Los Angeles Times, October 12, 2003
Special Travel Issue — North Africa

A United Island, a World Apart

In Tunisia, 2,000 Jews Live in Harmony With Nearly 10 Million Muslim Neighbors. And That’s Just One of the Island Nation’s Delightful Realities

by Judith Fein

On the lush Island of the Lotus Eaters, Odysseus’ sailors tasted a plant so intoxicating they lost their desire to go home again. It’s still unclear what plant the Homeric epic was describing–some say it was figs–but the island was almost certainly Jerba, a gorgeous, palm tree-studded oasis off the eastern coast of present- day Tunisia.

I sampled Jerba’s delights again last spring and like Odysseus’ men, I fell so strongly under the island’s spell that I was reluctant to leave. Jerba opened its arms to me, and I embraced it in return.

On three previous visits, my husband, Paul, and I had become enamored with Tunisia, with its Berbers, Bedouins, archeological sites, sun-drenched landscapes and intense colors. We returned to complete the shooting and editing of a documentary about the country and its diverse, hospitable people. But we also wanted some leisure time to revisit this island in the Gulf of Gabes.

Our timing surprised some of our friends: We went during the height of the war in Iraq. I never felt a moment’s discomfort, even though I have what might be considered a triple whammy of attributes for a traveler to the Muslim world: I am Jewish (albeit secular), female and American.

Instead of encountering hatred and hostility, I found Tunisians gentle and warm. Unlike many Westerners, a Tunisian, when angry, will lower his voice or grow quiet. Violent crime occurs but is “rare by U.S. standards,” according to the State Department’s consular sheet. Law enforcement officers and some hunters carry guns, but otherwise, firearms are outlawed.

It is, perhaps, the pastiche of people who have populated this land in North Africa, wedged between Algeria and Libya, that makes Tunisians so accepting. They have been colonized or invaded by Phoenicians, Romans, Vandals, Byzantines, Arabs, Turks, Spanish Moors and the French, from whom they won their independence in 1956.

The Phoenicians may have left the biggest mark on the culture and the psyche. They established the mighty mercantile empire of Carthage. Traders by profession, the Carthaginians encountered customers of nearly every stripe. From this they may have learned that being accommodating and agreeable is the best way to get along with people–not bad characteristics for a tourist destination these days.

Indeed, before Sept. 11, 2001, about 5 million tourists went south from the Continent every year to grill on Tunisian beaches, swim in the Mediterranean, enjoy the mild winter climate, get pampered at spas and experience the dunes and vistas of the Sahara. They found, as we did, that in this moderate modern Muslim nation of about 10 million, women don’t wear veils, fundamentalism is outlawed, wine and beer are served in restaurants, and jazz festivals and great discos abound.

Yet Tunisia remains off Americans’ radar. They lump it together with the Middle East and assume it is a hotbed of hatred. In dismissing it, they miss amazing ruins, pristine beaches, cork forests and enough exotica to color their dreams and memories for decades.

And they also miss what I found: a powerful connection between the past and the present.

paul and i first came to tunisia in 2000 because we liked the exoti- cism of North Africa. It was easy to get here–just a two- hour flight from Paris or about 100 miles from Sicily–and it required no special visa. From the minute we landed, people at the Tunis-Carthage airport were friendly.

We spent 10 days touring the country before coming to Jerba for the Jewish festival of Lag b’Omer, an annual spring celebration.

A 15-minute ferry ride brought us to Jerba, which is also accessible from the Tunisian mainland by a causeway that dates to Roman times. We drove across the flat island oasis (Jerba is only 197 square miles) to the seaside tourist zone, or Zone Touristique. There we gaped at the palatial hotels with their white domes, marble, painted ceramic, mosaics, intricate stucco work and sculpted wood exteriors and courtyards.

When we checked into the Melia Djerba Menzel hotel, I grabbed Paul’s arm and said, “I must be hallucinating.” There, in the middle of the impossibly ornate lobby, was a sign that said, “Kosher Food, This Way.”

As if reading my mind, a nattily dressed Jewish woman said to me in French: “There are several other hotels on Jerba that also serve kosher food for the Lag b’Omer festival. And all year long you can get Jewish food at L’Oscar, a nearby restaurant.”

