Arabian Night

01/29/2013 07:19 pm ET | Updated Mar 31, 2013
  • Layla Demay French journalist, author and documentary film director

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The dusty road spreads its uneven asphalt towards the working class neighborhood, in Mégrine, a southern suburb of Tunis. Small buildings on one side of the road, on the other side, a no man's land littered by plastic bags and metal cans is home to small herds of sheep. Tunisia just celebrated two years without Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, the president who ruled the country undemocratically since 1987 and was overthrown in 2011, in what marked the beginning of the Arab spring.

Last time I was here it was a few months after the fall of Ben Ali and I wonder how much the country has changed, now that a transition government led by the Islamist party Ennahda is in charge.

Young women wearing the Middle-Eastern-inspired headscarf are walking in the street. Some are covered with long black coats. Hard to say that it is prompted by religious motivations. Mind you, it's winter and even in Tunisia, it is cold. Some wear their hair loose, nicely blow dried in wavy style, or super straight, in a constant battle against frizz.

It is cold and yet the sun is shining, bringing this unique soft and magical light that softens even the bleakest sight. And suddenly, I see her. A sight I've never seen before in Tunisia. She is covered from head to toe with a black veil. Her face, her eyes, her hands, her whole body, every piece of skin or flesh is covered by her niqāb, the veil worn commonly in Saudi Arabia. She looks like a ghost, a black ghost whose face is separated from my sight by three layers. In progressive, tolerant, moderate North African Tunisia, the sight is chilling.

For the past year, the Salafist movement has been taking ground in Tunisia. The sect and its doctrine originate from Saudi Arabia.

That evening on TV, the news program reports that once again a mausoleum has been torched, allegedly by Salafist arsonists. This time, the incident happened in Akouda, near the coastal city of Sousse in the Sahel region. The destruction of the Sidi Ahmed Ouerfelli mausoleum is the thirty-fourth destroyed in Tunisia since the revolution, according to the Tunisian Ministry of Culture. Salafists consider mausoleums of local Muslim saints haraam, forbidden, and conflicting with fundamentalist Islam. In their interpretation, Muslims must have a direct relationship with God, and a mediator, such as a Saint, Muslim as He may be, is against their rigorous Islamist principles.

Speaking with friends, I hear stories of Salafist paramilitary training camps in the region of Sidi Bouzid. Impossible to confirm, but given the source, it is cause for pause. Others let their acute anxiety seep in marathon conversations. "We are worried. This uncertainty is unbearable. I'm worried that there is a horrific plan currently being executed. Something dreadful is looming. We are concerned for our children, for our future, for our liberties" one said. "When you see them with their beards, their long dresses, Salafist men are intimidating. One year ago, you didn't see anyone dressed this way. This is new. This is driven by foreign influences. This dress code is not part of Tunisian tradition." Another confides: "There is so much manipulation. It is impossible to really know what's happening. It is troublesome. We suspect that the Salafists are funded by Gulf countries, but who knows."

Later, I stroll down the narrow streets of the medina in the seaside city of Sousse. The clear blue sky contrasts delightfully with the white walls of the houses. The souk, the market, is in full speed. Vendors are selling CDs of Arabic music and counterfeit DVDs, others have piled their fruits and vegetables onto their market stands, and the jewelers' windows are oozing with gold. This is the season of the juicy and sweet Thompson navel oranges, as well as the heavenly intoxicating fennel bulbs. The leafy green chard have been cut only a few hours ago and retain their earthy smell. The succulent and sweet dates are stacked high. The mood is quiet yet busy, serene yet lively. I feel very safe in the medina. I always have and today, that has not changed.

People have been complaining of steep price increases. Four Tunisian dinars for a kilo of oranges ($1.20 per pound). Eight dinars for a kilo of dates ($2.40 per pound). It is indeed a steep increase, whereas the median income has remained steady. These might not be the prices paid by the local population. Indeed, I suspect that I may have been taken advantage of because I don't bargain! I do bargain for four beautiful pieces of fabric. As I am short of cash, the vendor, Salim, whom I had never met before, says: "Take the fabric with you and you will bring me the twenty dinars later." Tunisian friendliness is no myth. Later, I cross a Salafi couple. Him, skullcap, long beard and a white dress, her, covered in a black full veil, black gloves or, as Bill Maher would say, in a beekeeper suit. They enter a small jewelry store, probably scouting to prepare for their wedding. Later again, among the crowd I see a group of five men wearing the fundamentalist outfit. Everyone lets them go through first. Eyes try to avoid their stare. The reaction of unease is palpable.

Saturday evening, I decide to go out. Dinner first. Then a pub with friends. The place on the second floor of a tourist complex in Port El Kantaoui, a resort town near Sousse, is lively. A band is playing American songs as well as Arabic pop music. The Tunisian singer on stage is talented beyond belief. The local youth is partaking in dance and partying. There is no shortage of beer or wine on the tables. No shortage of miniskirts or stilettos, either. The mood is happy, warm, vibrant and festive. As if tonight, lipstick and cleavage are political statements. After the Rolling Stones, Sting, Annie Lennox and Mohamed Jebali, the band starts on the song by REM Losing My Religion. A message not lost on the crowd who cheers slightly louder. Tonight every patron is most likely Muslim and they don't aspire to lose their religion at all. But they are moderate Muslims who aspire to practice their faith as a private matter, away from extremism.