Tag Archives: North Africa

A Tale of Two Tunisias

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From some nearby direction, there was movement afoot. The sun was up and hearts were in motion, ripples in a glass of still water, dancing to the beat of an underground drum. Thump thumping just below your feet.

The Tunisian people had taken to the streets.

­­I poked my head out the third storey window and heard the rumblings of protest echoing off the narrow downtown streets. Inaudible chanting trumpeted the faithful to democratic action. People were pissed, I just wasn’t sure about what yet – who even knew anymore? We quickly packed our cameras like vultures in bloodlust, chasing corpses in the promise of a decent meal.

Tunis had worn civil unrest like a facial scar since 2011, and after a certain point, people just sort of got used to it. As we tried to measure the city’s pulse for hints of a direction to follow, masses strolled indifferently along Avenue Habib Bourguiba totting shopping bags. Others sat at packed outdoor cafés, silently staring into shrinking ashtrays and cooling cups of mint tea.

Lines of barbed wire we had seen coiled up along major avenues the day before were now drawn – police checkpoints were being set up a few blocks around the Ministry of the Interior. We heard rumours of a social media blackout. Armed guards and plain clothes police officers stopped us at a makeshift barricade a few hundred metres from the demonstration.

“What protest?” one laughed as he grabbed my arm and shoved me back from the police line. “There’s nothing for you here. Only Tunisians allowed here,” he continued, knowing that he’d failed to assuage determinate curiosity. We tried unsuccessfully for over an hour to get anywhere near the action, but the neighborhood was locked down. With enough practice, security forces had gotten very good at this task.

We settled instead for quiet takeaway shawarma and sat in the shade of Tunis’ looming clocktower at Place 14 Janvier 2011. We would simply wait. There would be another protest.

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Unfinished revolution graffiti off Avenue de la France.

We found in Tunis a crossroads effigy to antiquity and the digital revolution, where nothing was as it seemed, and often for the strangest reasons.

Maybe a hint of hubris took us here. This was, after all, the world’s newest democracy, the formerly quiet North African nation credited with inadvertently kicking off of the populist Arab Spring uprisings of 2011 that continue to resonate across the Arab World. Longtime supreme autocrat Zine bin Abidine Ben Ali fled the jaws of the people to a haven afforded by the many graces of the Saudi royal family. Three years later, a new constitution ushered in the first democratically elected president. More noteworthy, Tunisia somehow avoided the chaos of its often reprehensibly revolutionary North African counterparts like Libya and Egypt.

But this patch of land had seen its share of great world power balances throughout the ages. Modern Tunis stands historical post as the last resting gravestone of the Carthaginian Empire, great rivals to the early Roman Republic. This is where mighty Hannibal began his ill-fated, yet altogether badass, journey through the Alps with a herd of war elephants, determined to surprise the history books and invade Rome from the north. His failure at the battle of Zuma prompted the Roman senate’s decision to wipe the memory of Carthage from the history books in 146 BCE.

Roman legions razed the city, leaving not one stone upon the other. They left none alive and sewed salt in the fields. Historians interpret this moment as the great coin toss of the ancient world – absolute Roman victory marked the beginning of European political dominance over the lands south of the Mediterranean. Rome would later rebuild Carthage as a colony in its own image, designating it the capital of the province of Africa, from which the continent still takes its name.

To this day, Tunisians are still divided over whether Hannibal’s elephantine trek through the mountains was a smart move. Others debate whether it happened at all. Honestly, who brings elephants up a mountain?

This pessimistic duality in all things historical, political and social would mark my time in Tunisia as I attempted to reconcile two strikingly opposite civilizations that existed in symbiotic conjuncture. Double negative photographs superimposed to create a single image; different yet altogether incomprehensible without the other. There were two sides to every coin here, the trick was figuring out what was still currency in the new republic.

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A mosaic tribute to the new republic, somewhere near the aptly-named ruins of Carthage.

A vulture shadow hovered above Tunis as new leaders figured out how to reshape a political machine that had for so long grown fat on corruption and nepotism under Ben Ali. Western media initially painted Tunisia as the poster child for democratic revolution in the Arab World. The country was to embody the potential for great peoples to stand in solidarity above dictatorship, political religious hypocrisy and silenced voices in the dark.

The nation was centre stage, and amid a rising tide of anti-Muslim sentiments across the West, everyone secretly hoped Tunisia could hold it together. People in Tunis knew they were living in a global political petri dish under some form of international scrutiny, however bare. But many locals we met felt the revolution’s fabled fruits were not as advertised, and customers wanted their money back.

