I am hot and cross after walking around the medina and I decide to start the day all over again with a beer in the Bar Jamaica. Up I go, up the ten floors to the rooftop of the Hotel International, where the bar is set out pleasantly in the sunshine. After several days in Tunisia, I have acquired the skill of taking in a café or a restaurant with a single swift look, to ascertain at once whether there are beers or soft drinks on the tables. When stepping out of the lift, therefore, I am immediately conscious that every table is today dotted with huge glasses of beer rather than with the standard bottles. I have never seen these glasses before.
Now something is going wrong. The barman pauses before handing over my beer to deliver a little speech in French. As with anything of more than a sentence’s length in French, I don’t understand it, but it sounds solemn. Next the barman, noticing my incomprehension, wants to be paid before I start drinking the beer. And this beer is slightly more yellow than is normal…
I take a sip and my worst fear is confirmed. Everybody in this bar is drinking alcohol-free beer.
Up until now, I have never drunk an alcohol-free beer in my entire life!
I stare without affection at this washed-out liquid. It is like meeting a friend after they have suffered a nervous breakdown and they are reduced to pitiful ineffectiveness. There’s no spring in this beer or anything that lingers beyond the first, unsatisfactory taste on your lips.
I would learn later that my mistake was to try to purchase a beer at this bar in the mid-afternoon. This is, it seems, the equivalent of a British hotel guest ordering a vodka with their breakfast cereal. In the Bar Jamaica, the beers are only let out in the evenings.
You might have little patience with where this essay appears to be going. You might think that I should not go on holiday to a predominantly Muslim country and expect it to be all unchanged from home. After all, Scotland does not keep the whisky locked up in order to please the trickle of visitors from more conservative societies. I would reply that on an issue of this importance, I am not a multiculturalist. Indeed, after savouring my alcohol-free beer, I suddenly want the Guinness company to hire a load of mercenaries and launch a military invasion of Tunisia. Years of Trotskyite anti-imperialism have not survived three sips of an alcohol-free beer.
The alcohol-free beer and the “cocktail” which is basically a smoothie become constant companions over the coming days. My requests for beer are initially met with incomprehension and then some alcohol-free beer is dug up from somewhere in the melancholy hope that it will satisfy me. After that, any further pleading for “real” beer is met with a flutter of the eyelids and a firm, tragic smile.
Even in the handful of freedom-fighting bars, the choice of alcohol is sparing and it is usually handled gingerly, with a surfeit of ceremony. There are two choices of beer across Tunisia, Heineken and Celtia, and, since the two are indistinguishable, most bars only bother with one of them. At peak times, identical bottles will be seen on every table, as if they are part of the same pattern as the tablecloths and chairs.
To a visitor from the UK, which has more breweries per head of population than any other nation on Earth, the shock is akin to walking out of the biodiversity of a rainforest and on to plain grass. There are no black beers, no brown beers, no beers with an 18% alcohol content, no beers with a delicate infusion of blackberry and honeysuckle hints on the palate, no beers made to an authentic seventeenth-century recipe by some hipsters in a flatshare. There is nothing, in fact, but Henry Ford’s attitude to consumer choice and the same remorseless cheerfulness of generic lager over and over again.
Yes, I know that I originally came to Tunisia to write about Carthage and the Bardo, but all I can think about now is beer. It is maddening!
Days later, I am at the Tunisia Mall in Lac 2, a vast new complex of designer stores and banks and apartments to the west of Carthage. Compared to central Tunis, the Tunisia Mall is exhilaratingly modern, or modern in a heroic mood of defiance. The troops of stallholders in the streets and the emaciated cats nosing around garbage bags are rather sinisterly absent. Yet when I venture out expecting to encounter swanky bars and plunging champagne, my hopes are soon dashed. The whole complex has been built with Saudi Arabian money and the financiers have stipulated that there is to be absolutely no alcohol for anybody.
I wind up in a venue with the façade and atmosphere of an uptown wine bar. It is called “So British.” Everybody is sipping from natty little skyscraper drinks, which have been crafted from coffees and ice creams and rich fruit syrups. But this is, in the end, not so British. Not a drop of beer has ever fallen in a downwards direction in this building. Across Lac 2’s airport-sized garden square, which appears to be surrounded by infinite banking houses in various different stages of construction, there is a tea salon called “Hemingway Club.” I don’t go there – I simply can’t face what they might have mangled the image of one of America’s most hard-boiled drunkards into.
Do I look like a monster to these people? Why, everybody is quite relaxed in So British, chatting and sipping on their beautiful drinks, occasionally tangling themselves up luxuriously in the coils of a hookah. They are as happy as children playing in a garden, years before the anguish of puberty kicks in. By contrast, I am skittish with adrenaline, furtively hunting the streets and supermarkets and bars, pleading hopelessly with waiters and looking as gaunt as a junkie. I wish that I could forget that I had ever tasted alcohol – that I could sit here and toy happily with one of their pretty, meaningless drinks.
The only drunks who I have seen so far in Tunisia are two marble statues from the days of Roman Carthage. The first depicts the plump snoozing body of Silenus, the tutor to the wine god Dionysus, who is being carried aloft by four satyrs. He is tired and he wants to go to bed. The statue is exhibited in the National Museum of Carthage and it was found on the Byrsa Hill. There is a second statue of Silenus on the museum’s ground floor, having a tête-à-tête with Maenad. In this one Silenus is awake, but very blurred and droopy.
There is nothing disapproving within these representations of Silenus. In both statues, he is lovingly portrayed. But let us return to Silenus riding on that gentle wave of satyrs. The statue has been rebuilt from forty-five fragments and two of the satyrs have been lost along the way. When I am in front of this statue I feel uneasily like I am being contorted in a funfair mirror, or rather it is as if Silenus here resembles me more faithfully than I do myself. He is shattered, smashed, a freak and an outcast, a man whose own mentality’s rightful time was two thousand years ago. This is what decadence looks like and Tunisia has ultimately made the decision not to look like this.
It is, I suppose, admirable.