Al-Zaytuna Mosque, Café El M'rabet, Café Mrabet, Capitalism, Coffee, Haggling, Humor, Mosque of El-Zituna, One Thousand and One Nights, Shopping, Souks, Tunis, Tunis Medina, Tunisia, Tunisia 2016, Turkish Coffee, Youssef Dey Mosque
I have climbed up to the very top of the Café El M’Rabet. You have to first venture through a saloon in which the air is as murky as soup. The customers recline over cushions with their coffees floating on little wooden trays. Somebody inevitably has their fingers poised on a shisha, an apparatus which resembles the bagpipes but with churning water and tobacco instead of music. Nobody can tear themselves away from the spell of this languid, poolside ambiance to glance up at you. The only things in this room to seem wholly alive are the vibrant red-and-green pillars, which whisk like slender tornados through the peace.
You proceed out into a small courtyard and then there is an even wider courtyard, in a pale, lion-coloured stone. Everything is as perfectly ornamental as in an Italianate arrangement by MC Escher. There are daintily potted trees and climbing flowers draped over the walls like fishing nets and the stern gargling of an Arab singer. The customers sit at metal tables and they look bemused or surprised to be there. Keep going! You crash adventurously up a small staircase, which reaches a terrace before it can lapse into being an Escher staircase, and you have at last arrived to join me for a Turkish coffee.
A waiter in livery, very grave and as noiseless as an assassin, appears with the coffee.
“It’s divine,” I confide. It’s as sweet and smooth as a liqueur, but otherwise so gritty that it wobbles on the very edge of being undrinkable. “When Starbucks turned the UK upside-down, and they imposed their new regime of lattes and cappuccinos, the oldest and very best sort of coffee, the Café Turc, was omitted. Perhaps they’re keeping it up their sleeves for later.”
“It has to be simmered on a stove,” you correct me. “Too much of a nuisance for a UK coffee house.”
I ignore this interruption. I have a suntan – it is akin to a blue moon. I am gazing intently into my own shadow, which lies at my feet as black as the opening to Hades. I begin to shape my hair in the silhouette.
Suddenly two minarets are bickering. They stand on either side of the Café El M’Rabet and its courtyard, both above and below us. One is fat and the other is thin, like two English travelling aunts. The fat one, as with aunts, is louder and more imposing. They are wailing as if they have lost their keys. The thin one is shrill; the fat one booms. Come to think of it, this minaret seems to boom even when it is silent. “Behold how grand I am!”
All this talk of aunts might be inappropriately clownish. Allow your eye to rest on the mosques for a minute. The “fat” one dates from the seventh century though its gorgeous minaret was erected in 1894. This is the Al-Zaytuna Mosque and it was the second mosque to be built in Africa. It became the site for one of the oldest universities in the Arab world and the whole of the medina would range out from beneath its shadow. The other, the Youssef Dey Mosque, is comparatively youthful. It became a mosque in 1631. These two minarets are both turrets on the UNESCO World Heritage Site of the Tunis medina, of which the Café El M’Rabet has procured an exceptional view.
They call to prayer. People look at them sullenly. In the street outside the café several old men emerge and they pad doggedly towards the mosques. For non-Muslims such as you and I, the reality behind these mosques can never be investigated. They have the impossible secrecy and glamour of masonic lodges.
You want to confer with me about the mosques and the medina, but I have started to write in the notebook on the table. I have twitched into activity, like a practitioner of automatic writing when there are spirits in the air.
I buy practically everything online. I normally shrink from high-street shopping with the desperation of a cat from running water. I soon realise that it makes as much sense for me to come to Tunis as it would do for a man who abhors gambling to visit Las Vegas. The Tunis medina presents stall after stall in which people are greedily trying to sell you everything to hand.
I didn’t want to purchase anything in the medina but then one day I really needed a bag. The pockets of my pantaloons were crammed with a novel, a notebook, my phone and, to refer back to the terms of a previous article, I am no Roman statue down there.
It had to be a man bag rather than a girl’s handbag. I am usually too slow-witted to speak French but at one stall, with a million leather bags dangling from the ceiling like bats, I manage “pour un homme” repeatedly. Un petit sac, pour un homme.
