The Magazine

Before the Deluge

Reflections on the revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt

Mar 14, 2011, Vol. 16, No. 25 • By CHARLOTTE ALLEN
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When our group visited the mosaic-floored remains of 4th-century Roman villas in Carthage (villas that Augustine might have visited), we were instructed not to train our cameras north onto Ben Ali’s enormous and well-guarded seaside presidential palace. Images of the bespectacled Ben Ali, looking suspiciously younger than his 74 years, were everywhere in Tunisia: on roadside billboards, on posters plastered onto walls, in conspicuously posted photographs in shops and restaurants (probably regarded by their proprietors as a wise move in maintaining good relations with bribe-seekers among local authorities), and daily on the front page of La Presse de Tunisie, a French-language newspaper delivered to our hotel that we regarded as a worthless propaganda sheet, although it has become noticeably independent since Ben Ali’s departure.

The hotel that lodged the seminar was close to downtown Tunis, and when I wasn’t prepping for seminar sessions or traveling with the group on bumpy bus excursions to the impressive Roman ruins that dot rural Tunisia (which under its Roman administrative name, Africa Proconsularis, had been the economic, political, and cultural center of Roman North Africa for 600 years), I had plenty of time to stroll the sidewalks during the day, often by myself.

Before the January uprising that frightened away most visitors, Tunisia had marketed itself as a cheap tourist destination for Western Europeans, mostly French, Spanish, and Italians. The tourists tended to isolate themselves in the beach resorts along the Mediterranean coast of Tunis (the picturesque blue-shuttered town of Sidi Bou Said was a favorite), venturing into the city itself only to visit the Bardo Museum, a former bey’s palace distant from downtown that houses a huge collection of Roman mosaics, and the rabbit-warren Tunis medina that dates from the Arab conquest of North Africa during the 7th century but whose aggressive souk merchants mainly hawked cheesy made-in-China souvenirs. So I had the city of Tunis to myself, as far as tourists are concerned. I learned how to pick my way down sidewalks cluttered and chittering with breeze-blown trash and crowded with shoppers and the unemployed, to maneuver through warp-speed, blindingly lethal traffic at intersections (run for it and don’t look sideways!), and to negotiate a rattletrap municipal trolley system where I was usually the only non-hijab-wearing woman and non-Arabic speaker in the wobbling, jam-packed cars.

There were draconian unwritten rules to abide by. During the day I was able to wander alone anywhere I felt like. Tunisian women were almost never by themselves on the streets, of course; they were always accompanied on shopping expeditions by their friends, their female relatives, their husbands, or their children. But I was a Westerner, and as long as I abided by the dress code for Westerners—covered shoulders, covered knees—I was free enough. Eating by myself seemed a different story, and I didn’t try it. Cafés were off-limits entirely, except for a handful of sidewalk places that catered to tourists. Cafés were the exclusive domain of men—men who whiled away hours with tiny coffee cups and sheesha pipes because, well, Tunisia’s unemployment rate is 13 percent and the cafés and their camaraderie were, among other things, day jobs for men with no gainful employment in their lives. 

It was not wise for a woman to venture out alone after dark, not because of danger (violent crime was almost nonexistent) but because of the social opprobrium leveled at you by the men, still sitting in the cafés as you walked down a sidewalk where there were no women whatsoever because the women are now inside their homes. More opprobrium awaited those females who ventured, say, into a shawarma joint wearing above-the-knee sundresses that would be unexceptional on a summer day in America—as happened to the daughter of one of my seminar-mates and her friend. Going to the beach by yourself was also a mistake. I tried it once, and although I was born in the Pleistocene Era, I was nonetheless stalked by a young local who probably thought I might want to pay for a Shirley Valentine experience. And even if you were accompanied to the beach by a female friend, it could be hazardous to swim by yourself if you are young and female and fair-skinned, even if you are attired in the most modest of one-piece bathing suits, as one of my fellow scholars discovered. She could not place a toe into the Mediterranean without being surrounded on all sides by local men—because the beach in the Islamic world, being a public place, is the domain of men, just as the cafés are the domain of men. When I read the reports about the mob sexual assault of CBS reporter Lara Logan in Tahrir Square, I thought: Her crime was that she was a blonde Westerner in the Dar al-Islam.

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