There are many reasons to travel to Tunis — food, history, culture — but if I had to choose one, it would be the people. In all my travels, I have never interacted with as many locals as I did in the 36 hours I was in the Medina (old walled part) of Tunis.
While planning the trip, I imagined the Medina to be something similar to the one in Marrakech: loud, busy, massive, packed with tourists and swindlers lurking at every corner — but within a few hours in the Tunis Medina, it was clear that it shared few similarities with its bustling Marrakech counterpart.
The feel of the Tunis Medina from the moment we arrived, to the time we were leaving, was of a close-knit community — the sort where people help the elderly carry bags and strike up conversations with strangers on the next table at a coffeehouse without any qualms.
It doesn’t pander to tourists, and so you feel like you are genuinely experiencing the way of life of the city and its people.
As is the case with Marrakech, there is much more to the Tunisian capital than its Medina but due to limited time on our hands, we only got to discover the old quarter.
The guesthouse we stayed at, Dar Ben-Gacem, was a house built in the 17th century, which still carried the feeling of a home. All seven rooms of the guesthouse had a different interior, but each uniquely Tunisian. An antique chandelier hung from the high ceiling of our room while intricate woodcarvings and traditional tiles covered the wall and arches.
In the courtyard on the ground floor, there was a long table for meals and seating arrangements outside the rooms for having tea. There was never a time when we were sitting in the courtyard — which we made the most of in the morning and late at night — that someone from the staff didn’t offer us tea.
In my opinion, if you have less than 48 hours in any city, the best way to see it is just to walk around without any particular destination in mind. Considering that the Tunis Medina, which is a Unesco World Heritage Site, is said to have somewhere near 700 monuments from the Almohad and the Hafsid periods of Tunisian history, this was also the most practical approach.
Founded in 698, the Medina today is filled with narrow streets, souqs, mosques, and historic structures. Walking through the alleys, which opened into more side streets, we passed by gorgeous doors, some with black studded nails creating geometric patterns and others with painted floral designs.
A few plastic chairs and tables could be spotted every few steps to sit, have tea and food, and people-watch. The eateries were purely functional — there was no fancy décor and no extensive menu. The people working there stood outside chatting to customers who appeared to be regulars, many of them students or older men.
The first thing we ate in Tunis was a baguette sandwich filled with tuna — a staple of local cuisine — and fries. The unassuming sandwich shop off Rue Sidi Ben Arous didn’t have any board, at least not one that I could spot, but the crowd of locals outside made it a safe bet. Most people took the sandwich with them while some, like us, stood around the tables outside and gobbled them up.
The square minaret of Zitouna Mosque dominates the view as you walk down Sidi Ben Arous, one of the main streets of the Medina. 17th-century Tunisian historian Ibn Abi Dinar spoke about the presence of the tomb of Saint Olivia where the mosque is located, thus the name jemaa ez Zitouna or the mosque of the olive. Its foundation is traced to the year 732 AD, but the mosque underwent several modifications, with the last work dating back to the 19th century when the 44-meter-high minaret was remodelled.
The mosque is a beautiful example of the elements of Islamic architecture, and its vast courtyard is the perfect place to take some time and observe all its features.
The courtyard is accessible through nine doorways, but if someone were to ask me which one we entered from, I wouldn’t be able to point to it because it was one of the hundreds (maybe thousands) inside the labyrinthine alleys of the souq.
The souq, again one of many inside the Medina, is a multi-sensory experience; the fragrance of the oils and spices hits you first, before you can set your sights on Berber carpets and local ceramics while shopkeepers and visitors chatter nearby. There’s not much one can’t find here, except perhaps designer wear — and I say perhaps because there were plenty of knockoffs.
One of the shopkeepers, from whom we bought painted wooden bangles, told us how he had always wanted to go to Lahore. “I’ve read so much about it,” he said, quoting a few lines of Iqbal to prove his familiarity with Pakistan.
Apart from shops, the souq was crammed with eateries. Big or small, cheap or swanky, they all seemed to be a full even in the middle of a weekday.
We saw a green and red sign for M’rabet, a restaurant and café that has been around since 1630. Inside, the décor was also red and green with a seating arrangement that resembled something of a four-poster bed — or a charpai, but with pillars. So you could sit or lay on them (really give in to the whole lounging experience).
M’rabet is also apparently the resting spot of three saints, the identities of whom remain a mystery.
After cups of thé aux pignons — Tunisian tea with mint leaves and pine nuts — we went about exploring the Medina.
