July 15, 2004

The North is a Garden

The fine old Tunis medina is an ancient maze of twisting streets, carpet stalls, cafes, shuttered windows, arched passageways, minarets, hanging baskets, gypsum lamps, scavenging cats, and secret paths. Western rap music battles it out with crooning exotic Arabic melodies. Middle aged men suck the hookah pipe while younger men stike metal with hammers and wood with chisels making the crafts sold in souk stalls. If you take a walk at just the right time you'll hear the haunting muezzin's call to Muslim prayer from the stunning, towering, arching Great Mosque in the center. This is the East in its glory.

Leave the medina through the arch to the east and you'll find yourself in the Cité Nouvelle. In the space of 100 feet you can walk from the Middle East to France, and you can do it without leaving Africa.

The French were here to stay. Block after block after block was lifted straight from metropolitan France and dropped wholesale just south of the ruins of Carthage. The windows of fancy apartments open onto streets above sidewalk cafes, patisseries, chic clothing stores, and brasseries. The building stock is unmistakably French, and it's in better condition than much of Marseilles and Paris. Some former French colonies are Third World disasters, but Tunisia is rich. If it lags behind Europe, you'll hardly know it. Tunisia doesn't have much oil, but what it does have is worldliness, sophistication, smarts, and an acute business acumen.

You will see some women with a hijab on their heads, but they are distinctly in the minority. Unlike in the Sahara you'll see women in the cafes, sometimes with husbands and at times on first dates, often with girlfriends and sometimes alone. These are partly, if not mostly, liberated women, and you'll feel a lot more at ease here because of it. The streets full of men in the south have an edge.

Walk to the end of the Cité Nouvelle at the edge of Lake Tunis. Catch the light rail line at the Tunis Marine station and in just 20 minutes you'll be whisked to the ruins of Carthage, now a bedroom community for wealthy Tunisians who built an enourmous marble mosque that will stop your breath.

Keep going past the "Carthage Hannibal" station and get off at the cliff-top seaside village of Sidi Bou Said. The streets are finely cobbled, the walls washed in white, the doors and window trim painted with blue from the sky. Now you'll think you're in Greece and will be forgiven if you forget that you haven't left Africa. Every Mediterranean civilization has landed here in Tunisia adding to the stonework, the psyche, and the bloodlines.

Find yourself a cafe. Feel the cool wind off the sea to the north. It will massage the fury of the Sahara out of your muscles and back. Gaze across the shimmering torquoise waters of the Gulf of Tunis to the twin-horned mountain that was the ancient home of Hannibal's pagan god Baal. Put some jasmine behind your ear. Go on. You can buy it from one of the boys in the streets for a dinar. The Carthaganians did the same thing right here 1,000 years before the rise of Islam, before the Romans sacked Carthage, before the Arabs built Tunis, before the French came and built the cafe you're now sitting in before they went home to nurse the wounds of their loss back in Europe.

Women don't cover their hair here. They dye it, at least some of the younger ones do. They might even pierce their nose and offer you a cigarette. They wear fashionable Western clothes and hang on the arms of their boyfriends. You would think them Europeans if you were led to this place with a blindfold, if you could not hear the Middle East on their tongues.

Tunis is surrounded by fields of green. To my Sahara-scorched eyes and skin it looks like a jungle and feels like Canada. What it's actually like is the South of France with its rolling green hills watered with rain, its trim farmhouses shaded by trees, and more vineyards than you would ever expect in a Muslim country. Most Tunisians live here in this garden landscape with its climate fit for human beings and other living things. The connection to Europe is obviouss, the connection to the arid conservative south a lot less so.

As an insult to Spain, some in France used to say Africa begins at the Pyrennes, that craggy chain of mountains amputating Spain from the rest of Europe. This is a lie. Africa does not begin at the Pyrennes. Nor does it begin at the Barbary Coast, at least it does not in Tunisia. Africa begins at the Sahara, a day's drive south of here. The narrow shelf of green between the small sea of water and the great sea of sand is a place all its own. Civilization both ancient and modern burrows deep into the soil and the souls of those lucky to live here.

