In the Shadow of History: A Summer in Tunisia

August 15, 2022
At the El-Zitouna Mosque in the Medina of Tunis

In the summer of 2022, after a two-year hiatus due to Covid-19, the Center for Middle Eastern Studies’ five-week Arabic language program in Tunis made its long-awaited return. Led for a fifth time by the Gordon Gray Research Professor of Arabic and outgoing CMES Director William Granara, the program synthesized modern Tunisian history, literature, and culture through various texts dating from the early-twentieth-century pre-Independence period to the contemporary, post-Revolution setting. Nicolas Pantelick ’24, a joint NELC and government concentrator pursuing a concurrent AM degree in Middle Eastern studies, detailed his summer experience in Tunisia, joining six other undergraduate and graduate classmates from across the University.

Tunisia summer 2022 class group
Our class (left to right: Alex Garnick, Flo Sharp, Maggie Thielens, Giulia Benvenuto, Josh Willcox, and Nicolas Pantelick; not pictured: Lavinia Zhao) at the foot of El-Zitouna Mosque in the Medina of Tunis, Tunisia

To comprehend a nation’s culture, history, and traditions requires an act of submission—a supplication to journeys covered, cataloged, and yet to be conceived. Nowhere is this more evident than in Tunisia. Tunisia’s is a rich and splintered history, its eras cross-pollinated by bygone civilizations—Phoenician, Roman, Byzantine, and many Islamic empires. History is the setting, seat, and sequence on which modern Tunisia models and reimagines itself.

As participants in CMES’ five-week Arabic summer language program, my classmates and I had the privilege of experiencing the endless wisdom, wit, and dry humor of Professor William Granara. Our class was distinctly global, with members hailing from the United States, United Kingdom, Italy, and China, each bringing with them an inimitable character, expertise, and charm. The existence of the CMES Tunisia Office can largely be attributed to Granara’s dedication and his role as a leading force within Middle Eastern studies at Harvard. In many ways, Tunis is a second home to Granara, who spent five years there as the Director of the US State Department’s Arabic field school before arriving at Harvard, as well as many summers living there since.

Befitting someone of Granara’s expertise, our Arabic reading selections were eclectic, historically apropos, and in tune with the tumultuous tenor of modern-day Tunisian politics. Each selected text unlocked the sprawl of Tunisian cultural, social, and political history that lay beyond the Center’s walls, spanning a century from the height of French colonialism to the contemporary moment. While our textual journey through this breadth of millennia was not strictly linear, the literary thread that Professor Granara unraveled created both a coherent web to visualize the Tunisian national consciousness across time and a compelling paradigm for our summer’s travels.

Our reading of early-twentieth-century Tunisian writer and intellectual Ali Du’aji’s (1909–49) colloquially titled narrative “Barhopping through the Mediterranean” evoked a continuity between historical context and the contemporary, emphasizing the region’s hybridity and shared culture. Du’aji’s work recounted his 1933 journey around the Mediterranean, irreverently capturing the flaws and complications of the inter-war period through vivid vignettes while bucking the stringent literary parameters of the traditional rihla (or travel) genre that is often connected to the Hajj. Sometimes known as “the father of the modern Tunisian short story,” Du’aji was born into a wealthy merchant family of Turkish ancestry in Tunis. As a young writer, he joined the nationalist, anticolonial “Jama’at that al-sur” or “Beneath-the-Wall Group,” who met in the old medina of Tunis near Bab Souika. Ninety years later, our class’s travels seemed to fill a missing national link in Du’aji’s epic, the young luminary having traversed and written about every corner of the Mediterranean but his own, though always carrying with him the Tunisian ethos. Although our summer treks across Tunisia may not have been as dramatic as the absurdities Du’aji described, we too found ourselves, strangers in a new land, piecing together abstract, refracted understandings of history and culture from fleeting moments, characters, and conservations.

My Tunisian story began on an early June evening when I arrived in Tunis, carrying on my brow the perspiration and excitement of my long journey from San Francisco. I met my classmates at our accommodations, nestled atop a panoramic perch thirty minutes north of the city center. From this vantage, we gazed down on the blue and white porticos of Sidi Bou Said to the left and the glamourous beach town expanse of La Marsa and Gammarth to the right. Beaches hemming the Mediterranean’s expanse would be our constant companion, whether those along the translucent waters of the rocky Raf Raf and Bizert peninsula to the Northwest of Tunis or on the sweeping plains speckled with olive groves of the country’s Sahel to the Center East, with its port cities of Sousse, Mahdia, and Monastir.

