'For my daughter'

A Tunisian hostel owner’s quest to put Tataouine on the map

An illustration with two people next to each other, the one on the left is hammering a sign with the word "hostel" and an arrow to the left, to the ground and the one on the right is sitting and reading a book. There is also a balcony on the top left with a giant shopping list flowing over it.
[Jawahir Al-Naimi/Al Jazeera]
[Jawahir Al-Naimi/Al Jazeera]

What's your money worth? series from the front line of the cost of living crisis, where people who have been hit hard share their monthly expenses.

Name: Abdelmajid Bouharba

Age: 54

Occupation: Hostel owner

Lives with: His wife Hayat (51), son Abdulrahman (24) and daughter Khadija (19).

Lives in: A three-bedroom apartment with a terrace and two bathrooms in the small city of Tataouine, southern Tunisia.

Monthly household income: Depends on the season. Usually 1,500 dinars ($474) during the tourist season (May to August), but as little as 540 dinars ($171) in the winter. Tunisia’s monthly average household income is between 200 and 500 dinars ($63 to $158).

Total expenses for the month: 1,500 dinars ($474). In October, Abdelmajid’s expenses were higher than usual as he stocked up on groceries and paid for Khadija’s annual university fees.

A photo of two people standing next to each other.
Abdelmajid Bouharba and his teenage daughter Khadija [Stefania D'Ignoti/Al Jazeera]
Abdelmajid Bouharba and his teenage daughter Khadija [Stefania D'Ignoti/Al Jazeera]

Abdelmajid Bouharba, a tall, soft-spoken man, sits at the computer in the reception of the hostel he owns and notes the drop in bookings for October.

“The number of visitors has already started decreasing,” he says with a resigned smile. “But I was expecting this. Summer is the busiest season.” During the high season, he can receive up to 200 guests a month. “After that, we’re lucky to get a dozen guests per month.”

Then, the Wi-Fi crashes, so he calls his teenage daughter Khadija to help reboot it. The internet regularly cuts out and when it goes, he can lose several hours of unsaved work. But despite these moments of frustration, Abdelmajid is grateful to have his own hostel in his hometown of Tataouine – a small city in the country’s south – today hobbled by high unemployment rates and the migration of young people.

In 1989, Abdelmajid graduated from university with a degree in hospitality management and big aspirations. “Those were different, better times,” he reflects.

Tourism in Tunisia was booming. A programme to build and promote coastal resorts was paying off and thousands of Europeans flocked each year to Tunisia’s white Mediterranean beaches and azure shores.

Abdelmajid spent about a year working as a hotel receptionist in the tourist town of Douz - considered a gateway to the Sahara desert - where visitors rode camels in the sand dunes and camped with Bedouins, then in Djerba, an island popular among European retirees.

But even with the tourism boom, life was hard for those working in the sector, with locals putting in long hours for little pay. “Working in hospitality was the only job we could do here so for many of us it was not really a free choice,” he explains. “We also wouldn’t make more than 10 dinars ($3) a day, which was not enough to survive.”

A photo of a view from a window with a makeshift bed on a roof and houses in the distance.
The view from Abdelmajid's hostel [Stefania D'Ignoti/Al Jazeera]

Hostel dream

So after months of deliberation, and with his parents’ blessing, Abdelmajid, then 22, moved to Turkey – one of the few countries accessible to Tunisians without a visa – to learn the ropes of more sustainable hospitality management. He found a better-paid, slower-paced job at a family-run guest house in Taksim Square in Istanbul.

He soon realised he wanted what the lovely couple he was working for had - a family-run establishment. After four years in Istanbul and with some money saved, he decided it was time to return home to pursue his goal. Back in Tataouine, he married Hayat, which means “Life” in Arabic.

“She’s really been my life for the past 31 years,” he says with pride. “We had four wonderful children who all grew up so fast. My dream [of opening a hostel] was also for their future.”

But for more than a decade after his return, Abdelmajid needed to save more money so he found receptionist work in tourist locations around the country, spending months away from his family at a time.

Then, in mid-2010, Abdelmajid had finally saved enough to open his own place. But just as he had started to look for a property to buy, his city – and later the whole country – was gripped by protests that led to the toppling of President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali.

An illustration of a bar graph indicating inflation with the left bar .1 percent taller than the right bar.
[Muaz Kory/Al Jazeera]

Disappearing youth

Since the 2011 revolution, which kicked off the Arab Spring, the country of 12 million has been mired in economic crises. Tourism, a key sector, was hard hit.

In recent years, young people have sought opportunities abroad. Last year, 13,752 Tunisians made the perilous Mediterranean crossing to reach Europe, according to the Tunisian Forum for Economic and Social Rights.

“I think no less than 80 percent of young people have left Tataouine now. There are only 12,000 of us left here,” Abdelmajid says.

The real blow came when Abdelmajid’s two eldest sons – Haytham, 31, and Hussein, 26 – left for France in 2017 after deciding there was no future in Tunisia.

