Taste of Tunisia: Cafe culture is democratic, and uplifting

Why We Wrote This

Where does one go to get a real feel for a place? Cafes may not be unique to Tunisia, but they are both a crossroads and a haven where all can afford a seat. They are Tunisia’s “great equalizer.”

Taylor Luck
Espresso is on the menu at the Saf Saf cafe in northern Tunis, where Tunisians old and young gather on Sept. 15, 2019.

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In Tunisia, whether you are people-watching at a dreamy blue-and-white cliffside town, in a farming village, or in the southern deserts, there is always a cafe with an espresso machine at the ready. The cafes are for all people, of all ages, at nearly all times of day: young and old, singles and families, bankers, hipsters, butchers, and Sufi sheikhs.

They are the hubs of cultural, economic, and social life. And of course political. A tradition of early morning cafe gatherings to listen to the news gave rise to 20th-century political activism – and Tunisia’s nationalist movement that overthrew French occupation.

And the coffee is affordable. A shot of espresso can go for around 26 cents, making the daily ritual accessible for people of all backgrounds and cafes a haven for those who have nowhere to go.

On the Kerkennah Islands, fishermen who have lost their boats and livelihoods to low yields from a polluted sea sit around cafes, often running up a monthly tab that barely reaches $6. Says Ahmed, finishing his espresso: “If you can’t afford the rent, you can always afford a coffee.”

On the beach. On the highway. On the docks. In the middle of the desert.

In Tunisia, a cafe is never more than a few feet away; and you are never more than a few hours from your next shot of espresso.

The center of daily life in this North African country is more of an endless sprawl – cafe chairs and tables spill onto every street, the corniche, and along narrow, old city streets paved with cobblestones.

These are not your commuter Starbucks; these are the hubs of cultural, political, economic, and social life.

And even when you run out of news or gossip and the last drop of brew has been sipped, these java joints revert to their natural and most basic appeal: a pleasant place to sit and watch the world go by.

Whether you are people-watching at the dreamy blue-and-white cliffside town of Sidi Bou Said – the neighborhood of Tunisia’s rich and powerful – in a farming village, or in the southern deserts, there is always a cafe with an espresso machine and an affordable shot at the ready.

If cafes in other Arab countries are often associated with young people puffing away at shisha water pipes to blaring music, the Tunisian cafe is for all people, of all ages, at nearly all times of day.

Young and old, singles and families, bankers, hipsters, butchers, and Sufi sheikhs can all be found ordering tiny glasses of espresso or a macchiato-like shot of milk and espresso called capucin.

In Tunisia, the cafe is the great equalizer.

At 6 a.m., people by the dozen are already streaming into the cafes, newspaper in one hand, croissant in the other, to sit down and start their day before clocking in at work.  

Well on toward midnight, cafes are the place to hold meetings, job interviews, catch up with friends, and provide the neutral ground for a nervous first date.

Coffee for all

The key to the Tunisian coffee house is its versatility.

On a Wednesday night at Saf Saf cafe in northern Tunis, a football match is being played on a screen in one room, presidential debates on the other, a group of five young men and women in their 30s debate economic reforms and Marxism, two men in their 60s play backgammon, while teenagers in colorful jalabiyas take selfies to commemorate their girls’ night out.

It’s also amazingly affordable. A shot of espresso can go for around 0.8 Tunisian dinars (TND), just 26 cents, making the daily ritual accessible for people of all backgrounds, and cafes a haven for those who have nowhere to go.

On the Kerkennah Islands east of Sfax, fishermen who have lost their boats and livelihoods to low yields from a polluted sea sit around cafes nursing coffees, often running up a monthly tab that barely reaches $6.

“If you can’t afford the rent, you can always afford a coffee,” Ahmed, a 21-year-old fisherman, says as he knocks back his last drop of espresso.

For Tunisians looking for a steady business, coffee is a sure bet, says Mouz Barhoum.

For 16 years, he has run a cafe on the beach in La Marsa, an upscale Tunis neighborhood, offering espresso to those who wish to sit on the sand and face the Mediterranean for an upmarket, but not unreasonable, 3 TND, about $1.

“The reason Tunisians go to the cafe is because when we have free time, we don’t want to sit at home and be inactive,” Mr. Barhoum says as he pulls another shot from the espresso machine.

“We want to talk, study, read, to see people or be seen. There is no better place than a cafe – and no better drink than coffee.”

A political history

The beverage was first introduced to Tunisia in the 16th century by the Ottomans, who controlled the country as an important maritime outpost.

By the 19th century, prior to the French occupation, there were 150 cafes in Tunisia serving up tea and Turkish coffee, the thick brew in a brass kettle, which can still be found today. 

But today the coffee of choice is by far the espresso, introduced after the arrival of the French in the late 19th century.

The cafe ritual also links the spiritual to the political.

The devout who pray the fijr sunrise prayer often step out from the mosque’s door and walk a few yards to the nearby cafe to chat with friends and neighbors and listen to news radio.

It was this tradition that helped give rise to 20th-century political activism – the launching pad for Tunisia’s nationalist movement that overthrew the yoke of French occupation.

During the holiday of Eid al-Adha, a family affair in many Muslim communities, Tunisians pray morning prayers at Zaitouna Mosque, and, in what seems like a procession, head to the nearest cafe to share the season’s greetings with a festive brew.

 “We drink coffee in this life,” says Fatma, a mother of three, following Friday prayers in Tunis’ old city. “The afterlife is up to God.”

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