Navigation – Plan du site

AccueilNuméros16On Biohospitality: Hotels as Barr...


The article analyses the challenges and implications of the double-bodied disjointure (collective and individual) laid on Tunisia and the Tunisians in the course of the tourist migration phenomenon which occurred during the implantation of the tourism industry in the country. The reflection gives attention to the lived professional experiences of young Tunisians migrating from the regions of the interior who began work in the tourism hospitality milieu from the 1960s to the 1990s. Studying these experiences helps gauge the amplitude of the national division rooted in this phenomenon and of its effects on the young, especially on their image of themselves and their country. For this purpose, the study focuses on how they see their own bodies and the world around them, given the demands and work conditions in which those bodies have had to function.

Haut de page

Texte intégral


“O my body, make of me a man who always questions!”
Franz Fanon

1Flourishing in the aftermath of the drive for decolonisation and access to independence on the part of several countries of the south during the 1950s and 1960s, international tourism provides a field of study ripe for the analysis of the tumultuous historic experiences which marked these countries newly freed of the colonial yoke. The experiences are all the more worth the attention in that they expose social, territorial and bodily fractures engendered by the implantation of the tourist industry in such fragile and unstable postcolonial space-times. The fractures are the fallout of economic and political situations belonging to very specific national and regional contexts, yes, but echoing a larger international context, in effect a geopolitical one which was also undergoing fracture and inequality. It must be remembered that the post-World War II context which witnessed the growth of international tourism was marked by international power relations sparking aggravated tensions and divisions in the wake of the Cold War. We need to bear in mind the many forms of disparity and slippage between North and South, East and West, the eastern and western blocs, the rich and the poor countries, the great imperial powers and the countries still bearing the brunt of their colonial past, etc. All these divisions penetrate the global politics of international tourism such that tourism grows into a sort of mass movement, not to say invasion, mobilising a flux of both tourists and tourism investments coming from the ‘cold’ and wealthy north to the ‘balmy’—and poor—south. “The rush towards the sun”, to borrow the phrase of Pierre Aisner and Christine Plüss (1983), saw its apogee during these years of rediscovery of the Third World and redefinition of relations, both political and economic, between the north and south shores of the Mediterranean. The Europe of the “Glorious Thirty Years”—the three decades following the end of the Second World War—was on the lookout for new ‘colonies’, this time vacation ones, so much had its own seaside resorts become saturated in France, Spain and Italy. What followed was the emergence of an international ‘double division’, of work and of leisure, which profited the rich countries a great deal more than it did the poor ones. By exporting tourists and the capital needed for construction, and more often than not by the total or partial appropriation of the new hotels built in the new vacation colonies, these countries of tourist-emitters made off with the giant share of the benefits of tourist investment (Turner, 1976). In the process they set off what one could well call a new era of ‘touristic recolonisation’ marked, on the one hand, by an economic and political supremacy still exercised from metropolitan centres and, on the other, by the continual branding of the margins as inferior, mere ex-colonies henceforth invaded by the cohorts of tourists. Addressing this point, Dean MacCannell observes that “in the name of tourism, capital and modernised peoples have been deployed to the most remote regions of the world, farther than any army was ever sent” (1992, p.1). For lack of the power to confront this show of force, which was far from being in their favour, the newly decolonised countries of the south found themselves torn between the wish to be definitively liberated of all colonial domination, and the need to meet the incessant challenges of building the ‘new’ postcolonial states. Seen through the prism of the advantages it could bring in such contexts, notably in the form of foreign currencies, creation of new jobs and installation of new infrastructures both urban and economic, tourism was seen by these countries as a way to end run the dilemma. International bodies such as the World Bank and UNESCO reinforced this perception with their pictures of tourism as the “passport to development” (de Kadt, 1979) as the title of one book puts it, published on behalf of these two organisms.

  • 1 The coastlines have cornered not only the tourist industry. Industrial infrastructures of great imp (...)

2Postcolonial Tunisia is one of those countries that believed in tourism as the ultimate economic panacea, as prescribed by the grand developmentalist account stemming from the sixties and seventies. This was all the more significant in that the political leaders of the time, expressly the ex-president Habib Bourguiba, also saw in it a route, not to say shortcut, to rebuilding the geopolitical and geohistorical links to Europe and, by extension, to lifting Tunisia into the rank of developed countries, as was so often repeated in the media of those times. In that respect, the construction of the first seaside resorts right after independence was promoted by the postcolonial state as being an achievement of great, indeed strategic, import. And this, not only because the resorts gave the country a seaside façade which bespoke an open invitation to Europe, welcoming almost exclusively European tourists, but also because they constituted, at least in the eyes of the state, one of the concrete actions signaling the entry of the country into the era of progress and modernisation, in the same vein as the liberation of women and the prohibition of polygamy. It is worth noting, by the way, that tourism in Tunisia, while it has indeed been a major factor contributing to change in the postcolonial context, has not been the only one. In the wake of its open door policy towards Europe, the country has welcomed industrial investments which have been implanted not far from the tourist zones1.

