The Medina of Tunis

Updated: Oct 6, 2018

One of my favorite things to do in Muslim countries is wander the old markets. In Tunis, the market can be found in the Medina. Located in the middle of the city, the three of us (my American State Department diplomat friends Ayhan, Chelsea, and I) hopped out of the taxi at the Terminus Tunis Marine. It was a lovely late November Saturday, and locals were out in droves. The street was reminiscent of a European sidewalk, with many outdoor cafes full of people enjoying coffee, tea, and, for a more local flair, hookah at their tables, under large umbrellas to keep that Mediterranean sun off. As we walked, we were affronted with a large "I Love Tunis" statue that is clearly meant for tourist selfies. Of which Ayhan definitely took one.

As the two of them had both spent substantial time in Tunis, I simply followed them down the boulevard. Soon, we were standing in front of the Bab el Bhar, the city gate that marks the entrance of the Medina. While it looks quite old and Arabic, in reality it was built by the French in the 19th century. The square in front of it was full of people, the same crowds that were in the previous boulevard. But as we continued past the Bab el Bhar, the crowds died away and the market alleys were quiet as could be.

It was no different than any other market in the Islamic world: a sprawling, dizzying, confusing hodge-podge of alleys with store fronts full of clothing, jewelry, spices, kitchen ware, furniture, you name it.

Being three foreign women, only one of whom could pass as Tunisian (Ayhan is half-Turkish), we attracted some attention. However, as is my usual experience in the MENA region, glances were the most we got for awhile. But as we roamed deeper and deeper into the market, a couple of young 20-something brothers began to tag along. They spoke English, and asked us where we were going. "There is a rooftop that has good views of the Medina", Chelsea told him. "Oh, we know where to go, follow us!"

All three of us have lived in countries that have high harassment rates, but in three different capacities - I was in Peace Corps in Senegal, Ayhan is half-Turkish and has lived on and off in Turkey her whole life, and Chelsea had lived in Cairo for two years as an NGO worker. However, now that she was living in Tunis, she had been trained over and over by the State Department to be cautious of men in Tunis and was thus a bit concerned about their attention. I only include in this blog in order to try to assure readers that concern over safety in the MENA region is almost always overblown. Don't get me wrong, better safe than sorry, be aware of your surroundings especially as a woman, but sometimes people are just being nice. In fact, more often than not they are being nice in this land that is grateful for the few tourists it sees. Meanwhile, as the State Department had not given us scary trainings, Ayhan and I were a bit more relaxed. We've all dealt with harassment and these guys didn't seem to be looking for anything more than an afternoon with some exotic folk.

And to give further credit where credit is due, the brothers led us right to where we were going: an old residence of the king. When the king was alive, I cannot tell you. They never told us and I have found nothing on Google, which leads me to suspect that perhaps it is simply a carpet shop trying to, uh....stretch of the truth, let's say, in order to sell rugs. But if you want to see the views it's roof offers, tell someone you are searching for the Old King's House.

Never mind whether or not this carpet shop was actually a former royal residence. We wound our way through several rooms, and up several floors, before we emerged onto the roof. As we blinked into the sun, our eyes adjusted to the light and we began to take in what we were seeing.

As the Medina is old, the buildings are rather short. Only the mosque minarets were taller than where we were standing. In our sights were several domed mosques, buildings that just screamed of MENA influence, and further in the distance was the Mediterranean Sea and it's islands. And as a bonus: the rooftop offered these fantastic, 360º views all for free.

In addition to the views, the entire rooftop was covered in what the Islamic world does best: those beautiful, beautiful tiled designs. Scroll up two photos, as well as this one, and you can see just a quarter of what we did. In addition to the tiled mosaics, this was a carpet shop and thus there were many rugs hanging on various ledges. Again, this experience was all for free. 13/10 would recommend.

After our eyes had feasted enough, we agreed to follow the boys' to their families perfume shop. They gave each of us a spritz, and we smelled the rest, but they did not (much, anyways) pressure us into buying anything, and when we stood up to leave they graciously thanked us for such a lovely afternoon.

We then made our way back to the Terminus Tunis Marine. I needed to use the restroom, and we found one at the entrance, directly opposite from the Bab el Bhar. I will not pretend that it was the cleanest bathroom I have experienced, but when you've got to pee that badly, it did the trick! We then made our way back down the boulevard. As we walked, we passed the French Embassy, where I was met with a bit of a shocking image: it was like out of a World War Two movie. Due to the recent terrorism, the Embassy, located on such a main thoroughfare, had surrounded itself with barbed wire, sandbags, and military vehicles that looked straight out of Saving Private Ryan. We stopped and stared at it for a minute, because it just seemed so out of place on this sunny Saturday. I understand preparing for terrorism, but...I don't know, maybe have more modern trucks?