The eponymous song by The Clash was released in 1982 and it tells a fabulous account of how an Arab king banned western music in all its iterations. While we can get behind a song that champions freedom of expression and gives power to the people, we’d suggest that rocking the Kasbah might not be the best way to embed yourself in Tunisian culture. No, instead we’d perhaps suggest merely visiting the Kasbah and taking in the unique culture it offers, though, that wouldn’t be half as catchy a song.
The Kasbah, along with two other points of interest we’ll share with you in this blog, are essential parts of most Tunisian destinations. And for that reason, they simply need to be visited. Whether you’re in Tunis, Sousse or Hammamet, almost every city you come across has their own variation on these special places. Along with being the best entry point to Bedouin culture (meaning a group of nomadic Arab people who have historically inhabited desert regions), they’re also pretty great photo opportunities.
So, what is a Kasbah? And why were those young punk musicians so darn insistent on rocking it? Essentially, a Kasbah is what we could call a keep or watchtower - it's a large remnant of a city’s past and a direct connection to its old town (more on that later). These types of buildings are commonplace across Arabic countries like Morocco and Tunisia, and there are lots of similar structures across Moorish Spain in regions like Andalusia.
In Tunisia itself, a Kasbah usually refers to more than one building and they are treated like a citadel for the city – a hub and centre of great cultural significance. Traditionally consisting of a watchtower in some form, these are great places to visit for the views alone. Ordinarily one of the highest places in the city, it offers great landscapes across the rest of the old town.
Speaking of old towns, another word for this is a Medina (literally meaning city in Arabic). Those who have visited other North African countries will have heard of a Medina before, and they serve the same function in Tunisia as they do in other Arabic destinations. The focal point of the city in terms of trade, tourism, history and culture, this distinct city section is common across this part of Africa and also in Malta.
A typically walled structure, these areas have numerous maze-like streets that connect and intersperse with each other. Offering everything you can imagine, they are usually great spots for local food, goods and souvenirs. Though the bartering culture isn’t as strong in Tunisia as in Morocco, be prepared for some light haggling at least. These are streets free from car traffic, but dense with people. Usually the busiest area of a city, Medinas can often have numerous bikes and motorbikes clambering through them, so be prepared for crowds. But once you bite into a traditional Tunisian pastry of malsouka, fried and stuffed with egg, parsley and tuna, braving the crowds will have been more than worth it.
Though we’re suggesting you rock up to a Kasbah rather than using the same verb in its more musical sense, we couldn’t agree more with The Clash’s interest in Arabic landmarks. Kasbahs, and indeed medinas and mosques, are vital to Tunisia’s identity, and for that reason they need to be among the first thing you do on any visit to the North African country.