After having spent the previous week in Tunisia, I sought to uncover what vestiges of North African life have been transplanted to Marseille, where almost 20 per cent of the population has ties to the Maghrib. What is it like arriving by ferry from Tunis at this ancient European port? Well, for me it was pretty straightforward as I passed through immigration and then the blonde-haired customs agent looked at my light skin and waved me on. But for every dark-complexioned person that I saw queuing with me, entry to France involved luggage being rummaged through and carefully wrapped gifts being torn open.
From the docks I took a taxi to the lovely and nicely priced Hotel Lutetia (www.hotelmarseille.com), where a single room cost $88 (Dh322), including taxes, so that I could base myself near the Noailles metro stop, one of the historic epicentres of the city's Arabic-speaking community. A melange of cultures was apparent from the get-go, with shops for making international phone calls advertising in big letters rates for ringing Tunisia, Algeria and Morocco seemingly on each corner, and shawarma stands sharing blocks with patisseries. But as I began to explore the old quarter's back streets the immigrant presence became even more pronounced. Arabic words escaped stores selling oriental imports and when I looked down one dead-end alleyway I saw 200 people in both baseball caps and skull caps, dashikis, turbans and other imported garb kneeling outdoors on cardboard scraps before an imam leading prayers.
As I walked from the labyrinthine quarter to the open boulevard of La Canebière I found a Christmas market with dozens of stalls selling knitwear and santons - hand-painted statuettes that are popular gifts for the season throughout France. Tables displayed clay figures depicting people from the country's different regions and others in the shapes of l'Enfant du Christ, Mary, Joseph and the Three Wise Men. Upon closer inspection I noticed that each stand also had statues of Berbers in niqabs and serwals beside little camels. Clearly, in the past 50 years French people's immediate experience has grown across borders and waters to include cultures originating on the other side of the Mediterranean.
I paused in a shop selling kaak, or North African sweets, and found the same fried, sugary, date-filled makroot cakes I had nibbled in Gabes, though here three of them cost me $1.50 (Dh5) instead of a few cents in the south of Tunisia. My Arabic is actually better than my French and so my question to the shop owner of "Wayn mataam Maghribi?" or "where is there a North African restaurant?" was greeted with a big smile and directions to Saf Saf (0033 4 91 91 58 79), an eatery near the Vieux Port. On the first floor of a sooty yellow building with white shutters was a window displaying earthenware pots. I sat down before a menu bearing an image of Sidi Bou Said's cobblestone streets on its cover and Tunisian specialities listed inside. The red charbon soup with a swirl of oil and couscous floating on top and two dollops of spicy and pungent harissa in the middle was perfectly filling and invigorating cold-weather food. And, unlike the offerings at Marseille's Michelin-starred restaurants, it was cheap at only $8 (Dh32). I did notice, however, that it was the first restaurant I have ever been to in France that did not serve wine.
My trail continued as Saf Saf's owner directed me to where I could find a post-meal shisha. I walked along the bank of the old quai as sailboats bobbed up and down at their berths and noticed a young, tanned woman seated on the pavement and sobbing in Arabic into a mobile phone. I couldn't help wondering as I watched her staring at the sea if she were speaking to a family member or lover across the water.
At Habib's, the shisha joint at the wharf, I found a North African motif that had been remixed to be hip. In the sleek back lounge area that featured see-through glass floor panels above a pit of sand, a tall blonde woman brought me grape-flavoured shisha filled with tobacco made in the UAE. It cost $17 (Dh63). Instead of using embers from a hot stove, the charcoal was a store-bought disc, the tea was simply a normal bag served with a sprig of mint instead of the super-sweet, strong, nana-infused stuff in Tunisia, and French MTV was blaring from a big-screen TV. Alas, it was an expensive price to pay for simulacrum but I did appreciate that in a way Habib's is honouring, preserving and updating an Arabic tradition.
In my experience, the best places are found in the areas where people tell you not to go. And so with this in mind the next day I headed to the east side of the city, which was supposed to have an even higher percentage of immigrants and was also said to be dodgier and best avoided at night. I walked past the arch at Place Jules Guesde and entered an area that even more closely resembled the country I had left a few days ago, with vendors' tables flooding the streets selling shirts and pants for as little as $5 (Dh18), posters advertising Algerian-born Cheba Samira l'Oranaise's concert at the Discotheque Orientale and Arabic words outnumbering French ones. In the indoor souq-like Marche du Soleil, 120 booths vend abayas, hijabs, shelas and other colourful finery. At a kebab stand inside I ate a spicy sandwich exactly like one I had in Matmata and, at about $3 (Dh10), almost the same price.
Down Rue de la Joliette I found the Hammam Tout Confort, offering traditional coiffeuring, massaging and bathing for men and women during different gender-segregated hours. But it was when I stumbled upon an open door nearby with a few men smoking cigarettes outside that I knew I had found what I had been unconsciously seeking all along - that most definitive feature of Tunisian daily life - an authentic teahouse.
An exterior wall bore the name Association JST and the environs inside were indistinguishable from their counterpart in Tunisia. An all-male crowd flouted France's smoking ban and sucked cigarettes while watching football broadcast in Arabic in a smoky room with a ceiling bedecked in Tunisian football banners and blue North African tiles lining the walls. Unlike at Habib's, the tea was a super-sweet, minty sludge and it and a shisha cost only $7 (Dh27).
As I prepared to depart for Paris, I understood the odd, mirror-like relationship of Marseille and Tunis, where the two cultures shared are largely the same but in inverse proportion. As an observer, it had been an interesting experience to see the places in succession to compare them. As a budget traveller, I also enjoyed finding that the establishments catering to Marseille's North African population are often times not only par excellence in terms of authenticity and quality, but they are also some of the most affordable in a country known for its high prices.