My greatest relief about Tunis is that it is relatively easy and perfectly safe for me to go on great walks all around the city centre. At home and abroad, I am an incurable pedestrian. Edinburgh is a compact capital city without any suburbs to speak of, and whole months can pass without you ever needing to set foot on a bus. My happiest holidays have been in cities such as Lisbon and Kraków, which lay out stimulating mazes and labyrinths for the walker.
Tunis is likewise a city which can be admired and enjoyed and explored on foot (although two of its choicest cherries, the Bardo National Museum and Carthage, are not reachable in this way). The flowing streets are an immensity of incident. I am so constantly looking up and around about me that I occasionally ram headlong into oncoming walkers like a dodgem car.
There are men roaming the Avenue Habib Bourguiba who want to make friends with you. They saunter pointedly under lampposts and when they have not yet spied you they are practically indistinguishable from the street’s plain-clothed policemen. After they have come to life, they are desperately eager to assist you. These poor men are, however, pinned spinning on a Catch-22. The stretches of city life in which innocent foreigners are most plentiful are also those which are watched most keenly by the police. Henceforth, a mild expression of displeasure is enough to make these scrupulously polite men tumble back.
But let us go with one of them for a while to see what happens.
He is called Sam and he is around thirty. He is rangy and very slightly dishevelled and visibly nervous. He is accompanied by a younger friend who remains bored and silent the entire time that I am with him. Sam offers to show me where the tourist information is and then we are marched off double-quick down the Avenue, at a dizzying speed. I am shown the tourist information. After this, he suggests that we drink together somewhere. I disconcert him here by insisting upon a certain bar which I am already familiar with. His own choice sounds like a bad idea to me.
He speaks good English and so I take the opportunity to sit back and relax in my home language for a few minutes. I have been worrying that I am currently exposed to so little English that it is taking the spring out of my prose. With most of the people who I speak to in Tunis, I am performing inept acrobatics on a remote tightrope somewhere between English and French.
A year ago, Sam was a tour guide in the medina. He has a degree. Oh, the tourists will return, I promise solemnly. You should focus on Chinese tourists – they are unfazed by the terrorism and they can all understand English perfectly. I am guessing that Sam is laying on his tale of misfortune thick in order to butter me up for a donation. But when I inquire about the possibility of visiting Bulla Regia, the ruins of a Roman city out in the countryside, there appears to be a genuinely unscripted moment. He whoops to himself and trembles all over with an urge to punch the air. I am suddenly afraid of being misidentified as a prophetic figure bearing a gospel, the first in a wave of increasingly adventurous tourists.
I buy them more drinks. I give them money. I want to apologise for the decisions made by my government which have deprived them of work and reduced them to this hideously genteel begging. I am sorry that I have such a distrust of Sam, and that he has such hopes of my gormlessness, that our friendship can only ever be this tense, calculating performance. Walking back down the Avenue, I am glad to have extracted myself successfully from his company but I still feel bleak down to my boots.