As the Tunisian coast stretches north, it reaches for Italy before making a left turn toward Algeria. It is home to the white beaches of Djerba, Sfax, Sousse, Hammamet, and Tunis, and their beauty once made me think that nothing could ever disturb their calm. Then, on June 26, a gunman opened fire at a beach resort in Port El Kantaoui, just outside of Sousse, in a slaughter that reflects the cruel trademark of the Islamic State (also known as ISIS); the gunman is said to have trained with the terrorists who attacked the National Bardo Museum in Tunis on March 18. Now, the beaches are emptying as foreigners and locals alike begin to question whether calm will ever return to Tunisia.
A year ago, I traveled to Tunisia to visit my family in Hammamet, an hour drive north of Sousse. This town, once the favorite summer holiday spot of ousted president Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali, is considered the Tunisian Saint-Tropez. On the road to the medina where it curves left and slants away from the water is a narrow path with a complex of buildings formerly owned by the Ben Ali family. It lies in ruins now, full of broken glass and empty rooms.
The beach was once Ben Ali’s, too, and in those days it crawled with security. Residents often had no choice but to take a detour around barricaded streets to get into town. Ben Ali and his friends commandeered many other properties in the area, forcing the owners either to sell or to spend years in jail. In fact the story goes that the Gabse family, wealthy landowners who are among the local political elite, at first refused to relinquish their property but finally agreed in the early 2000s, when they were told that Ben Ali would simply annex their land either way. Now, inside the ashen husk of the Gabse house, a shattered chandelier covers the ground floor with broken crystals, and “Gabse” is graffitied all over
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