There was an omnipotent softly unspoken uneasiness in Tunis, like quietly rumbling embers just below a buried bush fire. A quick huff exposed democratic Tunisia’s unfinished revolution, a struggle still undoubtedly under construction. All across the city, sharpened rolls of barbed wire sat coiled in bundles near major intersections. Groups of heavily armed police officers made themselves innocuously visible along main boulevards. A tank sat motionless guard outside a government ministry downtown.

The promise of peace for Tunis was great, but no one seems to be ruling out the plausibility of war. A terror attack at a museum in March hasn’t helped the situation either.

In December 2010, a young street vendor named Mohamed Bouazizi set himself on fire in the rural Tunisia city of Sidi Bouzid, inadvertently sparking demonstrations that spread across North Africa and the Middle East. Since the revolution, Western media had paraded Bouazizi as the Arab incarnation of Jan Palach, Czechoslovakia’s archetypal sacrificial figure to democracy, the phoenix of a people in rebellion.

But while we hashtagged Bouazizi’s self-immolation as a martyrdom to freedom, most Tunisians we met regarded him as a fool who had accidentally lit himself on fire with a cigarette after a streetside scuffle where a female police officer publically humiliated him and destroyed his fruit scales. To them, Bouazizi was a bum. And even if he was a revolutionary, it was accidental anyway.

I wasn’t sure what to believe anymore. The great human catalyst of the online revolution melted away the more we talked to locals. I never saw Bouazizi the same way once we got to Tunisia. We eventually scrapped plans to visit his small town and pay our respects where he died.

The West wanted to see the Arab Spring as the fall of a new Berlin wall, a nicely rounded cyclical history, a fitting eulogy to the War on Terror. Arabic Democracy – what a concept! This was to be the great Twitter revolution, the dawn of the digital political age powered by the people united by technology. It all looked so nice, you could almost tie a bow on it.

But we were duped, and as the cameras turned away from countries like Bahrain and Lybia, Egypt slipped back into madness and military rule. We all moved onto other things and the news machine continued turning indifferently. The Arab Spring became the thing of documentaries, no longer breaking news.

But against all odds, Tunisian democracy had survived.

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High School students protest new education reforms outside the Théâtre municipal de Tunis on January 6, 2015.

But if Tunisia was going to portmanteau as the foretold messiah of Arabic democracy, they would need to figure out how to make it work, and quick. The revolution hangover was dragging on and if things didn’t pick up soon, the country risked becoming a honey trap for new waves of extremism sweeping North Africa and the Middle East.

All along the tree-studded main avenues, pairs of idle minded fighting-aged males studded streetside cafés, puffing through half-empty packs of cigarettes pretending to look busy. The stench of rampant unemployment ran through the streets, a lingering odor no amount of faux-Gucci neck scarves could mask. Stray cats grew fat off the fruits of garbage strikes. Tunisia was a country so proud of its accomplishments it couldn’t accept the fact that it needed help.

We met guys like Aladdin, a 28 year-old Tunisian in tinted sunglasses sipping espresso at a café off Avenue Habib Bourguiba. In 2013, he took a flight to Miami and burned his passport as soon as the tourist visa expired. After getting caught in a roundup on South Beach, he was sent to a detention facility and spent six months in the system before being sent back to Tunis. With a degree in Industrial Management, he now sells scrap metal with his father. The brain drain was becoming a whirlpool and those who bled for Tunisia on the streets in 2011 were losing hope for the new republic.

“So far, the revolution has been a farce. We got rid of Ben Ali, but we haven’t addressed the real problems that brought us to the streets in the first place,” Aladdin told us over coffee. “Until we start engaging the youth, really getting them to be a real part of this society, there can be no great change, and Tunisia will slide back into chaos.”

Tunisia has set itself on the right track, the only problem now seemed how to make the train run. Part of me feared what force may be waiting to greet the obligation with subjugate glee.

I felt as though there would always be two Tunisias, in one way or another. Tunisian democracy felt like a bad Guns N’ Roses album, loaded with so much anticipation and promise that people refused to point out its blaring faults. Tunisia’s newest phase of self-reinvention would remain a revolution in progress, the sobering after-morning reality to a crazy night indulging in the democracy.

“In our countries in the coming years, we are living in the last battle of our history, between darkness and freedom,” Abdel Basset Hassan, head of the Arab Institute for Human Rights in Tunis, told us one afternoon. “What started with Tunisia, is not just the road for Tunisia. What started in Tunisia is a new historical moment. We entered a new historical phase in our countries, and this phase is based on the demand for freedom. It will last decades, perhaps, but at the end, I think that we will enter history based on our freedom.”

