Despite a couple of millennia of foreign occupation, it is a unique culture with a resilient national identity.
Phoenicians and Romans. The Phoenicians set their sights on Tunisia around 800 BC, and their capital Carthage – today a suburb of Tunis – was the main power in the western Mediterranean by the 6th century BC. The burgeoning Roman Empire became uneasy with a nation of such mercantile genius and mercenary strength on its doorstep, and 128 years of conflict – including the three Punic Wars – ensued. The legendary general of Carthage, Hannibal, invaded Italy in 216 BC, but the Romans finally triumphed. They razed Carthage, re-creating it a hundred years later as a Roman city. Roman Tunisia boomed in the first centuries AD, as sights such as Dougga and El-Jem attest.
Islam. In the 7th century, Arabs arrived from the east, bringing Islam. Despite occasional Berber resistance, various Arab dynasties ruled Tunisia until the 16th century, leaving behind the strongest ongoing cultural impact of all of Tunisia’s invaders. After fending off the Spanish Reconquistas, Tunisia became an outpost of the Ottoman Empire until France began its colonial push into the region in the 19th century.
French. Establishing their rule in 1881, the French spent the next 50 years attempting to re-invent Tunisia as an outpost of Europe.
Bourguiba & Ben. Tunisia was granted full independence from France and became a republic in 1956, a relatively peaceful process that saw exiled lawyer Habib Bourguiba returning to become the first president. He swore to eradicate poverty and separate politics from religion, while ‘righting all the wrongs done to women’. Tunisia’s economic savvy and famed tolerance dates to this period. Bourguiba gave Tunisia a secular state, championed women’s rights, and introduced free education and heath care. As the years wore on, however, he wasn’t too keen to give up power. Despite being declared president for life, his increasingly erratic and autocratic behaviour led to a bloodless coup in 1987. His successor, Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali, continued down a similar, if far less radical, road. Unfortunately, he too had an aversion to retirement. An appalling human-rights record and his zeal for feathering his extended family’s nest was to prove his undoing.
The Jasmine Revolution & Democratic Beginnings. Even dedicated Maghreb watchers failed to predict the momentous events of early 2011, and the wide-reaching Arab Spring that was to follow, but few who visited the country in the few years before could help but notice that all was not well. High unemployment and a spiraling cost of living fuelled despair and discontent, particularly among the highly educated, outward-looking young. The government’s petulant, paranoid censoring of the internet served only to irritate them further (while the uptake of social media tellingly outstripped the secret police’s ability to monitor and control). Then the country’s dirty laundry was aired to the world, when the infamous WikiLeaks release of US embassy cables told of the Ben Ali family’s grossly lavish lifestyle in colourful, cinematic detail.
In this febrile climate, Mohamed Bouazizi, a street merchant in the poverty-stricken central town of Sidi Bouzid, self-immolated. His act, a protest against persistent police harassment and the dire lack of opportunity he faced, and his subsequent death, set the population in motion. For years willing to put up with a repressive and openly corrupt dictator in exchange for stability and prosperity, Tunisians could no longer stay silent. A new and potent combination of social media and a strong network of trade unions facilitated coordinated, countrywide street uprisings, and on 14 January, 2011, Ben Ali and his much-hated wife Leila Trabelsi (‘the hairdresser’) fled.
Daily life returned to normal in the following months as interim presidents came and went but the revolutionary elation was short-lived. Tunisia’s economy was in worse shape than ever and ominous rumblings from a number of newly radicalised mosques began to be heard. In October 2011, Tunisians were finally able to vote in free elections – the country’s first. With progressive, secular and left-wing parties divided and disorganised, Ennahda (a moderate Islamist group, said to be buoyed by Qatari cash) emerged as the winner. In a deal-sharing agreement with two centrist secular parties, Moncef Marzouki, a formerly exiled doctor and human-rights campaigner, became president. Despite pledging its commitment to women’s rights and Tunisia’s secular laws, and disavowing religious extremism, the government’s record to date has not been encouraging. With admittedly a hard task in front of them, they have been accused of everything from incompetence and corruption to covert collusion with the most violent elements of the Salafist movement.
Today. Tunisia, long considered North Africa’s most liberal and stable nation, had kept a fairly low international profile until 2011. Its popular uprising, the poetically named Jasmine Revolution, fuelled a wave of popular dissent across the region and the Middle East, sparking the Arab Spring. It’s put a country that was best known as a destination for summer getaways firmly in the headlines.
