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The Cold Arab Spring
  • March 18, 2013 : 22:03
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Back in Tunis, bons vivants drink to forget. A rare sight in the Arab world: By mid-afternoon the bars brim with women as well as men, the tables laden with beer bottles. In the Red Light Salon de Thé on downtown’s Avenue de la Liberté, couples smooch around small arabesque coffee tables beneath neon signs of silhouetted naked girls holding the words Red Light District—Amsterdam. Girlfriends pet lovers, and waitresses in velvet waistcoats chase customers around the tables. On weekends, fathers take their families to La Plaza, a resort restaurant in a suburb of Tunis. While their children splash in its bayside pool, the men sneak into the disco below, where girls wrap themselves around them like ivy around drainpipes, licking and fawning over their fares. Disheveled drunks keel over onto the floor with their whiskey bottles. “Nothing has changed,” says the doorman when I ask about the advancing Islamist wave.

Yet conversations inevitably return to the obscurantist threat advancing through the provinces. Newspapers report that in Jendouba, a town 100 miles to the west of the capital, Salafis in starched white tunics chased away the police, imposed Saudi-style laws and sliced off the hand of a suspected thief. The nearby town of Sedjenane, Musab tells me, had declared itself an Islamic emirate and converted the town hall into a sin-bin for drunkards. Like the Fatimids (Islamist upstarts who used Tunisia as a base to conquer North Africa a millennium ago), these moralists consider Tunisia the launchpad for their future theocracy.

“The problem is that they just don’t get laid,” says Amina, who makes candles for boutique hotels, as we chat in Le Light, the elite’s cocktail bar in the Villa Donna hotel. “They need a fuck.” Others think the solution is less simple. Farida, who drove me to Menzel Bourguiba in her sports car, calls Amina and her Westernized ilk the Last of the Mohicans. She fears that her own nighttime clubbing is a swan song and has kept her apartment in Paris, she says, just in case.

Even in the capital, the new Islamism seeps through the cracks. CD stalls in the market not far from the statue of the sagacious Ibn-Khaldu¯n have stopped playing Western pop after reports that one had been torched for “distracting Muslims from the mosque.” As a precaution, the fruit-juice shacks broadcast Koranic chants, and in a city where only a few years ago a veil was cause for official suspicion, jilbabs (head scarves) are commonplace. During the first Ramadan since the revolution about half the restaurants closed for lunch, up from 10 percent a year earlier. And the tranquil and well-to-do village of La Marsa—its picturesque jumble of pale blue-and-white plaster walls perched precariously over a turquoise bay frequented by French impressionists—has become the unlikely front line for a cultural showdown on the edge of the capital.

It began when Lofti El Hafi, La Marsa’s bookseller, impishly decorated the window of his shop with volumes of Les Femmes au Bain, a collection of nude paintings with bare-breasted beauties on its cover. When an angry Islamist passerby took offense, El Hafi was initially sympathetic. “It’s just the early buds of freedom,” he explains, attributing the protest that followed to a hothead from the nearby working-class suburb of Al Karm who had returned from jihad in Iraq a trifle deranged. Like Musab, the rabble-rouser had recently emerged from Ben Ali’s jails. El Hafi moved the books to a back shelf out of deference—and at the urging of the police. Anyway, he adds, putting a brave face on the intrusion, “the attention was good for sales.”

But a few weeks later the hothead was back with hundreds of other hotheads in the art center next to the bookshop, pounding at the gates of an exhibition that ridiculed the Islamists’ rise. One artist had painted God’s name as an army of ants; another had stuck images of women’s faces on punching bags and strung them inside a boxing ring. Thanks to Twitter, secular activists quickly formed a counter-demonstration. While police were busy trying to separate the protesters, the Salafis torched the police station. That evening, authorities imposed the first curfew since the revolution and rounded up dozens.

Efforts to find middle ground have largely backfired. An attempt by President Moncef Marzouki, a former human rights activist, to host a joint workshop for operators of Islamist Facebook pages (which have hundreds of thousands of fans) and their rival secular bloggers (who muster just a few hundred) degenerated into farce. The Islamists walked out after Jolanare—the lecturer and blogger—accused them of treating women like jawari, or concubines. At Manouba University in the capital, phalanxes of bareheaded versus fully veiled women clashed after Salafi toughs ejected the dean from his office for banning women from wearing the niqab, a covering that hides a woman’s face as well as her hair. “You can’t make me free if you take away my rights,” read the placards carried by the veils. “Get back to the dark ages,” yelled the bareheads.

