The nights in Tunisia, August 2012

What defines a tourist is the ability to look at everything from above, uncommitted. That's why we use maps. What defines the locals is routine, and perhaps boredom. I try to act local when using a map, stick to the same streets, the same shops, like I would if this was home. It's not. This is Tunis, post-whatever, facing itself.

During Ramadan, almost every downtown restaurant and coffee house is closed during the day. The result is a small network of spots known only to the residents that operate with their doors closed, or with a long curtain covering the entrance, so that when you come in you are faced with what would normally look like a restaurant, but because of the special period has become a kind of underground food club, a certain secretive tone to all of it. In some hotels too, the breakfast room slowly transforms into a loud and smoky vice den, and the atmosphere is of frantic cigarette smoking, coffee drinking, speakeasy style.

At around six in the afternoon everything stops, the city comes to a halt and the resulting silence is amazing, imposing in the collective discipline that it reveals. Religion, one knows, is about narratives and the control of time. At least this religion is. The breaking of the daily fast is perhaps the only moment when you can walk down deserted streets during the day, while everybody else is at home with their families, and it's impossible not to feel a noticeable degree of respect for a culture that can synchronize like this.

And oh yes, the economy, and the politics. It's messed up. It would be for any country coming out of what basically have been fifty years of dictatorship, where bureaucracy is a laughable euphemism, and where people - and the world? - expect way too much from what can be accomplished in the fickle attention span of today's debates and election cycles.

An example: the bread situation. It's all subsidized, the cereals, the flour, the making of every piece of bread that everybody here treats as a disposable good. The result is that there's no incentive to have any type of quality control, no incentive to manage production more efficiently, no reason not to waste it all - which people do. I heard that the Maghreb is the world's greatest importer of cereals: that means countries like Morocco, Algeria, and Tunisia, where the whole economy is micro-managed by either the State or the Monarchy, or both. That means that any attempt to change the situation will cause major upheavals from the bakers and everyone else, up and down the supply chain.

It's bizarre, and revealing, that a few days in a city and in a country like this would make you quickly start praising the virtues of the free market, of all the neo-liberal contemporary mantras like innovation and entrepreneurship. The sad truth - is it? - is that human rights and free speech are not going to fix the economy, clean the garbage on the streets, and give young people more jobs, different jobs. Free enterprise, alas, might just be able to do that trick. Which isn't by far the only necessary trick, but is maybe one that can enable all the other conversations to follow, take root, and grow.