Something remarkable happened in Tunisia on January 14th 2011. After 23 years in power, Zine El Abidine Ben Ali stepped down after resistance shook the dictatorship to its core. It was extremely tense for me to visit the country in 2012, after the spark of the Arab spring and before the killing of the one politician who thought differently than the rest.
Arriving in Tunis midst revolutionary times was for that exact reason a bit tricky and at the same time incredibly exciting. You could breath the tension in the streets, as walls still showed scars from this historical happening, the moment where a people’s movement broke a social, political and psychological barrier. My few days in Tunis served consequently as a whole revelation of northern African customs, but also a sneak preview into the minds and souls of people struggling for freedom and self-determination.
The streets of the old centre of Tunis were, remarkably enough, really calm and even empty –I also arrived during a Muslim day of rest, apparently-. Even more, considering the circumstances, people seemed to be living their lives as usual, they would go smoke a hookah as always or earn a living at the souk like any other day, after all, you still have to earn a living and get that daily bread, even in revolutionary times.
And even though people would still smile and offer mint tea, dried figs or spices for cooking, I could still sense a kind of disrupted feeling in the air, as if the struggle against oppression was printed on the walls, as if those walls could speak rebellions. It was a weird calmness that was not relaxed at all, as if the Arab awakening was still in the transition of waking up.
And so while walking through the streets of the old town and the Medina of Tunis, I made friends with a professor who took me around the most remote walls and wrecked pieces of the city that had seen the best and the worst of the years of dictatorship, walls that would speak for themselves, that did not need a translator. Places with souls of their own that indeed, were trying to up rise from oppression and even from oblivion.
And this is how I was a witness of a city in ruins but with a soul that spoke to me in a language that I somehow understood completely. My obsession with the architecture went beyond colours and shapes, but textures and historical value, it was exactly by walking through the streets of Tunis, by crossing walls and entering doors that I understood a bit more what the awakening meant, not only for Tunisians but for the entire region struggling to express their cultural, social and political aspirations.