Sidi Bou Said
View from above the blue and white toned village of Sidi Bou Said, a northern suburb of Tunis, where we stayed for the summer

Indeed, if beaches were our steadfast summer skyline, the musky ambrosia of cigarettes was our perpetual perfume. In any Tunisian café au bord de la Mer, whether enjoying a sugary mint tea, bitter “Turkish” coffee, or fresh fruit juice, with smoke curling up from many a patron’s lips, you would soon be greeted by a Jasmine flower seller bearing a woven basket adorned with a crown of a dozen or so neatly packaged white bouquets. As persistent as they are ubiquitous, the purveyors find success around Tunis’ tourist-heavy beachfront towns, such as our Sidi Bou Said and La Marsa enclaves. The jasmine flowers invoke an old Andalusian tradition, wherein men place the white coronation behind an ear to allure a future lover. Wide-eyed foreigners stand out like sore thumbs amidst Tunis’ urban frenzy, especially with tourism subdued by Covid-19 in recent years.

In Tunis, the humming rails of the TGM (Tunis-Goulette-Marsa) commuter tram built in 1872 bisect the city, zigzagging through the sun-soaked silhouettes of whitewashed houses and antique ruins alike. In 1912, the Tunis tram system had been the site of a boycott by Tunisian Arabs, who refused to ride all city trams for over a month after a car driven by an Italian conductor had hit and killed a child near the Medina downtown. Though ultimately unsuccessful, this experience in collective action provided a catalyst for Tunisians’ political awareness, one that coalesced around the leadership of newly formed political organizations such as the “Destour (Constitutional Liberal) Party”—the principal force behind the national independence movement. Fittingly, on the first day of Granara’s course, we began reading the 1920 Tunisian independence manifesto, “Tunis the Martyr,” of Abdelaziz Thâalbi (1876–1944), an eminent founding Destour Party member, who wrote his nationalist commentary while exiled in France following the tram boycott.

Tunis Tramway in 1912
Stamp depicting Tunis Tramway in 1912. Photo by Profburp, accessed via Wikimedia Commons

One day in late June, with the crawl of summer towards its dog days, the weather in Tunis had grown warmer, and the sea offered a welcome respite from the sun’s glare. Disembarking the TGM, I walked down the Carthage shore, cutting a path through the shallow water and the dancing drone of the beach’s cacophony. The gentle thrum of Mediterranean swells against the shore was a welcome repose from the raging wedding party at our hotel the night before when the deluge of noise reached its zenith in the early hours. Eventually, I reached Beït El Hikma (also known as the Zarrouk Palace), a monumental nineteenth-century Ottoman villa constructed by the Husainid officials, towering above the antique splendor of Carthage, adjacent to the Baths of Antonius. Families swam and played in the water, splashing and jumping like minnows beneath dilapidated concrete blocks—former Carthaginian fortifications and the site of Punic War carnage. Beït El Hikma holds historical significance in Tunisia as the mise-en-scène of the proclamation of the Republic of Tunisia in 1957, which deposed the country’s last monarch, Lamine Bey, and a realized Thâalbi and other National Movement leaders’ struggle. Land stretched in the distant periphery across the yawning Gulf of Tunis, an acute reminder of the distance a nation must travel to throw off colonial shackles and achieve sovereignty.

Beït El-Hikma, Carthage, Tunisia
Interior dining room and stained-glass window of Beït El-Hikma, Carthage, Tunisia

Later that week, we headed south from Sidi Bou Said. Tunis suburbs floated by the taxi’s window lost in the roar of a warm summer wind. To be a passenger in Tunisia is an act of reckless abandon. Yet, you would not know it by observing drivers navigate nimbly through obstacles, straddling lanes without a turn signal or care, the brazen made tranquil and innate. With each sharp acceleration, my shirt clung to my back, as I did to my chair, the seatbelt a luxurious afterthought.