“But even in that moment I still didn’t want to give up on my dream, I still wanted to make it happen,” Abdelmajid says. “Suddenly, it made my goal of opening a … place even more important.

“It needed to be a place to help at least my two other children stay here,” he explains.

A photo of a large fabric map on a wall.
Tataouine lies on the way to the Sahara desert and close to Chenini, a scenic Berber village and a Star Wars filming location [Stefania D'Ignoti/Al Jazeera]

‘A way for the world to come to me’

In 2019, Abdelmajid opened the doors to Auberge Alferdaous, a composite French and Arabic name meaning Paradise Hostel.

“There had been many ups and downs, but I had finally made it - I had become independent,” he says.

His business got off to a rough start as the pandemic hit soon after he opened. “It was a very misfortunate timing,” Abdelmajid says.

Nonetheless, his business has started to thrive. His “magic formula” as he calls it, is offering something different: a cosy youth hostel, a concept he discovered in Istanbul, as opposed to the large-scale, characterless resorts found around the country.

The five-room hostel has a mix of dorms, double and single rooms, a communal kitchen and a terrace overlooking the city. Nightly rates range from seven to 12 euros ($7.50 to $12.80) and his clients are mostly Europeans and Turks with some Asians and Americans.

Abdulrahman – Abdelmajid and Hayat’s youngest son – works at the hostel full-time while their daughter Khadija - who recently moved to Sousse, Tunisia’s second-largest city after the capital Tunis, to start a university degree in business management - helps out during the holidays and weekends at reception and cleaning rooms.

“Since I never had the chance to travel, this hostel was a way for the world to come to me,” Khadija says. “It also helped me realise I love interacting with people coming from different countries.”

After a pensive pause, she adds: “But I’m not sure this is the future I want for myself. Although I’m very grateful for all the opportunities, I’m very ambitious. I want to be a manager of a big company one day, and perhaps leave Tunisia, like my brothers.”

A signal to young people

Abdelmajid hopes that his two children will one day take over the hostel, particularly Khadija, who is good with languages and interacts easily with the guests.

“This hostel was supposed to give her a future next to her family but, on the contrary, the continuous exposure to foreign cultures and practising languages gave her the basic entrepreneurial skills,” he says with a sigh.

Abdelmajid is deeply attached to his hometown and is determined to succeed, believing any success will send a signal to young people - including Khadija - that it is possible to stay and help the city flourish.

“We’re going through some really tough times as a whole community, but we must be strong enough to face the tide,” he says with a hint of optimism in his voice.

Over the course of October 2023 and as part of a collaborative project, Abdelmajid Bouharba tracked his major monthly expenses with reporter Stefania D’Ignoti.

Here are the expenses that tested his finances the most.

Expenses over one month

A photo of the view in a balcony with buildings and a mountain.
The Bouharba family business has been affected by the increase in utility bills and water shortages [Stefania D'Ignoti/Al Jazeera]
The Bouharba family business has been affected by the increase in utility bills and water shortages [Stefania D'Ignoti/Al Jazeera]

Bills: Unstable electricity, water shortages

Today, higher utility bills represent one of the Bouharba family's biggest challenges, particularly when it comes to paying for water and electricity. The family avoids using air conditioning, even though temperatures still reach 30C in the autumn. “We prefer to keep it for the hostel rather than our house. It’s more important to have our guests satisfied; we can suffer,” Abdelmajid says.

The electricity is not very stable, which affects the Wi-Fi. A better Wi-Fi provider would make administrative tasks more efficient and, Abdelmajid believes, could help persuade Khadija to stay. But at the moment, he feels as though the money he spends on the current provider is wasted.

Water is also a huge challenge for their monthly budget. During the hot months, the Tunisian government cuts access in peripheral areas like Tataouine from 8pm to 8am to conserve water. So Abdelmajid and Hayat must remember to fill up plastic water bottles and buckets during the day to use at night. “It makes us feel like we are paying water bills for nothing,” Abdelmajid says with frustration.

They also have to instruct their guests to fill containers with water.

“I also feel bad for our guests … I feel bad telling Europeans who willingly come to visit my beautiful country that they have to shower with plastic bottles,” he says.

October 2022: 100 dinars ($32)*
October 2023: 180 dinars ($57)

A graphic showing cost of living increases in Tunisia.
[Jawahir Al-Naimi and Muaz Kory/Al Jazeera]

Transportation: Travel to and from Sousse

In Tunisia, the most common means of transportation are collective minivan taxis called “louage”, which have fixed prices for travel between cities. With petrol prices having gone up, many Tunisians prefer to travel this way rather than in private cars.

In recent years, apart from sporadic louage trips to Tunis - a seven-hour ride away - to run errands, the family did not use the intercity service much. But after Khadija moved to Sousse, they started paying for them more regularly so she could return home on the weekends and help out at the hostel.

“It’s an expense I’m willing to add because I need to see my daughter at least during weekends,” Abdelmajid says. “I’m also afraid that if she doesn’t come back often she will forget about her hometown and our family hostel, thinking she could find [something] better elsewhere. I cannot allow that. I accepted she would study elsewhere but not at the cost of losing her forever, or all my efforts will be in vain.”

