The Tunisian Cafe: Caffeine Oasis in a Wayward Urban Desert (Part I)

“I’d much rather hang out in a cafe. That’s where things are really happening.”
– Joe Sacco

My husband, Ahmed, promises me a special treat: he’s going to take me to his favourite café. My vision of an incense-clouded grotto with belly dancers twisting to the dherbouka and mezwed is soon vaporised by the sight of a grimy cafe with a grimier, all-male clientele, one big room furnished with old plastic garden furniture whose original whiteness is embarrassed by stains and scratches. The thick tobacco smoke fails to mask a melange of unsavoury odours.

This is your favourite cafe?” I ask him. “How can you stand it? You’re such a clean freak!”

“It’s simple,” he chuckles, “It’s close to home and all my friends come here.”

It turns out to be a little more complicated than that. In the Arab world the male habit of visiting a cheap, males-only café like this one at least once a day is practically written in stone.

I’ve often heard foreign women complain about how irked they were when their husbands left them at home in the evening to go and visit a café, abandoning a lovely new bride or a visiting girlfriend to drink coffee and gab for hours, often at cafés they hate and with companions that grate them.

Arab wives who chafe at the custom sometimes phone their husbands at the café every fifteen minutes asking them when they’re coming home, but for the most part Arab wives are glad to get the men out of the house, and they wouldn’t be caught dead in cafés like this one.

Luckily I’m not obliged to enter Ahmed’s favourite café, which I’ve since christened “Café Elegante.” We sit outside and I order a green tea. Later Ahmed’s brother asks me how I liked the tea. I tell him, to his delight, that it tasted like someone had wrung out a sponge.

I can’t exactly report on men’s cafe culture in Tunisia because, being of the female persuasion, I can’t enter that culture without attracting a lot of unwanted attention. But I can tell you that the experience of drinking tea or coffee in any of these establishments is pretty much the same—in mixed cafés (often called “tea salons”) the only differences are higher prices, cleaner surroundings, nicer decor, and a clientele made up of both men and women. (If you want to know more about the men-only cafes, I vouch for the accuracy of this piece: http://www.tunisia-live.net/2013/08/19/tunisias-cafes-cheap-simple-and-all-male/.)

Café life here in Tunisia is a microcosm of the separate spheres polarising this country— masculine and feminine, right and left, rich and poor, religious and licentious, etc. If you want to understand this country, do like the Tunisians do and hang out in its cafés; it’s a great, cheap way to get out of the house, be waited on, meet friends, talk, and connect with the locals.

But first you have to find your favourite café in whatever town you happen to be in. When we were in Gafsa I liked the Dar El Cherif for its old Araby atmosphere. In Hammamet the Café Flora presents a luxury escape. In Nabeul my favourite cafe was The Errachidia, also with a nice Arabian Nights decor. Here in Manouba where I now live I’m partial to the Chateau, an old castle with a pleasant garden.

But hands down, bar none, my favourite café in Tunisia is La Boheme. But more about that—and the Tunisian café experience—in next week’s issue.

(to be continued)

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