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
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
"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
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
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. …