A Woman in the Public Space: Ramadan in Tunis’ Bab Souika

9 May, 2022
Tunis’ tem­po­rary per­for­mance stage in the Place Bab Soui­ka (all pho­tos cour­tesy Shreya Parikh).

 

 

Shreya Parikh

 

I walk out of my home, drawn towards an odd mix­ture of music and com­mo­tion that I hear while read­ing, hes­i­tant about whether I want to be back walk­ing in and through a pub­lic space. When I arrive at the source of these sounds on Place Bab Soui­ka — a roundish pub­lic “square” which lies a par­al­lel street away from home — the crowd is too thick for me to get a clear view of the per­for­mance that is at the cen­ter of everyone’s attention.

To get a bet­ter view, I decide to climb up the open flight of stairs that leads to the neigh­bor­hood cul­tur­al cen­ter which faces Place Bab Soui­ka; the stairs give an ele­vat­ed view onto the Place. I try to lean slow­ly onto the crowd, hop­ing to pres­sure them into mov­ing, look­ing to find a rail­ing to hold onto. The stairs are packed with peek­ing fam­i­lies look­ing onto Place Bab Soui­ka where a tem­po­rary tent and stage hosts a music and dance per­for­mance. A man asks his daugh­ter to make space for me, I smile back to thank him, and I move into the new spot that gives me a bet­ter view to the visu­al and musi­cal spec­ta­cle. I stand there, hyp­no­tized by the per­fect­ly syn­chro­nized per­for­mance of mezoued by women dressed in iden­ti­cal white blous­es and pas­tel striped skirts. They seem to be in a trance as well, their hair going back and forth up in the air.

It is past 10 in the night, lat­er than my usu­al time for bed, but the fes­tiv­i­ty mark­ing Ramadan only seems to be begin­ning. Accom­pa­ny­ing the drums and the oud and the key­board that pro­duce the trance beats, I hear crunch­ing sounds of pop­corn being chewed by chil­dren stand­ing around me, the bark­ing of street dogs try­ing to make their way through the thick­en­ing crowd, the pop­ping fire­works thrown around by lit­tle boys. “To get rid of the evil eye!” a pass­ing human explains as I look per­plexed by its unex­pect­ed sound.

I smell crois­sants and pains au choco­lat com­ing from the old patis­serie below me to my right. As I look down from the stairs, I see a chain of cafés below, host­ing men smok­ing and star­ing at old foot­ball games being replayed on small tele­vi­sions in these cafés. The café chairs and tables are set all over the pave­ment, and I watch as fam­i­lies try to wind their way through this maze and towards the stage, strug­gling. I start to dream of get­ting a directe (expres­so mixed with foamed milk) and a crois­sant. Sud­den­ly, my dream is inter­rupt­ed by men on the stairs behind me who are whistling to the new musi­cal tune being played on the stage on Place Bab Soui­ka; the change in the music has marked a change in the dance style as well. So I try to con­cen­trate again on the show; now I want to whis­tle along as well!

I don’t know how to whis­tle — is it because I am a woman that I nev­er learnt how to whis­tle? I think of my women-ness and I real­ize that I am not the only woman in Bab Soui­ka, in the pub­lic that crowds the square. I see young women in fleece paja­mas and house slip­pers walk­ing with their lovers, hold­ing hands. I see women from across gen­er­a­tions — grand­moth­ers with their daugh­ters-in-law and grand­daugh­ters — sit­ting in white plas­tic chairs in front of the makeshift the­atre that has become Place Bab Soui­ka; some are stand­ing in front of their chairs, danc­ing slow­ly, snap­ping fin­gers grace­ful­ly in the air. I think of grace, its asso­ci­a­tion with women, and my total lack of it!

Wasn’t grace a part of the unnamed edu­ca­tion I received through my child­hood? Then maybe I taught myself to not be grace­ful, so that I could some­how erase the woman-ness of my body as I moved in pub­lic spaces, so that I didn’t get seen as a “woman,” so that I could some­how avoid being harassed. But, here and now, I am jeal­ous of these women and their grace — these women in per­fect syn­chrony danc­ing on the stage with grace, women in the audi­ence snap­ping fin­gers and sway­ing their shoul­ders. I want to dance too, with such grace!

 


 

The café with­out a name on Place Bab Soui­ka, hear the makeshift stage.