3Be that as it may, political propaganda in concert with national and international tourist promotion often pictured the country as a paradise doubly liberated: from the yoke of colonialism and the legacy of the orient. This modern and idyllic paradise attracted not only tourists but also young Tunisians of the time: the former to take advantage of sun and sea to recharge their batteries for the year, the latter to find work as, for the most part, poorly paid waiters in the hotels newly built along the coasts, whence the disappointments or, to be blunt, the misery they endured in the line of work, as the exploited. In this article I concentrate on the disillusionment of these young workers, more particularly those among them who migrated from the interior regions to the tourist coastal zones hoping for access to this paradise, which they were shocked to find turned into a hell. As will become clear later, I study this disillusionment by drawing on a neologism, biohospitality; it allows me to analyse the ‘dressage’ aspect of the body which these employees underwent in the course of their apprenticeship to the role of waiter. In Foucault’s sense (1997), the body is thereby envisaged as the substructure, indeed the bedrock which crystalises the experiences of subordination and (in)subordination, the site of individual and collective fracture, and the mirror of national and international divisions. But before we undertake that stage of analysis, let us set the scene with certain reminders.

4Barely astride its independence in 1956, Tunisia found itself jolted into a touristic saga that utterly transformed it, for better or for worse. For better, tourism greatly benefitted the country’s economy, or to put it more exactly the economy of certain of its regions—this, in a postcolonial context marked by every sort of vexation amid the signal challenge of political, economic and sociocultural decolonisation. For worse, the young state’s choice back then to focus on seaside tourism, more specifically coastal hotel-building hospitality tourism, has bogged the country down in a regional imbalance, an economic disparity beyond just the urban-rural one, a disjuncture between the various seaside regions newly transmogrified by these hotels, and the hinterlands taken as a whole, sidelined by any change or progress.

5Worse yet, the installation of hotel chains all along the coastal strip has, over the years, formed a demarcation line dividing the country into two hostile camps. The first, made up essentially of tourist zones, sports the façade of a seaside resort. It appears to be modern, lovely, developed, well-to-do. The second, which hides in the ‘shadow zones’, appears backward, withdrawn, turned in on itself, in a word, poor (Saidi, 2017, 2014). This ‘di-vision’, which has infected the collective imagination of Tunisians from that time to the present, has left the country with a split personality, an identity crisis where one part of the identity, disturbed, wounded, fractured, mirrors mostly those who live in the hinterland. Trapped in this image, they see themselves as dislocated, torn apart—not only as a political and social body but each in his own body pure and simple—all the more significant because poverty and unemployment, rife in their regions, drive them to migrate to the tourist zones in hopes of bettering their situation. This pilgrimage of theirs provides the hospitality industry with an inexhaustible source of cheap labour, further accelerating the rural exodus already underway and feeding the phenomenon of tourism migration.

I. Literature, Methodology and Context of the Research

6Although not abundant, research into the workforce of the hospitality sector has undergone a certain burgeoning of late, notably around some themes specific to work in such a sector. We reference, among others, the skill sets of and roles played by hotel employees (Solnet et al., 2015), their work satisfaction levels (Lam et al., 2001; Zopiatis, 2015), hotel work conditions (Okumus et al., 2018; El-Said, 2013; Melian-Gonzalez and Bulchand-Gidumal, 2017, Lee and Ok, 2015), relations with the hotel clientele (Tuzun and Kalemci, 2018; Karatepe et al., 2009). The issue of the body has also been taken up as a theme but more often than not under the guise of the ‘look’ or appearance of the employee sought after by hotel employers (Hopf 2018; Knezevic et al., 2015; Abubakar et al., 2019).

7My reflection in this essay runs in much the same groove as those studies. However, it is more attentive to what I am calling the dislocation or disjointure or even dismemberment of the double body (individual and collective) of the hospitality employee. This dislocation, coming from the breakups both territorial and societal induced by the exclusionary locales of tourist activity, is all the more salient because of the conditions of decoloniality—political, sociocultural, even epistemological (Mignolo, 2015; Mencé-Castor and Bertin-Elisabeth, 2018; Hollinshead, 2008, 1998). Such dislocation or brokenness results, as well, from struggles in power relations or inequalities at play upon the social and territorial body as reworked by tourism. Here I have recourse to Michel Foucault (1997) in proposing the neologism of biohospitality as a concept for studying the “governmentality” of the body resulting from the encounter between the “domination technologies” of hotel institutions and the “technologies of the self” (Foucault, 1997, 1994) which have evolved among hotel employees. The regional imbalance as experienced by the employees will be looked at through the lens of bodily hospitality—the ‘anatomy of hospitality’ in a quite literal sense—namely the methods by which the power processes throughout the tourist industry manipulate the bodies of its employees into assets, indeed machines of production of hospitality.

