Manouba, Tunisia: A Palace, an Escape Route, and a Women’s Prison

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A display of guns and swords from the Crimean War (1853-1856), during which Tunisia was allied with Turkey, France, and Britain against the Russian Empire.

Article and photos by Wanda Waterman

At first we thought the military museum was deserted— not a soul seemed to stir— but eventually someone emerged from the shadowy depths of the ticket office and took our dinars, one each for entering and two extra for the privilege of taking photos. Soon a friendly guide showed up, opened the great iron gate, and offered us a tour.

What immediately struck us as he lead us down the long walk toward the palace was the sheer size of the place; I’d passed the gates of this museum many times but had assumed it to be little more than a closet housing a few rusty knives and broken pistols. Au contraire— the Rose Palace is a wonder in itself, with all the grandeur of old Araby, full of sunlight, lofty arches, high ceilings, colourful ceramics, marble, and gorgeous mosaics.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThe contents are an even richer source of visual delight. The Rose Palace of Manouba was built in 1798 to serve as the summer retreat of Hammouda Pacha Husseinite Bey (hereafter referred to as “the bey”) it has since served many functions. The palace now grants an eagle’s eye view of the military history of Tunisia and with it a summary of European history from the dawn of recorded time.

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The uniform of a resistance fighter during the French Protectorate (1881-1956)

Our guide talked us through room after room housing relics and models from each battle and war in the country’s history. It seems as if every powerful nation in Europe has at one point or another had a toehold in Tunisia, including Phoenicia, Rome, Greece, Spain, the Vandals, the Byzantine Empire, The Ottoman Empire, England, and France, each nation leaving an indelible mark on the culture.

Parallel to the history of occupation lies a history of resistance. No matter which foreign power took hold in Tunisia and no matter the varying attitudes of the Tunisian populace toward the invaders (there’s usually a consensus that the Romans improved the country but that the Spanish did not) there have always been resistance fighters hiding in the mountains looking for ways to disrupt the established occupying order, just as today groups of religious extremists lurk at the borders and in mountain caves, their agenda to shake the existing social order hard enough to sneak in a new one based on a superficial and super-literal reading of sacred texts.

But if history provides any lesson at all, it’s that any purely military success is doomed to be shortlived.

The long-buried opening of a tunnel by which the bey (the Tunisian ruler) could escape if his enemies approached the palace. The tunnel was originally big enough for the bey and his entourage to enter on horseback. The tunnel ends 13 kilometres away, at the Manouba Women's Prison.
The long-buried opening of a tunnel by which the bey (the Tunisian ruler) could escape if his enemies approached the palace. The tunnel was originally big enough for the bey and his entourage to enter on horseback. The tunnel ends 13 kilometres away, at the Manouba Women’s Prison.
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Gatling gun

The sight of the tunnel by which the bey could escape death at the hands of his foes immediately put us in mind of the Jasmine Revolution and ousted President Ben Ali’s 2011 flight from the country as thousands of voices screamed “Degage!” Helicopters and airplanes have replaced underground tunnels, but flight is flight.

What’s doubly significant is the where the tunnel ends up: the Manouba Women’s Prison.

Alongside the histories of military occupation, combat, and resistance runs another history, which might be summed up as the history of Tunisia’s human rights abuses.

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Byzantine era weapons

We know that abuses took place under the French occupation and that they continued

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An Italian painting of a Tunisian military campaign near Cap Bon. The bey and his entourage are in the foreground on horseback.

under the reigns of President Bourguiba and his successor, Ben Ali. The Jasmine Revolution was seen as an opportunity to set things right, and thus was born the Truth and Dignity Commission, an initiative to hold accountable those who unjustly imprisoned and tortured Tunisian citizens. The goal is to put a complete stop to such abuses and to ensure that they never return.

The Commission may have bitten off more than it could chew. After the historic public hearing on November 17, 2016, the Commission has been strangely silent. Requests for interviews and comments get no response.

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Model of an early rowing vessel, bearing a striking resemblance to Viking ships from the same period

This isn’t surprising in light of the traumatic nature of testimonies heard that day and the great number of victims still waiting to be heard. Such accounts can’t easily be dismissed, and those who initially doubted the veracity of the testimonies were compelled to take note of the common elements among survivor testimonies.

There are some strong similarities between Tunisian political imprisonment and the history of 17th century Society of Friends, also known as the Quakers, in England, a religious group whose members were often jailed for refusing to doff their hats to nobility (this in deference to the Quaker belief in the equality of all human beings). Because of their frequent imprisonment Quakers as a whole developed an intimate knowledge of prison conditions. The group made prison reform a central part of their social activism, a pillar of their practise which continues today.

Many of the survivors of political imprisonment in Tunisa are journalists, lawyers, teachers, poets, and members of opposing political parties. Many elected to positions in the new government after the Jasmine Revolution were prison survivors.  Many of these now comprise the board of the Truth and Dignity Commission.

If the Commission can safeguard its integrity and concentrate its actions on preventing further abuses it can only expect positive transformation in Tunisia– the same kind of transformation that England and later America were obliged to accept as a result of the dogged determination of the Quakers— especially if the West can put more support behind it.

Tunisia has been receiving funding support from western countries. As usual strings are attached, but it might be suggested that they’re the wrong strings. Any aid supplied to Tunisia must be contingent on the demand that the efforts of the Truth and Dignity Commission be respected, supported, and facilitated. The task before the Commission is colossal, but if it succeeds the results will be profound and far-reaching, for Tunisia and for the world at large.

The Rose Palace Military Museum makes it clear that any military success is temporary. Tunisia has managed to shake off multiple colonisings and occupation. Now is the time for the country to clean up the lingering destructive forces within itself and to live in the freedom and security that Tunisians both desire and deserve, a new peace not presided over by autocrats, army, or police, but one managed by, in Woodrow Wilson’s words, “the voluntary cooperation of a free people.”

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