Just as a pilgrimage to Mecca is a holy obligation for all Muslims, it should now be a patriotic duty for as many Brits as possible to holiday in Tunisia. I say this not to make light of the tragic attack on the beach at Sousse last week, but to urge everyone to show the terrorists that they cannot win. They want to terrify us and shut down Tunisia’s resurgent tourist trade. They want to turn it into a failed state, a recruiting ground for lobotomised self-detonators. What better reaction could there be for those untouched by this attack than to laugh at our enemies and board the next flight to Hammamet?
Even now, you’re more likely to be killed in a traffic accident in Britain than by a terrorist in North Africa. There are risks when you climb into a taxi on the way to the airport; risks that the hotel balcony may collapse. The question is whether the reward is worth the risks, and in the case of Tunisia the answer is an emphatic yes.
Everyone looks for different things in a summer holiday. For some it’s booze and beaches, for others it’s museums, crumbling ruins and the local food. Tunisia does it all. Boozy Brits are well catered for. The national beer, Celtia, produced on licence from Löwenbräu, is a fine brew. Tunisia has been producing wine for two millennia, and does a fiendish line in firewater. Take your pick from boukha, a 40-per-cent fig spirit; laghmi, a fermented palm wine; and Thibarine, a date concoction said to have its origins with 19th-century monks. Booze aside, there are tajines, couscous, spicy harissa, grilled fish, chorba and lablabi soups, kamounia meat stew, and all sorts of salads.
If your tastes are more cultural, you can’t beat the ancient land of the lotus-eaters. Rupert Edis, son of a former British ambassador to Tunisia, recommends ‘the atmospheric Roman ruins and mosaics of Dougga, deep in the green rolling hills of what used to be the Roman Empire’s bread-basket — or go to the amphitheatre of El Djem, with no fanny packs or garish shorts in sight to detract from visions of gladiators and wild animals in the sand. It may be the most memorable thing you ever do.’
I have been dipping in and out of Tunisia for almost 30 years, often en route to Libya. It is a wonderful slice of the Maghreb. Apart from the miles of white beaches, azure skies and limpid waters, Tunisia has a magnificent swath of the Sahara to explore. Hop on a camel, or a dune buggy if you must, and head into the Grand Erg Oriental sand sea for unforgettable nights under the stars. Desert travel is one of the greatest experiences in life, and it’s virtually on our doorstep in Tunisia. As the hoary old explorer ir Wilfred Thesiger wrote in Arabian Sands, ‘Here in the desert I found all that I asked; I knew that I should never find it again.’
While Syria, Iraq, Libya and Yemen have been falling apart, while Egypt has plumbed new depths as a police state under President Sisi, Tunisia has been the success story of the Arab Spring. Democracy has been putting down roots. That is one reason it was attacked and why it now needs our support. ‘I have seen the effect of similar attacks in Egypt and elsewhere and know how much it means to people in those places to have visitors show solidarity and spend money,’ says the writer and North Africa hand Anthony Sattin. ‘Brits are usually among the first back in.’
In other words, the worst possible response is to abandon Tunisia to the Islamists, consigning a small country dependent on tourism to the economic scrapheap. That will merely produce a new generation of disenfranchised young men, fertile recruits for homoerotic, narcissistic death cults. These are the same people who will try to attack us beyond Tunisia’s borders, so abandoning the country is false security.
Thanks to our enemies, Tunisia is now a great place for a budget break: a week’s holiday, including flights and seven nights in a five-star hotel half-board, has already been more than halved to £338 per person. After the 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Center, there was a concerted plea by New York City for the visitors not to be put off, and to help its tourist industry. Tunisia’s people may lack the power to make a similarly powerful appeal, but those who do visit can be assured of the warmest of welcomes — and heartfelt thanks for supporting a country (and its people) at the moment of greatest need. I’ll see you on the beach. Mine’s a large infidel boukha, with a cleansing Celtia chaser.
Justin Marozzi’s latest book is Baghdad: City of Peace, City of Blood.