A Lyrical Cruise in Tunis

Urban scholars spend at least a decade thinking about the cities they research from the time they identify a research problem to the time they publish their manuscript. But we rarely find published those initial thoughts that are as much about misunderstanding as about comprehending the cities we turn into research projects. This essay is based on field notes from my first summer of pre-dissertation fieldwork in Tunisia, May to July 2014. I use pseudonyms to protect the identity of my interlocutors. The current version is loyal to my mis/understandings of Tunis then. I have not added new information to the body of the text though I continue to live in and research the city.[1]

This city is mine. I am its flâneuse. My flânerie is a laborious work of translation. It takes in movements to draw a map, to trace a model for this city in order to make it more intelligible. I move around and Tunis lets me in on more of its stories. In my flânerie, I want to make this city mine.

[Figure 1: A map of the locations I traveled to]

The city is turned inside-out. As if giant hands have reached out to the downtown area, held it from Beb Saadoune to Beb Alouia, and shaken its edifices so violently that everybody is on the streets at 6:00AM. Thousands of hearts throbbing around me… I must stop romanticizing this scene. I must stay alert. This is a “popular neighborhood,” Alia said, “there are recurrent incidences of petty street theft, and you don’t look like you are from here”. “Popular:” no, not famous. This is a sha’bi neighborhood. I have not even started reckoning with this city and I am already wrestling with its words. Hajer snatches me. “Come on, follow me, I don’t want to stay out late!” On my first night out this summer in Tunis Hajer strides and gives directives. “Avoid narrow alleyways, keep your head down, stay alert, don’t carry more than 20 dinars, and don’t ever respond to anyone!” She takes me to Jamaïca, a bar on the top floor of Al Hana Hotel International on Avenue Habib Bourguiba, a twenty minute walk from home. In the elevator, she tells stories about her father, who used to work here and is a friend of the owner. Two middle-aged men take the elevator with us and one of them turns to Hajer. “You look too young to know stories from ‘a long time ago.’” Hajer smiles courteously, and once alone on the terrace turns to me and says “pedophiles!” Hajer is 16. From the terrace of Jamaïca, I can see Sabkhet el Sijoumi, the lake that smells, the lake of the poor. I can see hills covered with identical white buildings. Beirut is on my mind. The hills around Beirut look very different. Cities have their ways of selectively showing difference.

[Figure 2: From the Jamaïca bar looking South-West, April 2017]

This city is scented, but how does one narrate smell? How does one engrave it in memory? Hajer’s father, Zaher, runs a small shop, “the boutique”. It functions as an internet café with three computers, faxing, copying and printing services. It is also the last minute stop of the nearby high school students to buy pencils and papers before exams. Hajer’s mother, Alia, takes on the morning shift, while her father the evening one. The boutique is on the street level floor of the same house where Zaher and his family live, and where we, the PhD crowd, rent rooms we find on Airb&b but seal the deal with Alia “offline”. Empty bottles of what at first sight looks like alcoholic beverages fill the boutique shelves. Alia is veiled, as are most of the women in the neighborhood, and Zaher doesn’t strike me as a drinker. Redressement, we had to deal with a redressement, said Alia about the bottles later. Redressement means rectifying a situation, but what Alia talked about is legal redress. Wrestling with words, again. Under the Ben Ali regime, Zaher and Alia, like many other middle class families of the neighborhood of Beb Ejdid ran a boutique where they imported scents and mixed perfumes for the local market. The bulk mixed perfumes are then stored in these bottles. About 8 years ago, the police seized their property and imposed a heavy fine on the business. Police said that the scents, the raw material they reworked in the boutique into perfumes was smuggled. Like others, Zaher and Alia bought the scents from wholesalers who did not always pay import taxes. Inspectors fined Zaher and Alia’s business. They had to pay the sum of 75,000 TND which they were able to lower to 35,000 TND, the equivalent of USD 18,800, about 4.5 times the country’s annual per capita income. Although redressement is a state-sponsored inspection scheme to bail out small and medium enterprises facing financial difficulties, Alia experienced it differently. To her and her family, redressement was a crack-down on small business to extract bribes. It was part of a larger assault on the middle class. This city is inside-out. Empty perfume bottles are pause fillers now, pause fillers in a landscape of shrinking middle class livelihoods. This city is scented.