8On the methodological front, the article relies on a qualitative methodology by virtue of interviews of some twenty tourism professionals, specifically hotel waiters. Nonetheless, I am limiting myself in this article to just a few of them, those whose stories were more developed, more fulsome, to the extent that they are representative of the others’. All of them come from remote areas inland such as Jendouba, Le Kef, Kasserine, Sidi Bouzid, Kairouan, Gafsa, and migrated towards the coast in search of small-time seasonal employment in the tourist field. Also all of them are men, who were between the ages of 10 and 20 when they began to work in the milieu in the 1960s, ’70s, ’80s or ’90s. The absence of women is explained by a sociocultural gender issue, more specifically a religious one: it was at that time inconceivable, socially unacceptable, to have women work as waitresses in bars or restaurants serving alcohol. Recall that even cafés, in the Islamic Arab world, were reserved exclusively for men, even if they did not serve alcohol. It was not before the 1990s and again the 2000s that women began to frequent cafés in certain chic zones of the large Arab cities, and that one began to see some women take on the role of waitress. Coming back to our young waiters, notice that the oldest among them started as apprentices even as young as10 or 12 or 14, quitting their schooling. Almost all of them began in petty jobs such as baggage porters or waiters—some even began in construction on the sites of future hotels—then worked their way up the professional ladder gaining skills on the job and landing better paying work.

9The interviews undertaken with them took a comprehensive form (Kaufman 1996) and were based on their own career narratives (Berteaux, 2003; Delory-Monberger, 2009). They focused on the more striking experiences of their professional life but were also propelled by a desire to look back, and forward, at Tunisian tourism itself. I met these local veterans of the tourist industry in the wake of the Revolution, i.e. from 2011 to 2014. Suddenly freed of the dictatorship and swept up in the winds of liberty, Tunisians engaged in a raucous debate that mobilised almost everyone and barely avoided plunging public opinion into a sort of collective delirium. You might as well say that in postrevolutionary Tunisia, to debate—tourism, individual liberties, democracy, transitional justice, religion, the veil, the niqab, snipers, corruption in the Trabelsi family, etc.—had become the favourite national sport, once tongues were unleashed and the taste for liberty acquired.

10Nevertheless, tourism occupied a prime place in the arena of this debate. Not only had it been precipitated into crisis mode by the ensuing instability of the country, but also one was now free to talk about it!—unlike during the dictatorship—and it became one of the most delectable subjects. It must be remembered that during the ancien régime, it had been practically forbidden to talk in public about certain subjects such as tourism which was perceived as somewhat of a taboo, if not a state secret, especially with regard to the revenues it generated, the clans of oligarchs it was dominated by, and in consequence the corruption it bred. Thus, to talk of tourism in this postrevolutionary debate atmosphere was like an act of liberation inviting Tunisians to reappropriate not just the right to speak of it but the fortune it represented for the country and which they had been denied. In this sense, the subject of tourism was broached not only as a sector of the economy which, like the economy, was in crisis, but also as a deposit of wealth to be redistributed equitably, a part of the country to be reclaimed by all citizens. In other words, tourism came to be considered from the vantage of a triple-sided model: economic, social and political, to be redefined and remade, a collective project, a national cause, allowing everyone to hold forth on the current and future state of the country, as well as on the image tourism reflected of oneself, and projected to others.

11Beyond the wealth of experiences revealed by the interviews studied in the midst of this national debate, their interest resides in the links they make between the postcolonial and postrevolutionary periods. Whether pointing to faultlines in the system in which they grew up, or depicting the genesis of Tunisian tourism as a golden age now alas vanquished, the professionals I spoke to often shuttled, however covertly, between these two temporalities. Their discourse reverberated with the passions and feelings marking the two periods: the tensions, the frustrations, the uncertainties, the hope, the euphoria, the patriotism, the love-hate relationship with tourism, the outrage against the system, etc. It is all the more significant that the Revolution called the Youth or Jasmine Revolution reminded them of their initiation, in the first flush of youth, into a career they dreamed would reach the ‘paradise’ of tourism, build their future and contribute to the reconstruction of their homeland.

II. From high school to hotel: the pilgrimage of the ‘Damned of the Sea’

12The four holiday centres at the top of the list of most frequented, these days, in Tunisia, and recruiting the greatest tourist sector workforce, came into being in the 1960s and ’70s. They are in essence hotel complexes, built for the most part in record time and implanted in four coastal regions more or less equidistant going from north to south: the region of Tunis and its suburbs, notably la Marsa and la Goulette; the region of Cap-Bon to the north-east, more precisely the towns of Nabeul and Hammamet; the region of Sahel where one finds the two cities, Monastir and Sousse, to which later was added Mahdia; and finally the region of the south-east, almost exclusively the island of Djerba and the area of Zarzis. Since the ’80s, the region of Tabarka in the north-west has spawned a new seaside ‘node’ still struggling to get attention despite having an international airport.

13In all these regions, hotel construction is so dense and feverish that the inhabitants who have always lived there can no longer recognise their own space. Take the instance of Sahel, the region of Sousse and Monastir. From 1962 to 1976, Monastir has seen the construction of twice as many hotels as all the rest of the country: “while the number of hotels in the country has multiplied by four, in Sahel it has grown by more than 700%, going from 5 to 41 units” (Sethom and Kassab, 1981, pp. 316-317). The same applies to the island of Djerba which, before 1960, had only two small hotels. In 1961, a chain of hotels was constructed along the coastline for about 10 km, which became 150 km in less than ten years (Mzabi, 1978, p. 33). Not to mention, of course, all the infrastructure added to serve and service the new touristic dynamo, such as paved roads, electricity grids, water purification and drinking water supply lines, that is, all those infrastructure services which Tunisian cities outside the tourist zones had lacked up until then, and still lack.

