Modern Monastir

9 to 31 March 2019

So, enough about the ancients.

When not doubling for centuries ago, Monastir was a perfect temporary home for Pintail and taught us a great deal about the modern country.

The marina, surrounded by modern hotels and apartments, had all the facilities we needed and passing through the ancient medina gates we could find all the modern day essentials we need including very cheap data SIM cards for almost unlimited internet access.

One of the things that endeared us to Monastir was finding families playing in the large square. We watched Tunisia’s next generation drive remote controlled cars in the shadow of the old Ribat, bounce on trampolines outside the mosque and play football opposite the mausoleum to the town’s famous son.

A bit like Turkey’s nationalist hero, Atatürk, gold statues of Tunisia’s independence leader, Habib Bourguiba, are everywhere in Monastir’s public spaces. Monastir’s airport is the Habib Bourguiba airport. And not just Monastir but every town we visited has an Avenue Habib Bourguiba.

Habib Ben Ali Bourguiba was born in Monastir in 1903. Trained as a lawyer at the Sorbonne in Paris, exiled from Tunisia and imprisoned a number of times for his nationalist activities he made a triumphant return to his homeland in 1955 where he led negotiations with France that ended in an independent Tunisia in 1957.

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Echoing Atatürk, he set about modernising the country, separating state from religion, improving education and the economy. Some of his greatest achievements were in bringing greater equality for women. He introduced laws against forced and child marriage, polygamy and wearing the veil. He gave women the right to vote, to divorce and to contraception. Free elections soon elevated him from Prime Minister to President. And then it all started to follow a familiar pattern towards autocracy. He proclaimed himself President for Life in 1975 and reportedly divorced his second wife for her support of the democratisation of Tunisia’s political system. When, at 84, his health started to fail him, he had to be ousted in a bloodless coup in 1987.

During his presidency Bourguiba regularly returned to his summer palace just outside his home town of Monastir and we walked out along the coast to visit it. Built in the late 1960s, it was incredibly refreshing to find such modern design inside the palace. Lots of clean lines and simple furniture with nods to more traditional design.

The textures were just beautiful. Walls, ceilings and doors lined with marble, purple leather, gold leaf, wood inlay and green lacquer.

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And a presidential Mercedes parked in the hallway!

When Bourguiba died at 96 he was laid to rest at the mausoleum built for him. As flamboyant in death as he apparently was in life, the building of his very own Taj Mahal started in the 1960s.

Outside it is crowned by gold and green cupolas and surrounded by the familiar arches and tiling of Islamic design – at odds perhaps with his career long desire to secularise the country. He once attempted to discourage adherence to the fasting of Ramadan, saying a “modern nation cannot afford to stop for a month every year”.

Inside the opulence he enjoyed in life continues in the decor of his tomb. Other members of his family, including his first wife, are also buried less ostentatiously in a back room.

Talking to an enthusiastic souvenir seller in the medina, it was clear that Bourguiba’s political and social legacy sowed the seeds of a process towards increased individual rights and freedoms which although stalled under his successor, Ben Ali, have only increased since the revolution of 2011. “We are free to choose whether to go to the mosque or to the bar. I choose the bar!” And if the queues of men in the supermarket buying crate loads of beer are anything to go by, so do many others!

We left Tunisia preparing for presidential elections later in the year and which we hope will only continue this spirit of openness and tolerance and an increase in prosperity and freedoms for its wonderful people.

Cheers Tunisia!

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