Posted by Michael J. Totten at July 15, 2004 10:25 AM

You're descriptive prose are really touching.

Posted by: Kamry at July 15, 2004 02:40 PM

Africa begins at Gibraltar, no ifs ands or buts.

Posted by: David at July 15, 2004 04:44 PM

Your prose is REALLY making me want to visit Tunis. I would miss your political comments, but you writing a travel book might be an extremely satisfying future for yourself. Maybe you could do both? Certainly it looks like the future of the world will be influenced more significantly in this coming election, then in many. But maybe much less!

Sigh. But your travel writing. It's really good. [perhaps especially in these blog post helpings?]
The East in its glory.

Posted by: Tom Grey at July 16, 2004 12:30 AM

Wow. I miss your political blogging but this is fantastic. I'm sold. I'm going there.

Posted by: suzanne at July 16, 2004 05:24 AM

Yay Michael,

Sounds like you're having a blast. I miss the political rumbles here too, but I'll wait as patiently as possible till you get back.

And for your enjoyment an Old Sufi Legend:

The venerable sage Mullah Malcalypse the Younger was once condemned to death for certain witty and satirical sayings that disturbed the local Shah. Malcalypse immediately offered a bargain: "Postpone the execution one year," he implored the Shah, "and I will teach your horse to fly." Intrigued by this, the Shah agreed.

One day thereafter, a friend asked Malcalypse if he really expected to escape death by this maneuver.

"Why not?" answered the divine Mullah. "A lot can happen in a year. There might be a revolution and a new government. There might be a foreign invasion and we'd all be living under a new Shah. Then again, the present Shah might die of natural causes, or somebody in the palace might poison him. As you know, it is traditional for a new Shaw to pardon all condemned criminals awaiting execution when he takes the throne. Besides that, during the year my captors will have many opportunities for carelessness and I will always be looking for an opportunity to escape."

"And, finally," Malaclypse concluded, "if the worst comes to the worst, maybe I can teach that damned horse to fly!"

May Eris Not Bless You Too Much,


Posted by: Ratatosk at July 16, 2004 07:05 AM

MJT is right, The North Coast of Africa has always been Mediterranean in focus. It will always have more in common with the Provence or Tuscany than it ever will with the Serengeti or the Congo.

People should realize that.

Posted by: Eric Blair at July 16, 2004 07:51 AM

I can't find the article, but a recent travel piece I read on Tunisia expounded on how the coastal area has always been a cultural oasis compared with the rest of North Africa. This goes back to pre-Roman times.

Posted by: John B at July 16, 2004 09:32 AM

Great stuff. Look forward to reading more.

Posted by: Adam at July 16, 2004 10:28 AM

Tom is absolutely right. Put together a travelogue. It would sell.

Posted by: Mike at July 16, 2004 03:50 PM

Awesome! Thanks for the update....I continue to
be amazed...(yes, this is his mother!) You do
paint a beautiful picture...if only in our minds.

Posted by: Gena Pegg at July 16, 2004 08:29 PM

Wonderful writing, Michael. Thank you for taking us on a guided tour. More, more!

Posted by: A Recovering Liberal at July 17, 2004 08:43 AM

OK, since Michael is busy, I'll bring up a topic to discuss.

During the 2004 primaries, several states canceled the Republican primary since "Bush was going to win anyway". Some claim that this was a cost saving measure (though one wonders what one actually saves when dropping key parts of the democratic process). Others claim it was because the Republicans didn't want everyone to see that there is a schism in the party and many republicans don't want Bush. To support this, they point to some states that held primaries anyway.

New Hampshire - 22% of Republicans voted for someone other than Bush. 3000 NH Republicans votd for Kerry during the Republican primary (I think they were confused).

Rhode Island - 15% voted for someone other than Bush.