In a search for old stamps, we ended up at an antique shop where the chatty owner told us stories about Tunisia’s glory days and how he himself had “written a letter to Obama” in his capacity as a government official. The shop, for which I didn’t spot any board but the man identified as ‘Bouzouita Family Museum’, had everything from old books and newspapers to antique postcards and correspondence between dignitaries.
His long but interesting stories coupled with the time it took to converse in broken English and Arabic resulted in us spending two hours at the shop. By the time we left, around 6 p.m., the metal shutters were coming down.
Finding a venue for dinner turned out to be a challenge. After a few disappointing turns, we found one brightly lit alley with a few open shops — but all only serving tea. We took a break, for the Wi-Fi more than anything else, and checked what would be open. But an unhelpful Google Maps only made things more confusing on an empty stomach.
What helped, however, was music from a table close to us where a group of young men were serenading the scarce audience. (To this day, I don’t know what song they were playing but if anyone can identify it from the video, please do let me know in the comments sections.)
After their jam session, we got to talking and like everyone else we had met in Tunisia, they said they were happy to meet Pakistanis. One of them told us that although he didn’t know much about Pakistan, he really liked biryani.
After the tea/music interlude, we started our search for food again. The few people along the way were extremely helpful or tried to be given the language barrier, but in dark, unfamiliar alleys, traveller’s paranoia can play tricks with one’s mind. Nevertheless, when a seemingly nice man, in more sign language than actual words, gestured for us to follow him, we decided to go after him, our appetites overruling our brain by that time.
It paid off.
The man, after guiding us through the maze of alleys for around five minutes, pointed us to the door of a restaurant that was open and went about his way as we thanked him profusely.
As is the case with most restaurants in the Medina, the entrance was simple and small. Inside, however, this certain establishment, called Essaraya Restaurant, was the most grand we had seen so far. A lone musician played a small traditional guitar-like instrument as we settled in and took stock of the elaborate surroundings.
“Essaraya Restaurant is housed in a palace of a noble Tunisian family of the Medina,” said the manager, who gave us his undivided attention perhaps owing to the fact that there weren’t many other diners around.
Having already had our share of couscous in Sidi Bou Said, a coastal town in Tunisia, we ordered the Ojja — or shakshouka, the more commercial name which can be found on café menus around the world. Ojja, which is believed to have originated from North Africa, has eggs and meatballs in a stew of tomatoes and spices. We mopped up the dish with the unbelievably fresh and soft bread on our table.
The one food item that anyone visiting Tunis must have is lablebi, which, as recommended by the hotel staff the next morning, is “best had at one of the smaller cafeterias in the souk with many locals”.
Here’s how it’s done: a wooden bowl is placed in front of you with stale bread, which you break into pieces. Soon, the vendor appears and in whirlwind motions, fills the bowl with chickpeas and their broth, olives, harissa, a hearty sprinkle of mixed spices, olive oil, tuna, lemon and finally, a poached egg. And then you mix it well, so that the bread soaks up all the flavours. It’s a hearty meal and easy on the pocket.
In between bites, as we deciphered the textures and ingredients in the bowl, a young Tunisian woman, Amina, on the next table struck up a conversation with us. First, she asked us our thoughts on lablebi and then on Tunis and our stay.
“Things are much different now, much better,” she said, referring to the aftermath of the Tunisian Revolution of 2011, that saw conflicts between religious and state forces coming to a head. The event is also credited for sparking a series of political events across the region that came to be known as the Arab Spring.
“Now there’s a line between religion and politics, young people can thrive […] they know they can fight for how things should be,” she said while eating her Tuna baguette sandwich and gesturing to the surroundings. “It was not like this […] before the people took to the streets.”
Amina lived outside the Medina but came here once a week for her music lessons at the Rachidi Institute of Tunisian Music, one of the oldest Arabic music schools.
As she quickly finished her sandwich looking at the time, she asked us to come along and hear her play. We entered the music institute through a small door and found ourselves in the courtyard where concerts are frequently held. The institute’s foundation dates back to the 1930s when it was established with the aim of preserving Tunisian musical heritage in the face of French colonialism.
In one of the many small classrooms, Amina took her place and strummed the kanun — a string instrument that was as beautiful to look at as the sound coming from it.
Sadly, our flight was in a few hours so we couldn’t make use of the rest of her tips for seeing the city. We spent our last hour walking through the Medina, not really looking for anything but at everything.
If you do make a trip to Tunis, remember not to walk but doolesha — an old Tunisian word that stands for ‘strolling at a slow pace for pleasure’.
I’m not sure about the origins of the word but I would like to believe someone came up with it while roaming the Medina of Tunis.