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So you’re heading to Tunisia and want to brush up on your cultural knowledge before you arrive? Tunisia is a wonderful country to travel through, from the epic Sahara desert to the ruins of the mighty El Djem Roman amphitheater or the country’s sandy beaches, there’s so much to see and do. Tunisia is an Arab country and there are certain cultural customs that you should be aware of before you travel. Here’s what you should know about Tunisian culture:
Tunisia is 99 percent Muslim, and as with any Muslim country, there are cultural standards that should be followed. Religion is very important in Tunisian society, and its people are tolerant of other religions, meaning foreigners are free to practice their own religion.
The month of Ramadan is followed in Tunisia. The date of Ramadan changes each year depending on the Islamic Calendar and the sighting of the moon by humans, however, it usually falls in April or May. During Ramadan, a lot of shops, cafes, and restaurants are closed between “fasting hours”, which run from sunrise to sunset. That being said, in tourist zones, many restaurants and cafes stay open, although it’s worth bearing in mind that some locals are displeased to see foreigners eating and drinking during fasting hours. Many official government buildings only open in the morning until noon.
When in Tunisia, you’ll see that there are two types of cafes: cafes that are for men, and cafes that are for both women and men. All-male cafes tend to have large groups of men smoking shisha and drinking coffee inside. In some of these cafes, women are strictly prohibited, in others, women are discouraged to enter. The locals are super friendly and if you’re a guy, chances are you’ll make a few new friends and have a great time playing cards and listening to Tunisian music. For female travelers, look for a ‘cafe mixte’, which are cafes where you’ll find both women and men enjoying a cup of coffee. While this custom may be hard to understand for many women in the Western world, as travelers it’s important to be respectful of all cultures and customs.
As Tunisia is an Arab country, it’s recommended that women wear conservative clothes that offer coverage, such as long skirts, trousers or dresses, and t-shirts or long sleeve shirts. While in tourist areas in Tunisia, you’ll see tourists and Tunis women alike wearing tops that show their shoulders, shorter skirts, and flashy jewelry, as Tunis women start to follow a more ‘Westernized’ or ‘European’ style of dressing. Women also wear bikinis in hotel swimming pools and public beaches. In rural areas, women dress very modestly. If you wish to draw minimal attention to yourself, it’s best to follow suit.
Growing violence has been spreading over Tunisia and North Africa over the past decade and there have been several terrorist incidents in tourist locations. While this may deter some travelers from visiting, it’s worth remembering that a lot of major destinations in Europe are under the same threat. Generally, Tunisia does feel like a safe country, although you should take precautions and stay vigilant, just as you would in any major European city.
The Tunisian diet is heavy in carbs and sugary delights. Bread accompanies almost every meal, and you’re likely to find potatoes, couscous, and sandwiches with french fries on the menu. Authentic Tunisian cuisine can be found in traditional restaurants, with dishes such as brik (a delicious pastry dough stuffed with egg, parsley, and tuna) or fricassé (a savory donut stuffed with tuna, boiled egg, olives, and harissa). Tunisians add harissa, which is a fiery pepper sauce, to almost everything. You’ll also find delicious sweet treats in cafes and restaurants when it’s time for dessert.
The French colonized Tunisia in the 19th century, and there is still lasting influence today, as visitors can see plenty of shops, restaurants, and cafes with French names.
There are three main languages spoken in Tunisia: classic Arab, local Tunis dialect, and French. At school, Tunisians are taught modern standard Arabic and literary Arabic. Many locals speak French, and in tourist areas, English is widely spoken.
Shaking hands is considered normal in Tunisia, and Tunisians often shake hands at the start and end of a conversation. Many Tunisians initiate a conversation with a handshake instinctively, so don’t be surprised if someone starts shaking your hand before they’ve even said a word to you!
If you’re just on holiday and not in Tunisia for work, talking politics with locals is best avoided. Ex-president Zine el Abidine Ben Ali was ousted in 2011 and there’s still a lot of controversy surrounding his government and years in office.
You can put your haggling skills to good use in Tunisia. Haggling is very common, whether you’re in a shop to a souk market. If you want to haggle like a local, start with a very low offer (some locals initiate bartering at 25% of the original asking price) and then move your offer up slowly.
Many toilets in Tunisia come equipped with just a hose to clean yourself, so it’s recommended that travelers always carry a packet of tissues or your own toilet paper.
If you’re on a North African adventure, why not visit nearby Morocco?