Pork and Pessah

Patrick Sebag, one of the last Jews left in Tunis, is the owner of a disco, a distillery and a pig farm.

By ORLY HALPERN
December 12, 2005 22:21
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patrick sebag. (photo credit: Orly Halpern)

Tunis, Tunisia - Patrick Sebag, the owner of the hottest disco-bar in the capital, a pig-farm and a distillery, makes for a peculiar figure in a Muslim country. That the dashing, 30-year-old with a hip hairstyle and perfectly tailored suit is a Jew makes him all the more so. Last month, at a private dinner for visiting Israeli Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom and then Communications Minister Dalia Itzik, the stylish, soft-spoken businessman described to The Jerusalem Post what it's like to be someone in his position. "We [Jews] have a very good life here," he said, quipping, "[but] if al-Qaeda decided to make an attack in Tunisia, I think I would be the perfect target." Among the two dozen or so Jews left in the capital, Sebag said he is "almost untouchable." "It's as if the government decided that if anyone touches a Jew, he will be punished twice as harshly than if he touched someone else. We have protection here." Perhaps. Yet, Sebag nevertheless expressed concern for his daughter Emma's future. "She has a Jewish name and I'm afraid this will cause her problems," he said. "Just like those a Palestinian child could have if he went to school in Tel Aviv." The problem, Sebag said, is what will happen down the line, since there are few Muslim countries left in which Jews still live. "My daughter's generation isn't familiar with Jews," he said, attributing the skewed sense of the Jewish people to its minuscule and dwindling population in Muslim countries. "It's like when sometimes I hear Israelis say, 'Arabs are bad.' But they say that because they don't know Arabs." Sebag expressed worry about such distortions. When the only information Arabs receive is broadcast via Arabic satellite networks, he said, it's no wonder they have a negative view of Jews. "They watch TV and think that all Israelis are killing Palestinian children," he said. "When they saw pictures of Muhammad al-Dura [the 12-year-old Palestinian boy around whose October 2000 death controversy still swirls] slumped next to his father, they went crazy here." He added: "If I were a Muslim, I would have, too." THERE WAS a time when many Jewish communities in Muslim countries were wealthy, educated and respected. Muslim and Arab rulers often had Jewish political advisers, accountants and doctors, in Tunisia as well. Countries such as Iraq - where today the Jews are seen as plotters against the country - treated Jews as an integral part of society. In the 1920s, Iraq had a Jewish finance minister and a Jewish Miss Baghdad. After the establishment of the state of Israel, Jews from Afghanistan to Morocco made their way to the Holy Land to fulfill their dream. The Passover chant "Next year in Jerusalem" had become an attainable goal. Others left their native Muslim countries out of fear - some because they had never felt completely safe, and others for fear of persecution by their Muslim countrymen out of revenge on behalf of the Arabs that resided in Mandatory Palestine. In Tunisia, what remains of the 100,000-strong Jewish community (counted in a French census conducted immediately after WWII) is a tiny population - half living on the island of Djerba - of less than 2,000. These are mainly either senior citizens, or youth who emigrate to France or Israel in search of suitable, Jewish-Tunisian spouses. "There aren't enough girls to choose from here [in Tunis]," explained Sebag. "The Jews from Djerba can marry each other because there are a lot of them. They act a little like Arabs: They have a lot of kids. They have a Jewish life, kosher food and restaurants. We don't have a Jewish life here like in Djerba - because we are not really religious." Nevertheless, he said, the Tunisian Jewish community as a whole is close-knit. "I believe this is a phenomenon common to minorities in every country. It could be the language or the religion or nationality that unites us. My bartender is Jewish. I trust him much more because of that." Once the young Jews leave Tunisia, he went on, they rarely return. Instead, they settle where large Jewish-Tunisian populations are concentrated: Paris, Netanya, Beersheba. Unlike most of his contemporaries - including his brother and sister, who reside in France - Sebag did not follow this course. Although he, too, was sent by his parents to a high school in France, he dropped out and began working in the music industry. It was there he met Maria, a Swedish model, whom he subsequently married. At the age of 22, he traveled with her to the United States, aiming to go into business organizing concerts for major performers. Two years later, he was threatened with deportation for not having the proper work visa. The couple then returned to Tunis, where they intended to work until saving up $20,000 to pay for a lawyer to get them Green Cards. To this end, they opened a restaurant in the capital called the Jasmine Club, which, at midnight, became a dancebar. It also became a big hit, attracting clientele such as the daughters of President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali. "We figured, 'Why go to America if we can make so much money here?'" So they stayed put. They also expanded their enterprises. As tourism to the country rose, so did Sebag's pork and alcohol businesses, which supply hotels around the country with ham and whiskey. The couple now lives in a five-room villa with a swimming-pool, on a hill overlooking the sea in Jammarth, one of the poshest districts of the capital. They own two cars and a yacht. And they travel abroad frequently. Still, Sebag claimed that one day he would move to Israel "for Emma's sake." "Though as a family we observe Shabbat, Pessah, Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur," said Sebag, a part of whose lavish lifestyle comes from selling pork, "because my wife is not Jewish, neither is my daughter, according to Jewish law." As a result, he explained, his daughter is in a problematic category: Considered a Jew by her Muslim countrymen, and not considered a Jew by her Jewish ones. This, Sebag said, creates a dilemma for him where her education is concerned, as the only Jewish school in Tunis is a religious one - and Sebag doesn't "see my Judaism in a religious way. I see it as a club." Sebag, who grew up in a secular family, believes living in Israel would solve this particular problem. "Attending a regular school there, she would feel Jewish without having to study religion." For the time being, however, aliya is on hold. "The French Jews have a saying: 'If you want to be fairly rich in Israel, you have to go there very rich,'" Sebag said. "I hope to make enough money so that when I move to Israel I will not have to work.


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