Sunday, 6 August 2017

Traffic-stopping


I watched in disbelief as the oncoming vehicles slowed to a halt in the middle of a road that had no traffic lights/signals anywhere. It did not make sense until we turned to face the other direction, and saw the policeman -- the same one we had met at the ticket office -- in the middle of the road, his palms sticking out to both sides. Then he turned to us, tilted his head, and gave us the signal to walk without fear to the Roman archaeological site at Sbeitla. 

I'm not sure about Matej, but I felt a mix of guilt and self-importance. We did not require such special treatment. We were, after all, regular tourists to this country. But that was probably it: we were two out of a handful of tourists still visiting Tunisia, despite warnings from several countries not to.

Those travel warnings and advisories stemmed from two terror attacks in 2015: one in March, at the Bardo Museum in the capital Tunis, and another just three months later in the resort city of Sousse. Scores were gunned down in total. Visitors have since started streaming in through the doors and security checkpoint of the museum, and you'll find a mosaic plague at the foyer listing the names and nationalities of those who died in March 2015. Walking around the museum you find some areas off-limits, no thanks to that attack. But the mosaics, one of the most impressive collection from the Roman and Byzantine eras, make you forget, if even for a moment, the grim episode which took place here.

And it's the same story in Sousse: people have moved on. But while not everyone is convinced, the Russians seem unfazed. The security situation in other Middle East favourites, Turkey and Egypt, have pushed them to Tunisia. And the locals are keen to keep them coming, especially since the country relies heavily on tourism as a source of revenue. There's added security in the main thoroughfare in Tunis. Ironically though, it's become a bit of a catch-22 situation: while it's a measure to assure the public that security forces are on top of things, it scared a Russian couple I stayed with at a B&B.

I suppose they had reason to be fearful. They stood out. My tan and physical features let me blend in seamlessly. I had no problems hopping into louages (inter- and intracity minivans) for the northern port city of Bizerte for a day trip, or taxis to and from the UNESCO-listed Roman site of Dougga, said to be the largest and most dramatic in all of Africa.

Yet, I can't deny my own apprehensions. What if something happens?, I asked myself. I don't even have an embassy I can turn to (the closest one being in Cairo, Egypt). But stronger than the fear was my conviction that if something is meant to happen, it can happen anywhere: Tunis, Ankara, Paris, Brussels, what's in a name?

Alas, Tunisia may currently be at a disadvantage where worldviews are concerned. And it may take time for opinions to change. But until then, those who dare, will find a people raring to ensure you feel safe, and have entire museums and archaeological sites to themselves.