Tunisia’s transition to democracy has not been an easy one, and the seeming lack of volition continues to damage an already limping economy and its all-important tourist industry. Along with, and perhaps because of, its current economic woes, the emergence of the hardline Islamist Salafist movement has become a major concern, both within the country and internationally. The Salafis’ capability for violence grabs headlines, but they are a small, if highly visible, minority.
Most Tunisians continue to insist that the tolerant and secular values bequeathed to them by their first president still define who they are. The armoured trucks stationed on Ave Habib Bourghiba might signal instability, but life goes on much as it always did, with the surrounding cafe tables perpetually full and the young soldiers checking out the glamorously dressed women heading to global fashion retailer Zara. Tunisians across the country are quick to declare that anyone who thinks that this is a radical Islamist state in the making obviously does not understand their history or character, and would do well to remember that they took to the street for freedom and democracy once, and they are certainly willing to do it again.
Almost 98% of Tunisia’s population is Arab-Berber. Although Arabs and Berbers have mixed for 14 centuries, people living in the south of the country, along the fringe of the Sahara desert, claim a purely Berber heritage. Europeans and Jews make up the remaining 2% of the population. Islam is the official religion in Tunisia, and over 98% of the population are Sunni Muslims. Since the Jasmine Revolution increasing numbers of women wear the veil, though it’s still far from universal.
FOOD & DRINK
Tunisians love spicy food, and it’s almost impossible to encounter a meal that doesn’t involve harissa, a fiery chilli paste from Cap Bon or Jerba. Fresh produce is plentiful and salads form part of most meals. The most popular are salade tunisienne , a tomato, onions and cucumber mix, topped with tuna, and salade mechuoia , a smoky, room-temperature capsicum stew.
Couscous is ubiquitous and served with lamb kebabs, legumes and vegetables, or, Tunisian-style, with fish. Baguettes are a daily staple, along with tabouna , the traditional flat Berber bread strewn with dark nigella seeds. Traditional pastries combine Ottoman and Sicilian techniques and flavours, and are sold side by side with pain au chocolate and gateaus .
Street food here is an absolute treat. Tuck into brik (deep-fried, crispy pastry pockets filled with egg and meat, prawns or tuna), lablabi (chickpea soup) or huge sandwiches stuffed with tuna, egg, harissa and, often enough, fries.
It may be small, but Tunisia packs in a range of landscapes worthy of a continent, from its thickly forested northern mountains to crystallised salt lakes and endless dunes in the south. The Kroumirie and Tebersouk Mountains in the north are the easternmost extent of the High Atlas Mountains, and are covered with dense forests where there’s a chance of glimpsing wild boars, jackals, mongooses and genets. The foothills dive down to the lavish, northern coastal plain.
Further south, the country’s main mountain range is the rugged, dry central Dorsale, which runs from Kasserine in the west and peters out into Cap Bon in the east. Between these ranges lies the lush Medjerda Valley, once the Roman larder, watered by the country’s only permanent river, Oued Medjerda. Olive trees cover the east coast, particularly around Sfax. South of the Dorsale, a high plain falls away to a series of huge, glittering chotts (salt lakes) and the silent erg (sand sea). The date palm is king here.
Tunisia’s environmental headaches include a millennium of deforestation, regional desertification and endless forms of pollution: industrial pollution, sewage disposal and, depressingly, domestic litter. The tourist industry in Jerba has created huge problems with water supply, severely depleting artesian water levels and springs.
Tunisia’s auberges de jeunesse (youth hostels) can be good, and budget hotels outside the medina are often a better bet than the truly bottom-end places within, especially for women. When well run, usually by a family, cheapies can be delightful, with simple but highly atmospheric rooms. Tunisia has few campsites with good facilities, but you can sometimes pitch a tent with a landowner’s permission.
Midrange options often have adequate facilites but can be disappointing service- and maintenance-wise, while top-end hotels, if far cheaper, rarely compare to four- or five-star hotels elsewhere. Coastal towns and Tozeur have a zone touristique where resorts are grouped together.
A promising development is the appearance of many new independently run guesthouses, B&Bs and small hotels. These often offer rates that are similar to or less than midrange hotels but give you genuine connections into local communities.
Electricity 220V, European two-pin wall plugs
Languages Tunisian Arabic, Berber, French
Newspapers Tunisia Live (www.tunisia-live.net in English) ; La Presse (www.lapresse.tn) , Kapitalis (www.kapitalis.com) and Le Temps (www.letemps.com.tn in French) ; Al-Hourriah (www.alhourriah.org in Arabic)
Radio Radio Tunis International, Mosaïque FM
FESTIVALS & EVENTS
Tabarka International Jazz Festival & Festival des Variétés Outdoor festival with international headliners in July and August.