Place Bab Soui­ka marks the cen­ter of Bab Soui­ka — a so-called pop­u­laire (work­ing class) neigh­bor­hood on the edges of the med­i­na in Tunis. Behind the Place lies the zaouia (mau­soleum) of Sidi Mehrez, patron saint of the city of Tunis. Many of my col­leagues grew up in mid­dle and upper-mid­dle class fam­i­lies in Bab Soui­ka and now live in res­i­den­tial sub­ur­ban areas of Tunis, like El Men­zah, Bar­do, or La Marsa; they talk about Bab Soui­ka with nos­tal­gia — a nos­tal­gia that traces a cul­tur­al decline of the neigh­bor­hood. I won­der if this lan­guage for cul­tur­al decline hides a priv­i­leged class’s dis­gust for the “pop­u­lar.”

Bab Soui­ka became my home in the mid­dle of the pan­dem­ic, while I sep­a­rat­ed myself from every­thing I had called fam­i­ly for the past decade, and per­haps from the past of my whole life. To make it home, I invent­ed rou­tines; every morn­ing, I would walk around the souk in Hal­faouine, zig-zag­ging through its meat and veg­etable and sec­ond-hand cloth­ing mar­ket, and chat­ting with the man who sells my favorite haris­sa, with the store own­er who gift­ed me his per­son­al lighter because the store was out of stock. I start­ed to go to the same café in Place Bab Soui­ka, devel­op­ing a rou­tine of friend­ly con­ver­sa­tions with men who make and serve cof­fee there, who know exact­ly the order I take to an extent that there is bare­ly a ver­bal exchange between us now; when they see me arrive, they ask “kima a’ada?” (same as usu­al?) and I nod my head. The men who make these every­day rou­tines pos­si­ble became a foun­da­tion of my own con­struc­tion of home.

Out­side of the time sus­pend­ed by Ramadan, Place Bab Soui­ka is a men’s space. Cafés that bor­der the Place are what many call “café chaabi” or “café mous­tache” — cafés pop­u­laires cater­ing to men from the neigh­bor­hood. I once asked the young man who serves cof­fee at the name­less café I go to every­day if there are cafes for women around; he point­ed to a hid­den space a few meters away and called it a salon de thé where fam­i­lies go. Since Ramadan has start­ed, all the cafes dis­ap­pear in the day­time until an hour before the call to prayer at sun­set, when the dai­ly fast­ing ends; women join men in many of these cafés. Out­side of Ramadan, I have nev­er seen a woman sit and order a cof­fee at the café I go to every­day; the only women fig­ures are old women walk­ing with giant bags of gro­ceries, slow­ly mak­ing their way home from the near­by souk in Hal­faouine, stop­ping at the café to sit on a chair and catch their breath.

I am aware dur­ing every sec­ond of my pres­ence in Place Bab Soui­ka, espe­cial­ly while sit­ting in the café drink­ing bit­ter cof­fee made the way I like, that my pres­ence is tol­er­at­ed but not ful­ly accept­ed. Tol­er­at­ed because I am a for­eign­er; not accept­ed because I am a woman. In a café I used to fre­quent last year, I was told by the serv­er (with whom I had slow­ly got­ten friend­ly and chat­ty) that I should not wear skirts in Bab Soui­ka. Since that day, I stopped going to this café. It was a clear reminder that my pres­ence cre­at­ed ten­sion, gen­er­at­ed gazes from men pass­ing by.

View of the name­less café from Cafi Chanta.

Every time I pass by it, I still mourn the loss of the rou­tine that con­sist­ed of that café. The inci­dent raised many ques­tions that I still have dif­fi­cul­ties resolv­ing — what should I do when the “local” norms clash with my desire to be com­fort­able in my very gen­dered body? Should I “respect” these norms because I am in a coun­try where I am a for­eign­er? Does this mean that I stop wear­ing skirts, stop going to men’s cafés, stop walk­ing through Place Bab Soui­ka, and instead take the hid­den alleys to com­mute — as I see count­less women do?

The crowd behind me on the stairs is get­ting thick­er so I decide that it is time to give in to my desire to get a crois­sant. I make my way down the stairs, wind­ing my way through crowd­ed café tables, a tram­po­line with jump­ing chil­dren, a half-emp­ty mer­ry-go-round with pink glit­ter rib­bons thread­ed all over. I smell crois­sants! When I final­ly arrive at the patis­serie, the line is too long and they are wait­ing for the bak­ing stock of crois­sants and pains au choco­lat to come out of the oven, for the ready stock is all gone. I decide to dis­tract myself with the idea of check­ing out the oth­er source of music next to the giant poster of “Cafi Chan­ta” that hangs above the walls of the name­less café of my preference.