[Figure 3: Tourbet El Bey, Medina of Tunis, March 2017, by Lana Salman]

The city is contained, it contains itself. Alia brings the morning coffee and a chocolate croissant. “The baker next door is the best in the neighborhood. I have been buying this croissant since I was a child, from his father’s bakery before him. Get dressed, and don’t forget your shampoo and towel. You can’t get these at the hammam.” Alia puts on her colored veil and wraps her long shirt around her body. When I walk with her, the neighborhood feels familiar and I feel more familiar in it, no longer the strange combination of a Lebanese woman studying in the US and researching Tunis. Faces behind shop windows smile and good mornings are exchanged. For an outsider not much is noticeable. But familiarity is an asset, and written words well, it depends on who is reading. We walk for 8 minutes down the street. I am taking in movements and activities and in the space of a few seconds I find myself walking alone. “Lana, this way!” The door is so narrow I need a few seconds to locate Alia. We walk up a steep flight of stairs and push open a metal door. The sight is a little surreal. This is a vast space with skylights, three quarters of the way is a sort of pedestal, under it some cupboards where women who arrived with us were tucking their bags. I am being Orientalist. The sight is not surreal. It is just a well-lit space, and one I did not expect to step into. Our walk from home was down an alley, littered like the rest of the neighborhood and many parts of this city. It is otherwise so mundane. But stepping into the hammam of Beb Ejdid was not mundane, not to me at least. I warp my cotton towel around my body and follow Alia, down the stairs. Steam makes the air thick and warm. The murmur of the flowing water fills the thick air. Women of all ages, 5 to 60 years old are moving around buckets of water to the corners of the hammam where they bathe. Although Alia introduced me as her “Lebanese friend”, my presence provoked some questions. I watch two little girls—they must have been 5 and 8—listen carefully to directives their mother gives about filling water buckets, using their towels while showering, keeping their space of the hammam organized and not bothering others. “I have been here with my mother since I was a child”. I was thinking this is a very different way for little girls to come of age being aware of their bodies, and bodies of other women around them. But their experiences are contained within these walls. The walls are opaque, they are not porous; enclosed within these walls are steep stairs, and narrow, quite indistinguishable doors. This city is contained, and contains itself.

[Figure 4: Map of the Agency for Urban Rehabilitation and Renovation intervening in a popular neighborhood in Mhamdiah, Southern Tunis, Summer 2014, photo by Lana Salman]

The body of the city is criss-crossed. This is a body in labor. Beb Ejdid, my neighborhood, and the entire downtown area is an enclave. Past the house where I rent a room, past the edge of my narrow street, taxi drivers can’t enter. The streets are not made for car traffic. This is the edge of the medina, and it is a particular type of edge at which the “beldis” [native of Tunis city] once lived. Their houses are now turned into “maisons d’hôtes” small boutique hotels scattered between run down dilapidated houses where destitute rural migrants from the most farflung and unheard of part of Tunisia’s hinterland come to settle, temporarily. “Tourbet el Bey has the most prestigious houses of the Tunisian elite, but it has become the cannabis market for the city… the face of the neighborhood changed, but here you find a microcosm of all of Tunisia.” Was Alia romanticizing? I was not sure. But these streets are not made for car traffic. For some reason, the medina has not been completely turned into a touristic fetish yet, an Orientalist enclave for foreign eyes to see “authentic Tunis”. Why is this space still so heterogeneous, a space of sutured differences and intense proximate diversity? These streets are certainly not made for car traffic. Shielded. Elsewhere, the rest of this city’s body is criss-crossed. Overpasses, underpasses, bridges, highways, and cars. Mass hysteria of swarming cars. Alia was trying to convince me to buy her a car from the US, and to ship it back to Tunis. Owning a car is being a specific person in the world, the world of this city. “When we had our redressment we sold our cars.” Owning a car here is a trajectory to becoming middle class. “We had two cars.” The further away I move from the city center, the clearer the networked infrastructure. New frontiers of real estate development are conquered with street networks. The criss-crossing on this body is fresh. There are still virgin lands. The criss-crossing is ongoing and relentless.