Idaho - 10%
Oklahoma - 10%
Mass. - >10%
Texas - 50k voters did not back Bush

So here's the questions for conversation:

1. How often are primaries cancelled because the current incumbent is a shoo-in?

2. Is is usual to see 10%, 15%, 22% of the party electorate not support their party's incumbant?

3. Was it wise the states to do such a thing during a time when the electorate is obviously in a violent split on the issue of the next President? (If nothing else considering the bad publicity that could be spun from the opposition).

4. We know that party primaries are not a Federal requirement, its not a Constitutional requirement, but its been part of the process for all of our lives (and quite some time before then). Is it a good idea or bad idea to take shortcuts in Democracy? Does this even count as a shortcut?

Thoughts? Opinions? Ideas?

Disclaimer - This is not an Anti-Bush post.

Posted by: Ratatosk at July 19, 2004 10:32 AM

Wow. When's the next plane?

Posted by: Karlo at July 19, 2004 01:52 PM

Tosk --

The polls consistently show that Bush has a much higher percentage of the Republican vote than Kerry has of the Democratic vote. I think this issue is a non-starter.

Moreover, primaries are not necessarily required to be held. The parties are free to make other arrangements for selection of their respective candidates. Most states traditionally have primaries, but they don't have to do so. Remember, voters in general do not have a right to participate in primaries -- only members of the Rep. party vote in Rep. primary, etc. Per the US Supreme Court, states are not permitted to have open primaries -- i.e., primaries where anyone who wants can vote in any party's primary.

Posted by: Ben at July 19, 2004 06:19 PM

Which states cancelled their primaries?

Posted by: Jake McGuire at July 19, 2004 08:01 PM


I understand that primaries are not required. My questions were about the wisdom of not holding primaries during a contentious election year.

As an aside, I would hope that Bush has more support in his base than Kerry does, he's currently President of The United States, one would hope that he had a lot of support in his own party.


Kansas, Colorado, Utah, Florida, New York, Connecticut, Mississippi, South Carolina, South Dakota, and Puerto Rico, supposedly cancelled their Republican primaries.

Posted by: Ratatosk at July 20, 2004 06:39 AM

The people who really nominate the candidates, or course, are the delegates to the party conventions - they can be chosen by primary, caucus, appointment, even lottery, I guess...both parties have a whole bunch of unelected voting delegates - Congressmen, party elders, etc. (I'm also not sure that states are NOT allowed to have open primaries; do you have a citation on that, Ben?)

Since the purpose of primaries is to pick a nominee with the best chance of winning the election, I would say it is smart not to have Republican primaries this year -- why risk the chance of negative press and disunity as a result of a Buchanan-type protest candidacy, as in 1992?

And if I was going to pick a topic to discuss involving what's fair and unfair, I'd pick another one: the inherent injustice of winner-take-all elections and single member Congressional districts. This is a republic with a strong element of representative democracy, specifically in the House of Representatives, and if I disagree with my Congressman, I have no meaningful representation in Washington (as well as in my state's Legislature). Liberals living in Tom DeLay's district and conservatives living in Barney Frank's district ought to have someone representing them in the House of Representatives, and under single-member representation they simply do not. Regional at-large districts -- with, say, 3 to 5 members -- proportionally allocated, would give a representative voice to everyone.

In addition to preventing minority opinions from being represented in the elective body, winner-take-all schemes also reflect no distinction in representation between a one-vote victory and a vote of unanimous consent -- and this effectively renders all votes in between these two extremes irrelevant.

For more info. on this, and for other ideas on how to improve our elections, see this very interesting website:

Posted by: Markus Rose at July 20, 2004 07:21 AM


Those are absolutely fantastic points. I want to make clear that my post was to engender discussion about the wisdom of any 'out-of-the-ordinary' activity during such a contentious election year, not about it being unfair. There's no doubt that Bush would have won ever primary... at least one would hope so.