In an attempt to pacify an increasingly polarized population, the new Islamist government tries to reassure everyone with doublespeak. Fearful of scaring off tourists, Prime Minister Hamadi Jebali has inaugurated tourism conferences where alcohol flows liberally. But his ministers speak of quarantining tourists in resorts turned into ghettos guarded by checkpoints—thus protecting Muslim innocents from contamination by debauched Europeans. (A World Bank official calls this “market segmentation.”) Others court Gulf investment for halal, or religiously pure, tourism, which has already funded the construction of a vast but drab alcohol-free and disco-less entertainment complex on land reclaimed from Tunis’s estuary. Next summer, predict hoteliers, some Tunisian beaches could be segregated.

The authorities are also quietly engineering a cleanup of the capital’s media—they detained a newspaper publisher and an editor for printing a photo of a German-Tunisian soccer star cupping his naked girlfriend’s breasts—along with its brothels. Sex workers in Tunis say police told them Jebali’s government has declared Friday, the Muslim holy day, and Ramadan, the Muslim holy month, as times of rest. One Friday I visited Tunis’s officially authorized red-light zone on Abdallah Guech Street, near the dilapidated former Venetian consulate where I lived in the late 1980s. The red-light district has survived, despite attacks by Molotov-cocktail-wielding Islamists within weeks of President Ben Ali’s flight. The muezzin was broadcasting his call for prayer, and all but a few of the scores of booths that open onto the alleyway were tightly shut. At one of the open doors, a peroxided woman wearing slacks and clipping her toenails shooed me away before the beards found us. At another, a bawdier madam stopped washing the red tints in her hair, ushered me hurriedly into her cabin and offered me an alternative place to prostrate for 20 dinars.

A minority of Tunisians are striking back at what they perceive as an alliance between two shades of Islamists—the government’s statist version and the more antiestablishment Salafis—to quash the last fires of hedonism. An indignantly risqué magazine, Femmes de Tunisie, aspires to spawn a sexual revolution by sporting a front cover with a seductress wearing nothing but 1920s pearls and by offering women advice on the best way to chuck unsatisfying lovers. Farida plans a protest of her own: a trip to the beach with her girlfriends all kitted out in “le string”—their skimpiest thongs. And a wave of new bars and cabarets are opening across Tunis—including Le Regent, behind the Ministry of the Interior, where a husky-voiced woman sings and acts out the lyrics to Randy Newman’s “You Can Leave Your Hat On.” At the Peace and Love nightclub on the capital’s outskirts, waiters in bow ties bear champagne ice buckets across the dance floor between Tunis’s lithest bodies. Above them a DJ projects lewd images onto a giant screen to frighten off the Islamists: Photos of a pole dancer, a bikinied bum and the turntable are interspersed with images of a woman’s tongue and the words Lick my deck; a crab with stiletto legs for claws entraps its prey. For a few raucous hours there’s not a head scarf in sight.

After the Maghreb’s fleshpot safe havens, the public space in post-Qaddafi Libya feels sexless and arid. Along with millions of migrant workers, the Moroccan girls who worked at Tripoli’s nightclubs fled the fighting that toppled the colonel. The rebels who took Qaddafi’s place claimed their legitimacy in part by highlighting their godliness over the colonel’s perversions (including his attempt to create heaven on earth with a harem of 72 female bodyguards).

Yet the rebels have proved to be strangely prone to temptation, as I discovered on a flight from Tripoli to Kufra, a trading post 800 miles deep in the Sahara. Libya’s initial revolutionary leadership, the National Transitional Council, appropriated Qaddafi’s private jet, which came with cream-colored leather sofas and the services of a beautiful and curvaceous flight attendant, Ayad Abdel-Rahman. Even the Islamists on board found it hard not to drool over her tall, slender form, her doe eyes and her crimson skirt cut above the knee. Ten pairs of male eyes followed her between the sofas as she prepared and served three-course meals. Unlike her previous employer, we were clearly not worthy of her attention. “He would never get angry,” she recalls wistfully. “He wasn’t as wild as you people say.”

