The three of us – Adam, our friend Sarah, and I – recently shuffled across the epic mosaic floors at the Bardo National Museum in Tunis, Tunisia and gazed at the intricate tile walls depicting ghoulish sea creatures or fertile signs of the Zodiac.
“Can you imagine how long this must have taken?” Adam said, which is what he always says when we look at incredible mosaics, which has been fairly often these past few years, and have included those in Jerash, Jordan and Volubilis, Morocco. Adam respects anyone who sticks with something for that long, because’s he’s like that. Sarah probably can’t fathom someone doing one thing for that amount of time because she prefers to see and do new things, which is partially how we convinced her to take a plane from her home in Paris and join us for two nights in Sidi Bou Said, the Greek Islands-looking Mediterranean village next to Tunis.
I can totally imagine someone doing something like creating a room-sized mosaic if it was the one thing everyone expected of them, and that person had an authority to report to. (See: Do I Need to Be Locked in Book-Filled Glass Cage in Order to Write?).
It was shortly before closing time and the museum was as empty as you’d expect a museum to be in a country that doesn’t get many tourists, which is to say, quite. We joked we’d probably be Night at the Museumed which would be a truly exciting story but also freezing cold and we’d be so hungry, as we already were discussing where to go for dinner. (I made it clear that I just didn’t want Tunisian food. They say cous cous in Morocco is different than cous cous in Algeria is different than cous cous in Tunisia but I’ve come to realize “cous cous” is a likely stand-in for “culture,” or “politics” because all cous cous is just flavorless microscopic pasta. And don’t even get me started on vegetable tagines).
We did not get Night in the Museumed but the storytelling stars did align to get us the next best thing: We were locked in the exterior part of the museum grounds for a while as the main gates were closed. From what I could gather from the street guards, only the museum staff had the keys and everyone who worked there had locked the front doors and gone home. It was fun while it lasted but we were no longer inside the museum and if we didn’t get to climb up Punic pillars and lay down next to the floor mosaics that most resembled our own faces and take selfies then what was even the point?
We made it out of the museum complex, explored the Tunis medina, had a good dinner Dar Zarouk, and went back to our really nice hotel, La Villa Bleue. The next day, post hammams in our hotel, we commented to our friend about how empty the museum was.
“Well, considering what happened there…” he’d said, and then reminded us that the Bardo Museum in Tunis was the sight of a major terrorist attack in 2015. ISIS gunmen had killed almost two dozen people – tourists and museum staff – both outside the museum and inside.
As a writer, I’m always fascinated with perspective. How two people can experience the same thing and yet talk about it wildly different ways. Or how the same person can interact with something in a totally different way depending on what they know. Had I known about the massacre, I would have interacted with the museum in such a different way. It would have been a more somber experience knowing all those people were killed right on the mosaics I clomped across with my damp boots. I wouldn’t have been thinking about where to eat or about whether anyone actually gets locked inside museums by accident and spends a fun night among art.
Perhaps I’m a naive tourist who should look things up and know what I’m getting into. I’d still go to these sights, because presumably (hopefully?) security has been beefed up, and they’re possibly safer than they were before. And you can’t let the terrorists (or others who think cultural sites should be destroyed) win.
For some reason learning about the terrorist attack at the museum we were goofing off in really stuck with me about our weekend trip to Tunis. But we also saw some really cool things, like the ruins in ancient Carthage:
And we ate at some really good restaurants, most notable were both locations of Au Bon Vieux Temps, one of is Italian and the other is more Tunisian/French fusion. Italian food is abundant in Tunis, a city that is both physically close to Italy and maintains close connections with the country. (There’s a Tunisian Embassy in Rome and six consulates scattered in other Italian cities and Italy has an embassy in Tunis and three honorary consulates in other Tunisian cities). For me, this meant I ate a lot of burrata while in Tunis, which is a very, very good thing.
Also, a few cool shops to check out: The antique shop Ed Dar in the Tunis medina, which feels a little like a magic emporium of a bygone era. Wonderful antiques and a delightful owner who played us a record on a gramophone. If time travel is possible, I’d say listening to an old gramophone recording tucked in between antiques in the Tunis medina would be a strong contender for the portal through which one is thrust to an earlier era.
Dar Ed also carries a small collection of blown glass from Sadika, a local designer whose atelier I wanted to visit, but we didn’t make to. I brought home this pretty blown glass ice bucket for our bar.
Also, in Sidi Bou Said, Rock the Kasbah is a chic concept store in a riad and I wanted everything in there, from the furniture to the clothes.
Also: There was a gift shop near our hotel in Sidi Bou Said that carried cool pottery with Arabic calligraphy. I don’t know the name of it. But I bought these ceramic candle sticks that look like tall mushrooms, and I love them.
Tunis: definitely worth a visit. Gorgeous Mediterranean views, impressive ruins, cobblestone streets, a cool medina, and some tasty and trendy restaurants. And a very good museum that I will forever think about in a different way.