Location/Culture Reports

Culture Report – Tunisia

The racers’ next destination, Tunisia, extends further north than any other country in Africa – its northern tip is only 85 miles from Sicily. Both the northern and eastern sides of Tunisia are on the Mediterranean Sea. Tunis is the capital, the official language is Arabic and, as we know from watching this episode, the flag has a large white circle on a red field. Inside the circle are a red crescent and star, emblems of the Muslim religion.

One of the sites visited during this leg is the El-Jem Coliseum. This structure is believed to have been built sometime between 230 and 238 A.D. It is almost as big as the better-known Coliseum in Rome, and is located halfway between Sousse and Sfax, about 130 miles south of Tunis. The Coliseum can be seen from miles around. The seating capacity is estimated to have been 30,000. Parts of the El-Jem Coliseum are still accessible to the public – you can climb up to the top tiers of seating, and also explore the two underground passageways that once held the animals and gladiators – and a few TAR racers.

The most popular type of music in Tunisia is Malouf. The word “malouf” means “normal,” and it is the name given to a form of traditional Arab-style music. The principal styles of classical Tunisian music include nouba, which is of Andalusian origin, and chghoul and bachraf, which are of Turkish origin The country's best known musicians are the El-Azifet ensemble. El-Azifet is an all-female group, which is a rarity in this part of the world.

Painting is a well-established contemporary art medium in Tunis. Under the French, many Europeans came to Tunisia to paint beneath the North African sun; perhaps the most famous was Paul Klee, who first visited in 1914. Modern galleries are mainly confined to the Tunis area, especially the artists' haven of Sidi Bou Saïd.

Some books that include general information on Tunisia are Peter Mansfield's The Arabs, which includes a chapter on Tunisia; Crossroads by David Pryce-Jones, which is a good introduction to the modern Islamic world in general; and Susan Raven's Rome in Africa, which provides a solid account of Rome's tussle with Carthage and subsequent conquest of North Africa. Paul Theroux visited Tunisia during his grand tour of the Mediterranean in the early 1990s, which resulted in his book, The Pillars of Hercules. Editions Alif has an excellent series of children's pop-up books about life in Tunisia. The only title published in English is A Walk Though an Arab City: The Tunis Medina.

Some Tunisian authors include Abu el-Kacem el-Chabbi, who is Tunisia's national poet and whose Will to Live is known by every schoolchild in the country, and Mustapha Tlili, whose novel Lion Mountain tells the story of the ravages of tourism on remote mountain villages. Tunisian-born Albert Memmi lives in Paris and writes in French about the lives of North African Jews. His widely translated works include Pillar of Salt, and Jews and Arabs; Ali Duaji's Sleepless Nights is a collection of short stories and sketches about life in and around Tunis during the first half of the 20th century.