The improbable woman was dressed in black
Her diverse shadow and her hallucinations
were there only to redefine the furtive
with appropriate optimism, I could
not elude her
—Slaheddine Haddad,”A carters’ tea”
September still feels like summer in Tunisia, even more so after a revolution. The house where we are staying in the Northern suburbs of Tunis overlooks the canal between Khereddine and La Goulette and a long white wall covered with graffiti and revolutionary slogans. A bunch of red flowers with a dove holding olive twigs in its beak… Colors whirling in abstract fashion, black, green and blue. Tasamih, tolerance… Full moon on the fourteenth of January 2011… Youngsters joyfully jump from the bridge into the canal late at night, after the orchestras of the daily wedding feasts have ceased playing. This year, Ramadan was in August and young couples have had to make up for lost time and fit in their ceremonies in the first two weeks of September.
I had not walked in the streets of Khereddine for thirty-five years, only glimpsing what I could from the main street as I drove through, on my way to some reading or presentation. The house we briefly lived in so long ago has changed over the years, as we all do. Its façade now bears the marks of new generations. In typical Tunisian fashion, our former landlord has added one floor to accommodate his children. Had I ever thought I would come back here, let alone after a revolution? It looks as if we were starting things over again, picking up the thread where we left it.
The capital is almost empty on an early Sunday afternoon. I walk up the central Habib Bourguiba Avenue, where so much happened last January. The gray façade of the sinister Ministry of Interior looms in front of me, as I recall the thousands of demonstrators relentlessly demanding that the dictator go, only a few months ago. The night before, my friend the poet Slaheddine Haddad evoked his own emotional memories of the crowds waving as they chanted “Dégage“: “Get out.” It was a mantralike experience, he told us. And they had kept on till the dictator had stepped down. I walk on as the soldiers behind the barbed wire indicate that I must not approach. Further up the avenue, more military vehicles testify to a period of transition and uncertainty. “Gaddafi is a threat to the Tunisian revolution,” says a slogan painted on a wall. “Power to the people,” says another. “Freedom,” in English, at the Cathedral of Tunis. Close to Bab el Bhar, the Door of the Sea, which marks the entrance to the medina, Algerian and Libyan cars are parked and men nearby furtively offer to change money. The navy-blue enameled plates at the door of the old Hôtel de France have not changed since the 1950s: Running water, Elevator. At the Marché central, vendors are cleaning their stalls, while cats forage for scraps they can relish in a silent corner.
In many Tunisian streets, the urban landscape has noticeably changed. In the past, one never saw young men with long beards sporting the qamis, and black-veiled, black-gloved women wearing the niqâb were so exceptional as to seem exotic. We have been told Islamists are now in control of one of the district mosques. On Friday afternoon you would think the preacher is sitting with us in the kitchen, so powerful is the loudspeaker now. Several friends and relatives express their concern about this growing presence in a Tunisian society known for its tolerant practice of Islam. They worry about the number of votes the Islamist parties may get at the October election, all the more so as over one hundred political parties have been created since the revolution. They also acknowledge that all factions should be allowed to express themselves in a democracy. As long as they respect its rules… Vigilance is their rallying word, as the red bumper stickers on so many cars endlessly repeat: “I have registered to vote.”
The morning sun splashes onto the whitewashed walls of Sadika Keskes’s atelier in Gammarth, north of Tunis. The alley is adorned with some of her gorgeous glasswork outdoor lamps. She is not only showing her productions, but also hosting an exhibition of paintings by Tunisian and Libyan artists in solidarity with the Libyan people. Warm and radiant, Sadika greets us and tells us about “Women, Flex Your Muscles,” a movement she founded a few weeks ago to encourage as many women as possible to actively take part in the building of the new democratic Tunisia. In August, she went to Kasserine, to the underprivileged provinces where the revolution started. There she met hundreds of women who had been chanting the name of her movement as a slogan after they had heard about it. They had been working in the government hand-woven rug industry, where they were brutally exploited, receiving only a third of the minimum wage. Sadika is overwhelmed by emotion as she speaks about them. “I am going to revolutionize carpetmaking,” she says. She is thinking of the rights of these women and also brimming with all sorts of ideas. She opens her notebook and shows us pages covered with drawings she has made of new patterns. Indeed creativity had been stifled and women had been discouraged from innovating. “The symbolic figure of Gandhi spinning wool is a meaningful example for us,” she writes.