Mobility is a privilege. TATA!! TATA!! Who is Reem “tata-ing” at? And what does tata mean? I am not with Alia and the family. I am outside my comfort zone. I am growing mildly uncomfortable in the car. We are drifting at hysterical speed on the downtown Tunis-La Marsa highway. Rami is in the driver’s seat, Reem next to him, Bassel and I in the backseat. A red light is ahead and Rami is slowing down. I can see Reem moving methodically as if she had done this multiple times before, first peering her head out of the window, and then lifting her entire upper body outside, through the window of the car’s front seat. Tata! Now even louder as the car is picking up speed again. In the brief few minutes when time had slowed down, I could see who Reem was addressing. She hailed “tata” at other women driving alone on the highway, but not any women, women driving relatively nice cars. I thought the behavior was childish and rude, but the boys encouraged it. They did not directly engage, but laughed and spoke colloquial Tunisian I had difficulty following. We were drifting again and Reem’s upper body was still outside the car. My mild discomfort intensified and it suddenly occurred to me: I am the spectator here, I am partly why she is behaving this way and why the boys are partakers. “I am hungry! Can we get off the highway and get some pizza?” I must have been really loud because Reem’s big beautiful face was now suddenly so close, staring at me, and I could see her eyes glittering with excitement… “Nemshew el marsa Rami! [Let’s go to La Marsa Rami!]”. Of all the places where we could possibly have pizza, Reem, Rami and Bassel were taking me to Tunis’s richest northern suburb.

Desiring a city is entrapping. Desiring a city which violently excludes is suffocating. Here is desire unleashed in the fluid spaces of this city. “Alo ey Baba” [hello yes dad] Rami’s father is calling, reminding him he has curfew, he can’t use the car past 6:00PM. At La Marsa we stop at a random pizza place. “It is always sunny in La Marsa. Even when it is cloudy in Tunis, it is sunny here.” Always sunny is the image Sana has of La Marsa. Sana is an upper middle class young professional, perfectly fluent in French, Arabic, and English, who completed her studies between the US and Paris, she too desired this city. But perhaps less violently, so it was less suffocating. I order and pay for an extra-large vegetarian pizza for the 4 of us: 16 dinars, that is about 4 tuna sandwiches from Karim’s sandwich joint up the street in Beb Ejdid. I did not find the pizza particularly tasty but did not think the “smell of the cheese is disgusting” either. Reem was vocal about the smell. Scents… this city is scented.

This city dances. Its political consciousness is split open. “Houmaniii… ka’deen n’eesho kal zibla fil poubela… Houmaniiii” [My neighborhood, we live like trash in a trash can]. But this city must not be confused with the words used to describe it. On the way back to Beb Ejdid, we listen to “Houmani”… on repeat. I ask Reem, Bassel and Rami to explain what the words mean to them. They give me a literal translation. They repeat the words slowly. But that is the extent of their explanations along with a brief history of this rap song. Two, thus far unknown artists, wrote the lyrics and the tune and shot the video for it with a very modest budget. Art in this city from open mic nights to low budget music videos abounds. Perhaps the city has awaken. Houmani went viral in Tunis. My thoughts drift to La Closerie, a restaurant piano bar, the new “in place” of the city. Women with fair skin, straightened hair, high heels and careful attire are moving to the tune of Houmani. “That guy holding the glass of wine over there was close to the regime. He is a millionaire but he donated a lot to human rights NGOs since 2011. We like him now,” Zeina shouts over the loud music. Do people who inhabit the same spaces, adopt almost-identical lifestyles, and espouse similar world views start looking alike? The accent and my body moving to the tune of Houmani reminded me I was not in Beirut. But this is a déjà-vu. I was embracing the ambiance, getting comfortable. I could already discern “zibla” [trash] and “poubella” [trash can]. Lips repeating the words, bodies moving to the tune. This is not a rap song transposing the image of a distant American ghetto… Houmani is about a proximate “other” who lives in the interstitial skin of this body, of this city. One can dance to these words. One can move to this tune. This city dances. Its political consciousness is a container. It is being emptied out, filled and refilled with a fiasco of tunes, scents and words.

[Figure 5:  A yet unconquered urban frontier in Mhamdiah, Southern Tunis, Summer 2014 – by Lana Salman]

The city is pregnant. It is a body in labor. “Bactéries, comme des bactéries… On commence par quelques maisons et puis une mosquée et ça y’est » [Batecteria, like bacteria… It starts with a couple of houses and then a mosque and there you have it]. The earth is flat and yellow. It is punctuated with little burgundy brick structures. At certain spatial moments, the burgundy houses cluster. And then they dissipate. Time widens, space slows down. The yellow flattened fields extend beyond what my eyes can absorb. The car is climbing up the hill, and a dark grey concrete minaret rises piercing the blue sky. The minaret and its mosque emerge from the clustering, from punctuated landscapes, from flattened cityscapes. Now a dirt path leads to the minaret and its mosque. Soon, it will be paved. My guide from the Agency for Urban Renovation and Rehabilitation (ARRU), the state agency mandated with urban upgrading across the territory, was sharing his views about the city’s growth and the interventions of the Agency on “bacteria”. We park the car to take a walk in the neighborhood. The familiar directives “take everything, don’t leave anything in the car, follow me.” I stand at the edge of a vast yellow empty field. The stench of waste water fills this urban frontier. Past the yellow field, in the far distance is a line-up of houses, making a perfect fence. I can’t see behind the houses, but the model becomes clearer in my mind. This is a city of doughnuts not pyramids. Furious clustering of little burgundy houses, which then dissipate in the yellow fields. There, the city folds on itself and disappears. But here, another cluster, another edge of houses bounding the inside, encroaching on the outside.

