Rue de Marseille. You close your eyes and picture Marseille – the city of the Phocaeans; majestic, a bastion of history, a mix of cultures. Everywhere the sun, the light. You imagine her harbour, her sailors, her boats – and a longing for the sea takes hold of you. The regulars of Rue de Marseille must also be dreaming of such a voyage. They go; they forget themselves; they empty their purses – all without ever leaving the mainland. Rue de Marseille is a street of bars. After nightfall people come here to drink, to find a mooring. Or to lose their bearings altogether.
Rue de Marseille is also a bridge between two worlds. It begins off of Avenue Bourguiba, whose sidewalks are overtaken by the terraces of restaurants and cafes, lit-up shop windows, the municipal theatre. Clean, crisp and inviting; the pretty face of Tunisia – and its mirthless laugh as well. The Ministry of Interior stands on the avenue: austere, frightening, with barriers that give one the impression of a carnivorous mouth, waiting to crush anyone who approaches.
Rue de Marseille ends at le Passage, Place de la Republique – the central metro station, where a restaurant serving the popular lablebi chickpea soup is open around the clock. For a meagre three francs six sous you absorb strength for the day, reinforce your stomach for the evening, or, soak up what you’ve drunk.
This street is a bridge, a passage between worlds, in a Tunisia that vacillates. They tell us “Arab Spring”, “Islamist Winter” – and then? “Terrorist Summer”? How many have come to Rue de Marseille for a drink, happy or sad, only to wake up the next day with a raging hangover?
At the intersection with Avenue Bourguiba, just as the evening begins to fall, pedestrians take to the street. The youths on the terraces finish their coffees. The avenue is teeming, crawling. It is like a wave, this populace that presses; this human tide, all making its way home. They give way to others: those who have time to spare, those who have time to lose themselves.
Rue de Marseille begins as a pedestrian walkway with cars parked in the middle of the road all the same. Its yellow-orange street lights give off a surreal air to those who pass beneath. And then there are the guys who stand leaned up against the walls. The ones who taunt and yell – to each other, to no one, they yell. The Rue is a man’s world. The girls have all gone; you don’t see them here.
In a corner of the street young berbechas – collectors of plastic bottles, perpetual excavators of trash bins – play football with an empty can. Here, on the dusty ground under the black sky, the official soft drink of every football cup on earth has lost its glamour.
“Rue de Marseille has two clienteles,” explains Fathi Melloug who has tended the restaurant la Mamma during the winter months for eighteen years. La Mamma is an inviting restaurant, almost as cozy as your living room. “Until 6 or 7pm, there are families, very respectable people. Then, it changes.”
Here, Tunisians, tourists and expats come to dine in peace. You enter the restaurant through a small door which opens onto a well-decorated room. The roof is supported by beams with pots and trinkets attached to them. The talk is of politics, cinema, theatre and international relations, in several languages at once. It is a special place where one forgets all of what goes on outside.
At the entrance is a counter, from which Fathi welcomes his faithful guests. While neighbouring establishments have seen their business dip, Fathi doesn’t complain. “Even during the revolution, I was open.” He started in the industry in 1969, as an apprentice with his father, a chef. He still spends time behind the stove, to the delight of his customers. It is a point of personal pride that the service at la Mamma is always impeccable, and the ambience calm.
Fathi notes that the character of the street has changed. Before, it was young, he says; the atmosphere was more joyful. Now there are mostly older men. They come, they drink too much, they lose themselves and “bore the girls”.
“My clients come to spend a nice evening, then they leave, and the only thing that stays with them is the fighting and curse words they hear coming out onto the street,” he complains.
Next door to la Mamma is the restaurant L’Andalous. It was closed for a while due to lack of business – the prices went up, Tunisians could no longer afford them and fewer foreigners were visiting the country. Recently though it reopened, but “mom’s couscous” was gone from the menu. In its place were emerald bottles – the ones that “make Tunisia green”, Tunis el khadra, as customers like to joke when the atmosphere warms up.
At L’Andalous, there are girls. They accompany their boyfriends, sip a Coke or coffee, order a bottle of wine when the group is larger. If tourists have started to make their comeback on the outdoor terraces, inside it is Tunisians who people the room. They talk about their day, laugh loudly and pat each other on the back. The good times have made a timid return.
But elsewhere on Rue de Marseille, female clients have become a rarity within the changing atmosphere of the street. Nevertheless, there are those who work. Talking of them, the words slalom. The language is polite: girls come to “flirt” with the men, they say. Whether from modesty or goodwill – there are no critics here.
Across the pavement, like everywhere else on the street, establishments have security guards – beefy guys with an abrupt air – on alert all night in this hostile environment. The guards stick together – and react together, at the slightest violent provocation. They are the only guardians of this street.
One of the guards, 27-year-old Saber from a working-class neighbourhood, stands among his colleagues. Always, someone wants him at the door; someone else wants him in the bar. He has worked for over four years at JFK, a nightclub with a young clientele where the Celtia used to be cheap and you would sit on rickety chairs or beer cases stacked in the middle of the room. A low-brow joint that still aspired to its place in the sun, located on the first floor of a building that also housed a cinema.
The place used to be one which young people, often broke, piled into – to the point where they were sharing the worn out chairs. There, they would remake the world, watch wildlife documentaries from National Geographic in amazement, talk politics. Try hard to pick up one another – or pick up a guitar, making the others dance.
But all that was before the change of decor. The place has undergone a complete renovation since: it’s now all clean and white, with purple neon lights and leatherette sofas. A flashy, chic, classy thing. And sad.
Saber stays up all night watching people pass by. Before, he used to work behind the bar. It was warm. For several months now he has been with the guards in the street instead, keeping an eye on the place while renovations have been underway.
The work is hard on morale. All night, “men”, “heads of families”, drink too much and wander the streets. Sad people. “Life is hard, prices have gone up. This is poverty,” says one of the guards. But poverty does not stop those who are thirsty. “People do not deprive themselves of a drink – never! They would rather sleep outdoors than not drink,” he swears.
It’s poverty that brings people to this street. The street of problems. We come here to forget.
On the ground floor of the JFK there used to be a cinema, the 7ème Art. It was removed during the renovations. “Culture is finished!” comments another one of the guards. “The cinema has closed, they’re better off putting a bar in its place. It will make more money. Imagine the three floors of Le Colisée turned into bar!”
Inside the beautiful art deco chambers of the former movie theatre, Lassâad Goubantini, heritor of a cinematic family, doesn’t warm to that idea. He laments the decline of his family’s art. They once owned fourteen cinemas; today, only four remain. “Le Colisée is the largest cinema in Africa. There are 1,800 seats!” he says. Today, the room is empty.
“That’s the night here in the Arab world. We have lost our minds, we have lost our culture.”
Lassâad remembers the cinema’s golden age, when “people came dressed up and there was music, real shows. Today the cinemas close at 8 or 9pm. There is no one. Even the streets are deserted.”
Nearby, on another street, in another world, three theatres are making a go of it. But customers aren’t in a hurry to get through their doors. Ultimately it’s only the big events that pull crowds these days. The rest of the time, people stay at home. The capital has only seven cinemas, even though greater Tunis is home to nearly half the population of Tunisia.
The guards, these men who work on the street, don’t like what they see or how their nights have been shaping up. Especially since the revolution. “It was better before” – the phrase that everyone repeats. It seems that our memories retain only what was best, erasing the negative. Nostalgia plunges us all into a mist, leaving our sadness behind.
Outside JFK, Saber keeps waiting for happier days.