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. The scene appeared fairly suspect, and instinct suggested something might be wrong, 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 pressing out to both sides. Then he turned to us, tilted his head, and gave us the signal to cross the road 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. I had never been given such treatment before. I am not from a well-heeled or well-connected family, just a regular tourist (I believe Matej is too). But this was Tunisia, and we were but a handful of tourists who still dared to venture to this North African country, despite travel warnings from countries such as the United Kingdom.
If you’re from Singapore or somewhere in East Asia, chances are you had probably not heard of Tunisia until December 2010, when a fruit-seller immolated himself out of frustration and desperation at the country’s state of unemployment and corruption. The incident in itself would have passed unnoticed, except it mobilized a country simmering for some time for the same reasons, and then some. In just over a month, Tunisia’s autocratic leader Zine El Abidine Ben Ali resigned and fled the country, sparking the so-called Arab Spring, which later spread like wildfire across the Middle East and North Africa, most notably in Syria where a civil war continues to this day.
After its rebirth as a democratic country, Tunisia was hailed as the most stable country to come out of the Arab Spring. Unemployment is still a major issue, but there was a semblance of greater control among Tunisians of their future.
That is, until March 2015, when the capital Tunis was rocked by a terror attack at the famous Bardo Museum, home to one of the finest and largest collections of Roman-era mosaics in the world. Twenty-four people were killed in the attack, most of them tourists. Barely three months later, the resort city of Sousse fell victim to a similar attack in which scores were gunned down.
Since then though, visitors have steadily returned to the Bardo Museum, passing through security checkpoints and the main foyer, where there now stands a mosaic plague listing the names and nationalities of those who died in the March 2015 attack. At the time of my visit, some areas of the museum were also off-limits, no thanks to the attack. But walk through its halls, and treat yourself to the visual spectacle, and you just might forget, even if for a moment, the grim episode which took place at the site.
It is the same story in Sousse: people have moved on, some European tourists have come back to enjoy what this city is known for – its beaches and warm Mediterranean waters. I remember seeing several Russian tour groups in Tunis, and El Jem, a city close to Sousse and famous for its Roman amphitheatre which some claim is in better condition than Rome’s Colosseum. I was told that some guides have even learned Russian to be able to give their guests a better experience and understanding of their country. Not surprising, especially since Tunisia relies heavily on tourism as a source of revenue.
Of course, not everyone is convinced. Even now, when I recount my experiences in Tunisia, people still ask if it is safe. To be fair, there's added security, in the main thoroughfare in Tunis for example. 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 intra-city 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. The closest Singapore embassy is located 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, London. Truly, what's in a name?
Alas, while we have confidence in the security arrangements of some cities, like Paris, others are viewed with suspicion, never mind if the last time a terror attack took place there occurred several years ago. Tunisia unfortunately falls into this category, 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 well taken care of, and have entire museums and breathtaking archaeological sites to themselves, especially for those quintessential Instagram posts.