After a rough time in Tunis, Tafline pushed past a culture shock hangover to appreciate Tunisia’s second largest city.
When the bus stopped at the station in Sfax, 170 miles from Tunisia’s capital city, I seriously considered getting back on and heading as far south – away from civilization – as I could get. But the adjacent municipal dump was a strong catalyst for quick decision-making, so when a little yellow taxi pulled up just then, I got in. “To the medina!” I said.
We arrived at the ancient walls via a circuitous route (the driver hadn’t understood my English), as the locals cleared up the market debris. The inside of the medina was dark and deserted. I’ve rarely felt more conspicuous during my travels through the MENA region, nor so depressed. By this stage, I was prepared to pay a cool $5,000 for a room, in which I planned to hide for several days.
Sfax in a bad mood
Maybe I can’t fault Sfax. I left Tunis in a bad mood after losing thousands of dollars and dealing with over-enthusiastic Tunisian men, but the trash, the staring, the way the buildings are jammed together in no particular order – it all got under my skin, and not in a good way. It was like a rash, coupled with a migraine, that made me want to close the blinds to my room and never leave.
But I made myself go for a walk last night, and to overcome my superficial judgements. I was determined to find the sacred, the holy, some sign of beauty, some reason not to hate Tunisia’s “second city” – so named because it is the country’s second largest after Tunis.
It is also a port on the Gulf of Gabes and a mecca for phosphate production. From a high vantage point – say a rooftop – it’s easy to see plumes of emissions spewing from industrial plants on the outskirts of the city. While in the city center, traffic creates a similar effect.
Portal to the west
Even the Carrefour downtown, a French shopping center that is for me a portal to the western world when I’m suffering from culture shock, pulled me further into the doldrums: electrical wires hang freely, the cordoned-off elevator looks like a crime scene, and the baked goods – all covered in ghastly pink meat or shredded tuna – are as dry as the concrete rubble lying outside the store.
Everywhere I looked the apocalypse stared back at me: so-called green spaces are overgrown and strewn with trash; everywhere buildings are being constructed – badly – with nary a thought for proper planning. In fact, like Dubai but not nearly as snazzy, I wonder if it’s too late for Sfax? The city seems to be growing like a cancer, devouring everything in its sight.
The Minister of Interior recently appointed a new governor to sort it all out. And the municipality aspires to become a hot spot for cultural tourism, but until they move the bus station away from the dump and open a few decent food establishments, the French and Italians won’t be beating down on the Medina’s doors.
The beauty of the present
Even so, I know people who have studied at universities in Sfax, and locals who have connected with me on Facebook show pride of their city, so I felt compelled to dig deeper, to push past the limitations of my own imagination. And this morning, when I left my cave to find caffeine and food (in that order), the aha moment finally occurred. When the medina came back to life.
There’s just something about people selling their wares in an ancient marketplace that can cure even the darkest mood. Cobblers fixed shoes the old-fashioned way, small cafe owners squeezed fresh orange juice without electricity, and huge piles of cauliflower, beans, carrots, and other produce lined the entry way.
Of course, it’s impossible to escape the plastics from China or the scary-looking rat poison, but seeing the market go on as it has for hundreds of years, even as the city grows up around it like a massive parasite, helped me to look past the apocalypse, to recognize the beauty of the present. But I’m not going to lie: it was hard to get there.
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