Tunisia: Part 1: Monastir, Lablebi and the Political Situation

Comparably speaking, my traveling has definitely slowed in the last six months or so. I graduated in October and since then I’ve been riddled with what can only be described as the Graduation Blues. I have a list of projects that I think would be fun to complete, but it is like pulling teeth to get myself to do them. Once I do bully myself into activity, I am pleased with the feeling of accomplishment and success. But the next day is still a struggle to repeat the same behavior.
While thick in the throws of this mental funk, we went on a trip to Tunisia.
What did I know about Tunisia? 1) It was in Africa. 2) It used to be a popular beach-vacation location for Europeans. 3) It would be warmer than Paris. 4)… okay, I don’t think there is a four.
Before the trip I did try to do some research for things to do in the country. I looked on Wiki-Travel and Trip Advisor, but didn’t find much more than ruins, mosques, and a few museums. I also didn’t feel the need to find many activities because Jeff and I had talked about having a nice, relaxing, beach vacation. We would only bring our phones as electronics and instead spend more time drawing and working on personal projects. I also knew that our friend Heythem would be helping guide us while we were in the country.
Heythem is a friend of Jeff’s family who is from Tunisia. He lives in the USA with Jeff’s parents while he goes to school. I have never met Heythem before, but Jeff and him had met on a few occasions. With our own personal tour-guide, I was ready to sit back and just experience the country.
Our first hour in the country was quite revealing, but good. The first surprise for me was how much the airport and the surrounding area reminded me of the New Delhi airport. I think when I heard “popular beach vacation place for Europeans” I was imagining a place that would feel more European (okay, I was expecting something more developed, but I feel like a pretentious asshole for saying that outright). Heythem and his father took us to a place to eat, and we had our first taste of traditional Tunisian food.
Holy cow, it was good.
Heythem’s father told the cook what to do, and they made us a couple of dishes that were delicious and tasty. I will try and describe our favorite though: Lablebi
1. Tear pieces of bread (can be day old) into a bowl.
2. Add garbanzo bean soup to the bowl so the bread soaks up the water (of course the soup was cooking beforehand).
3. Add tomato-based spice mixture (can be called Harissa)
4. Add Cumin
5. Add an egg (should soft-boil in the soup)
6. Add tuna (if desired, they eat a lot of tuna)
7. Add a generous amount of Olive Oil
8. Add salt, pepper, capers, and olives to taste.
The next thing we did was to leave Tunis and drive to Monastir, which is where we would be staying. During the drive, I began to learn more about the country. Apparently, the day before we arrived, in cooperation with America, the country captured one of their most wanted terrorists. On the one hand, this is good, on the other, the country was on high alert for a retaliation from the terrorist’s supporters. This was amplified even more because the New Year was also coming up. Two month’s prior to this, there was a suicide bomber. Luckily though, the only person he managed to harm was himself. Heythem was telling us this as we drove and once we got closer to cities, there were police checks manned by people in full gear with large assault rifles. They were pulling cars over, apparently looking for people on a wanted-list of sorts. Heythem was talking about these events like they were normal everyday things, kind of like how Americans are talking about healthcare I imagine.
Then we made it to Sousse (near Monastir) where Heythem’s uncle and aunt made us a huge and delicious dinner of fried fish, couscous with fish, fennel salad, mussels, shrimps, and cake for dessert. Heythem also has two young cousins who were shy at first, but by the end of the night were climbing on top of Jeff and I, yelling the only two phrases they knew in English: “How are you?” and “Thank you.”
Onze and Amira – spelling is approximate.
After that we continued on our way to Monastir and checked into a lovely appart-hotel that Heythem’s family arranged for us. Heythem’s father wanted him to stay with us for the night and sleep on the couch in the living room, but after some assurance from Jeff and I we convinced him that we would be okay on our own.
Marina Cap Hotel in Monastir, Tunisia
In an effort to keep this post from becoming even more wordy, I’ll quickly summarize the rest of our time in Monastir. The next day when we saw Heythem, he was surprised to hear that I was a little freaked out by all the terrorist conversation from the day before. That wasn’t his intention, and he assured us that the country was safe (which a few days later, I began to agree with him). Jeff also chided me for my hesitancy and reluctance, but that’s how he deals with emotions he doesn’t understand.
Marina Cap Hotel in Monastir, Tunisia
I learned that Tunisia is a very recently revolutionized country (2011), and the catalyst for the Arab Spring. Since the revolution, the government has been mostly stable, but there is still some unpredictability in regards to programs, economic action, and future plans. Some people seem to be more confident in the current party than others, but most agree that improvements are occurring and that they are better off than before.
Monastir is most widely known as a tourist location, but also the birthplace of ex-president Habib Bourguiba. He was the first president of the Republic of Tunisia and served for 30 years (1957-1987). Before his presidency he was a political activist, being imprisoned several times, and helped seal Tunisian independence from France after WWII. Bourguiba was much loved throughout Tunisia, having improved women’s right, economic organization and healthcare. He was impeached by the new Prime Minister, Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, who was the politician later ousted during the Tunisian Revolution in 2011.
The exterior of the Habib Bourguiba Mausoleum in Monastir, Tunisia
Tomb of Habib Bourguiba in Monastir, Tunisia
Heythem was invaluable to have as a companion on this trip. He was able to tell us the real price of things (not the tourist price), he took us places that locals eat, and he was able to show us how people really live in Tunisia. With him around, people were able to communicate with us more than they would have otherwise, and they also seemed to let their guards down as we were not as foreign as we would of been without Heythem. The interaction with him and his family also showed us how generous and loyal arabic culture is. Something that is all too easily ignored in American news media.
Jeff wearing what I think is a traditional Berber Jacket.
This post was a bit wordy. I felt it was necessary to set the mood of how I felt when I first arrived in Tunisia though, as the information will be good for other travelers to know. A lot of the feeling of a country can’t be described in images alone.

Well, I guess it can’t be described in a blog post either… Anyway, until Part 2!

0 thoughts on “Tunisia: Part 1: Monastir, Lablebi and the Political Situation”

  1. I concur with your remark, “…how generous and loyal arabic culture is.” I had some clients from Tunisia last year and was touched by their warmth and hospitality and how quickly one felt like part of the family. North Africans who move to France are no doubt surprised by the coldness of French culture (or is it just Paris). I mentioned once in conversation a person who surprisingly just disappeared from my life. An Algerian friend said, “French?” “Yes.” “Yeah they will just drop you.”

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