Carthage International Festival (www.festival-carthage.com.tn) Big names in the Roman theatre in July and August.
Carthage International Film Festival (www.jccarthage.org) Cinema with an Arabic and African focus, held biennially in October.
Festival of the Sahara Camel racing, as well as music, parades and poetry in Douz in November.
INTERNET ACCESS. Publinet has offices in all the main towns. Most charge around TD2 per hour for access. Note they only have French keyboards and are often very crowded. Wi-fi is available in an increasing number of hotels.
The unit of currency is the Tunisian dinar (TD), which is divided into 1000 millimes (mills). It’s illegal to import or export dinars and they are not accepted in the duty-free shops at Tunis Airport.
You can re-exchange up to 30% of the amount you changed into dinar, up to a certain limit. You need bank receipts to prove you changed the money in the first place.
Major credit cards, such as Visa, American Express and MasterCard, are widely accepted at big shops, tourist hotels, car-rental agencies and banks. ATMs are common in major towns and resort areas.
POST. The Tunisian postal service is slow but reliable: allow a week to Europe and at least two weeks to North America, Asia and Oceania
As well as the religious holidays that vary by date, the principal public holidays in Tunisia are as follows:
New Year’s Day 1 January
Independence Day 20 March
Youth Day 21 March
Martyrs Day 9 April
Labour Day 1 May
Republic Day 25 July
Women’s Day 13 August
Evacuation Day 15 October
Postrevolutionary Tunisia is still an overwhelmingly safe place to travel, although it’s wise to excercise caution. Most travellers’ complaints continue to stem from sexual harassment and overly persistant touts or dishonest taxi drivers; the isolated incidents of violence by hardline Salafis have not targeted tourists. But it’s wise to avoid any public demonstrations, especially so on Friday, the day of prayer. As always, keep an eye on your bag and pockets in crowded medinas and on public transport.
When travelling in the desert, it’s wise to register with the local Garde Nationale office’s Brigade de Tourisme: Douz 75 470 319/75 470 554, Tataouine 75 870 077, Tozeur 76 454 392/76 452 194
There are lots of public telephones, known as Taxiphones. They accept 500-mill and TD1 coins. All public telephones can be used for international direct dialing. The Tunisian country code is 216. All Tunisian landlines use a two-digit area beginning with 7. Mobile phones begin with 2, 5, 9 or 4.
Mobile phones are ubiquitous and there are three national carriers: Tunisiana, Tunisie Telecom and Orange. You can buy local SIM cards and 3G keys at the airport or in offices in larger towns (you’ll usually find at least one English-speaking staff member). Voice and data plans are extremely cheap and top-up cards are widely available.
The Office National du Tourisme Tunisien (ONTT) has an office in most towns. They usually have maps, silly glossy brochures and basic local information, but don’t expect much more. Local websites that can be of use for preplanning are Tunisia Live (www.tunisia-live.net) and Mille et Une Tunisie (www.mille-et-une-tunisie.com).
Nationals of most Western European countries and Canada can stay up to three months without a visa – just collect a stamp in your passport at the point of entry. Those from the US can stay for up to four months. Australians and South Africans can get a visa at the airport, seven days costs TD10, a month TD35. Other nationalities, including Israelis, must apply before they arrive. It should take 14 to 21 days in person or via post, and the length of stay is up to the embassy.
Visa Extensions. Applications can be made at the Interior Ministry (Ave Habib Bourguiba) in Tunis and regional offices in Houmt Souq. They cost around TD10 per week (payable only in timbres fiscales – revenue stamps available from post offices) and take up to 10 days to issue. You’ll need two photos, and may need bank receipts and a facture (receipt) from your hotel, for for starters. It’s a process to be avoided – far easier to leave the country and return instead.
Visas for Onward Travel. The Algerian and Libyan embassies in Tunis do not issue visas. If you want to visit either country from Tunisia, you should apply to the Algerian or Libyan representatives in your home country. Australians and New Zealanders can apply in London. It can be a lengthy process and you usually need an invitation, obtained from a citizen or through a travel agency.
