I picked up Alex and Cristina from the airport on March 17th. They arrived with bright smiles and gigantic cardboard boxes filled with bicycles, tents, sleeping bags, cookware, clothes for all kinds of weather, and a bottle of bourbon for our Couchsurfing host. Having arrived two days prior, I learned the hard way that it’s best to negotiate a taxi before needing one, so this is what I did before going in to meet them. The driver, who we payed very fairly, nevertheless attempted to charge us an extra 20% upon our arrival. I handed him the 50 Dinar we had intially agreed upon, muttering “tvathem”, one of the few arabic words I’d picked up, insinuating that there was no way he was getting any more.
That taxi driver was an exception. In general the Tunisian people have been kind, welcoming, generous, and honest. However, our host Dhia was the only Tunisia we got to know really well. We mostly ended up spending time with his American and Italian friends as well as a few Canadian McGill grads. Dhia made every effort to spend as much time with us as possible, despite working nearly full-time as a doctor in the final stages of his training. Giving us a full Tunisian experience was important to him, and we were very grateful to have him as a host.
Several people had recommended a visit to the Bardo museum, and I had thought that this might be something nice to for Alex and Cristina’s first day. I wasn’t familiar with the tourist attractions in Tunis, and the museum was in Dhia’s neighbourhood, so it seemed like an obvious first thing to do. However, Laurent and Gabriel, the Canadians I had met, messaged me the night before asking if we would help them film a part of their documentary the following day seeing as the weather would be nice. We obliged of course, thinking it would be nice to spend the day in the city’s beautiful medina, and because it would be silly to spend such a beautiful day inside a museum.
The next day, following our tour of the medina, the five of us sat down at a touristy cafe for freshly squeezed orange juice and a smoke from a hookah. As we were chatting enthusiastically in the sun about the differences between Tunisia and Canada, Laurent received a phone call from Dhia, who was at work, saying that there had been gunshots fired near his home, but that he didn’t know more. Laurent hung up, only to receive calls from both Dhia, and then his landlord, saying that there had been a terrorist attack at Bardo museum and that seven people, probably Polish, were dead. The mood at our table changed quite suddenly. Dhia told us that he was leaving work early to come and pick us up and bring us home.
Not knowing what was happening in the city, we walked to the end of the street so that Dhia might pick us up. Our senses were heightened, and we noticed an increased police presence. The air was tense, and as we waited for Dhia the traffic became increasingly congested. A car rear-ended another next to where we were standing. Dhia called us again, telling us to get into taxis because he was not able to get to where we were standing. He sounded extremely worried and distressed. By the time we were able to hail taxis, it became clear that hostages had been taken, that the death toll had potentially increased to 11 tourists, and that our neighbourhood had been closed off. When we told the taxi driver we were going to Bardo, he looked at us in bewilderment for a moment, before simply saying “No”. We had to put Dhia on the phone to give directions to the nearest part of our neighbourhood where we could be picked up.
Riding in that taxi through the streets of Tunis was a surreal experience. I sat alone in the back seat, with Gabriel in the front (the others were in another cab). The Arabic news was on the radio at full volume, but it wasn’t loud enough to deafen the sounds of passing police and ambulance sirens. The city passing me by through the window became a place that was foreign, unfamiliar, and even scary. I looked around nervously, irrationally half-expecting to see a gun pointed in my direction.
The taxis left us on the side of the highway opposite Dhia’s neighbourhood. We were a group of five foreigners, and as hundreds of cars passed us on the busy road, and I felt like a sitting duck. After crossing the highway and passing into our neighbourhood, an older woman stopped her car next to us and asked us if we needed help. She had a look of complete bewilderment on her face.
Moments later, Dhia pulled up in his car. He was pale, and clearly the most distraught of our group. I didn’t understand at the time, but he explained to me later that what had happened was one of his biggest fears. It was something that he and his family spoke about regularly, a nightmare they prayed would never come true. Tunisia is the only country emerging relatively unscathed from the Arab Spring. It has been sitting precariously on the edge of stability, with the entire world watching on the sidelines, waiting to see if it will survive the transition to democracy. To Dhia, this event was the potential beginning of that process of destabilization. Furthermore, Tunisia’s economy relied heavily on tourism, and an attack like this could seriously if not fatally harm the industry.
By the time we returned home, only an hour or two after the attacks, Alex, Cristina, and I had already received a flurry of Facebook messages and emails from worried friends and family members. I assured everyone at home that we were safe before distracting myself with the preparation of lunch. I remember feeling the adrenaline wear off as I fried carrots on the small gas stove. As I cooked, the afternoon call to prayer sounded from a nearby mosque and floated through the kitchen window.
After lunch I fell asleep from exhaustion. I woke up three hours later to find that it was only Alex, Cristina, and myself left at home. In the end, 21 people had been killed at the museum, most of them tourists, in addition to the two gunmen.
We had planned to go that evening with the other Canadians to make poutine for some of his friends on the other side of town. We figured that things had settled down enough, and that by not going we would have been giving the attackers a small victory. It was a wonderful night filled with laughter, good food, good drinks, amazing cheesecake, and a group of people well worth taking the time to befriend. With five of us working, it took nearly 4 hours to make the poutine. At midnight, we ate what Dhia called a “Cinderella dinner.” After dinner we all walked down to the ocean and stood for some time under the stars, watching the waves crash. It was my first tangible reminder of why I travel.
The next day was also beautiful, and we walked for hours from La Marsa to Sidi Bou Said, before marching on Carthage (literally). The tension was still in the air (figuratively), and there were police everywhere (also figuratively). The historic sites in Carthage were closed as a result of the attacks, but it was still a wonderful day, walking along the Mediterranean in the sun. My mind wandered from the terrorist attacks, and I found myself wondering the sorts of things I normally wonder, such as “Why are the doorknobs here in the centre of the door?” and “Would the combined difference in energy expended on opening the cupboard and front door from the middle as opposed to the edge (as is convention in Canada) be the same as running a marathon?” I blame these thoughts for our unintentional stumbling-upon of the presidential palace. We were turned away first at the beach, and then again on the street. However, something always brought us back to thinking about the people killed at the museum, a place we could easily have been.
When we were stopped for an interview by France 2, a major French news network, I told them in broken french that the events would not affect our plans to travel in and experience Tunisia. These sorts of attacks have recently occurred in Canada, Paris, Australia, and elsewhere, and are not good enough reason to avoid visiting a place. Indeed, they are reason to make special effort to visit. Sadly, even though this is the first attack of its kind in over a decade in Tunisia, many tourists will not feel the same.
We had a wonderful dinner of fish, salad, and harissa with Dhia. Harissa is probably the most Tunisian food (fact checked by Alex), and is used in nearly everything. The second most common food is probably the french fry sandwich (with your choice of merguez, shwarma, escalope, and more). Also worth trying are couscous, makloub, mint tea, and pine nut tea.
Our last full day in Tunisia was Independence Day. We visited the city centre to witness the red flags and festivities. When Dhia was in despair, I told him that the events at Bardo museum were more likely to bring Tunisians together than to tear them apart. I wasn’t sure at the time if this were true, but I felt it to be true walking through the streets on Friday the 20th. There was a widespread feeling of Tunisian pride, solidarity against terrorism, and peaceful identity. Tunisia is a beautiful, interesting, and exciting country and I look forward to one day visiting again.