A back-to-roots trip to Tunisia

Tunisia has a very interesting relationship with its Jews and the State of Israel. Officially, the Tunisian government follows the strict anti-Israel sentiment set by the rest of the Muslim world.

By GIDEON UZAN
September 12, 2019 10:50
A back-to-roots trip to Tunisia

THE SYNAGOGUE in Derjba.. (photo credit: GIDON UZAN)

In Moknine, the city where my father was born, we manage to locate the ancient synagogue my maternal grandfather frequented as a youth. Heavy iron doors separate us from the large room that was so quiet, it is hard to imagine it had at one time been full of boisterous voices singing out in prayer. We try to get inside, but the doors are securely locked and apparently haven’t been opened for years. It isn’t clear who still had the key.

As we walk alongside the outside wall of the building, I see a small window that is covered with metal bars. It’s too high up for me to be able to peek inside, but I hold my phone up high and take a video of what’s inside, being careful not to drop my phone where I’d never be able to retrieve it were it to fall. When I take a look at the video, I’m amazed to see the Holy Ark that houses the Torah scrolls, which has a few verses artistically painted and fading on the wood. I imagine that my grandfather must have stood and prayed in this very spot and here I am, over 50 years later, the proud owner of an Israeli passport. 

Tunisia has a very interesting relationship with its Jews and the State of Israel. Officially, the Tunisian government follows the strict anti-Israel sentiment set by the rest of the Muslim world. On the other hand, Tunisia is always trying to show how its society is tolerant to all religions, especially the Jewish community, which thrived there until just a few decades ago. As a result, Tunisia allows groups of Israeli passport holders to enter the country and take part in annual pilgrimage tours of El Ghriba Synagogue, located on the island of Djerba.

Thousands of Jews of Tunisian origin flock to the Lag Ba’omer festival from all over the world to enjoy the special music and authentic flavor of local Jewish Tunisian delicacies, such as brik pastries and fricasé.

Our journey began in the busy capital, Tunis, whose Old City has been declared an official UNESCO World Heritage Site. In ancient times, this land that is located on the southern Mediterranean coast, in the northern part of the country, was considered the center of the world. Hannibal of Carthage set out from this port in an attempt to conquer the Roman Empire. After the Romans defeated Hannibal, they proceeded to rule over a good portion of the southern province, which they named Africa.

Breakfast was served as usual in the hotel we stayed at, despite the fact that most people seemed to be fasting during the daytime hours since it was the month of Ramadan. This trip to Tunisia was apparently going to be quite different from our tours of European cities, in which food is usually a big focus, with large meals throughout the day.

The next stop on our journey was to Djerba, which is called Hara Kabira (“the big village”) by locals. The Djerba Jewish community still numbers about 1,300 people, all of whom follow strict religious observance. If you ask a young girl living there what type of person she wants to marry, she will respond right away: a Torah-fearing man.

For many of our group members who’d wanted to come on the tour to learn about their parents and grandparents’ lives, the Lag Ba’omer celebration in Djerba was the highlight of the trip. And I must say, it was a well-organized and extremely festive experience. There were Tunisian singers, authentic music and of course plenty of incredible delicacies to taste.

I asked permission from our group leader to slip out from the celebration for a few minutes so I could search for my paternal grandfather’s home. We set out in two cars, with a police accompaniment that stopped traffic for us a number of times so we could avoid congestion. I was surprised to find that as we were walking around hunting for the house, a number of local residents came outside when they heard all the hustle and bustle, offering to help us in our search.

My grandfather Yehuda Uzan had been a shop owner. After exploring the neighborhood for over two hours to no avail, another store owner suggested we ask an 86-year-old resident named Misira if he remembered anything about the old Jewish community. We finally located Misira, who was practically blind, but after some probing recalled my grandfather, explaining that his father had worked in my grandfather’s shop for many years.

As he stood on the doorstep of his house, Misira told us how he remembered the moment my grandmother informed him that they’d be leaving Tunisia for Palestine in three months’ time. He excitedly described to us how my grandfather would tear every loaf of bread in half and give half of it to his family. And with tears in his eyes he recalled the day my grandmother put a sizeable amount of cash in his hand so he could get an education. In fact, he did go on to learn to be a silversmith, and was then able to support his family for many good years until he retired.