I had heard of “Cafi Chan­ta” as a part of the myth­i­cal past of Bab Soui­ka — cafes host­ing famous local artists who sang through the night. Its appel­la­tion is a ver­nac­u­lar­iza­tion of “Café Chan­tant,” which can be loose­ly trans­lat­ed as “singing café.” Giv­en its loca­tion in the nos­tal­gic past, I did not expect to find it in the present!

I walk towards the poster, look­ing for a way to get to the first floor from where I hear the music com­ing. The giant hand-paint­ed poster depicts a woman dressed in a long tunic in var­i­ous shades of light blue, hold­ing a lantern in one hand and an over­sized cof­fee cup in the oth­er. I can bare­ly see any expres­sions on her face. Final­ly, I find the stairs slight­ly hid­den away behind a wall. As I climb the stairs, I see a sign with a hand-paint­ed pale-skin woman dressed in red bra and red skirt — cloth­ing asso­ci­at­ed with bel­ly­danc­ing — with a note that reads “100% jeunes,” indi­cat­ing that the women in Cafi Chan­ta are “100%” young. The stairs smell of urine. The walls are stripped in yel­low and red, the col­ors of Bab Souika’s famous men’s foot­ball team, Club Espérance. I feel like I am walk­ing into a space where I do not belong.

I arrive on the first floor and spot the only open door and enter it. There are three men stand­ing around the door whom I ignore because I am scared that if I look into their eyes, they won’t allow me to enter. I walk in and spot the kitchen area of the café to my left, where a young man is prepar­ing tea. I con­tin­ue, ignor­ing his pres­ence, scared of being spot­ted and kicked out at any moment, and I final­ly find myself in a dark room that smells like hookah. There are round tables every­where, cov­ered in red cloth, and there is not a sin­gle table that is emp­ty. I walk towards the source of music and find an emp­ty chair on a table already occu­pied. I sup­press my intu­ition that tells me that I am not sup­posed to be there, and I pre­tend that I don’t know the norms that gov­ern where my classed and gen­dered body is sup­posed to go and not go. I bring out my cam­era from my bag and start to dis­creet­ly take pic­tures, ignor­ing any gaze at me and my for­eign presence.

The per­for­mance in Cafi Chanta.

On the slight­ly mount­ed stage lit with round neon-col­ored lights, there are five men play­ing tra­di­tion­al drums and flutes. They all wear read chechia. A man dressed in a grey suit too loose on his frame is singing while walk­ing through the audi­ence. He has the turfs of his bald­ing head gelled back; I notice that he is miss­ing a few front teeth. Behind him, two women are danc­ing. They are both dressed in a black top, black leg­gings, and a translu­cent blue skirt that they wave as they move and swirl. I begin to have a con­stant desire to move in my chair, as if my body was itch­ing, and prob­a­bly a sign of my anx­ious­ness; so I remind myself to per­form my tourist-self – con­cen­trate, smile, take pictures!

A fam­i­ly is seat­ed at the table in front of me and I look at the moth­er in beige hijab and jella­ba, red lip­stick, black-rimmed glass­es. She reminds of my class­mates in high school back in India, the kind who are stu­dious and would always do their home­work. I imag­ine she prob­a­bly did all her home­work in school. Her two daugh­ters are to her left, dressed in loose white ironed shirts; they are stand­ing in front of their chairs, danc­ing and singing along. Her hus­band sits next to her on the right, smok­ing hookah with one hand, anoth­er hand on the shoul­ders of his son sit­ting to his right. His short hair is gelled and combed back. I can’t imag­ine my fam­i­ly ever going on a sim­i­lar excur­sion together.

To their right is a table full of young women. These women all take turns in record­ing them­selves on the phone, smil­ing, lip sync­ing, snap­ping their fin­gers and keep­ing the beat with their shoul­ders mov­ing. The first woman I notice is the one wear­ing a pas­tel green hijab, singing along, cap­tur­ing a self­ie video with her friends. I rep­ri­mand myself for always notic­ing women who wear hijab. As I had walked up the stairs to arrive here, I had imag­ined a space of sex­u­al excess cater­ing to men; I am sur­prised by the pres­ence of women here.

I look again at the table filled with women and real­ize that the twitch­ing anx­ious­ness I am expe­ri­enc­ing may not be attrib­ut­able to the fact that I am a woman in that space. I am so used to being the only woman in Bab Soui­ka that my imme­di­ate reac­tion is to attribute my dis­com­fort to the male-dom­i­nat­ed nature of pub­lic spaces, includ­ing their cafes and restaurants.