The stench; this city is scented. My guide is walking back and forth assessing the flow of loose waste water. He looks concerned. He makes phone calls about measurements and pipe diameters. A lot is at stake. This is how this city meets, through its human waste. One sanitation network for all. It was his job to make sure that the city comes together in an orderly manner without blocks or disjunctions. He takes his job seriously. He used to work in the private sector, a private construction company in Tunis; he was paid well and had acceptable benefits. He made the choice to quit the private sector three years ago. He was new at the Agency. He spoke of “bacteria” of people who have built illegally while others worked hard to purchase homes legally. They are law breakers. But also the law breakers he was paid to serve. “I am on good terms with people in my neighborhoods. The rehabilitation projects don’t come to a halt. We try to find ways to address complaints.” He points out what looks like the dead end of a dirt road, blocked by a little dirt hill. Behind it, I could spot the structure of interlocking metal rods stretching over the dirt road. When I asked, he indicated that that stretch of the neighborhood, some 30 houses or so, was not included in the rehabilitation perimeter. When owners understood the paved road will be extended up until a couple of meters away from their homes, they obstructed work on the site. They blocked the narrow dirt roads for pick-ups unloading construction material. The work stopped. He had to negotiate with them and redo his budget. He had to spread the same budget thinner, because it was clear, it was either budget redeployment or no work at all. He redesigned the road network and extended the paving to include an area previously unaccounted for. This city is not to be confused with the words written to describe it. This body is in labor. What bodies will it give birth to? What will it produce and reproduce?

[Figure 6: Extending the urban upgrading project in Mhamdiah beyond the original perimeter, Summer 2014, by Lana Salman]

This city lives its future in the present. In the public square surrounded by phantom buildings, there is a giant bottomless memory box, like the black boxes rescue missions are deployed to excavate when planes crash and go missing. The bottomless memory box is filled each month by a number, the number of sit-ins, strikes, vigils, marches, all kinds of activities staging dissent. Month after month, records are gathered and deposited there. In these accounts of grievances, of withering livelihoods and tired broken voices the city stands for the territory, and the territory stands for the city. The urban is redefined from the outside in, and the memory box bears witness. For November 2014, 104 social movements are recorded, 40 of which are suicides. In this archive, suicides no longer stand for events affecting unmarked bodies trapped in the individualism of the act. Suicides are politicized and turned into social movements. Bodies staging dissent. Bodies at the center of politics. It all started there anyway. That legendary body who made sense for others, and maybe on their behalf, of the unfolding of human history. Self-immolation: ending one’s own life, publicly and theatrically. Here are bodies who transgress the public/private boundary, here are bodies which make the most private decision of suicide a public political act of reckoning with violence. Here are bodies who refused to be reproduced, who perhaps desired this city… to death. [2]

Whose city is it? How many cities must perish in my imagination so that one can come to existence? How many stories must be silenced, how should other voices be captured? Half past, half present, and somewhere in between a future lingering in the background. This city is now mine.

[1] I thank Aden Jdey who generously engaged in writing with this essay and encouraged me to publish it. Ananya Roy read a version of it two years ago and described it as lyrical, hence the title. Emma Shaw Crane read the text meticulously and provided valuable feedback that made it a smoother read. I am grateful to Jake Kosek who in the graduate seminar “Reverberations of Capital” in fall 2014 insisted that we find our own writing voices. He assigned the exercise that allowed me to write a first version of this essay.

[2] I refer here to the body of the fruit vendor Mohamad Bouazizi who set himself on fire on December 17, 2010 in front of the municipality of Sidi Bouzid, an impoverished inner region of Tunisia. Bouazizi’s self-immolation is perceived to have ‘ignited’ and significantly mediatized the ‘Arab revolutions’.


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