Tunis is polluted; it’s very heavily polluted, in fact.The problem is such that a brown cloud hangs above the city and stretches far out over the Mediterranean. Planes land in an eerie twilight, irrespective of the time of day.It’s possible that the fumes come from traffic. But it’s equally possible that they come from smokers. Because everyone in Tunis smokes.
Taxi drivers smoke. Traffic policemen, wearing white plastic cuffs as big as a Labrador’s flea collar and dangling whistles from one corner of their mouths, smoke. Cleaners smoke and drop ash before their mops. Immigration officials smoke, shopkeepers smoke, businessmen smoke, street dancers smoke.
The sheer amount of tobacco going up in flames adds an ever-present note to the city’s aromatic bouquet – a unique combination of Rothmans, the rotten eggs I mentioned before, seawater, urine, and spices.
And, strangely, one not only gets used to it but actually comes to appreciate it. Tunis, you see, is one big adventure for the nostrils.
I can’t pretend that my 12 hours in town – mostly during the hours of darkness – were enough to learn a great deal, but I did learn this:
- After dark, the souks of the Medina (the old city) are very, very quiet. Their beautiful blue-and-white passageways, I assume, teem with commercial life during the day. At night, they’re lonely places winding their way up to the big mosques by the government square. And they smell of rotting rubbish.
- Tunis has a multitude of stray, emaciated cats that all look on the verge of death. Indeed, they’re so small and malnourished it’s hard to tell whether they’re cats or kittens. And they smell not, as one might expect, of cat, but of a curious mixture of sweat and dust, a little like rain on hot concrete.
- People in Tunis must have discovered the world’s most powerful deodorant as they smell of absolutely nothing at all despite the stifling heat. Not only that, but they manage to smile at all times and carry off some impressive clothing feats. I watched a woman in stilettos prowl the cobbles in a full-length black burka, the cloth billowing around her in the wind, forging imagery of which Ridley Scott would be proud.
So, there you are: Tunis by night. It smells. And it’s really quite a nice place.