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The ferry to Sicily was more than an hour late leaving port, but no one seemed surprised, least of all the crew. Passengers anticipated the struggle and worked tardiness into their timelines; long after the final whistles had blown, gaggles of stragglers still poured onto the boat, herded in not-so-neat human columns of bureaucratic automotive slow motion.

Lower decks offered fewer consolations. Families lay along the ship’s insides across common-room couches, under tables or sandwiched between hefty roll-up mattresses and multicoloured knit-link blankets. Lonely men slept on fabricated cots under the stairs, faces buried into bent arms cradling plastic bottles of water with the labels ripped off.

The boat tide slowly left in its wake a colourful cresting of waves crashing against the sound of minarets dutifully calling the faithful to prayer. My mind wandered to old Ben Ali, sitting alone in exile on some Saudi Arabian palace balcony, thinking of how the sun used to set across Tunis. I wondered what went through his mind on that final day as he watched thousands of feet stamping along Avenue Habib Bourguiba. What were his final thoughts as the people he for so long oppressed finally rose up against him? The despised curtain call of the dictator. I spat loudly over the railing, hoping he could somehow hear me.

As the aging ferry finally pulled away into the last stray rays of a Mediterranean sunset, the top deck was empty; few bothered to watch the white city fade diligently into the sea. As the sun inevitably gave way to horizon, light split Tunis in two from behind the clouds – the minaret moans made no mention.

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Tunis’ famous clocktower at Place 14 Janvier 2011, just before Avenue Habib Bourguiba.

 

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Sundown in the Sahara

Meffe - Sundown

I’m awake, and the silence is deafening.

Inside an open enclave of hanging rugs and heavy quilts, the sun is cresting over a towering dune in the distance, slowly hunting darkness from a mess of blankets and pillows lacquered in fine sand.

A camel cries out in the distance, crackling the stagnant soundtrack. All is still. The air is cold and dry at the fingertips, light mist clings to the edge of my nose. Wind carries sand across the valley in waves of shimmering gold that undulate and swell as they’re swept from one dune to another. Every gust shifts the mountain structures a minute amount, leaving the landscape in a state of perpetual motion. The hourglass is never flipped, it simply runs.

There’s so much nothing, it’s almost too much to take in at once. Each mass of sand looks different, yet altogether identical to the others surrounding it, spread out in every direction ad infinitum. Like being lost at sea while firmly on land. The desert imparts an overwhelming feeling of timelessness, as if it was all that ever was and ever could be. This arid wasteland cannot be mapped, colonized or conquered. The many gods it has witnessed only know how much blood the sand has swallowed over the centuries.

Mohammed and Aziz, our Berber guides, tie their brightly coloured turbans and ready the camels. We ride single-file out of the Sahara in complete silence.

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A barbary macaque sits in the Monkey Forest, somewhere in the Atlas Mountains.

I’m not sure what we came to Morocco looking for, or if we were even looking for anything at all.

Somewhere between the land of medieval Moorish Sultanates and Aladdin, lay the great divide, the Northern edge of Africa, the place where it finally came to an end. Morocco is also co-host to another monumental frontier of civilizations, the great Sahara Desert, that endless wasteland of sand and nothingness home to only the bravest flora and camel-herding nomads. From the outside, Morocco maintained for us a certain air of incomprehensible mystery, the kind only brought about by snake charmers and great merchant cities run amok with monkeys roaming wild through labyrinth markets shaded in hanging silk cloth.

Morocco’s history as a nation is plagued with a clash of cultures and ongoing struggles against vicious colonial powers, notably Spain and France. On the flip side, it’s also one of the few African nations that hold bragging rights over colonizing Europe before it was even cool to colonize. The Moorish retreat from the Iberian Peninsula during the Reconquista in the 14th and 15th Centuries marked the birth of what we understand as modern European states like France, Portugal and Spain. It’s a place where West and East have met for thousands of years, travelling, trading, and more often than not, violently vying for power. Between the Arabs, Berbers, Europeans, Christians and Muslims, the land has always been a lucrative possession worth holding on to.

A melting pot historical culture is all good and well, but present-day Morocco struggles with modernity as a function of authenticity versus commercially marketable tradition. In cities like Marrakech, the idea of Morocco is a puppet show propped up by an image of its former self, an identity the country desperately wants tourists to believe and buy. The street performers charm foreigners in the vicinity of snakes. The monkeys are all on chains, tethered to posts, poised for photos.

On the train to Fes, we meet a young Moroccan named Amine who gives us the lay of the land: “There are only three rules in Morocco: don’t steal, don’t sell drugs and don’t talk bad about the King,” he says, laughing. “Everything else? Do whatever you want! Whatever! As long as you have money to pay for it.”