My taste in food tends away from kosher and toward the exotic, and within an hour of checking in, Paul and I had arranged with the hotel restaurant to eat gargoulette, a Tunisian specialty. We watched as the chef prepared it. First, he carefully spooned lamb, vegetables and spices into a vase-like clay amphora (a two-handled jug), then sealed the opening with a doughy paste. In the dining room two hours later, a waiter cracked the jug, and the food came tumbling into a serving dish, then was ladled onto our plates. The rich stew was aromatic, but the spices never overwhelmed.

That was just one of the pleasant surprises at our hotel. The price of luxury on Jerba is, we soon learned, extremely reasonable. Melia Djerba Menzel had fine restaurants, a disco and Las Vegas- style expansiveness, and it was a steal at $80 a night. On a subsequent trip, for about $50 more, we stayed at the palatial Hasdrubal, with its Oriental architecture and full spa facilities.

As Paul and I walked along the beach during our first morning in Jerba, the fine white sand sifting between our toes, we met a local fisherman. We told him we had come for the Lag b’Omer festival. He looked at me quizzically, then smiled. “You must mean the Ghriba festival,” he said. “That’s what we call it here. We Muslims look forward to it every year. The Jews here are Tunisians, just as we are. When I grew up, some of my closest friends were Jewish. I ate in their houses many times.”

I thought to myself, He’s an anomaly.

But then a woman we met as we browsed a small, makeshift outdoor souvenir market echoed the fisherman’s sentiments. And while we were changing our dollars to Tunisian dinars, a bank teller concurred. Jean and Don, an American couple we met while they were finishing an ocean-side horseback ride, expressed the same surprise I felt.

“No one back home would believe it,” Don said. “It’s a miracle.”

The coexistence between Muslims and Jews has been continuous, if not always miraculous. Before 1948 and the founding of Israel, 100,000 Jews lived in Tunisia; today there are about 2,000, half in Jerba.

It’s difficult to pin down the origins of the Jewish community here because much of its history has been transmitted orally. The first settlers may have come 3,000 years ago, about the time of Kings David and Solomon, or they may have immigrated at the time of the Babylonian destruction of Solomon’s Temple and the forced exile to Babylon in 586 BC. They were joined by Jews who fled Jerusalem after the destruction of the second Temple in AD 70 and Jews who fled the long arm of the Spanish Inquisition in the 1500s. They settled in two communities in west-central Jerba: Hara Kebira, the large Jewish quarter, and Hara Sghira, the small Jewish quarter.

According to local lore, the Jewish priests, or kohanim, who escaped from Jerusalem in 70 settled in Hara Sghira, and their descendants still live there. They dress just as their Muslim neighbors do, except for a narrow black band at the bottom of their pantaloons, a sign of mourning for the destruction of the ancient Temple in Jerusalem. “The Jewish community of Jerba may be the oldest–and is certainly one of the oldest–extant Jewish communities in the world,” said Hai Hadad, a Jerban Jewish jeweler and respected amateur historian.

The heart and soul of Jewish life on the island is the Ghriba synagogue, with its unassuming, whitewashed exterior and blue pillars and brightly colored ceramic tiles inside. Like important historic churches and mosques in other countries, it draws visitors of every religion from around the world.

Violence has marred the spiritual Ghriba in recent times: A bombing outside the synagogue in April 2002 killed 21 people, 14 of them Germans. It was linked to Al Qaeda.

Despite this, tourists still come to the Ghriba. Upon entering, women are provided head scarfs and men with yarmulkes, or skullcaps. I covered my hair with a pastel-colored scarf and entered.

Elderly men were sprawled on benches, propped up on elbows, praying individually and audibly. I was transfixed, as though I had been transported back to biblical times and was staring at my ancestors. Old men in dark-colored tunics and pantaloons were absorbed in prayer. I recognized many of the words, but I had never heard these melodies. The intensity of the connection was profoundly moving. “This is where we come from,” I whispered to my spouse. “I know it. This is how it was for us as tribal people thousands of years ago.”