Tunisian women enjoy freedoms that women in most Muslim societies don’t, but that doesn’t mean that sexual mores aren’t still extremely conservative in all but the most privileged cosmopolitan circles. Foreign women, especially those travelling alone or without male companions, are seen as existing outside the protective family structure and this freedom is usually equated with promiscuity. Compounding the notion that all foreign women are up for it is the thriving beach gigolo scene (known as beezness).
All these factors mean that unwanted attention, from constant stares to actual sexual harassment, is par for the course. It’s tiring at best, and can become very intimidating.
You will reduce your hassle quota if you completely ignore sexist remarks or come-ons, as passivity is equated with modesty. Any engagement, even an angry one, may be seen as an opportunity. Sunglasses are a good way of avoiding eye contact, and affecting a demure, downcast gaze will sometimes be discouragement enough. Dressing modestly – covering at least shoulders, upper arms and legs – can make a difference. Physical assault is rare, but it does happen. If someone does touch you, shouting ‘ Harem alek’ (Arabic for ‘Shame on you’) may be useful.
GETTING THERE & AWAY
Air. There are regular flights, both scheduled and chartered, from Tunisia to destinations all over Europe, Africa and the Middle East, but no direct flights to the Americas, Asia or Oceania. The main international airports are Tunis Carthage, Enfidha-Hammamet and Djerba–Zarzis. Tunis-air (www.tunisair.com; 48 Ave Habib Bourguiba) flies to a number of European, African and Middle Eastern cities.
Other airlines flying to and from Tunisia include the following:
Air France (www.airfrance.com; 1 Rue d’Athènes, Tunis)
Alitalia (www.alitalia.com; Tunis-Carthage Airport)
British Airways (www.british-airways.com; Rue du Lac Turkana, Berges du Lac, Tunis)
Lufthansa (www.lufthansa.com; Tunis-Carthage Airport)
Egypt Air (www.egyptair.com)
Boat. The Compagnie Tunisienne de Navigation (www.ctn.com.tn) handles tickets for ferries to Genoa and Marseilles, as does its French partner SNCM (Societé Nationale Maritime Corse Méditerranée; www.sncm.fr; 47 Ave Farhat Hached, Tunis) . Grandi Navi Veloci (www.gnv.it; Résidence La Brise, Ave Habib Bourguiba, La Goulette) also sails to Genoa, Civitavecchia (Rome) and Palermo. All international ferries dock at La Goulette, in Tunis.
Algeria. All bus and train services between the two countries have been cancelled since the start of the Algerian civil war in 1993. Louages are the only form of public transport still operating. They leave from Place Sidi Bou Mendil in the Tunis medina to Annaba and Constantine, or you can walk across the border at Babouch, a taxi ride away from Ain Draham.
Libya. The only crossing point open to foreigners is at Ras al-Jedir, 33km east of Ben Guerdane. There are daily buses to Tripoli from the southern bus station in Tunis. Louages (yellow with a white stripe) are faster, with regular services to Tripoli via Ras al-Jedir from many Tunisian towns.
Air. Domestic flights to Jerba, Tozeur, Sfax, Gabes, Gafsa and Tabarka are operated by Tunisair subsidiary Tunisair Express (www.tunisairexpress.com.tn)
Boat. There is a 24-hour car ferry that plies the short hop between El-Jorf and Ajim on the island of Jerba. There are ferries from Sfax to the sleepy Kerkennah Islands.
Buses. The national bus company, Société Nationale du Transport Rural et Interurbain (SNTRI; www.sntri.com.tn), operates daily air-con buses from Tunis to just about every town in the country. Frequency for large towns can be up to half-hourly. The buses run pretty much to schedule, and they’re fast, usually comfortable and inexpensive. Local buses – creaky and never air-conditioned – go to all but the most remote villages.
Louages (long-distance shared taxis). Are colour-coded: a red stripe signifies long-distance, a blue stripe regional, and a yellow stripe local or rural. In most towns, the louage station is close to, or combined with, the bus station, enabling you to choose between them. Fares cost around the same as those for the equivalent bus service (working out at around TD5 per 100km), but louages depart when full rather than following a timetable. Don’t leave catching your louage too late – most stop running by 7pm.
Taxis. All towns have metered private yellow taxis. These can either be hired privately or operate on a collective basis – they collect four passengers for different destinations. You will sometimes need to insist the meter is used.
Train. The Société Nationale des Chemins de Fer Tunisiens (SNCFT; www.sncft.com.tn) rail network isn’t extensive, but it’s efficient enough, cheap and comfortable. The best-serviced route is the north–south line from Tunis to Sousse and Sfax. Timetables and ticket prices can be found online.