I sit there and look at the two women who are danc­ing in the dark room with flash­es of neon lights falling every­where. I feel ill at ease and real­ize that, maybe this time, it might be a ques­tion of how I have been taught to live in and per­form a cer­tain social class that makes it impos­si­ble for me to inhab­it that space in the way that the group of women on the table to my right are com­fort­ably inhab­it­ing theirs.

The micro­phone makes a screech­ing sound and I notice the rough echoes of the vocals, blam­ing it on a bad sound set-up. But for this yet anoth­er judge­ment I make about the place, I imme­di­ate­ly rep­ri­mand myself. With my train­ing in soci­ol­o­gy, I am sup­posed to have learnt not to always be judg­ing, to be able to reflect and go beyond the tastes I adopt­ed to per­form a social class, tastes I adopt­ed to dis­tin­guish myself from a con­struct­ed oth­er – the “pub­lic.”

 


 

Poster from a Cafi Chan­ta at Bab Souika.

Dur­ing my child­hood in India, I grew up detest­ing the pub­lic — pub­lic toi­lets, pub­lic fairs, pub­lic spaces, and the “pub­lic.” In the ver­nac­u­lar that we use in Ahmed­abad, the pub­lic stands for peo­ple. But not every­one is peo­ple! “There is too much pub­lic there” is a com­mon com­plaint we make to describe a crowd­ed place of our dis­like in my fam­i­ly. This includes wed­dings that we don’t want to attend, pub­lic gar­dens, and gov­ern­ment-run bus­es. The pub­lic is a classed con­struc­tion. Through our “devel­oped” taste for things, I learnt to con­struct my ways of inhab­it­ing space in a way that sep­a­rat­ed myself from this “pub­lic,” dis­tin­guish­ing myself from this “pub­lic.” In my fam­i­ly, we had the means to pay to be indi­vid­u­als sep­a­rate from the pub­lic; I grew up tak­ing rick­shaws rather than pub­lic bus­es in Ahmed­abad, buy­ing up (even if tem­porar­i­ly) a pri­vate space for myself that I didn’t have to share with oth­ers. Every time my reflec­tions con­sid­ered the classed nature of my habit of tak­ing rick­shaws, I would jus­ti­fy it with my sta­tus as a woman and the vul­ner­a­bil­i­ty to sex­u­al harass­ment that I faced; I fought my own self in nam­ing the habit and the prob­lem. I was always jeal­ous of my class­mates who were chauf­feured around in cars as they went from school to pri­vate tutors to cin­e­ma. Maybe I was “pub­lic” for them!

The threat of sex­u­al harass­ment is a real prob­lem in Indi­an pub­lic spaces, as it is in Tunisia and else­where, and I don’t want to erase that; it is omnipresent and I can recount the mul­ti­ple inci­dents of micro- and not-so-micro harass­ments that I have faced and that I con­tin­ue to face the moment I put my feet out of my home. But that doesn’t ful­ly explain my avoid­ance and my dis­taste for the pub­lic in my child­hood. A desta­bi­liz­ing reflec­tion on my embed­ded­ness in social class needs to be brought in and tak­en seri­ous­ly, and it was the begin­ning of the accep­tance of this desta­bi­liz­ing reflec­tion that I was expe­ri­enc­ing as an anx­ious woman, twitch­ing while sit­ting in Cafi Chanta.

Maybe my cur­rent curios­i­ty in every­thing pub­lic still lies in the posi­tion of moral supe­ri­or­i­ty that I (uncon­scious­ly) learnt as a part of my classed upbring­ing. This moral­i­ty is con­struct­ed and per­formed every day to dis­tin­guish those in an eco­nom­i­cal­ly priv­i­leged posi­tion from those not so priv­i­leged. I learnt to dis­tin­guish myself from the “pub­lic” using these con­struct­ed tastes and morality.

 


 

The song that the bald­ing man is singing comes to an end and the dancers retreat to the back­stage. A musi­cian puts down his drum and heads out to the ter­race to smoke. I am too bored and anx­ious to sit through this musi­cal break and so I walk out of Cafi Chan­ta, hop­ing that my exit goes unno­ticed. I make my way back through the crowd­ed tables in front of the men’s cafés, spread across the pave­ment, and climb up the stairs to the cul­tur­al cen­ter again to stare at Place Bab Soui­ka. Mid­way, I decide to put on the hood of my coat, hop­ing to hide away my for­eign­ness, hop­ing to become, once and for all, the “pub­lic.” I want to feel the joy that those around me are feel­ing. It has to be joy­ous if those around are clap­ping and whistling to the music! I want to clap and whis­tle as well, for­get about the messy entan­gle­ments of my own classed and gen­dered body, and drown myself in this joy of the pub­lic that is Place Bab Souika.