We would tour the city’s medina on one of the summer’s hottest days, congregating around its imposing doorstep at Bab El Bhar (or “the sea gate”)—the seat of Tunisian colonial cosmopolitanism during Du’aji’s Epoque. The everyday ebullience seemed as if it were plucked from a medieval modus vivendi; our presence was rendered alien and insignificant. Timelessness again colored our stroll through the medina on Eid El-Adha in early July, each step tinged with the fetid smell of burnt meat as so many years and celebrations before. Every few paces, we would come across men barbecuing quartered lambs with torches, belching flames onto the blackened animal skin in a slow whine. In the week prior, the bleating of sheep had echoed across Tunisia, the imminent stained sacrifice of flocks solemnizing a week of familial celebration and a guarantee of a nation well fed.

Barbecuing in the Tunis Medina
Two men barbecuing lamb heads and hooves in the Tunis Medina on Eid El-Adha

Within the confines of Tunisian medinas, perhaps no two buildings better epitomize the country’s amalgam of history, culture, and civilization than the El-Zitouna and Great Kairouan Mosques. Both are formerly renowned Islamic University and legal centers buttressed by columns and facades salvaged from Carthaginian, Roman, and Byzantine ruins. Although El-Zitouna dates from around 700 CE, the mosque became the main national scholarly hub in the thirteenth century—when the Almohad and Hafsid rulers established Tunis as the capital of Ifriqiya—producing scholars such as the esteemed historian Ibn Khaldun. Sihem Lamine—the CMES Tunis Office Administrative Manager and our exceptionally generous resident Tunisia expert, who deserves our endless appreciation—noted how shops in the Tunis medina fan out from El-Zitouna, with the finest wares, perfumes and silks in closest proximity to the holy building. Without Sihem’s guidance on this history and others, ad infinitum, I do not doubt that such an observation would have been entirely lost on us, as navigating the labyrinthine medina already constituted a captivating challenge.

El-Zitouna Mosque in Tunis
Exterior of El-Zitouna Mosque in Tunis. Photo by Walid Akef, PhD candidate in History of Art and Architecture

The Great Mosque of Kairouan—whose name comes from the word caravan due to its strategic trade route location—predates its northern counterpart, El-Zitouna, by several decades to claim the title of being one of the earliest Islamic city’s nucleus. Piercing the arid desert ether, the mosque’s singular towering minaret became the architectural paragon for all Islamic buildings to its west, across the Maghreb and Andalusia. While divinity is Kairouan’s most precious and ubiquitous resource, the Great Mosque’s form and function also chronicle the region’s perennial water scarcity. Cisterns hide beneath the surface of its courtyard, forming an impluvium—or rainwater collector—furnished with horseshoe arches of white marble, able to hold nearly a thousand square meters of liquid. As we stood in the mosque’s central sternum, small birds fluttered and dove, announcing themselves with shrill invocations. Behind the courtyard’s peripheral arches, women sat in cloisters swathed in shade, reciting Qur’an in forlorn and rhythmic tones, their voices blending in the lilt of prayer.

Interior of the Great Mosque of Kairouan
Interior prayer room of the Great Mosque of Kairouan. Photo by Walid Akef, PhD candidate in History of Art and Architecture

Textiles are another commodity for which Kairouan is renowned, a fact readily attested to by the bulging, tightly wrapped carpets we crammed into our luggage and caravanned back home. Forty thousand or more knots can be held within one square meter of lamb’s wool or silk, the culmination of a month’s work and generations of artisanry distilled into a strip of vibrant pattern and color no bigger than my torso. Just as our souvenir carpets’ stitches converged together, so did the different historical veneers on the surface of El-Zitouna and the Great Kairouan Mosques intersect with one another to produce the character of antiquity in the ephemerality of the present. Though appropriating the bones of Carthaginian, Roman, and Byzantine buildings, the mosques achieved dynamic continuity. Trade facilitated access to the diverse materials found in El-Zitouna and Kairouan’s limbs; Roman capitals and columns were often reused, and their style adapted to Islamic conventions but still partial to a shared Mediterranean heritage and disposition.