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Scenes from a 500-year-old outdoor leather tannery in Fes, the largest in North Africa. All tanning and stitching is done by hand by over 800 employees, many of whom trace their family lineage with that of the tannery. Leather is a key industry in many cities across the country.

The Kingdom of Morocco is a parliamentary constitutional monarchy, at least in principle, ruled by King Mohammed VI. The King’s honorific powers are granted by the constitution and secured by an almost religious observance of royal dynastic bloodlines. The King is both a secular political leader and the “Commander of the Faithful,” claimed to be a direct descendant of the Prophet Muhammad himself. Like most African leaders, his smiling photo hangs in nearly every commercial establishment and even some homes. Followers tout his benevolence and progressive leadership through a network of newly paved roads and a growing economy based increasingly on trade and tourism.

But the King is also a monarch. He appoints the Prime Minister and operates with the parliament on matters of government, but ultimately has final say over what goes on in the country. Despite its revolutionary spread across North Africa, the Arab Spring never really hit Morocco the way it did in Tunisia and Egypt. Amidst protests in 2011, the King won a referendum victory to reform the constitution, though its implementation has been slow, leaving many citizens increasingly frustrated over what they see as a long string of broken promises in a time that should be marked by great change.

There are those who disagree with his highness, but these are generally matters best left for private conversations between friends. Faissal, a young hostel worker we meet in Essaouira, has no problem breaking a few of Morocco’s carnal rules when he feels like it.

“People stand around and clap whenever the King walks by like he’s done something great. They film him giving food to the poor and show it on the news and everyone loves him. All he does is take money from people who work,” he says, sporting plastic sunglasses at night and gently inhaling from a large shisha pipe on the ground. “Do you want to know who I clap for? I clap for my mother when she makes me dinner. She’s the real hero, not this guy. Who made him King? This is not medieval times. The people rule Morocco.”

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Hassan II Mosque in Casablanca, the largest in all of Africa, its minaret is the tallest in the world at 210 metres. Finished in 1993 by King Mohammed VI, its construction cost an estimated 700 million dollars, a price that angered many citizens struggling with basic amenities like access to water and education. It remains, nonetheless, the city’s most recognizable landmark.

We drive through the countryside for hours as freezing mountaintops melt into arid deserts devoid of any human life, save for a few junk-selling roadside resto-attractions on the crest of scenic highway hills. Come for the view, stay for the lemon couscous. It takes us just under two hours to drive from Middle Atlas mountain towns (known as Swiss Morocco due to their insanely low temperatures and unpredictable snowfall), to the edge of the Sahara, where at every moment, the sun is trying to choke life from the ground.

Morocco is a land of paradoxes, a mix of many worlds that belong together, but often seem very far apart, a sentiment reflected not only by the landscape, but also the locals. Cities inhabited predominantly by ethnic Arabs look and feel strikingly different from those dominated by Berber descendants, in the same way that cities founded by colonialists depict the remnants of a different era than areas inhabited since antiquity. Casablanca and Fes might as well be on different sides of the desert when it comes to culture and economic development.

In its own way, modern Morocco is a series of time capsules buried at arm’s length in the sand, each desperately trying to claw its way to the surface above the others, claiming supremacy or that they were there first. None win, and it doesn’t really matter either way.

Various oasis-like valleys run through the desert all the way to Algeria and mark vital lifelines for farmers who tend to palm and date tress, as well as producing Morocco's famed argan oil.

Various oasis-like valleys run through the desert all the way to Algeria and mark vital lifelines for farmers who tend to palm and date trees, as well as producing Morocco’s famed argan oil.

Back in the Sahara, a darkness creeps quietly across the sky in fading rays of pink and orange. We take turn trying to see how long we can go without looking up, as the night sky slowly unveils itself in webs of twinkling television static. We stare at stars we were always assured existed, but have never actually seen for ourselves. Bands of milky white glow stretch across the sky in gentle arcs and it’s a while before we realize they’re not clouds. There are no clouds.

I suddenly understand why people have been worshiping the sky since…well, the dawn of human consciousness. Why we call them the Heavens. When you consider the capacity of each star to bear its own system of celestial procession, as endless as the Sahara seems, it is not even a grain of sand itself in the great vastness of the universe. The thought makes me feel crushingly insignificant, yet immeasurably powerful at the same time.

I relax my eyes and try to draw my own constellations in the darkness. A chair becomes a horse, becomes a centaur, who becomes a winged warrior in a great battle across the sky. Mars flashes a heavy red grin.

The celestial arrangements I knew as a child are gone, nowhere to be found. Orion is somewhere else. Wicked Cassiopeia has finally been buried. The Great Bear hangs upside down, suspended in motion. All is quiet. The sand sings gently to me in the wind.

Meffe - Shadows in the Sand

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