Other Libyans are also trying to secure their share of the colonel’s assets and rebalance 42 years of unequal distribution of pleasure. Libya’s militiamen have yet to disband—a reality all too vividly revealed by the killing of Chris Stevens, America’s ambassador to Libya and perhaps its most engaging diplomat, in his Benghazi safe house. When they are not busy targeting foreigners, they prey on the former palaces of the colonel’s offspring and sycophants, daubing their walls with the words Holy Property in an effort to give their theft religious legitimacy. In the vestibule of the Tripoli mansion of Qaddafi’s daughter, guards lounge on the love seat she had commissioned in the form of a golden mermaid with a face cast in her image. South of Tripoli, another militia guards the hunting pavilions and leopard zoo where the Qaddafi family spent its weekends. Ten-foot-long Russian missiles poke through the long grass. West of the capital, Libya’s Berber fighters use their newfound status and arms to fend off Salafi party poopers who seek to disrupt their frolics on isolated beaches with “fiancées” and bootlegged whiskey. As in Morocco, they dismiss such Islamist intrusions as cultural colonialism and use their control of the western border to smuggle Djerba’s prostitutes in for the night. And at their all-female wedding parties, zamzamat—female troubadours smelling of whiskey and hashish—regale the bride with their ululations and tambourines.

Even so, such are Libya’s desert rigors that the sight of Alexandria—the first city to the east of the country—left me feeling almost as excited as Antony, the Roman general, arriving in the ancient port to court Cleopatra, the Egyptian queen who staved off Roman conquest by conquering her invaders in bed. Behind generations of grime, Alexandria’s stately buildings and antique drinking parlors still ooze the decadence of their louche 19th century colonial patrons. The restored opera house, palaces and royal seat of government offer a window on the sensual past of what Lawrence Durrell, a British wartime agent, novelist and husband to two of Alexandria’s offspring, called his “dream city.” The Sporting Club—the city’s colonial hub, which another Alexandria denizen, E.M. Forster, described as “tennis courts thronged by day, brothels by night”—still tries to exude exclusivity. Wizened waiters in green velvet smoking jackets and bow ties serve drinks on silver platters in the clubhouse, gardeners mow croquet lawns with the care of barbers, and only the flutter of newspapers and the squeak of polished leather disturb the quiet in the library as elderly members slumber on sofas, their pates glistening beneath the chandeliers sparkling overhead.

Fleeing Europe’s economic crisis, the city’s Greeks, who numbered 150,000 before the 1952 revolution, have begun trickling back, tempted by a city where their pensions are actually worth something. In the marina’s Greek club behind the Qaitbay Fort, John Siokas, a leader in the Greek community, has opened a restaurant serving chtapodi xydato—grilled octopus—and has plans to turn a dance hall favored by Egypt’s last king, the debauched Farouk, into a nightclub called Fever. “Alex is Europe, Cairo is Africa,” explains a taxi driver when I ask him why Alexandria, unlike the capital Cairo, seems to have rediscovered its joie de vivre since President Hosni Mubarak’s 2011 fall, despite the Salafi surge. “Half its population,” he adds by way of embellishment, “are the offspring of Greek, Jewish, Cypriot, Italian, Armenian and English bastards. A Western temperament is in their genes.”

That said, the latest arrivals are outnumbered by the departures. Since the bombing of an Alexandrian church in 2011, the exodus of Copts, one of the Arab world’s oldest Christian communities, has accelerated. Salafis, complains the Sporting Club’s maître d’, are defying the board’s efforts to exclude them, with as much insistence as the Egyptian revolutionaries who in 1952 nationalized the exclusive British club and made themselves members. The club demolished its bar in the 1980s, built its first mosque a decade later and recently stopped horse racing on its grounds under pressure from opponents of gambling. Peer pressure has reduced displays of supposed licentiousness such as bikinis, female gymnastics and swimming for girls over the age of 14. And from the royal box where the playboy King Farouk once frolicked with his mistresses, a female professor from Egypt’s Islamic Al-Azhar University lectures on family values. “The colonial past means nothing; it’s gone,” says a Salafi member of the club who works as a lawyer to secure permission for speculators to tear down the facades of the last colonial villas and erect faceless towers in their place. Revolutionaries who torched the city land-registry office have given his business a boost.

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read more: News, politics, magazine, culture, issue march 2013


  • Anonymous
    "Observers of the first turbulent days of the Arab awakening could have been forgiven for predicting the triumph of Western values of liberty." Every single person from the region knew this was going to end up the way it has. Why are Western journalists so.....well.......stupid, as to not do any serious research?
  • Anonymous
    Not everyone thought the Arab Spring meant freedom.
  • Anonymous
    The government of Iran is still seeking the nuclear weapon, by design of its hatred for Israel, and will fall at the hands of the modern governments this year, due to its breaking prohibited international accords on seeking the weapon. The Assad regime is due under court martial in the International Criminal Court for crimes against humanity, has killed over 50,000 dead native Syrians. China must remove North Koree from power because they have against all laws known attained the nuclear weapon. Iran and North Koree are modern day Hitler's rising to power and must be removed without a doubt.