14So it is in this context—an unprecedented hotel boom, but confined to a few seaside zones of Tunisia—that the tourist-trade migration began. Going from what one might call the ‘Tunisia of the Land’ to the ‘Tunisia of the Sea’, it mostly concerned young boys, several of whom quit the school desk to go find petty seasonal labour in one of these zones. Addressing this point, Mzabi notes that in 1966 almost half “the employees in the hotels in Djerba are between 15 and 24 years old” (1978, p. 50). The author remarks that most of them originated from remote rural places and that their schooling had not advanced beyond at best the first or second year of secondary, especially true for the older of them. Thus, “In several situations, it is the high school which is threatened by the hotel” (Mzabi, 1978, p. 52).

15The fairly common profile of the hotel employees I interviewed matches grosso modo this observation from the island of Djerba, and no doubt corresponds to other destinations, all the more likely as the same employees would often shift among different sites, for a number of reasons. Several of those I met explained that they were able to migrate to the tourist cities thanks to help from their parents who had located there already and who offered them the chance to live at home with them while job hunting. In other words, this type of ‘tourist’ migration is not within reach of just anyone. The chance of having a relative or acquaintance there, originally from one’s home region, becomes a sort of prerequisite for passing the test of entry into this ‘new’, face-lifted Tunisia, until then pretty much inaccessible for such future “damned of the sea”, to paraphrase Fanon (1961). Often it is a brother, sister, aunt or uncle who has made the migration earlier, to Tunis, Sousse, Djerba or Hammamet, and for whom the traditions of family aid and guidance oblige such a welcome of near kin, usually in the summer season with a view to exploring training possibilities or work in the domain. Once bunked in, the young person tries, always with the relative’s help, to seize opportunities. Short of mastering the inner workings of job hunting in an unfamiliar milieu, he may find himself shuttling between the employment bureau and the ‘wasta’ (mediator or ‘piston’ in Arabic) contacted ahead of time by his relative, or on occasion knocking at the doors of the hotel establishments, or even turning up at the worksites of hotel construction. In such a case, work at the worksite might favour later recruitment at the hotel itself, once open. Indeed, frequently the hotel establishments hire workers of this kind to work alternately at the hotel and the construction site, which lets them pay less than they would have to pay other, qualified workers.

  • 2 Pseudonyms have been used in place of the real names.

16Hammouda2, a head waiter in his 50s, was one of these. He had begun his career working on a hotel construction site. I met him at Yasmine Hammamet where he had worked for some ten years as manager of a restaurant in the place. He gave me the story of his journey, told with much eloquence, and with emotion around the peak moments, and he let me know what he thought he had learned from it. Originally from a little village between Sfax and Sidi Bouzid, which he preferred not to name to avoid being identified by certain persons, this is his anecdotal account of his entry into the world of tourism. Towards the end of the ’80s while he was still in secondary fifth, he joined his big brother, who was supervisor of a construction site for a renowned hotel at Djerba, to work for the summer holidays. One day, the hotel owner who would periodically visit the site spotted his clumsy manner with a shovel, and mentioned it to the supervisor brother. Distressed, the brother explained to his boss that the worker in question was none other than his own baby brother, working for the first time in his life while still at high school. “And that was the magic formula that got me into this domain for good,” said Hammouda. “The boss told my brother he was on the lookout for secondary students like me to form a new team of employees for the new hotel due to open in a few months. So he asked my brother to see if I wanted to get into such a team. I couldn’t believe it; it was too good to be true! Like a dream. On the spot I accepted that offer my brother passed on to me. No hesitation.

  • 3 This corresponds to roughly 600 Euros, which was not inconsiderable at the time.

17The young apprentice construction worker quickly became an apprentice waiter before advancing to head waiter a few years later. In only a couple of days, the big brother and the hotel boss had agreed on a path to register him in a tourism school where he would study for two months. The training, which cost 2,000 dinars3 and was paid entirely by the hotel, was carried out by both Tunisian and French teachers and consisted in preparing him with other young men of his age to work in the restaurant as soon as it opened. “Think of it, a peasant like me, who didn’t even know how to place knives and forks, finds himself from one day to the next involved in launching a whole restaurant in a luxury hotel,” he said to me. He was even more proud of learning, intensively, new languages like German, and something else, which he called ‘le savoir-vivre’—good manners, etiquette, style, refinement, in a word class. This expression, le savoir-vivre, which kept coming back in almost every discourse of every employee I met with, sums up a vision, not to say philosophy of life, which they were conscious of having acquired thanks to their contacts with strangers and their openness to other cultures. They illustrate it with comparisons of how they conducted themselves and of how they viewed the world before, and after, their experience of the world of tourism. “I was very nervous before this work; now I’ve developed a sang-froid; I feel truly at ease no matter what situation I find myself in,” declares one of them. “I didn’t take appearances very seriously before this work, and I’ve noticed I’ve changed in the course of advancing in my career.” “I can even say that I communicate by appearances: mine, and my customers’,” confirms another. “Thanks to this career, my way of seeing another person has changed enormously and is much better, more positive. I can respect without difficulty the other’s opinion even when I don’t share it, which was certainly not the case before,” adds a third.

