Few outsiders get to know Tunis’ densely-inhabited, twisting Medina. Those who penetrate to the southern edge of this southern Mediterranean city’s cobbled labyrinth – past the UNESCO World Heritage Site scrubbed streets, tourist tat and hipsterish shisha cafes – will exit muffled lanes into the sensory overload of a crowded square, still retaining elements of a medieval marketplace, and thickly-carpeted with the organic effluent of several open-air markets. This is Algeria Square. It rests in the valley between two hills: one is a cemetery where the main conditions for entry are death and being Muslim; another a garden suburb developed by French colonisers and inherited by a now-faded or departed Tunisian bourgeoisie. The jellaz,Tunis’ largest necropolis, is topped by the shrine of Sufi saint Sidi Belhassan Chedli. It was the site in 1911 of the first major Tunisian uprising against the French, following an unpopular bid to pass a tramline through the cemetery. (‘Protecting the dead is what finally moved the living’, says Tunisian architectural historian Iheb Guermazi. ‘It is their past that people refused to see colonised rather than their present. Seizing “space” was temporary and bearable, but erasing the cemetery meant that “time” was being colonised, and that was irremediable’.) Facing the jellaz is Montfleury, a verdant garden district full of Art Deco villas and modernist apartment blocks, emerging from bougainvillea and cypresses. A necklace of bazaars, working-class neighbourhoods speckled with saints’ tombs and tile-studded internal courtyards, transport hubs, a defunct abattoir and a massive military hospital choke the valley in between the two.
The whole district is a newer extension of the Medina, including later gates like Bab Fella and Bab Alioua (whose names live on despite their demolition). Here we find social housing, the headquarters of one of North Africa’s largest football teams, several hammams, a man who practises an African exorcism ritual, Zituna University, rivalling in prestige Cairo’s al-Azhar, and an Ottoman fort that went from French military base during colonial times to counter-terrorism headquarters today. It has been home to Arab-Moorish nobles, Jews and Greeks, French colonists, White Russians fleeing the Communist Revolution, an Italian middle class, and windmill-operating Maltese. The founder of modern Tunisia, Habib Bourguiba, lived here. This was the birthplace of Leila Trabelsi, wife of President Zine El Abdidine ben Ali, the autocrat who was brought down by the Arab Spring. These inhabitants conferred a unique distillation that survives to this day in the genes of residents, and in an architectural mélange of traditional Mediterranean courtyard houses with Art Deco and eclectic apartments alike. There’s even a neo-Gothic villa beloved by Tunisian horror-filmmakers. But the cinemas, breweries, bars, brothels and theatres that developed in the 1920s and 1930s have almost completely disappeared.
Eight locals, as diverse in their backgrounds as the district itself, recall their histories and talk about their lives. Among them an archivist, members of the district’s Sufi and stambeli religious communities, descendants of the beylic aristocracy’s servants, the post-Independence bourgeois class that occupied Montfleury, and the daughter of an Italian woman-convert to Islam. Their words evoke forgotten memories, still-current superstitions, and the demolished buildings and departed communities that bound the districts together. To live in these neighbourhoods is to shape a portal between yesterday and today.