October 2022: 15 dinars ($5)*
October 2023: 100 dinars ($32)

A photo of someone at an outdoor market buying vegetables with two manning the stall with piles of vegetables.
Despite shortages when it comes to certain food products, Abdelmajid is determined to provide breakfast to all his guests [Lea Patrignani/Al Jazeera]

Groceries: Breakfast is a must for guests

From minimarkets to larger grocery stores, near-empty shelves signal a shortage of imported goods. For more than a year now, wheat, cooking oil and dairy products have periodically disappeared from shelves along with some medicines.

Meanwhile, milk, sugar, coffee, rice and bottled mineral water have been rationed. The cost of drinking water has increased by 23 percent and overall prices have soared so much that when Abdelmajid compares prices with his sons who live in France, they are almost the same - although the average household income is much lower in Tunisia.

The family has drastically reduced their consumption of meat and when he can, including from the black market, Abdelmajid buys extra items like sugar or coffee, which he needs for the hostel, knowing it will take time for the shelves to refill.

At Auberge Alferdaous, breakfast is included for all guests. “I felt ashamed recently to tell them there was no coffee - the most basic thing to have for breakfast - or even sugar,” says Abdelmajid. “Jobs in hospitality have the goal of also showing the best side of your own country to foreigners. What kind of Tunisia am I showcasing if I can’t even properly offer a basic breakfast?”

October 2022: 300 dinars ($95) for a month’s worth of household and hostel groceries*
October 2023: 520 dinars ($164)

A photo of the inside of a house with a living room and two rooms with bunkbeds.
Abdelmajid's hostel caters to a foreign clientele [Stefania D'Ignoti/Al Jazeera]

Khadija’s studies and apartment

In mid-September, Khadija moved to Sousse, Tunisia’s main tourist hub, for her studies. “It’s always been my dream to become a manager,” she says with a shy smile. “I think it inspired me to see my father managing his own business ... But I want something even bigger for myself.”

Abdelmajid hoped she would choose a university closer to home so she could keep living at home. But as more than 400km (249 miles) separate Tataouine from Sousse, the family now pays for an apartment on top of the yearly upfront payment of 100 dinars ($32) for her public university tuition. From October, Khadija started sharing an apartment with a flatmate.

October 2022: 32 dinars ($10) for Khadija’s high school supplies and books 
October 2023: 700 dinars ($221) for university tuition, supplies and monthly rent 

A photo of a street with shops on both sides.
Abdelmajid believes that his hometown of Tataouine has the potential to offer plenty to both travellers and locals [Lea Patrignani/Al Jazeera]

Clothing: A scarf for good luck

The family has started frequenting open-air markets where used clothes are sold for 1 dinar ($0.32) a piece.

“There, I found a beautiful hijab for my daughter,” says Hayat as she adds pine nuts to a cup of hot tea. “I thought of buying this as a gift for my daughter leaving town. I know she’ll come back soon, but it was some sort of good luck gift.”

Last year, although living costs had already started going up, they could still allow themselves to buy more clothing items per month. But now, they think twice before buying new clothes.

October 2022: 95 dinars ($30) for some jeans for Abdulrahman, a couple of T-shirts for Khadija and a shirt for Abdelmajid*
October 2023: 1 dinar ($0.32) for the second-hand hijab

*2022 price estimates were provided by Abdelmajid

A photo of a wall by some stairs with a illustrations of buildings.
It took Abdelmajid years of hard work before he could open his own hostel [Stefania D'Ignoti/Al Jazeera]

Six quick questions for Abdelmajid

1. What's one thing you had to forgo this month? Usually, when the tourist season is over and work doesn’t keep me as busy, I would take a week off and take my family for some relaxation time in Djerba. This year, our finances didn’t allow us to take any vacation. It made me really sad to not respect this yearly family tradition, but I had no choice. Food and bills are the priority.

2. What’s the hardest financial decision you had to make this month? Not turning on the air conditioning, even though my wife was sometimes suffocating in the heat at home. I told her to use fans instead - they don’t impact our electricity bill as much - even though sometimes the electricity goes off and Hayat has to wave a piece of paper to find some relief from the high temperatures.

3. Which is the most worthwhile expense from this month? A speedier Wi-Fi plan that will hopefully improve the quality of my work and my guests’ satisfaction.

4. When finances get tough, what gets you through the difficult times? The love and support of my family. They never complained about missing out on anything, and supported me in the crazy challenge of becoming an entrepreneur in these rough times in Tunisia.

5. What’s your biggest money worry? That soon, I will no longer be able to help my children financially. I’m afraid of bearing the shame of having them help me.

6. What’s the saving hack you are proudest of? Avoid restaurants and eat at home as much as possible. I have the luck of being married to a great cook and, not to brag, but I’m also good at cooking. As a couple, we became real masters of improvising [to make] nutritious recipes using few ingredients. Learning how to make a lot with little things really helped us save in tough times.

Read more stories from the series: What's your money worth?

Source: Al Jazeera