18From the discourse of these different informants comes the idea that savoir-vivre and savoir-faire are two sides of the same coin in the way they both rely on techniques and skills, on ‘know-how’ picked up during the triple apprenticeship of school training, experience on the job and interactions with the professional milieu. Acquired, enriched and renewed over the years, these techniques and skills enable the employee to develop his own vision, his manner of looking at others and at himself, and of revising his own view of himself; they lead him to enlarge his capacity to act within his environment. Simple and concrete, the examples testified to by Hammouda help us better understand the acquisition of this expertise. According to him, le savoir-vivre goes beyond the simple fact of knowing how to do “flambé or how to place the knives, be it in the French style or the Russian (...).” It concerns much more the understanding of the other’s culture and the mastery of certain of its codes so as not to offend the customers when, after all, they are supposed to be enjoying themselves, having a good dinner, for example. “From the start, they taught us never to put the box of toothpicks on the table when the guests were English because for them it meant bad luck. And with French tourists, you have to avoid using the number 13... All this gave me stage fright at the beginning, but it got easy over time. Like languages. The first is always more difficult to learn, the others get easier, and so on.

III. Can the waiters finally speak?

19Apart from apprenticeship in the cultural codes appropriate to other societies, savoir-vivre involves a commitment to working on oneself. To acknowledge Foucault again, the work at hand takes the body for its object. It involves embodying rules of social and professional conduct by means of grooming or schooling the body with the techniques of the job—in effect, dressage—and making way for a discipline of self-attentiveness and self-control. In other words, both formal and informal training of these young employees of the hotel world is none other than a power apparatus in the Foucauldian sense. It inculcates gestures and physical bearing until they become second nature to these young employees, ensuring on their part a biohospitality adaptive to the well-being and satisfaction of the tourist clientele.

20You even learn how just to hold yourself up in different situations you might find yourself in with clients,” continues Hammouda, making his point with more examples. “In every case, you have to pay attention to your body during your work. You have to avoid scratching, for instance, in the presence of clients, or leaning over them when serving in such a way that they could smell your armpits, or your breath.” For this purpose, he compared the hotel where he worked the first time, at Djerba, to a one-of-a-kind school, even a barracks. The employees of his level were subjected to a daily rule of life of the most rigorous discipline bound by strict orderliness. Reviewing certain details of this discipline, he recounted how before clocking in, each employee had to pass by the laundry and get his work uniform of “two pairs of shoes, two pairs of trousers, two shirts, two jackets, one towel, shampoo.” Then the employee was to go to the bathroom to shave and take a shower. He was then to present himself 30 minutes ahead of the morning briefing. “And that’s not all,” recalls Hammouda. “The director of the dining hall placed us in Indian file, smelled our armpits, checked our shoes which needed to be polished, our nails, our beard, and then he tested us on the menu.

21Hammouda was clearly proud as he recalled all these rules learned more than 20 years ago. They were charged with importance; they had changed his way of being, his way of viewing himself at work and beyond work. As he saw it, the fact of beginning young at this work had made it easier for him to bend himself to its rules which obliged him to take care of his body and which, over the years, had become “reflexes and characteristics” of his personality, as he tried to explain in Arabic. These disciplines had infused in him a desire to treat his body as a precious object, one it gave him pleasure to admire and have admired by others. He had developed these “technologies of the self”, to borrow again from Foucault, by gradually becoming aware that his body was a theatre, the stage on which he performed his new self as a with-it young man, elegant, seductive, due to be accorded the most exquisite care, as befits a work of art. “I was only 18 at this point and I had so burst out of myself that I didn’t know myself anymore. I remember looking in the mirror and saying: Oh! Hammouda, where were you before you became whatever it is you are now? Gold chain around the neck, a valuable pendant perfectly in evidence at the open neckline of the shirt, rings and bracelets on fingers and wrists, my shoes and my clothes were the top of the line at the time, I rented a car every time I went home, at least once a month, and so on.

22For employees such as Hammouda, biohospitality combines the trial of submission to rules imposed from without by an institution holding correctional power, in this case the hotel, with the delight of rediscovering oneself by mastering the art of one’s own body. In other words, biohospitality epitomises the ambivalence of the employee towards, on the one hand, the requirement of dispossession, of obliterating his self in his body before the boss or the clients, and on the other hand, the chance to blossom and ‘break out of himself’ by refashioning his relationship with himself. This wrenching apart of the effaced body and the expanding body is all the more difficult to live through as it operates within a third body, the original one the young man arrived with from the region he came from.

