Geography is a weird thing. In my mind North Africa is a different, exotic place. But Tunisia almost touches the tip of Sicily and, not surprisingly given this close proximity, its history is tightly intertwined with that of Europe. Tunisia was founded in the 11th century B.C. as a Phoenician port of Hadrumetum, then for centuries was a part of the Roman Empire, a Byzantine city of Justinianopolis, and finally in the 7th century A.D. conquered by the Arabs who gave the city its current character. Its medieval heart, medina, is a UNESCO World Heritage Site with truly unique architecture and atmosphere. Narrow streets meander through spice-scented souks and countless shops, sumptuous aromas ooze out of hole-in-the-wall eateries, and street vendors call out their offers. To my great surprise they address me in Polish! I guess there have been so many Polish tourists in Tunisia in the last few years that it pays to learn how to haggle in the client’s language – and clearly I look the type.
Tunisia is a small country only about 160,000 sq kilometers (63,000 sq miles) in size but there is certainly plenty to see there. Even a short trip inland shows a great diversity of landscape – from the beach, through olive and date palm groves, rugged highlands and flat salt planes, to the gates of Sahara. Our bus tour was a unique cultural experience in itself, largely thanks to Sufian, our Tunisian guide married to a Polish woman whose study years in Poland – as he jokingly admits – endangered his eternal soul due to abundant consumption of vodka and sausage. These are just a few unforgettable places from that trip:
Last December gave me one more reason to feel close to Tunisia – and extremely proud of its people. When young street vendor Mohammed Bouazizi set himself on fire in a town of Sidi Bouzid in frustration over the lack of dignity and economic opportunity under Ben Ali’s authoritarian system, he literally became the spark that ignited the conflagration of the Arab Spring. The wave of change that swept Tunisia and is still rolling though the region took me back to 1989 and a similar wave of public discontent that swelled in my native land and ultimately swept away oppressive regimes in Central Europe. Tunisia is Poland of MENA and I can’t wait to go back and celebrate its new-found freedom (plus support the local economy and get some tan while I’m at it =)