Today the sun is shining. Yesterday it was raining and so I went to the Bardo. What shall I do today?
A twenty minute walk north of the medina brings me to the Belvedere Park, which interrupts the city with a jolt, like an oasis springing out of colourless desert. I now realise how parched my eyes have been and all of that shaggy greenery becomes massively refreshing. Various features press around merrily in the sunshine just beyond the southernmost gates, including an ornamental lake, a café, and some zoological gardens.
I drink an excellent cappuccino in the vast outdoor café. The place must be still out of season, I conclude. Blink away the pools of dazzling sunlight and the magnificent palm trees and you are left with the atmosphere of the Skegness seafront in November. There are lines of empty metal seats and a smattering of huddled pensioners at the fringes.
I never enjoy zoos and yet there has never been a last zoo, which I have marched out of declaring, “that’s it! I’m finished with zoos!” At the zoo, my childlike love of animals is immediately at war with the reality that all of the exhibits are profoundly unhappy. Entry to the Jardin Zoologique costs, in pounds, approximately 39p. With this, you might assume that I am in for an exceptionally unhappy zoo, but the Belvedere’s inmates turn out to have unusually high morale.
The safety notice at the entrance warns visitors not to approach the animals since they are dangerous. This makes me want to inquire whether there are any cages. It transpires that there are, now and then. Everything here is so relaxed that the zoo soon begins to resemble a model farmyard. Most of the exhibits are practically at your feet, in dinky enclosures, and this informality quickly robs them of their grandeur. The ostriches range about like geese. The camels are as plain as cows. The wild boars are tumbling about on a pigsty.
I can see that the bears and the monkeys could quite easily climb out of enclosures which are separated from the public by water rather than any bars. But to do so would be unthinkable – it would violate the agreed terms of their zoo’s constitution – and so they stay put.
The zoo authorities clearly want the most impressive animals to be placed the closest to the public. The lions are henceforth given tiny showcase tanks whilst the largest enclosure is assigned to three boring goats. Sentimental Britons will become instinctively distressed at the size of most of these enclosures. There are two lions living in a space smaller than the average suburban patio. Yet all of the animals seem to be remarkably lively for zoo exhibits and I think that this is due to the constant interaction with their visitors. At one point, I see a boisterous fat man scramble over a safety fence and whisk his arm teasingly through the bars of the lion’s cage. He looks like he is raring to start a fight with the lion. The lion looks used to antics such as this.
The lion roars theatrically (this is quite terrifying); an eagle soars majestically within its twelve-foot cage. Maybe they are doing this for the scraps of food which are sometimes tossed their way, but the effect is distinctly camp. In this zoo, all creatures great and small are hamming it up.
There are baboons with those bloated pink calluses on their rumps which I am very glad that we discarded over the course of our own evolution. I suddenly see a baboon look down and study something in its paw with an effect which exactly replicates the motion of a human checking their mobile phone. Alarmed, I run over to confirm what I have seen, but the baboon instantly smuggles away its hand into its fur.
It is time to go. I am always such a curiosity in Tunisia that the zookeepers are eyeing me greedily. I am about to be bunged into a cage with the flamingos.
Unlike many UK zoos, these zoological gardens are fully conscious of being gardens. Often the visitors are relaxing on benches amidst the greenery and paying no heed to the exhibits. I only wish that the rest of the Belvedere Park was quite so verdant. It might be just the time of year or even the time of day, but a stroll up the hill, to the panorama over the city, becomes rapidly unsettling. The terrain is scrubby and unprepossessing. I am literally the only walker here. Wild dogs appear from the bushes to show their faces and there are syringes littering the side of the road. Passing motorists eye me with concern. It is incredible that so near to the centre of a city of a million people there can be so much space which is so depopulated.
The lower roads are awash with traffic and it looks as if you are meant to tour the park by car rather than walk around it. Earlier a military policeman had warned me off from going down one road because it was “un peu dangereux.” I had thought at the time that it was dangerous because one of his friends was likely to shoot me, but it might be that the place just has bad vibes.
Back in Tunis, the sunshine can be enjoyed a little longer in the Bar Jamaica. You scale ten floors of the Hotel International to the roof, via a senile lift which is travelling on its own imaginary rollercoaster (it is on floor 7, then 5, then 10). There is a terrace like a little island platform in an ocean of city. Tunis is now mostly at knee level. Swallows are still above you, but they are now also below you, diving incandescently over the Théâtre Municipal like an air force which has run out of bombs.
Glaring in the grand old style, the waiters bring beer and olives. Look again at the city: it is even more petrified and dilapidated from up here but it has nonetheless acquired some modest hills and patches of water. Tunis is a billion windows and the pattern is so intricate that it looks like lace.