Because of the recent clashes between protesters and police, however, the interim government had imposed a 9 p.m. curfew right when we arrived. That made it difficult to find dinner — northern Tunisians are European in their late eating habits — but everyone seemed to take it in stride. Cafes were bustling on the evening sidewalks beneath Tunis' famous mid-20th-century architectural gems.
Plates came laden with Tunisian staples: creamy mechouia (eggplant salad), bread and dipping harissa (hot red pepper paste), young olives, salade Tunisienne (shredded tuna with olive oil and tomatoes), and slata (mixed salad). Our dinner experience — with alcohol! — at seafood paradise L'Orient included octopus steaks simmered in cumin sauce and a dazzling platter of fruits de mer. (Tunisia has 700 miles of glittering Mediterranean coastline, a seafood lover's paradise.) A row of restaurants serving cuisine from the southern city of Sfax hooked us on salt-and-pepper fried fish over couscous and stewed rabbit with pequillo peppers. And, believe it or not, Tunisian sandwiches, stuffed with tuna, olives, harissa, and french fries, are bangin'.
A certain wide-eyed tension between the past and future could be felt everywhere in the white and turquoise city. Cell phone ads targeting gay men, however ambiguously, had started showing up, and gay groups were emerging from the shadows with blogs and Facebook pages. At the same time, some religious women were reembracing the head-covering hijab, banned since 1981. Hip-hop had fueled the revolution — the aggressive sounds of El General, DJ Costa, and Blid Boy blared next to those of classic divas like Fakhet Amina and Oum Kalthoum and more traditional raï singers. (And then there were the ethereally overamplified calls to prayer from the muezzins high atop their minarets, some of them divas in their own right, auditioning for Arabian Idol. You've never heard the Koran recited until you've heard it AutoTuned.)
Finally, there's the Carthaginian connection, with breathtaking mosaics and legendary landmarks from the classical empire that rivaled Rome scattered everywhere. We could barely tear ourselves away from the great archaeological treasures of the Bardo Museum, located in an old harem, but we were eager to make our way to the south, where the revolution began, and where we heard the ojja (sausage stew) was piping hot.
More tasty camels, another brush with Al Qaeda, and an Englishwoman who said God told her to drive through Libya with a Jesus fish on her bumper: Read part two of this story here.