Part of the charm of the synagogue lies in its mystery and fanciful legends. For instance, some say the foundation stone of the temple, or perhaps a gate, came from King Solomon’s temple at the time of its destruction, but how it got here is unknown. A French rabbi who was visiting had one theory that he excitedly shared with other tourists: “It carried itself all the way from Jerusalem and appeared miraculously at the spot where the synagogue was to be built.”

Until recently the Jews on this island lived in virtual isolation, so they preserved a pure form of Judaism. There are more than a dozen synagogues–some are open only for holidays–and congregrants adhere strictly to the torah and Jewish oral and written law.

Yet for two days a year, all the restraint, seriousness and separation are suspended for the spring holiday of Lag b’Omer. Musicians parade through the streets; women, adorned in their finest, make rare public appearances alongside the men; and visitors from all over the world, especially Tunisian Jews who live in France and Israel, come together to celebrate.

The festivities take place around the Ghriba synagogue. Expecting something exotic, I came here for the holiday for the first time in 2000. I returned for the 2002 festival, just after the bombing, a smaller gathering but no less joyous. What I found in both instances surprised and delighted me. In contrast to the Judaism I have experienced as a male-dominated religion, this was a celebration of the feminine.

The Jerba Lag b’Omer observance centers on a legendary woman named Ghriba (“the foreigner”), who lived at some unspecified time in the distant past. There are many versions of the story, but the one I heard most involved a beautiful, pious woman who lived alone and had no family or close friends. One night, her house caught fire and she was killed, but miraculously, was unblemished by the flames. The local inhabitants recognized that she was a saint and decided to bury her at the site of the catastrophe. To honor her, they built a sanctuary, subsequently named the Ghriba.

Today, hundreds of pilgrims come at Lag b’Omer to ask her for intercession. According to the ecstatic recitals of Ghriba’s petitioners, they are not disappointed. Barren women credit Ghriba for their pregnancies, as do single women who found mates. Miraculous healings also are attributed to her intervention. Scores of optimistic tourists arrive, counting on Ghriba to heal whatever ails them. I half-hoped Ghriba would cure me of my seasonal allergies.

The centerpiece of the Lag b’Omer celebration is a huge wooden, wedding-cake-shaped candelabra called the grande menara that’s adorned with multicolored silk scarfs, placed on a rolling cart and wheeled through the streets of Hara Sghira as if it were an honored bride. The procession is accompanied by musicians and dancing, singing, ululating and clapping.

I joined in and was swept along by the crowd and the beat of drums. I flicked my tongue against the back of my teeth, put my right hand over my mouth and ululated shrilly along with the Jerban women.

After the street procession, I covered my head with my floppy fold-up sun hat and entered the Ghriba. In the rear sanctuary, the floor was slippery from the oil of hundreds of lamps that had been lighted by worshipers who came to pray, ask for favors or offer thanks.

Along the back wall of the sanctuary was the entrance to an underground cave. Women crawled inside, holding raw eggs inscribed with the names of female family members or friends who wanted to meet a soul mate or have children. Candles burned in the cave, and the heat cooked the eggs. The next day, the women would crawl in again, retrieve the cooked eggs and give them to the women for whom they prayed. Someone handed me a raw egg, so I scrawled the names of friends who usually rely on personal ads. I don’t know whether the eggs helped–no wedding invitations have flooded my mailbox–but Ghriba may have helped me: When I emerged from the cave, my allergies weren’t bothering me anymore.

Things return to normal after the festival, and it was a chance to learn more about daily Jewish life. I walked down the quiet, sandy streets of Hara Kebira with Youssef Ouazzan, whom I met during the Lag b’Omer celebration; he is a talented jeweler and head of the Jewish community. He pointed to the houses as we passed: “Jewish, Muslim, Muslim, Jewish, Jewish,” he announced, proud of the peaceful coexistence.

Most of the Jews live in simple, whitewashed houses with turquoise doors and window trims. To me, they looked indistinguishable from the Muslim houses except that some of the Jewish families mark weddings and happy occasions by painting turquoise-colored amulets–images of large fish, chamsas or hands, and candelabra–to ward off the evil eye.

A few children played ball in front of their house, and I was surprised to hear them speaking Arabic. It’s their first language, Youssef explained; they learn basic Hebrew and prayers at a day school.

Youssef led us through a courtyard to a small room, where a gaggle of young Jewish boys was repeating the aleph-bet after their teacher. They sang and chanted for us.

