A Culture Shock Hangover in Tunisia’s Second City

development, travel, urban planning, Tunisia, Sfax, tourism

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.

development, travel, urban planning, Tunisia, Sfax, tourism

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.

development, travel, urban planning, Tunisia, Sfax, tourism

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.

development, travel, urban planning, Tunisia, Sfax, tourism

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.

More Travel News from Tunisia:

An Independent Tunisia at Night (PHOTOS)

5 Things Wikipedia Won’t Tell You About Tunisia

5 Stories for a Freer, Greener Tunisia

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3 thoughts on “A Culture Shock Hangover in Tunisia’s Second City”

  1. Lisa Berg says:

    Hi Tafline, just stumbled on your article on twitter(via a Libyan guy!)
    I live in Sousse since ten years now and is active in an eco-organisation called Tunisie Propre https://www.facebook.com/Tunisie.Propre please check us out
    We do cleaning actions and try to make people aware of the environmental threats in Tunisia 😀

  2. Oh Miriam, you should have seen the bananas! There really were some beautiful veggies yesterday. Today it sounds quiet outside…

  3. Miriam Kresh says:

    Your travel stories from Tunisia are fascinating and insightful, Tafline. Thanks for letting us see what’s really out there. As a foodie, I did see one lighter side – those fresh garlic bulbs are beautiful!

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