It was just before three o’clock on Sunday morning in Tunisia when the 18-year-old swimmer Ahmed Hafnaoui won a gold medal in the 400 metre freestyle at the Tokyo Olympics. But it seemed as if the whole of Tunisia had stayed up to watch. Videos of his coach’s celebration dance and his cheering family went viral. Hafnaoui wasn’t expected to win. He had barely qualified for the race and was competing in an outside lane, which may put swimmers at a slight physical disadvantage (from the waves splashing off the wall) as well as a psychological one. He also comes from a country of empty swimming pools.
In Tunisia in the early 1980s a standard loaf of white bread cost 80 millimes (0.08 dinars). But the price was set to more than double in 1984: the government had decided to cut wheat subsidies to meet loan conditions imposed by the International Monetary Fund. The town of Douz on the edge of the Sahara was the first to rise up against the decision in late December 1983, in what would become a national revolt. ‘It was a big difference!’ Mohamed Fekih Chedly told me. ‘We acted impulsively, we didn’t have twenty millimes and they were going to make the bread 170.’
The road to Tataouine from the phosphate-producing region of Gafsa was blocked by young people protesting for jobs and development. I made a U-turn and headed back towards the west. When I got to Douz, people were cooking their dinner on open fires: the region had no gas because of protests two hours away in Gabès; they were demanding the same thing. The road from Douz to Tataouine was clear, though the petrol stations were empty because of other roadblocks towards the coast.
Anouar Brahem first heard jazz when he was studying the oud at the National Conservatory in Tunis in the 1970s. He was astonished that a youthful music of humble origins had evolved in a matter of decades into an art of extraordinary sophistication, through successive waves of innovation; Arabic music struck him as ‘caught in some sort of conformist conservatism in comparison’. He wanted to meld the traditions of the oud with other influences, and to create a vernacular modernism, like the jazz musicians he admired.
Meursault, contre-enquête by Kamel Daoud came out in English translation last month. The plaudits in the UK and US have a rare ring of authenticity: Daoud’s book is a dazzling appropriation of L’Etranger, sceptical, impatient, yet full of admiration for a canonical little fiction. He is The Outsider’s nerdiest insider. He knows every line (and occasionally quotes or tweaks them in his ‘own’ novel): he has inhabited the text and argued with it for years. Edward Said published Culture and Imperialism in 1993, as the war between Algeria’s Islamists and the ancien régime – still in power today, after half a century – was getting under way. That’s over. But so is the age of postcolonial condescension, a confident, proscriptive age, which threw out Camus’s best work along with a lot of his high-minded anguish. Daoud has reopened the conversation about an interesting novel.
Campaigners for Tunisia’s largest Islamist movement, Ennahda, have tended to avoid the subject of religion in the run-up to Sunday’s election. Instead, they talk about the details of their manifesto: a promise of economic growth and a strong stand against terrorism, the need for a national unity government, increased state grants for students, longer maternity leave for women working in the public sector, even the chance for expatriate Tunisians to send home a second car from abroad at a much reduced tax rate.
Earlier this month a double celebration took place at Carthage, once the greatest city in the Mediterranean, destroyed by the Romans at the end of the Punic Wars and now a seaside suburb of Tunis. The anniversary of Hannibal's defeat of the Roman army at Cannae in southern Italy on 2 August 216 BCE could be commemorated on the same day (2/8) as the beginning of the 2828th year since the foundation of the city by the Tyrian princess Dido in 814 BCE. Scholarly talks on Carthage and its heroes were followed by a carnival, including a parade from the acropolis to the amphitheatre with Carthaginian and Roman soldiers. The Tunisian embrace of Dido, Hannibal and their city might seem surprising. The Phoenician colony of Carthage was as much a foreign power in North Africa as Rome was, even if Dido is supposed to have won over the local population with trickery rather than war: promising to live on no more land than she could cover with ox-hide, she cut the animal skin into such thin strips it could encircle the entire hill on which she then built her city. But its earliest known invader has helped to define the nation of Tunisia since independence from France in 1956.
On Avenue Bourguiba, a young man with a swollen mouth and a bandaged arm had been lying all morning almost unconscious on the ground, a dirty Tunisian flag across his chest. A few men in the circle of onlookers finally decided to pick him up and walk him away. 'He’s been there ten days,' a middle-aged waiter from a nearby cafe explained. He was on a hunger strike. I asked why. The waiter shrugged. 'He’s from outside the capital. He hasn’t got his rights yet.' The waiter segued into his own grievances: he works 15 hours a day, has four children, makes 400 dinars a month. They never eat meat.