In La Marsa, we visit Artyshow, the gallery where Nadia Khiari exhibits her hilarious cartoons, featuring an impertinent tomcat and signed Willis from Tunis. A bright-eyed, cheerful young woman, she started drawing during the revolution to battle the fear and anxiety fuelled by rumors spread through Facebook and other social networks. Her first album is a great success; she recently presented it, by invitation, in Paris.
In one of Tunis’s clinics, I meet Najat from Libya. Her bright blue headscarf covers her shoulders, bringing out the intense look in her brown eyes. She speaks very fast, as if trying to catch up with so many things she would like to share with me and has not got the time to express. She comes from Misrata and lived the horrendous siege of the pro-Gaddafi forces. Four of her relatives died fighting as chababs. She recalls how her cousin, a well-known lawyer, closed his office to take up arms. In fact all businesses closed, she says. Although no wages have been paid since the revolt started in February, people have helped out each other. Her voice seems to break for a second when she speaks about her fifteen-year-old son. “He had never held a gun in his hands before.” Who would expect a fifteen-year-old to have such an experience? He also fought in the war for liberation. Driving her sick husband out of Libya was an ordeal, until they managed to cross the border.
Tunisian hospitals treat the wounded Libyan freedom fighters for free. There have been recent calls for blood-donors, as reserves were running low with all the recent fighting. I wonder who is being treated at the clinic on that last afternoon, when I see neatly dressed boys in white shirts waving flags of the NTC with a grave look in their dark eyes. The colors of the NTC are ubiquitous as lots of Libyans arrive in Tunisia, longing for rest after months of anguish and war. They are proud to show NTC bumper stickers, to wear NTC caps or wrap a flag on their shoulders as a scarf. One evening in one of the whitewashed alleys of splendid Sidi Bou Saïd, we walk past a group of young Libyan girls. Dressed in distictive gray and brown, they beam as they photograph each other and gaze at the sea from what is commonly regarded as one of the highlights in the Tunis area. They eagerly cross the threshold of a new future, joyfully making use of the few French words they know.
I meet Elisabeth Daldoul in a Moorish café in La Marsa. The thick ficus tree branches offer pleasant shade there. It is not very far from one of the former Bey’s dilapidated palaces. A fig tree has grown through one of its broken windows. How the long-dead odalisques would have raised their eyebrows, had they known nature was ever to invade their dwelling… The founder of Elyzad publishing house, Elisabeth has been excitedly following events ever since January 2011. And things are not easy for her, as the supply of the laid paper that has become the hallmark of her books has been exhausted. None will be imported before the October election. She takes me to Kobbet el Haoua on the beach, a romantic pavilion built by the Bey at the end of the nineteenth century so that his family could bathe unseen by the public.
The next day we have breakfast with poet Slaheddine Haddad and his wife, Jouda. The tree at their window, brushing up against the white wall, is an invitation to meditation. What the country is going through right now is anything but peaceful, he explains. Then he quotes Antoine de Saint-Exupéry: “What is essential is invisible to the eye.” Slaheddine picks up a poetry journal from his shelves and we start talking about poets he knows, poets I know. We go back to the revolution, as if no conversation could ever elude the subject that is on all our minds for very long. “Yes, we are rediscovering the happiness of life and the happiness of questioning ourselves.” He concludes: “We are now free to love or not to love, and we are determined to remain so.”
As the plane takes off from Carthage airport, I cannot help feeling the new Tunisia I am leaving has already become somehow familiar. The sense of newness I perceived last March when I first returned is vanishing, replaced by eagerness and anticipation. The Tunisian people are about to write on the blank pages they decided to open in the book of history.