Our next stop was the local cemetery. The first gravestone we visited was that of Rabbi Yitzhak Chai Tayeb, who died nearly 200 years ago. According to a legend that’s described in an anthology put together by Dr. Michal Sharf, the rabbi once put on worker’s clothing and offered to carry a man’s belongings all the way from the port to a local hotel in Tunis. On the way, the rabbi answered all of the man’s questions with such brilliance that the man wondered if this worker was so clever, imagine how clever the rabbi of such a place must be.

Next, we approached the headstone of Rabbi Yaakov Slama, also known as Morid Hageshem, and many other famous rabbis and mystics. For me, as a Jew with Tunisian heritage, hearing all the stories about these holy men and the society they lived in was most gratifying.

During our trip, in addition to visiting Jewish cemeteries, we also toured a number of cities where Jews had lived, each of which had remains of a synagogue. In addition to El Ghriba Synagogue in Djerba, there was another house of prayer there called Beit El. And in the city of Monastir, farther north on the Tunisian coast, there are remnants of the Keter Torah Synagogue, which served an active community in the 19th century. This city also happens to be the birthplace of Habib Bourguiba, Tunisia’s first president, who is greatly revered by Tunisians. And I must say that even though I am not a religious person, I prayed with all my heart and soul each time we entered one of these ancient synagogues in Tunisia. I felt so close to God and my ancestors.

Modern-day Tunisia has gone to great efforts to develop its tourism industry, with a focus on a number of port cities popular among tourists. One very popular destination is the city of Sousse, which is known for its spectacular views, steep mountains and deep blue sea. It reminded me a little of Eilat or Aqaba. There are a number of five-star hotels which were relatively empty when we visited since it was Ramadan. We saw many wagon drivers waiting along the roadside for someone to come hire them. As we walked along the seaside promenade, we passed by many shops offering brand name clothing and purses (genuine fakes?) and gaudy souvenirs. Most of the eateries were closed, of course, since almost everyone seemed to be fasting.

Other popular resort towns include Hammamet and Gabes, where we visited the local El Jara spice market. There I was enticed into tasting the national drink, which is made from palm hearts. Gabes was also home to a sizeable Jewish community, which was concentrated in the Zarzis neighborhood. We were successful in locating the synagogue there, as well as the gold market.
One interesting tidbit of information I learned on my trip is that Tunisia exports three times as much olives as Spain. We visited the city Sfax, which in addition to being Tunisia’s second largest city is also considered the capital of the country’s olive oil industry, an important factor in Tunisia’s GDP.

One of the most fascinating trips during our vacation was to Cape Bon, which is famous for its perfume made from citrus and jasmine blossoms. Originally settled by the Phoenicians, Cape Bon is a center known for its unique ceramics, and in the Souk al Belra market, which sits on a cliff overlooking the coast, we were given a tour of one of the oldest ceramic workshops.

Next was a visit to a museum that was erected to honor the extremely talented Jewish singer Habiba Msika, whose tragic demise is an integral part of the Tunisian Jewish folklore. Msika was born in 1903 as Marguerite (“Habiba” was her stage name), and is considered to be one of the first female heroes of modern Jewish history. Orphaned at an early age, Msika grew up with her aunt and was lucky that she was allowed to attend the newly formed Alliance Israelite School, permission which was not so common in Tunisia at the time. She befriended many Christian and Muslim socialites, including the brother of president Bourguiba.

Like other women who’ve achieved groundbreaking feats, Msika unfortunately died at the young age of 27 when an 80-year-old admirer named Eliyahu Mimouni, who had courted her for years, realized that Msika was never going to marry him, so he set fire to her apartment while she was inside. Msika’s dream was to perform both classic and modern performances, and to this day she serves as an inspiration for Jewish and non-Jewish girls.

Although none of us were big drinkers, we were interested in tasting boukha, the traditional Jewish Tunisian distilled alcoholic drink made from figs. I even heard that in the 19th century some Jewish communities would use boukha when making blessings over wine.
This special “back to roots” tour really brought home to me how Tunisia is caught between past and present, how the country has gone to great efforts to develop its tourism sector while remaining a religious Muslim nation, and how it is trying to prove how it treats its Jews well while being a member of the Arab League. I loved hearing all the stories from old timers and learning about the culture of my ancestors. In the end, though, the trip was really more about self-discovery than anything else.


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