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Friday, 19 December 2014

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Experience was a huge privilege

THE events of January 2011 resonated throughout the world, as Tunisian market trader Mohamed Bouazizi set himself on fire in protest at an oppressive and corrupt government. KARL STEEL visits the North African nation taking the first steps on the long journey to restoring national pride.

IT is hardly a surprise that tourism in Tunisia has taken a bit of a knock in the last 12 months.

All that a lot of people know about the country is that some market trader set himself on fire, sparking riots across the Middle East – but the reality is that the North African nation is now one of the most stable in the Arab World.

Drawing on personal experience, I can say with some confidence that the changes it has gone through since the events of January 2011 that sparked the uprisings are monumental. I visited the country just three months before things came to a head, to find that the majority lived in a repressed state under the watchful eye of the corrupt autocratic president Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali – almost literally, as his face adorned huge billboards in town squares and posters in each and every office, shop and takeaway.

A year and a half on, I returned to find a much more relaxed set of people, keen to restore national pride and restore their image in the eyes of the world.

The new slogan that the tourism office rolled out earlier this month is “there’s more to celebrate” – and they are appealing for the once bustling tourist trade to return, after a sharp drop in numbers has hit the economy hard in the wake of the Dignity Revolution, as it is known to Tunisians.

Whenever I’ve visited before, it has been to the resorts in the North and the bustling capital, Tunis. This time round, however, I was heading for the South and deep into the desert, hoping to discover the “real” Tunisia.

Arriving in Tataouine it was difficult to imagine how people’s lives there have been affected by the events that took place some 300 miles away, such is the remoteness of this town, similar in size to Barrow (though labelled a city).

If its name sounds familiar, that’s because it is also the name of Luke Skywalker’s home planet in Star Wars, on account of the fact that the original film was shot in various locations around the region after George Lucas fell in love with the other-worldly feel of the place. The moon-like landscape is littered with ksars – fortified Berber villages carved from stone – some of which have been preserved for more than 900 years.

But the people that call this corner of the country home are enjoying a new lease of life, many of them tasting true freedom for the very first time.

Our small party of British journalists were invited to be guests of honour at the 33rd annual International Festival des Ksours Sahariens – a four-day event showcasing arts and culture from across Tunisia, with guests from neighbouring Libya, and Sudan.

It was cancelled last year, for obvious reasons, so the sense of occasion was unmistakable. For the opening ceremony, thousands flocked to the showground on the outskirts of the city to see a parade of all manner of musicians, dancers, horse-riding acts and, somewhat surprisingly, the local Scout group.

There was a lot of flag waving but now it felt like a genuine expression of joy, whereas before it almost certainly was forced. An incredible amount of applause and compassion was afforded to the Libyan ambassadors as it was announced (in Arabic) that the two countries “are fighting side-by-side” in their own ongoing battle for democracy.

Passing back through Tataouine on the way to the hotel, I felt a little ashamed to be heading to our relatively-luxurious accommodation, while the masses filtered back into their shacks and run-down/half-built houses. The cost of staying in our tiny villas at Hotel Sangho was little more than £50 a night, but seeing how much pride these people put in their ramshackle, Gaza Strip-like hometown made me feel richer than I ever had before.

I’m not pretending that the revolution was like a magic wand, instantly transforming everything for everyone. Down on the edge of the Sahara it is still a near third-world, poverty-stricken region. Women still work from dawn to dusk scrabbling about in the dusty fields for olives and chickpeas, and shepherds guide their handful of scrawny sheep and goats across the litter-strewn terrain. Unemployment is huge, especially among young adults.

But there is a sense of hope and optimism, with construction and road-building projects taking place everywhere you look.

Throughout the course of the festival, crowds danced in the streets to the beat of the drums and shrill sound of the Zukra, as marching bands of four or five men shuffled by, always with a smile on their faces.

The closing ceremony was yet another showcase of acrobatics in the saddle – one stuntman even dangled a baby over the side of his galloping horse – diverse bands and traditional dancing, and the centrepiece was an hour-long play. Though much of it was lost in translation the message was clear, of a land ruined by those who had assumed control, and the jubilation when they were finally driven away – a parody of the way President Ben Ali was forced to flee to Saudi Arabia.

But that was by no means the last display of celebration we were privileged to witness.

On our final night in town, we attended the first proper live pop concert ever staged in Tataouine. While the music of Ouled Jouini – a seven-piece regarded as one of Tunisia’s greatest bands – was questionable, somewhere between salsa and funk rock, the reaction of the 200 or so young men that packed the village hall-esque Cultural Centre was extraordinary. To see the outpouring of sheer emotion as these mostly unemployed lads danced, crowd-surfed and climbed on each others’ shoulders, was truly moving.

And to be one of only a handful of outsiders to witness this first immense expression of freedom was the biggest privilege I could ever imagine.

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