It is five o’clock in the afternoon in the coastal city of Sousse, one of the favourite destinations of tourists flocking to Tunisia. A unique restaurant is making preparations for the evening clientele, most of whom will be bearded men and veiled women. 

It is five o’clock in the afternoon in the coastal city of Sousse, one of the favourite destinations of tourists flocking to Tunisia. A unique restaurant is making preparations for the evening clientele, most of whom will be bearded men and veiled women. 

In one part of the restaurant, three women wearing niqabs, chat quietly together while waiting for their meals. In the outer lobby, a fisherman waits for customers to choose the fish they want to eat. In another area, a butcher stands near a sign that reads “halal meat” (meat slaughtered according to Islamic law). On the other side, there is a spot reserved for grilling and a young man with a long beard bustles about to guide customers to their seats on the upper floor of the restaurant.

Singing is forbidden

The waiter, with a smiling face and a thick, long beard, guides me to a spot allocated for men, far from the wings of families and women. The restaurant is very calm, with the sounds of someone reciting the Koran.

I ask the waiter about the Koranic recitations: “The owner of the restaurant wants it to be clean with no abomination, which is why he banned songs of all kinds. The customers like it this way.”

The restaurant owner looks about the place and sees me talking to the waiter and understands that I am asking him questions not related to the food service. He tells him to go to another corner. 

After waiting for a short time, another young man with a long beard comes to my table repeating words of praise about the quality of the service in the restaurant. He too says that the owner wants it to be free of everything haram. 

 I ask the second waiter about the restaurant’s customers and he said that all segments of society frequent this place because of the quality of its services. “Most of the customers are families, but this doesn”t mean that individuals and other spectrums of the society are not allowed to enter it.” 

He tells me that an unveiled young woman wearing a short dress once entered the restaurant. She was allowed to come in but she was only served by female waitresses.  “The girl felt that this place has a special uniqueness and so she called a friend of hers and asked her to bring to her a more decent dress because she felt so ashamed of herself.”

Isolated places according to the Shariah

While eating my fish, I stare at boards hanging on the walls of the upper floor. All of them are engraved with verses from the Koran or prayers and versions of the hadith.  

Suddenly, one of the workers rushes in and lifts some of these boards and re-opens them.  After doing so, the boards are turned into small huts closed on all four sides. A man wearing a white robe and a white hat, followed by two women enters one of the huts. 

I was eager to eat my delicious fish and find out what was happening inside the huts. A veiled waitress enters the hut carrying the menu with her. 

The first waiter returns and explains: “Our restaurant provides services to women wearing the niqab who feel embarrassed to eat in a public place. For this reason, we have provided these women with this extra service, which allows them to avoid embarrassment. Here everything is halal and all practices and services respond to what is recommended in the Shariah.” 

After about an hour, the restaurant quickly starts to fill up. According to the first waiter, customers come from many areas outside of Sousse. Salem leans in close to me, as if he wants to tell me a secret.  With his eyes on the restaurant owner he says: “We have visitors coming from everywhere, even from the capital city, and our boss is extremely happy, thank God.”

One of the customers sitting near me Hajj Badruddin begins to loudly praise the services of the restaurant and its delicious food. He has a southern dialect. I ask him if he purposely chose this place and he enthusiastically says that he heard good things about this restaurant, and saw in it a perfect model for restaurants, which provide services that respond to the specifics of the Islamic religion and prevent the mixing between the two sexes. 

He also praises the prices of this restaurant, which he says are affordable. “This is a pioneering idea and it would be lovely if it could be repeated in other areas of the country,” says Badruddin.  “We are fed up with restaurants where the two sexes mix and with restaurants that do not take into consideration the specificity of our righteous religion.” 

The Islamic restaurant will be rewarded twice because it offers us the delicious joys of life and it also keeps us away from sins and gives us greater opportunities to enter heaven.”

We are not against tourism

The owner of the restaurant refuses to speak to us and the only way to get information about the restaurant was to speak through the first waiter.  I was able to convince him to speak to me outside the restaurant after paying him a good tip and after praising his services.

I asked him: “Why open a restaurant like this one, in a tourist city which is one of the most favourite destinations of foreign tourists?” Salem said that the Islamic restaurant does not contradict with tourism. The restaurant opened its doors five months ago, when tourism was at its peak and there was no conflict whatsoever.

“Our services are not inconsistent with the services offered by other tourist facilities. I want to emphasize that some of the tourists who came to the restaurant were treated very well and we are not against tourists. Our work does not contradict with the specificity of the city known to be the destination of a big number of tourists.”

“Our goal is to take into consideration our Islamic identity and to satisfy the needs of everyone, especially families and veiled women who want to eat a meal outside their home but without being bothered or embarrassed.”

The restaurant has come under fire from some activists on social networking sites, criticizing the restaurant for dividing the Tunisian society, going as far as calling the restaurant discriminatory.