What does it mean to attack Tunisian bar culture?

A series of stories has grabbed the attention of the international press about religious attacks on Tunisian bars and liquor stores. Attacks have occurred across the country over the past year, intensifying in the past 10 days with major incidences in Jendouba and Sidi Bouzid. These attacks raise the question, what is the prevalence of Tunisian bars and liquor stores? how easy is it to buy alcohol in this Muslim country? and who is being attacked?

From Agence France Presse:

On Saturday, after police arrested a Salafi suspect in the northern town of Jendouba, a group of 200 bearded men attacked the police station with firebombs and stones. They were repulsed with tear gas but went on a rampage through downtown, attacking bars and liquor stores. Fifteen suspects have been arrested. Earlier in the month, another group of conservatives attacked bars in the central town of Sidi Bouzid.

To read the reports, it sounds as if Tunisia’s reputation as the most secular of Arab countries is really true – women and men sip wine together and mingle in a southern version of a Parisian bar. “Pass me the vermouth, honey.” The reality, of course is a little different.

Let’s step away from the 4 star hotel on the coast most tourists find in Tunisia and look at where a typical Tunisian goes to have a drink.

First of all, you’re going to have to get there early. Bars are forbidden to serve after 8 p.m. Secondly, check your pants – if you’re a man, come on in, if not – no booze will be served – these are men only affairs. Finally, do you like dank? If so, you’re in the right place. Tunisian bars have generally not been cleaned since the 1960s. ¬†While I don’t have the precise data, it corresponds roughly to the last time someone was able to open a new bar in Tunisia. Since Bourguiba’s era, alcohol licences have only been available to “Restaurant touristique” meaning that all the bars in Tunisia are roughly from the colonial era. And they smell like it too.

Dive bar does not describe the typical squalor of a Tunisian bar. If you like drinking inside of a roadside gas station men’s restroom, you’ll be right at home. The further you get from the tourist areas, the truer this is.

What, this doesn’t appeal to you? Perhaps you’d like to drink with your mates at home. No problem. Tunisian liquor stores have all you need – both beer and wine. But you’re going to need sharp elbows – and you’ll have to be punctual. Buying beer at a Tunisian liquor store involves queuing (fighting) with about 50 guys in a cage, usually in a basement, or in an alleyway – most likely both. These stores are typically open for about 2 hours a day. But armed with your loot – at least you can go have your beer in tranquility – just make sure it’s in a black plastic bag – no way can you brandish your beer on the street. Also, be sure it’s not Friday, when no booze is for sale and no bars are open.

Of course, if you’re a little more well to do Jendoubian or Sidi Bouzidois, you might be able to head to the local hotel. Ostensibly for foreign customers, most Tunisian hotels are armed with the “Restaurant touristique” license that allows them the opportunity to sell booze. And of course, if you’re in Jendouba or Sidi Bouzid, there are no tourists, so you’re likely to have the place to yourself, your buds, and be able to enjoy a plate of Ojja to boot. And, of course, you’ll still have the dank, womanless environment we all enjoy when having a glass of pinot gris.

What could possible upset this wonderful bar culture in Tunisia? Well, it seems that the debauchery of a typical Tunisian bar is just a bit too much for some of the country’s more conservative elements. Trashing a bar or liquor store and harassing its customers is what the 2011 uprising was all about, after all – at least for our facial-hair endowed neighbors.

Meanwhile, many question whether these attacks will drive away tourists. Well, the headlines might, but the attacks themselves won’t. The reality is that the vast majority of these attacks are aimed at Tunisians by Tunisians. Is it that surprising that we’ve started to see some push back? Bar owners in Sfax and Jendouba are reportedly coming together to defend their establishments. Now if they could only clean them…..

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