I lived in Tunis for two years. It was (and, I’m sure, still is) a beautiful city. I lived in a house not far from the shoe market and the gold market and the perfume market, down the street from the coppersmiths' district, within shouting distance of the az-Zeytouna Mosque. My walk to work took me through the busiest part of the tourist / merchant area, past the rug merchants and the spice merchants and the olive-wood merchants, past the British Council library, out through the Bab Bhar, down Avenue Habib Bourguiba, past the French-built Cathedral of Saint Vincent de Paul, past the statue of the fourteenth-century Tunisian historian Ibn Khaldoun holding his book against his chest.
It was a sunlit city, warm, funny, full of unique and wonderful neighborhoods.
I dream of it all the time. Dream-Tunis is not quite the same as the real Tunis in which I lived. Dream-Tunis is full of dramatic landscapes and vistas. In Dream-Tunis I’ll walk down a boulevard and see the entire city from a height, or realize that there’s a whole stretch of seacoast I never visited. Or a mosque, or a whole stretch of old buildings.
I think it’s because the real Tunis was (to me, in the mid-1980s) just as dreamlike. I remember, one Saturday, deciding to walk north (an unfamiliar direction) through the medina, to see what I’d find. I found residential areas, and more markets, and roofed streets, and unroofed streets. I found a housewares market, like an open-air Walmart. I found another shoe market. I found quiet neighborhoods full of palm trees growing between the houses.
I didn’t want to go home. I wanted to keep going forever.
I think that’s why I still dream about it. Tunis was a labyrinth, but all of its secrets and revelations were beautiful. I always wonder: what would have happened if I’d turned left instead of right? What doorway would I have found? Another spice market? Another thousand-year-old mosque? Another Turkish palace?
My friend Nejib (who now directs a large technology operation in the city) keeps inviting me back to see “the new Tunisia.”
Maybe I will someday.
I hope it’s still as intricate and beautiful as I remember.