Don’t Sleep on Tunis, a City That’s More Awake Than Ever Before

I should mention, Karim was speaking to me in fluent Spanish, something he just “picked up” by chatting to tourists. He also spoke to me at length about the collapse of Thomas Cook and what it means for tourism in Tunisia. (Like in other places popular with package-deal tourists, it’s bad news.) At one point, he quoted John Maynard Keynes. Then, as I was leaving, he asked if I wanted to buy one of the tchotchkes he had for sale. Underemployment, where it’s commonplace to find taxi drivers with master’s degrees, is one of the problems to which Karim was referring. With so much distrust in change coming from the ruling elite, it’s perhaps unsurprising that voter turnout in the country was significantly lower this year than in the first free parliamentary election in 2014.

Karim wasn’t the only person I spoke to who was taking the future of the country into their own hands. Following the Arab Spring and the toppling of Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali, who ruled the country by decree for 23 years, young Tunisian artists, entrepreneurs and activists educated abroad came back to the country in droves.

In one of my most memorable meals in the city, I met some of those young returnees at Chez Naceur, an unassuming roadside stall in the refreshingly downtempo neighborhood of La Goulette. We were there for lablabi, an ingenious concoction that involves taking chunks of day-old bread and smothering them with chickpeas, a deeply spiced broth and harissa chili paste. It’s the kind of comfort food you can just eat and eat and eat — until you amaze yourself that yes, you did just inhale that entire bowl of pure carbs.

Anis Kallel, 25, returned to Tunis in 2018 after studying in the United States and co-founded Flouci, a mobile money platform that he describes as a “financial inclusion pipeline.” “There’s still a lot of red tape leftover from the old days,” Mr. Kallel said. “It’s going to take time for that to change, but now is also an opportunity to be part of that change instead of waiting for it to come from above.”

Amina El Abed, 30, a strategic communications consultant who has been back and forth from the country for a decade but most recently returned in 2017, agreed. “It’s such an exciting time to be here, with so many people doing important things that could never have happened before the revolution,” she said, pointing to youth-led, homegrown civic engagement and watchdog organizations like Al-Bawsala and I Watch. And, despite some apathy over the latest election, it is an exciting time, not just as a citizen, but as a visitor. Tunisia, often overlooked in favor of tourism powerhouses like Morocco and, historically at least, Egypt, has a bit of everything — from Roman ruins to beach resorts to a cosmopolitan capital where, after just six days, I wished I could tack on a second week.

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