Tunisian Culture: Souq Sellers and Cafe Enthusiasts
So picture this: you’re standing on a street corner next to a busy road, buzzing with petite taxi cabs, diesel-emitting buses and tiny, crowded vehicles. It’s dusk and close to winter. You’re wearing a black dress, black stockings (with a small run you hope no one will notice), three inch heels – all of which are bundled underneath a thick mink coat (because why not, you’re feeling fancy tonight).
-Toot toot! Mr. Taxi Driver knows you’re feeling fancy too.
You’re walking on a brick sidewalk, cruising past cafés (all of which seem to be full of greasy men with unzipped leather coats, sporting oversized sunglasses). The trees near the street are invaded by hundreds of birds, busy preparing for the night ahead. You’re smelling jasmine, hot chocolate and churros. You take a seat outside at one of these cafés.
Two tables over, people are whispering, wondering if your coat is really mink. Unless they are high-end fashion critics or mink biologists, you know the answer and they do not.
In this country, people such as these (the young café enthusiasts) know anywhere from three languages to thirty (okay, I doubt anyone besides a polyglot language savant knows thirty).
In this country, women have rights: voting rights, abortion/family planning rights, rights to marriage and divorce as well as property rights.
In this country, there have been two presidents since the country’s independence in 1953. The last president quickly packed up his possessions and left the country with his second wife for a lengthy, unplanned vacation out East.
Now my question to you is: where are you?
Is it Spain? How about Norway? Oh heck, let’s really use our imagination…..the Federation of Southern Siberia (well….why not)?
Cold. Even colder. And that is not a country!
I’ll give you a clue: you’re on the continent of Africa. It is the wealthiest country on the continent with over ten million living, breathing, meat (or vegetable) eating humans.
You’re in Tunisia! (You know – that little country in North Africa, the country that started the Arab Spring in late 2010?)
-And you’re specifically standing near a roundabout that intersects Avenue Mohamed V and Avenue Jean Jaures with Rue de Turquie. You’re standing on a sidewalk tucked inside Avenue Habib Bourguiba. You’re right in the heart of Tunis and if you lift your head, you’ll see a glistening clock tower. Across the street, where you came from, is the TGM, the train station built by the Italians at the turn of the 20th century.
So back to you wearing the faux fur coat: you’re still sitting at the café and you’ve just sipped the last of your Turkish coffee and inhaled your daily dose of shisha. You’re feeling a little sleepy so you decide to head towards your hostel nestled within the medina (or the old Arab city) five blocks opposite to where you came from earlier.
You’ll pay the server and hobble down the street towards the medina. Unlike the straight and easy-to-navigate Avenue Habib Bourguiba, the medina is a little different. Built in the 7th century, 1,200 years before the French protectorate expanded the city onward (with their careful measuring, angling and chiseling skills to construct the city’s first blocks), the Arabs had a liking for planning their cities organically (with narrow streets, curvy pathways and delightful dead-ends).
You’ve spotted the grand arch ahead which welcomes you to the medina. As you reach this landmark, you’ll push through a gaggle of disoriented tourists, slip ever so clumsily on the polished cobblestone, and feel a little claustrophobia creep up on you. You see a little pathway ahead that is well lit and busy. This, young lady, is your entry point into the medina. Yes, we are talking about Rue Jamaa Ezzitouna.
This pathway will wind and incline before you reach the mosque (Al-Zaytuna Mosque) which will lead you directly towards your hostel. Before you enter this tight pathway, you make sure to rip off some breadcrumbs from a freshly baked baguette, just in case you get lost and can’t find your way back.
Just as you enter this busy pathway, you realize you’ve made a huge mistake. Why? Because you have walked into a souq packed full of aggressive, male souq sellers who will now convince you to buy their goods (anything from rainbow keffiyehs to plastic plates made in China), flirt with you (with pick-up lines learned from their 15 year old nephews) and convince you to marry them (you’re single, they’ve planned the honeymoon – so get ready!). This is a chaotic scene and you’re engulfed and immersed in a pool of testosterone.
Now let me describe these souq sellers you are regrettably encountering: the majority are anywhere from 35 to 60 years old. Some are skinny, but a majority had consumed one too many sugary makrouds during Ramadan. These men all know a line or two from at least ten languages and they will either sell their items aggressively or passively (their personal tricks of the trade) as you walk by.