Entrance hall of a famous carpet manufacturer in Kairouan
Ottoman-era entrance hall of a famous carpet manufacturer in Kairouan

From the pre-Islamic era, El-Jem amphitheater stands alone as an immortal marker of Tunisia’s vast history. Paid for by the olive oil trade and built in the third century CE, the colosseum wears its millennia modestly and with timeless defiance. To visit the structure today, located 2.5-hours south of Tunis, seemed an odd affair; stagnant and impetuous, it was once the focal point of macabre violence and spectacle. Today, 1800 years later, the amphitheater’s near-perfect preservation serves as a more complete reification of Roman glory than its ancient counterpart in the Italian capital, testifying to the human impulse for permanence despite the inescapable stampede of time over lives, places, and civilizations. El-Jem, in an area once known as Thysdrus, has also been a granary and marketplace throughout its history. This heritage evokes Tunisia’s legacy as El Khadra, meaning green or verdant, due to its agricultural cornucopia of olives, grapes, and cereals that buoyed ancient Rome in its efforts to sustain a far-flung empire. Tunisia’s globally nonpareil mosaic collections at the Bardo in Tunis, the Sousse Archaeological Museum, and the “House of Africa” villa near El-Jem—the latter two sites we had the privilege of visiting—reveal the country’s enduring agricultural legacy, with countless kaleidoscopic tiles conjuring images of cultivation across the four seasons.

El-Jem (Thysdrus) colosseum
A few members of our class on a visit to El-Jem (Thysdrus) colosseum

Redolent Tunisian specialties flavored our journeys throughout the country. We gorged ourselves on national street food staples, from the Tunisian-Jewish fricassé (greasy rolls stuffed with tuna, hard-boiled egg, olives, harissa, and mashed potatoes) and brik (triangular filo pastries packed with egg, onions, tuna, harissa, and parsley) on our first afternoon in La Marsa, to copious bambalouni (deep-fried donuts daubed in powdered sugar) enjoyed on balmy evenings scaling the cobbled passages of Sidi Bou Said. In Kairouan, we salivated over local delicacies of keftaji (fried vegetables married with eggs) and makroudh (diamond-shaped cookies infused with dates or almond paste, concocted from semolina and flour dough). The standard complet poisson, couscous, ojja with merguez (shakshuka’s progenitor, often served with spicy sausage), and salata mechouia (or “grilled salad” of vegetables, tomatoes, peppers, onions, and garlic) were staples of any Tunisian meal.

Octopus couscous
Octopus couscous is a dish reflecting Tunisia’s dual Maghrebi and Mediterranean culinary lineage. Photo by CMES AM candidate Giulia Benvenuto

Although the weight of antiquity is unassailable in Tunisia, the recent decades have been equally foundational in reframing the nation’s illustrious history and future. In the sunny summer we spent in Tunisia, more than eleven years after the embers of Tunisian national discontent found fiery footing on the striking image of Mohamed Bouazizi’s self-immolation, the North African nation’s intrepid democratic project seemed on the precipice, its horizon brooding with clouds. International democratic norms had proven hollow and inane when promises of social, economic, and political equality and justice succumbed to inertia and corruption under their lofty theoretical trappings. As the anniversary of President Kaïs Saïed’s dissolution of parliament on July 25, 2021, approached at the end of my Tunisian stay, political consternation, the prospect of a new constitution, and economic malaise reached a fever pitch. To understand the raucous roots of the nation’s politics over the last decade since the Revolution, I turned to Tunisian poet Abu al-Qasim al Shabbi’s (1909–34) near-century-old composition, “The Will to Life," chosen by Professor Granara for our class. During the Arab Spring, couplets from al-Shabbi’s poem were chanted in streets and inscribed defiantly on public spaces throughout the Middle East and North Africa. Spawned from the same anticolonial verve as the work of his contemporaries, Du’aji and Thâalbi, al-Shabbi’s resistance-laden verses implored citizens to oppose traditional government structures and take their lives into their own hands. The poem ends as it starts, with the resolute and eternal notion that “Should people seek or want life/Destiny will inevitably respond.” In some small way, I hope my Tunisian summer embodied this ideal—not just to be a spectator of life and its conditions, however bleak or blissful, but to be an active and willing participant, wherever one’s journey through the shadow of history might lead.

Sidi Sahbi Mosque in Kairouan
Our group, framed by columns, resting against a wall of ceramic tiles at the Sidi Sahbi Mosque in Kairouan. Finally, a very special thank you to Sihem Lamine (on the far left), without whom none of our adventures would have been possible