23In reply to my questioning about what it felt like to be looked at by the folks back home when he visited with his ‘new look’ which he’d described before, Hammouda began to sigh deeply. He said he was glad to go back to his home town from time to time but that all the same he felt ill at ease to see the youth of his own age still suffering from unemployment and deprivation: “Their clothes, their poverty, reminded me of my life before, and I felt terribly sorry for them, especially since I felt I couldn’t help them.” He told me of feeling powerless each time someone of his village begged him to find work for him in the hotel. It made him sad, not only because he couldn’t come to their aid, but because he sensed that his looks fooled them, and did them harm.

24The sequence of events that affected him the most was the one that happened with a close friend of his family, called Mokhtar, who ran the post office. He had come to him to ask him to find a job for his son in the tourist sector, pressing him to do it “as soon as possible and with a good salary”. Knowing this boy, who was barely 16, Hammouda had judged that he was not up to the stresses of the type of work, “neither physically, nor psychologically”. He found him a bit too fragile and far from ready to do a job so “arduous and sometimes humiliating”, he told me, his voice breaking a bit. And then he went on: “I said to him, look, Am Mokhtar (Uncle Mokhtar in Arabic), if you want my advice, we folks from hereabouts, we can’t stomach this type of work. Don’t be seduced by appearances, I’m well-dressed and I’ve rented a car, sure, but you and your son, would you agree to wash dishes? I know your son couldn’t do it. The next day, he refused to speak to me. Then he got my father to intervene—my father who never till his dying day knew what I really did as a career. My reply was the same. Uncle Mokhtar then chose to enroll his son in a private school for tourism. It cost him 5,000 dinars, but it came to nothing because the young man, at the end finding a job like mine at Djerba, had had to quit it after barely one day because he couldn’t stand it.” The pain and frustration Hammouda felt at this history clearly still affected him, as his voice and posture showed. When he had been talking of the happy times of his entry into a career in tourism, he had been full of enthusiasm and youthful exhuberance, but now suddenly he was bent over, stifled and withdrawn. He seemed another man, one whom self-esteem had abandoned. Indeed his words, which a moment before had come dancing out of his mouth studded with jewels and classy clothes, just like the portrait of the young man they memorialised with such pride, had become all at once denuded, stripped of all satisfaction. It was the same with his gestures and bearing before and after telling this story. From the gaiety, openness and youthfulness which had set his earlier words, hands and whole body flickering like a flame, he seemed now to disintegrate into bitterness, hurt, his tongue barely managing speech, his hands barely managing to unclasp.

25This discomfort, this intimate wound even, was part of an inner tension which seemed to inhabit all these employees. Though it might vary in intensity from one man to another, it always resurfaced whenever they were led to evoke the contrast between what they had been before, during and after the experience of tourism, or between the conditions of life in their home regions and life in the tourist strips. Hence their tendency to sink into this dark state of ‘biodisenchantment’ or denial of self, witnessed as Hammouda spoke: a disenchantment which happened at the boundary between two other states, between seeing oneself as a full-blown, thriving bodiliness worthy of a work of art, and seeing oneself disintegrate under the test of a certain reality, this same bodiliness foundering like a sandcastle caught by the waves of a past that refuses to pass.

IV. Two irreconcilable identities

26A fellow worker of Hammouda’s in the same tourist zone of Yasmine Hammamet, Najib too has worked there for more than 20 years. He comes from one of the rural zones of Sakyat Sidi Youssef on the border of Tunisia with Algeria, but used to travel regularly to Tunis to visit his sister who had lived there since the 1970s. At the end of the ’80s, not getting his high school degree, he enrolled in a training school for tourism in Sousse, then worked in a hotel for seven years as a waiter, gaining the rank of head waiter. Like most of his colleagues, he claims to like tourism but doesn’t actually concur with the politics of tourism of his country. From his point of view, coming as he does from a family of farmers, tourism has done nothing but hurt agriculture, when it was supposed to sustain it by diversifying the economic resources of the country. “Worse yet,” he says, “tourism is in danger of compromising the future of agriculture in Tunisia. You ask yourself, how will agriculture be in a few years when you hear about water getting plundered from the inland reserves so as to make it available to the hotels, the golf courses, the pools, etc.?” In that respect, he considers the inland regions the losers in the redistribution of wealth put into effect with the advent of tourism and in the new development model set up after Independence: “The inland regions give the coast more than they get in return. They provide agricultural produce, water, cheap labour, and they get nothing back. Worse, they’ve become tools of tourism: the poor farmers of the hinterland have seen the price of their produce plummet with the tourism crisis since the Revolution.

27Najib denounces in this way the disintegration of the social and territorial body of the country resulting from this imbalance between the regions. The economic discrepancy between regions is part of an organic and psychological dismemberment which makes employees like him live a double alienation; they don’t feel they belong to either of the two unequal parts of the country. They find themselves sliced and pulled between two impossibles: the impossibility of recognising themselves in the Tunisia of the sea and the impossibility of going back and refinding themselves in the Tunisia of the land. “I am torn between the farmer that I still am and the waiter that I have become. Yes, I still consider myself a farmer, I still work the land with my father; but I don’t feel rooted there anymore like before. I find it impoverished because it doesn’t have the capacity to hold me there, nor to hold all these poor people who are trying to flee it. And I like my work in tourism, it has made it possible for me to build two houses in the countryside where I was born. But I can’t recognise myself in the image of Tunisia and Tunisians that tourism has made of us.