You’re quickly and uncomfortably walking by all these shops and you’re hearing several words and lines directed towards you from the sellers:
-“Jessica!” (because at some point the sellers figured all English/US American-looking females are named, well…Jessica.)
-“Wow!” (a popular word, one which will be repeated from one seller and quickly echoed by more further down the pathway (which then begins sounding like a swamp of croaking bullfrogs.))
-“Heeeeey!” (the number of “e” placed within “hey” depends largely on the speed of your walk. If you’re slowly passing their shop – this greeting may turn into the Tunisian version of Mongolian throat singing.)
-“I want your money!” (obviously if you don’t look like a local, you must have money, right? Let’s just be happy they’re being honest and saying this in a non-threatening way with no weapon in tow.)
After ten minutes, you’ve made it through. You’ve passed all the sweaty men, strange scents, dim lights and managed to find your hostel just as night sets in. What a relief, right? Then you realize you have to pass them again in the morning on your way out for breakfast. A distressing thought, yes.
You can either find an alternative route to downtown Tunis, eat breakfast within the medina, or you can muster up all your might and sidestep the sellers without a fear in the world. Forget the haggling, it’s their hassling that is hard to win over in your head.
An important thing for you to realize: these sellers are generally harmless (aggressive but not overly aggressive) and not out to get you (although I have been felt up on several occasions (which unfortunately happens in busy, narrow pathways) and a portly perfume seller once blocked my path, grabbed my arm and wouldn’t let me go. He insisted I smell his best perfume, carefully applying and drying it on my wrist – which strangely didn’t scare me one bit. His business tactics were sharp and I am still kicking myself for not going back and buying that one, stupid perfume!
But if you feel like these sellers are popping your delicate bubble (which is understandable), there are several ways you can move swiftly through the pack of hungry-for-attention souq sellers (and oiling yourself down is not one of them).
Before we learn these secrets, we’ll first go back to you: it is morning and you’re hungry for a typical French breakfast, served fresh outside the medina on Rue de Rome. You stand tall and decide to go out the way you came from the night before. You turn the corner, the sellers see you, smile and start their procession of lines. Let the games begin! You can either:
1.) Laugh at them. They’re comedians disguised as business men. I will say however, many may laugh with you (because they know they don’t know what they’re saying and they’re saying it anyway) while others may think your light-hearted laugh has won them the entitlement to drag you into their shop. If so tell them you are late to see your boyfriend (somehow they all understand that no matter what language you speak).
2.) Pretend you only speak Icelandic or Zulu. As far as I know, not one souq seller knows a word of Icelandic nor any Bantu language. You should learn a line or two and throw it at them – as there is nothing like outsmarting a dumbfounded souq seller who has seen it all.
3.) Simply ignore them. They may consider you rude or deaf (either way, you’re surely getting closer to your coveted chocolate croissant and café crème!). Although this seems like the easiest route for you, it may backfire. Some souq sellers feel they have to be even louder to get your attention. If you walk this path often, they may try to get in your way and block your path. But if you’re not interested – stay calm, collected and focused. Carry on!
4.) Walk this path during salah. All the sellers have a prayer mat within reach and a mosque to quickly waltz towards. You have five opportunities during the day (that last five to ten minutes long each) – just listen for the muezzin, hurry towards the souk pathway and you’ll be golden on your way out. Allahu akbar!
5.) Walk this path at noon. This is the peak time for tourists to wander in, intent on buying themselves souvenirs. The souq sellers will be diligently selling their goods to them, but be prepared for tight squeezes when moving between them and their fanny packs. Make sure to listen too, hearing a souq seller attempt to speak Japanese is something you’ll never forget.
6.) Carry a pen and paper and write down their lines as you pass their shops. It always makes for a great conversation starter (especially to tell your unborn grandchildren)! “Back when I was your age, a slightly hairy man told me, ‘You have pretty eyelash.’ I said, ‘I’ll make sure to deliver one to you, if one decides to fall out in the next couple hours.’”
Now back to you with the giant coat on: ready for round two?
I thought so!