x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 22 July 2017

The first, the last fight in Tunis

The last word At first I thought he was a thug after my camera, but then he pulled out a police identification card.

Luke Jerod Kummer didn't mean to punch a policeman, and the authorities didn't mean to trouble a tourist.

Sure, I must have looked odd that day: a bearded, white American rambling through the residential streets of Tunis. But as I followed the railway tracks alongside Rue de Marseille, out of the sightseeing area of Ville Nouvelle and into a neighbourhood of apartments, small shops and teahouses, I didn't care. This was the real city, the one comparatively few tourists see. And it was here that I came across a narrow, short street called Rue de Abu Dhab.

I reached for the camera in one of my shoulder bags and took a photograph. Almost immediately I heard a voice calling after me. Just as I had done with the touts in the medina, I ignored it, dismissing the ensuing Maghrebi mix of Arabic and French with a wave of my hand. When the person following me grabbed my shirt, however, I turned around. A middle-aged man wearing tinted glasses and a moustache was now clutching my wrist, still shouting.

Perhaps this had been the wrong alley to pull out an expensive camera. I was wearing a second bag over my other shoulder, and the man grabbed its straps. When he reached into his inner coat pocket to remove what I figured was a knife or a gun, I drew back my fist, and warned: "Let go, or I'll hit you." Without pausing, I punched him in the ribs. The blow sent him barrelling backwards, towards a lamp post but he refused to let go of me. He yelled again and I saw a brute with a three-inch scar that ran from his cheekbone to his chin loping towards me.

Seconds later, one man was pulling me by the chest while the other gripped me in a headlock. This had escalated far beyond a simple camera snatch. At the very least I was going to be roughed up. At worst, I'd end up on a YouTube video that I really didn't want my parents to see. "Police! Police!" I screamed as a semi-circle of about 40 people gathered around. I looked at the faces staring silently at me and searched for the oldest, best-dressed, most honourable-looking man. I said to him, "Please do something. Call the police."

"But Monsieur this … this is the police," he said. The man I'd hit let go with one hand and plunged it into the same pocket he had reached for before, this time removing a wallet that held a laminated police ID, which, to add confusion, didn't look remotely official. "I try to show you. But you hit me," he said. "This is routine." He ordered the spectators to leave and made a call on his mobile as he cradled his ribcage. I started with an apology, then asked: "But officer, what did I do?"

"You make pictures with the camera," he said. My explanation - that I was an American tourist who lives in Abu Dhabi and that this street was named Rue de Abu Dhab - did little to clear things up. My story seemed unreasonable to him, and his to me. How could it be illegal to take a picture of a street sign? I wanted to ask if he'd ever read Kafka's The Trial but thought better of it. Besides, I still had no idea if he was even a real cop.

Soon I was surrounded by six burly men whose only uniform seemed to be black leather jackets and scowls. They took turns barking questions in Arabic, French and broken English. My answers not only didn't satisfy, they infuriated. When they demanded my passport, I said it was in my hotel room and produced my UAE driving licence instead. The questions continued while checks were made on my ID. Someone seized my camera and scrolled through the photos, forcing me to identify where each one had been taken. The man I'd struck was busy complaining about his side. "I will not forget this," he said.

My attempt to smooth things over by explaining how I had come to beautiful, historic Tunisia was met with a harsh response: "we don't want your history," they said. I began wondering which possibility was worse - that these guys were thugs or that I had punched a police officer, which, considering that they hadn't yet thrown me into a car with blacked-out windows, was beginning to seem more likely. The thought of spending time in prison in a country that, according to Amnesty International, uses torture as an interrogation technique seemed dire.

But just when things looked at their worst, a transformation began. It slowly became clear to them that there were no incriminating photographs on my camera and that my name did not register on the most-wanted list. The men's frowns lightened and soon they began trying to chat about sights in Tunisia and their relatives in the United States. A big, smartly-dressed man who seemed to be in charge noticed my knuckle was bleeding. The punch I'd thrown had caught the zip on the other man's jacket. "Did he hurt you?" he asked. The man in question was no longer holding his side and instead seemed to be trying to scurry away.

The tables had turned: these were probably real cops, I decided, and they had realised one of them had roughed up an innocent visitor - this in a country that prides itself on its hospitality and generates much of its income from tourism. The chief waved for me to follow him down the street to go for a cup of coffee. A moment later someone handed me an espresso as I stood between some sort of police chief and a hulking tough who was now smiling and had introduced himself as Sam. Suddenly the Kafkaesque nature of my situation gave way to something much more Tarantino.

"Do you like Barry White?" asked Sam. "Um, yeah," I replied. He sang the first bars of You're the First, the Last, My Everything, then whipped out his mobile, held it to my ear and played an MP3 of the same tune. The chief reached into his pocket, removed his mobile, and blared Can't Get Enough of Your Love Babe. "Do you all like Marvin Gaye?" I proffered, to his delight. Sam was busy hunting for a YouTube video of White sharing the same stage as Pavarotti. "I love Barry White too much," he said.

Meanwhile, the chief asked to see my camera once more - just long enough to erase the photo of the street sign. A moment later they wished me well, advised me of the wonderful shops in the medina and Ville Nouvelle, and let me go. When I got back to my hotel, I told the story to the manager and asked him what he thought had happened to me. The area I was in, he explained, was near a synagogue. After the bombing of the Ghriba synagogue on Djerba island in 2002, all such sites were considered terrorist targets. In Tunisia, he said, people take pictures of the medina, Carthage and other attractions, but not random streets. To do so can draw the attention of secret police, who he cursed and said were everywhere.

He pointed out another thing: to wear a beard in Tunisia, he said, is statement of fundamentalism and defiance against an authoritarian government that has, under President Zine el Abdine Ben Ali's 23-year rule, been promoting modernism and an outwardly secular society. The full beard I'd nurtured for the trip - it has helped me blend in elsewhere - was completely out of place here. I grinned at the irony of being a tourist seized as a terror suspect in a country that justifies its high number of police - Tunisia has about 10.5 million people and about 130,000 police; France's police force is less than double that of Tunisia's but the population is about six times greater - in the name of stability so that it will be an inviting place for investors and for the tourists who supply about 16 per cent of the nation's GDP.

But these are all things that I never would have learnt if I hadn't strayed from the places that were set aside for me. Now I know, for example, that Tunisian cops just can't get enough Barry White. Luke Jerod Kummer is a travel writer and journalist who has been based in the Middle East for the past two years.