“Do you know how to do the hora?” I asked them. They seemed baffled. “You don’t know the hora? It’s danced at every Jewish wedding and bar mitzvah in America.”

Suddenly, I was teaching the boys the dance in the courtyard. They giggled and groaned as they tripped over their feet, and I, once again, felt a powerful tribal connection.

After my impromptu dance lesson, Youssef led us into a plain, whitewashed rectangular building where the pre-teens were seated on benches at a long wooden table, engaged in lively discussion with their young Rabbinic teacher. By age 8 or 9, Jerba boys are undertaking serious study of Rabbinic laws, oral tradition and commentary. “They are among the youngest and most advanced students in the world,” he said.

We followed Youssef into a small day school where young Jerban girls are educated in Hebrew basics and the skills required to be good wives, mothers and housekeepers; marriages are most often arranged, and girls are sometimes married off in their teens. I bit my liberated American tongue.

The status of women in Tunisia ranks among the best in the Arab world, politically, socially and economically, thanks partly to the Personal Status Code, introduced in 1956, and there are many female doctors, lawyers, pilots, scientists and business leaders. But among the Jerban Jews, a woman’s place seems to be in the home. I knew little about the demands of life in an ancient community trying to hold onto its heritage, so I tried to learn and understand rather than judge.

On the sandy streets of Hara Kebira, the community where most of the Jews live, there is much crossover between Jews and Muslims. At the end of one street is a building with palm fronds heaped in front of the door. Inside, a Muslim baker prepares bread for the Jews on Shabbat, when they are forbidden to do work of any kind, including baking. The fronds are used to fan the oven fires.

On another street, a Muslim farmer delivered chickens to a local outdoor stall where the shohet (ritual slaughterer) inspected them and performed the ritual kosher butchering. Jewish and Muslim men walked down the street that houses the mikvah (purifying bath), where Jews dipped their new possessions in sanctified water. They stopped to buy bunches of garlic from a farmer who had set up shop in the back of his pickup truck. On the weekend, business was brisk at L’Oscar, the Jewish restaurant where many of the staples were indistinguishable from dishes eaten by Muslims.

Paul and I ate harissa (a hot chile sauce) and olives with pita bread and mechouia (roasted pepper salad) while we waited for our chicken couscous to arrive. The service was slow, but we didn’t mind, because we chatted with the waiters and other local customers. Several of them urged us to check out the local jewelers, which we did after our meal.

The Jerban Jews are known for their filigree jewelry, and many today are still goldsmiths and silversmiths who produce, among other things, unique North African Judaica. Some pieces, such as mezuzahs (decorated housings for small sacred scrolls that are placed at the entrance of houses) and hanukias, or menorahs (candelabra used for the festival of Hanukkah), are familiar, and others, such as thick ankle bracelets, are wonderfully exotic and tribal. The prices are reasonable (from about $30 for simple pieces to $300 for more ornate ones), and the quality is first-rate.

The Jews have small shops alongside their Muslim neighbors in Houmt Souk, the business and commercial district on the island. Only the store signs in Hebrew (signifying that Judaica is sold there) distinguish the fronts. Even if visitors don’t want to buy anything (which requires a degree of self-control generally reserved for the Atkins diet), a visit to Houmt Souk is de rigueur. The streets are lined with colorful, exotic spice markets, antique and tchotchke dealers, pottery shops, wedding stores (featuring huge baskets, lined in white silk, for the presentation of wedding gifts), clothing shops and the fish auction area, where fresh catches are displayed on a string and the bidding inches higher until the person who offers the most dinars wins. I bought two djellabas (long robes worn by men and women) and a large, antique, whitewashed wooden tablet covered with handwritten verses from the Koran; students used them in the past to learn the sacred book of Islam.

Every visitor should sample brik, a cholesterol-rich delicacy both Muslims and Jews enjoy. It’s a deep-fried pastry skin, like a huge wonton, with harissa, an over-easy egg, and sometimes tuna inside. Paul thought it was tasty and enjoyable, in an oozy kind of way. I took one bite and spent five minutes feeling guilty for the fried indulgence.