However, how often have Primaries been cancelled because the Incumbent is a shoo-in? I can't seem to find any data at all on it.


Oh well, enough of that.

I will read the link you provided, as representation (lack thereof) is one of my current pet peeves.

Posted by: Ratatosk at July 20, 2004 07:57 AM

Markus --

California Democratic Party v. Jones, 530 U.S. 567, 120 S. Ct. 2402, 147 L. Ed. 2d 502 (2000), holding that a California statute providing that any voter could vote in a party's primary was not narrowly tailored and did not advance a compelling state interest. It violated the party's freedom of association and was therefore unconstitutional.

Posted by: Ben at July 20, 2004 08:10 PM

Markus --

Single member districts with plurality win may not be best for democracy, but they are best for stability -- they effectively keep the nuttiest portion of the electorate out of power because candidates generally have to run to the center to win. Of course, this advantage is eroded by gerrymandering, but that is another issue.

Posted by: Ben at July 20, 2004 08:13 PM

Ben -- thanks for info. on the case. But single member districts do not require candidates to run to the center -- just the opposite. Legislators use the redistricting process to create safe seats -- known as Democratic- or Republican- performing disticts -- meaning that 65%+ vote regularly for the Legislators' party top to bottom. This polarizes the House of Representatives and the state Legislatures, since most Members are free to ignore those who disagree with them. What keeps this country somewhat at the center is the (at-large) Senate.

Posted by: Markus Rose at July 21, 2004 07:54 AM

Ben -- I realize now you did acknowledge gerrymandering in your last post as in issue. But it's not "another issue."

Posted by: Markus Rose at July 21, 2004 07:56 AM

Markus --

Agree, to a point: Gerrymandering definitely does polarize things. Members still generally need to be within the mainstream of their parties, however. With a few exceptions, our hard left and hard right elected officials are generally more moderate than their counterparts in countries with proportional representation. We have very few LePens here.

HOWEVER, the good government American in me laments gerrymandering, no matter how much the Republican in me can barely hear past my own chortles and gloatings since the worm has turned on this issue. It is extremely unlikely that the Dems will recapture the House of Representatives prior to the next round of redistricting. (I recall reading somewhere that there are only something like 52 House seats where the incumbent party got less than 55% of the vote last time around -- 29 held by Dems, 23 by Reps. For the Dems. to recapture the House, they must defend all of their "vulnerable" seats AND pick up more than 1/2 of the Rep. seats -- an almost impossible task).

Perhaps the Iowa model should be considered next time around: A non-partisan commission does the redistricting, with the goals being preservation to the extent possible of political subdivisions within the same district and districts that follow natural geographic boundaries to the extent possible. Iowa has many more seats "in play" than you would expect, including some held by long-time veterans such as Jim Leach.

Posted by: Ben at July 21, 2004 06:36 PM

Please check out my political enquiry blog:


Posted by: Adrian Spidle at July 23, 2004 01:34 PM

Hey Mike,

I checked your blog to see what you were up to, and I agree with the others, you have a real knack for travel writing. A real career there for you, I think.

Of course, I think you should get back to writing fiction as well. It's a hell of a lot of fun making shit up and having people pay you for it. :)

Of course, you could argue you're doing the same thing with political commentary, but the problem there is sometimes people get a little touchy when you don't get your facts right. ;)


Posted by: Scott Carter at July 23, 2004 02:17 PM

"The North Is A Garden" lost much of the good rhytm of "The South Is A Desert". Sorry. But keep on trying. This is after all, your forte. Your political writings are, if considered seriously, less impressive. The advocate and partisan logic works for the already convinced, but adds nothing to those of the opposite view.
If you can't make a difference, what's the point?
Don't listen just to the habitual praisers here.

More travelogues and less political ramblings would make this blog really good.

Posted by: Bill Coco at July 24, 2004 02:57 AM
Winner, The 2007 Weblog Awards, Best Middle East or Africa Blog

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