Saturday, 15 February 2014

Home Away From Home

The last time I felt so serene and peaceful I was around thirteen years old. The narrow streets that zigzagged through the centre of Old Damascus were where I felt completely and totally calm. There was intermittent noise, but it always emanated from humans. The most advanced piece of machinery in sight was a coffee machine that cost 10 Syrian Liras to use, and the only time I ever used it, I was with Mohamed Homeidan, my friend and pubescent confidant. We’d decided we were going to do what cool grown-ups did and buy non-traditional instant coffee from the shops opposite al-Asiyya, the famous Christian school close to our own school, right in the middle of the Old Damascus, arguably the oldest inhabited city on this peculiar planet. As Homeidan placed his plastic cup where the thirty-something year-old shopkeeper had instructed him, horror covered his face as the steaming hot chocolate poured in front of his widened eyes next to the cup, not in it, as we had both hoped. The shopkeeper shrugged and said he wasn’t responsible for my friend’s casual approach to delicate technology. His precious cash trickled down the small machine’s mesh-covered drain, and with it, our sense of how old we were instantly shrivelled to its natural, naive scope: thirteen, clumsy and hard to embarrass.

Incidents like this were the thread that bound me to Damascus, especially the sections of the city whose walls seemed to contain within them the dreams and tragedies of an infinite number of people who’ve all left behind indelible marks on the city’s spiritual landscape.. invisible cloaks unknowingly worn by Damascus’s proceeding inhabitants. Sadly, once I became aware of my deep affinity to “Dimashq”, my family and I had packed our suitcases and returned from a seven-year jaunt, to our old home in London, England.

For years afterwards, the sense of tranquility brought on by Damascus’s visibly-ancient buildings remained elusive, and I often spoke silkily of it – Its enveloping serenity was never replicated until I set foot in Zaytouna Street in Tunis.

In late January, I had to make two brief trips to Tunisia to cover the third anniversary of the revolt that toppled President Bin Ali and sparked ongoing confrontations between angry, disillusioned Arabs and the state apparatus. The sentiment that roused such rage was similar across the region. The people want to overthrow the president/government/king/system. What was different in each case was, in my humble and uninformed opinion, the level of outside influence and the extent to which people -particularly the political elite- were willing to compromise on their long-silenced demands. Maybe the coming months will allow me to travel to other revolutionary hotspots, but for the time being, Tunis was the only place I could think of. It was to be the first time I set foot on African soil - sorry, Mr Ali Farka Toure, my infantile dreams of unceremoniously landing in Bamako will have to be postponed till time/money/energy/fate dictates otherwise.

The idea of a "business trip" made my heart sink with dread. Much as I enjoyed work, I couldn’t stomach the idea of holding our team meetings in hotel lobbies. Luckily, and typically, my fears were exaggerated as I had plenty of time to spend on my own, aimlessly walking through Tunis’s backstreets and crowded traditional markets. Some of my colleagues didn’t seem to thrive in the environment as much as I did, and weren’t so comfortable with the idea of eating in restaurants whose shaky tables roofed stray cats that were occasionally given slithers of kind punters’ food. I, on the other hand, relished the opportunity of being there. I wasn’t worried about catching a tropical bug (“It is Africa, afterall!”), nor was I concerned about having a meal without being given a conventional receipt to claim back from my company’s finance department.

The instant we walked out of the arrivals’ gate, I turned to my colleague and said with a joyous but muffled tone:

“I feel like I’m going home.”

Knowing I had never visited Tunisia nor had any relatives there, he smiled back with a mix of sympathy and confusion.

As we reached the hotel, and over the remainder of our short visit, not once did I feel like a stranger, tourist or a visitor. I was amongst people I was comfortable speaking to. They all exuded an incredible feeling of familiarity and friendliness that you rarely found in London.

Most of the trip was spent organising the two television programmes we were set record to examine the impact of the Tunisian revolution on people’s lives, how they feel about the past three years, and whether they’re hopeful of a less rocky road ahead now that a new constitution has been drafted, albeit after months of political gridlock and the assassination of two of the country’s leading figures of the Left, Chokri Belaid and Mohamed Brahmi – real and bloody turning points in the post-January 14 Tunisia. A new constitution was being hailed as a huge stride in the country’s stuttering march towards the democratic, citizen-respecting state so much had been sacrificed for. Not to forget the newly-chosen Prime Minster who just so happened to share my name.

All the Tunisians I spoke to were upbeat about their country’s prospects. Though their views on Mohamed al-Boazizi differed, they were in near-unanimous agreement that the future is theirs to shape, if only foreign meddling ceased. Financial backing is important, many said, but it must not be at the expense of national stability and the secular identity Tunis prides itself in.
There was overwhelming positivity that people maintained despite the testing times they lived in. What, record unemployment, a gaping chasm between rich and poor, several incidents of industrial action (on our first visit, the city was dotted with heaps of rubbish, and some of it was burnt in a big square next to our hotel sending fumes of thick and throat-tickling smoke all around the city centre.) and the spectre of civil and political disintegration à la Damascus looming large – drafting a new constitution was an important sign that things were on the up, unlike fellow Arab Springers such as Libya, Egypt and, most prominently, Syria. Such optimism was infectious and I’m certain I came back to London feeling slightly less gloomy about everyone and everything than when I left a week or two ago.
A crucial asset that Tunis, and other countries in the region, must utilise if they are to lift themselves out of the political, social and economic quagmire they're languishing in – is the youth population. On account of what I saw, Tunisians have already made the important steps. All that remains is to keep up the fervour and zeal to rebuild their country; the young people I was so privileged to meet were nothing short of inspirational. Whether driving cool hatchbacks whilst listening to the likes of Jimi Hendrix and Flume, or sipping warm tea on a cafe’s rooftop that overlooks large parts of the old city and its cement-roofed souk - everyone I met was brimming with energy, excitement and confidence for what the future held for them.

After a few days amongst the generous, warm and inviting people of Tunis, it was with great sadness that I watched Carthage Airport get smaller and smaller as the Tunis Air flight made its bumpy way to London.

Nonetheless, I feel blessed to have finally found a place I can call, with some confidence, my home away from home.

 Photos courtesy of John Prendergast.