Over the next few weeks on our spring visit, Paul and I visited and filmed in El Kef, in the northwestern part of Tunisia, where a Muslim man named Mohamed Tlili restored an abandoned old Jewish synagogue, also called the Ghriba, because he thought it was the right thing to do. We also filmed in the Jewish community in La Goulette near Tunis, where people yelled at us because, without thinking, we arrived with a camera on a Shabbat.

Each time, I could almost feel a thin, sinewy thread that bound me to the Jews of Tunisia. I do not think it is about religion. I think it is about a deep connection that reaches across oceans, across time, across cultures–and happens in the deepest recesses of the soul.



Ties to Tunisia

Telephone numbers and prices: The country code for Tunisia is 216, and the city code for Jerba is 75. All prices are approximate and computed at a rate of 1.28 dinars to one U.S dollar. Room rates are for a double for one night. Meal prices for two–including appetizers, entree, dessert and bottle of wine–are about $25 to $35 at lunch, $35 to $50 at dinner at the restaurants listed below.

Getting there: From Los Angeles International Airport, only connecting service (two or three changes of plane) to Jerba is available. Connecting service to Tunisair is available on American, Delta, United, Air France, Air New Zealand, British Airways, Lufthansa and Virgin Atlantic. Independent travel in rental cars is safe and rewarding. But for ease, facility and English-speaking guides, it may be better to go through a tour operator. A highly recommended one in the U.S. that specializes in Tunisia and Jewish Tunisia is TunisUSA, (800) 474-5500, www.TunisUSA.com

Where to stay: Hasdrubal Thalassa, B.P. 82, 4116, Midoun; 730- 657, fax 730-730, www.hasdrubal-hotels.com. A luxury hotel with Oriental architecture and ambience and full health spa facilities; also near a golf course. Rate: from $130 per night, with breakfast.

Hotel Melia Djerba Menzel, B.P. 163, 4116, Midoun; 750-300, fax 657-124, www.tuma-hotels.com/meliadjerba.htm. Four-star beachside hotel with restaurants, disco and kosher food during the Lag b’Omer festival. Rates: $80 to $90 a night.

Sofitel Palm Beach, B.P. 383, 4180, Houmt Souk; 757-777, fax 758- 888, www.sofitel.com. Expansive luxury hotel with desert landscaping and full spa amenities. Rate: from $140 per night.

Dar Dhiafa, 4546, Erriadh; 671-166, fax 670-793. One of Tunisia’s few boutique hotels. In the village of Erriadh, about 15 minutes from the ocean. Tunisian artisans custom-designed all the rooms. Two small pools, excellent restaurant. Rate: from $140 per night.

Movenpick Ulysse Palace & Thalasso, Route Touristique, Plage de Sidi Mehrez, B.P. 239, 4128, Djerba; 758-777, fax 757-850, www.moevenpick-hotels.com. Recently renovated luxury hotel and spa. Beautiful seaside setting with Tunisian-designed interiors. Rate: From $150 per night.

For a list of all hotels in Jerba, visit www.tourismtunisia.com/ hotels/djerba.html.

Where to eat: It is possible to eat very cheaply (less than $10 for two people) if you order brik and salads at local eateries. La Princesse d’Haroun, at the port of Houmt Souk; 650-488. A worthwhile lunch spot with great seafood.

L’Oscar, 140 Avenue Habib Bourguiba, Houmt Souk, next to Hotel El Machrek; 623-333. Opened by members of the Jewish community from Hara Kebira and serves Jerban Jewish food. Service can be slow.

Le Phare, along the road to Midoun from the Zone Touristique; 658- 382. Excellent food and a nice atmosphere for dinner. A short ride from the hotels.

Le Rendez Vous/Panorama; 658-827. In a small shopping center on the coastal road of the Tourist Zone; your hotel can direct you. Pleasant atmosphere, good food but check first to make sure there isn’t a large group that night.

For more information on Jerba restaurants, visit www.itunisie.com/ tourisme/restaurants.cgi?lg=fr&page=djerba.

For more information: The Embassy of Tunisia, Tourism Section, 1515 Massachusetts Ave. N.W., Washington, D.C. 20005; (202) 862- 1850, fax (202) 862-1858, www.tunisiaonline.com or www.tourismtunisia.com