A Place for Art and Mischief ; in the Tunisian Capital, a Theater Brings Together Rebels and Intellectuals

Article excerpt

The Theatre de l'Etoile du Nord is the spot in the Tunisian capital to beat the Muslim fast during the day. Customers here are unabashed about breaking the rules, and they pass the time drinking espresso.

In the heat of the afternoon, especially during this past month of Ramadan, downtown Tunis plays dead. Offices and shops close at 2 p.m. and life is suspended as everyone, parched and hungry, waits for sunset and the breaking of the fast.

On a side street behind the Interior Ministry, the only movement is the occasional rumble of a streetcar, the only sound the trill of its bell warning pedestrians to step off the tracks.

But open a cafe door in a low-rise building here and you enter a buzzing theatrical space, alive with the clink of glasses and coffee cups and the roar of conversation from 100 tables. The air is thick with smoke from cigarettes -- also forbidden during Ramadan.

The Theatre de l'Etoile du Nord -- the North Star Theater -- is the place in the Tunisian capital to beat the Muslim fast. Customers here are unabashed about breaking the rules, and they pass the time drinking espresso with a glass of ice water, or perhaps sweet homemade lemonade.

"We are very weak, and it is too hot!" said one customer, Ali, with an apologetic smile. He had come with a friend for the first time. "You hear by word of mouth," he said.

But L'Etoile du Nord is far more than a cafe. Originally a parking lot, it covers about 700 square meters, or roughly 7,500 square feet, and never closes, a freewheeling space for spectators and performers and a haunt for actors, intellectuals, freethinkers and revolutionaries.

The foyer is funky and postmodern. Air-conditioner pipes, coated in silver foil, are suspended from the ceiling. One corner is a lending library of art books. The back wall is an Internet cafe. Most of the clientele look like students, with a small punk and gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender crowd.

Among those hanging out and networking on their laptops are several figures who gained fame in the Tunisian revolution of 2011: a philosophy professor, a film actor, a computer programmer and an activist.

The theater is just a stone's throw from the monolithic Interior Ministry, notorious for its torture chambers under President Zine el- Abidine Ben Ali and the site of the protests that deposed him two years ago. L'Etoile du Nord, always welcoming of the free spirited, was a gathering place for protesters and a shelter from the tear gas in those days.

Noureddine El Ati, a Tunisian actor and stage director who founded L'Etoile du Nord in 1997, says it is unlike other theaters in North Africa. …