28Jilani is the elder statesman of all those I met among the hotel employees. He was past his sixties, but he continued to work. He introduced himself as the one in charge of leisure activities on a pleasure-craft with the rank of captain within the hierarchy observed in the marina at Hammamet where I met him. And indeed he wore a uniform of navy blue with a black beret on his head. He told me of the beginnings of his career in the 1960s, when his father chose to put an end to his studies and entrust him to a friend who owned a hotel in Sousse to find him work. Originally from the countryside of Kairouan, he thus found himself far from family, at ten years of age, in a city he didn’t know, without even having had the chance to get his primary school diploma. Though he was well aware of the harshness of the experience, he was proud of it, and said he was entirely satisfied with the trajectory of his life, in particular the skills he had acquired. He emphasised the seven languages he had learned in the first five years. “That was hard, I had to work at the same time as follow these informal courses from my ‘master’ who was none other than an older colleague, who had simply offered to teach me what languages he’d learned on the job. He told me to listen carefully to tourists when they talked and to transcribe what I heard on a sheet of paper using Arabic letters because I didn’t know Latin ones. Or else he would write out ten phrases the same way and ask me to learn them in a day, and if I didn’t or couldn’t, he would punish me by striking my hands with a little stick. And it was all worked out: one blow for each phrase I hadn’t learned.

29Despite these punishments which clearly he had received several times, Jilani swore a great debt of gratitude to this ‘master’ who had passed on to him a precious knack, that of mastering quickly and efficiently the languages of strangers. To his mind, learning foreign languages is like travelling the world. He admits he never has travelled the world, ever—despite numerous invitations from his tourist friends; he has simply never felt the need. “I feel I’m travelling when I begin to learn a language, and certainly when I succeed in mastering one. I recently learned Russian. Now I’m looking at Slavic and Scandinavian languages. You know, it gives me hope when I learn a language, I have the sense the world is opening up to me and flooding me with its generosity, and that’s what I do in return by welcoming tourists to my country. Without hope, the world becomes sad and dangerous.

By way of conclusion: tourism and revolution, a curse?

  • 4 An expression which turns up often in the online speech of bloggers and activists of these regions.

30As mentioned above, the postrevolutionary context in which I met with these hotel employees led them to identify with the young revolutionaries, as their stories shuttled back and forth between the two epoques: postcolonial and postrevolutionary. By way of comments, winks, and digressions which often came up in their discourses, they indicated that in fact it was not by accident that the young from the hinterlands had been the first to rebel against the politics of cloaking poverty from view, the ‘patch-and-paint’ which in their eyes tourism was. Neither was it an accident that these rebels had spilled their revolutionary anger on what it suited them to call “the cities of bourgeois corruption”4 pointing to certain favoured cities on the coast. My informants let me understand that after decades of being held in contempt, of suffering and a sense of injustice, they had arrived at the conclusion, just like those young people, that the seaside façade a minority of Tunisians did so well by was quite simply the source of their own poverty. Not only because it had always turned its back on them, reminding them of their marginality, but also because it reduced them to a local pool of cheap labour. Unlike many of their compatriots residing in the seaside strips who see in the tourist zone a symbol of pride and a mark of prestige that redounds to their regions, these young of the “Tunisia of the depths”, of the hinterland of yesterday and today, see “Tunisia of the sea” for the destination that it is, distant and often hostile, of a stressful migration. It happens not infrequently that they see their dream of quitting their region of origin to work in the hotels turn into a nightmare. For in spite of the tiny ‘fortune’ they manage to amass thanks to the work, they remain torn between the jobless poor that they have been, deprived almost of all hope, and the petty employees they now are, submissive to but excluded from the tourist paradise whose interests they serve. This paradise is after all their own country, converted at least in part into a chain of holiday colonies just when it was struggling by every means to declare itself a decolonised country.

Haut de page


Abubakar, A. et al. (2019), “Physical Attractiveness and Managerial Favoritism in the Hotel Industry: The Light and Dark Side of Erotic Capital”, Journal of Hospitality and Tourism Management, 38, pp. 16-26.

Bertaux, D. (2003), Les récits de vie, Nathan Université, Paris.

Mencé-Caster, C. and Bertin-Elisabeth, C. 2015, « Approches de la pensée décoloniale », Archipélies, 5, on line:

Delory-Momberger, C. (2009), La condition biographique : Essais sur le récit de soi dans la modernité avancée, Tétraèdre, Paris.

El-Said, O.A. (2013), “Impacts of Respect, Support, and Teamwork on Hotel Employees' Moral in Egypt”, Anatolia: An International Journal of Tourism and Hospitality Research, 25, 2, pp. 1-17.