An eligible candidate is immediately produced. I imagine that it is the most defective or shop-worn on the whole premises, but it looks functional enough. The trader is reassuringly youthful and surely a bit of a mooncalf. Combien?
It turns out that I have to decide.
“Je ne sais crois,” I admit in dismay.
From the mooncalf’s wide eyes I gather that these words might have been never uttered in the souks before. But I have no idea how much a small leather bag should cost even in the UK. The haggling soon becomes a rout and, tied up in the barbed wire of my own politeness, I end up paying fifty dinars (seventeen pounds).
The humiliation is of an almost erotic magnitude. I have been unmanned, exposed shivering and naked in front of this quick-thinking, knowledgeable, gormless-looking young trader. I will no doubt stand out in his memory for weeks to come as a particularly ignominious loser. I will be reflecting frantically upon how this purchase could have been better conducted long into the day. From now on I rapidly understand the appeal of the medina. The wares are largely worthless, but the shopping is a gladiatorial contest, in which men (and it is mostly men) throw all of their powers into the fight.
You should go very slowly; you should always remain calm and pleasant. These contests are courtly affairs with the floweriest of manners on display. The purchaser should never name the opening price (my first mistake) and they should never enter into haggling without having researched the typical street price of what it is that they want to buy (my second mistake).
A week later I am shopping for some gifts for my flatmates back in the UK. I again part with fifty dinars for items which must cost barely twenty, but I put up more of a fight this time. The duel goes on for a good quarter of an hour (admittedly in English), I terminate several impending prior purchases, and there is also the store’s rooftop view of the medina thrown into the sale. Fifty dinars is slightly more than a third of the opening price, which the guidebooks recommend as a desirable outcome. Maybe if I get through several thousand dinars, I will have acquired enough proficiency to play this game with reasonable success.
That the souks have become totally inauthentic is a complaint which has been overworked to drudgery. Cynicism about the medina is today as common as “Allāhu Akbar.” The largest percentage of trade in this once-supreme medieval marketplace is now the selling of tourist souvenirs. The proportion of Tunis’ population that lives in the medina has fallen steadily over recent decades, to a bare tenth (it was once the entire city). I have also heard a Tunisian resident griping that many of the wares are manufactured in China and passed off as local colour.
The aesthetic, however, retains an authentic Christmas-tree twinkle, some fundamental allure or steep nostalgia which can be never rubbed away. I am a devout reader of the One Thousand and One Nights, and the medina allows me to see a phenomenon which I have only ever appreciated intellectually. The unpredictable adventures of the Nights and the process of getting lost in these thoroughly confusing medieval souks are one and the same. In the Nights, a hero might happen upon a mysterious palace and a bewitching princess in the snaking lanes of the city; in the medina you might discover a certain shop which you could never locate again if your heart was set on it.
Though most guidebooks paint the medina as a scene for scams, deceptions, and “dangers,” it is potentially very family friendly. Adults might distrust the medina, or become annoyed by its clatter and pestering, but the stalls will provide reliable entertainment for younger tourists. Of course, children should never frequent the medina unsupervised. Some of the haggling can be done in English – much more can be done in French – but younger tourists will be captivated both by the magnificent displays of goods and by the ritualised contests of buying and selling.
The medina should be consumed piecemeal, nibble by nibble, like a pomegranate with the tough pips and the sweet flesh all mashed together. I have visited the medina six times and I have never really felt that I have turned the first page of the book. It offers an infinity of combinations of experiences.
The souks often look like the Arab world out of a picture. Take those shadowy arcades with their ceilings built high enough for baggage-laden camels to swing underneath. They can only be authentic in the end. These people who are all seated en masse and watching with their hookahs might resemble the extras on a film set, but they must have genuine, unremarkable existences to somehow eke out within this world.
The aesthetic also has its horror. Dip into the medina after it is closed, when everything is boarded up and the streets have the unearthly tranquillity of an Antarctic plateau. I have never seen a street cat in Tunisia which I would like to befriend, but cats now appear which are pregnant, eyeless, mad, and almost mutant in their unloveliness. Sometimes the medina rattles briefly to life again as a teenager races around its deathly tunnels on a moped.
Perhaps this is the best way to see the medina. Perhaps this is when the glamour of the medina rises like the simmering of a Turkish coffee, black and utterly luxurious.