country education is free from the kindergarten to the end of the University! Education is the key to making sure there are no fanaticals in our country.” We can only hope that this will be as Rall believes.
As if to underscore this hope, he points to a church and tells us that there the three faiths: Muslim, Jewish and Christian, pray together. He also takes us to a place of peace and beautiful stillness. This is a cemetery deeded by the country to all allied soldiers who died defending Tunisia during the Second World War. White crosses and Stars of David stand row after row in a beautifully kept grassy field. Roses and bougainvillea abound, and a marble statue stands by a small fountain. I sign the guest book there and feel that, in a very small way, I am leaving a part of my own history in this extraordinary North African nation.