While Tunisian upheaval goes on, warmth and kindness on the streets
If business managers at the Tunisian National Tourism Office need someone to personify the resilience of their post-revolution industry, they could do worse than turn to Sarah Fox.
The 45-year-old British teacher lived for four years in Tunis under the regime of Zine El Abidine Ben Ali and has returned on numerous occasions, including just before the uprising and soon afterwards.
And despite having suffered the effects of tear gas when caught up on the fringes of a protest in July, she insists she always feels entirely safe. She warmly praises the friendliness of Tunisian people, and cannot wait for each next trip.
Mrs Fox, from Norfolk in eastern England, says: “I would never expose my eight-year-son son to danger, or myself for that matter, but have no qualms about going there.”
It has been said that when Lenin’s Bolsheviks overthrew the first of the Russian revolution’s governments in 1917, many people awoke next day unaware that their city, Petrograd, now St Petersburg, had been at the heart of momentous events.
The speed of modern communications, from television and mobile phones to social networks, means few can have been in the same state of ignorance about the revolt that began in Tunisia in December 2010.
But Mrs Fox’s experiences show it is possible to travel around the country without being affected by continuing upheaval.
The summer’s minor brush with street politics came as demonstrations were staged in Tunis by supporters of the assassinated opposition figure, Mohamed Brahmi. The manager of the hotel where Mrs Fox was staying with her husband, Sean, an archery coach, and their son Thomas. had advised against going to Avenue Habib Bourguiba, the Champs-Elysées of Tunis, where the previous evening they had joined big, happy crowds observing iftar.
Struggling to find somewhere to eat, they were dropped by a taxi driver at a restaurant from where were able to see a few hundred protesters, initially at a distance but later running past as clouds of tear gas hung in the air.
“As people started running, the waiters came to our table outside and formed a shield around us to ensure we weren’t knocked over,” Mrs Fox says. “Then when tear gas was used, they ushered us inside and pulled down the shutters but some gas had penetrated and we got it in our eyes. We tried to use water but they insisted that Coca-Cola was best and threw it in our faces.”
Mrs Fox says: “When we told people later, they said ‘how terrible’. But we never felt really at risk. It was briefly unpleasant but the tear gas was just used to disperse the crowd and everyone we came across was kind to us.”
On the Tripadvisor.com site, Mrs Fox reassured would-be visitors while she was still in Tunisia that there was no need for concern. Two female friends had by then joined them and they travelled in a hired 4X4 with a driver. From Midoun, north-east of the island of Djerba, she wrote: “In Tunisia now and have been for the past two weeks with husband, two friends and small son. We are travelling independently and have travelled to Tunis, Tozeur, Douz and Djerba as well as Hammamet.
“Tomorrow we move on again. Except for in central Tunis near the government buildings we have seen no evidence of a political crisis, only kindness and a desire by the Tunisians we have met for the troubles to be over.”
A later message reinforced the impression of normality: “We have now moved on from Djerba to Sfax and then on to Sousse … no evidence here of any trouble whatsoever.”
As a seasoned visitor, Mrs Fox, whose spell in Tunis teaching English as a foreign language gave her a smattering of Arabic and “French as a North African docker would speak it”, senses recovery after grim times.
“At first after the revolution people were so happy they didn’t care,” she says. “They were so excited about what they believed would be a better future, they’d got rid of the president and just said: ‘the tourists will return’. Last year, it still seemed people weren’t coming back. But now, they really are.”
And, importantly for an industry engaged in rebuilding itself, holidays remain affordable. “Some of the very touristy places can be a bit more expensive,” Mrs Fox says. “But while we haven’t a lot of money, we still find it ridiculously cheap. Our friends had a great time and still managed to take back some of the money they’d come with.”