Fanon, F. (1961), Les damnées de la terre, Maspero, Paris.

Foucault, M. (1994), Dits et écrits, 1954-1988, Gallimard, Paris.

Foucault, M. (1997), Surveiller et punir : naissance de la prison, Gallimard, Paris.

Hopf, V. (2018), “Does the Body Modified Appearance of Front-line Employees Matter to Hotel Guests?”, Research in Hospitality Management, 8, 1, pp. 67-72.

Karatepe, O. et al. (2009), “Outcomes of Customer Verbal Aggression among Hotel Employees”, International Journal of Contemporary Hospitality Management, 21, 6, pp. 713-733.

Kaufmann, J.C. (1996), L’entretien compréhensif, Nathan Université, Paris.

Knezevic, M. et al. (2015), “The Physical Appearance of Hotel Guests: The Impact on Service Providers’ Communication and Quality of Service”, International Journal of Hospitality Management, 51, pp. 8-14.

Lam, T. et al. (2001), “An Investigation of Employees’ Job Satisfaction: the Case of Hotels in Hong Kong”, Tourism Management, 22, 2, pp. 157-165.

Lee, J. and Ok, C. (2015), “Drivers of Work Engagement: An Examination of Core Self-evaluations and Psychological Climate among Hotel Employees”, International Journal of Hospitality and Management, 44, pp. 84-98.

MacCannell, D. (1992), Empty Meeting Ground: The Tourist Papers, Routledge, London.

Melian-Gonzalez, S. and Bulchand-Gidumal, J. (2017), “Extending the Scope of Hotel Client Reactions to Employee Injustice: Hotel Employer Reviews on the Internet”, International Journal of Hospitality Management, 63, pp. 93-100.

Mignolo, W.D. (2015), Habiter la frontière, la désobéissance épistémique. Rhétorique de la modernité, logique de la colonialité et grammaire de la décolonialité, Peter Lang, Bruxelles.

Mzabi, H. (1978), La croissance urbaine accélérée à Jerba et ses conséquences sur la vie de relations avec l’Extérieur, Publications de l’Université de Tunis, Tunis.

Okumus, B. et al. (2019), “Examining the Impacts of Job Stress and Job Satisfaction on Hotel Employees’ Eating Behavior”, Journal of Hospitality Marketing & Management, 28, 5, pp. 1-18.

Saidi, H. (2014), “Traveling in the Maze of the Self or Rediscovering Tunisia after the Jasmine Revolution”, Postcolonial Studies, 17, 3, pp. 286-295.

Saidi, H. (2017), Identité de façade et zones d’ombre : tourisme, patrimoine et politique en Tunisie, Éditions PETRA, Paris.

Sethom, H. et Kassab, A. (1981), Les régions géographiques de la Tunisie, Publications de l’Université de Tunis, Tunis.

Solnet, D. et al. (2015), “What about the Workers? Roles and Skills for Employees in Hotels of the Future”, Journal of Vacation Marketing, 22, 3, pp. 212-226.

Tuzun, I.K. and Arzu, K.T. (2018), “Workplace Deviance and Human Resource Management Relations: A Case Study of Turkish Hotel Employees”, Journal of Human Resources in Hospitality & Tourism, 17, 2, pp. 137-153.

Yang, J.T. (2010), “Antecedents and Consequences of Job Satisfaction in the Hotel Industry”, International Journal of Hospitality Management, 22, 4, pp. 609-619.

Zopiatis, A. et al. (2014), “Job Involvement, Commitment, Satisfaction and Turnover: Evidence from Hotel Employees in Cyprus”, Tourism Management, 41, pp. 129-140.

Haut de page


1 The coastlines have cornered not only the tourist industry. Industrial infrastructures of great import have also been implanted there. Note especially the factories for auto spare parts manufacture, or for ready-to-wear, or for textiles, established in the framework of Law n°72-38 of April 27, 1972, known simply as “Law 1972”. This law guaranteed fiscal advantages to Tunisian and also foreign investors who developed industrial projects aimed at exportation. 

2 Pseudonyms have been used in place of the real names.

3 This corresponds to roughly 600 Euros, which was not inconsiderable at the time.

4 An expression which turns up often in the online speech of bloggers and activists of these regions.

Haut de page

Pour citer cet article

Référence électronique

Habib Saidi, « On Biohospitality: Hotels as Barracks or the Waiter’s Three Bodies », Via [En ligne], 16 | 2019, mis en ligne le 30 mars 2020, consulté le 30 juin 2022. URL : ; DOI :

Haut de page


Habib Saidi

IPAC/CÉLAT, Laval University, Canada

Haut de page

Droits d’auteur

Licence Creative Commons
Via Tourism Review est mis à disposition selon les termes de la Licence Creative Commons Attribution - Pas d'Utilisation Commerciale - Pas de Modification 4.0 International.

Haut de page
  • Logo DOAJ - Directory of Open Access Journals
  • Logo CNRS - Institut des sciences humaines et sociales
  • OpenEdition Journals
Rechercher dans OpenEdition Search

Vous allez être redirigé vers OpenEdition Search