Adventure in Tunisia  

Tunisia Odyssey: Eden to Oasis
Bicycle Africa / Ibike Tours


Dispatch 2 - Djerba


El  Ghriba Synagogue, Houmt Souk, Djerba, TunisiaEl  Ghriba Synagogue, Houmt Souk, Djerba, TunisiaEl  Ghriba Synagogue, Houmt Souk, Djerba, TunisiaOur first stop of the day was the synagogue "El Ghriba" (the stranger).  Djerba has a Jewish community of about 1000, but most of them don't regularly worship at El Ghriba.  It is said that the establishment of a synagogue here dates back to the time of the destruction of the First Temple in Jerusalem by Babylonians in 586 BC or the destruction of the Second Temple in Jerusalem by the Romans in 70 AD.  Either circumstances makes it the oldest Jewish community outside of Israel. Since then the community has been bolstered by fleeing Jewish refugees of several other periods.   The current synagogue was built only a couple hundred years ago.

El  Ghriba Synagogue, Houmt Souk, Djerba, TunisiaEl  Ghriba Synagogue, Houmt Souk, Djerba, TunisiaEl  Ghriba Synagogue, Houmt Souk, Djerba, TunisiaDuring the World War II, when Tunisia was occupied by the Nazis, Tunisia’s Moslem population protected its Jewish population from persecution by the Vichy government  -- though the Nazis imposed a "fine" of 50 kilograms (110 pounds) of gold from the Djerba Jewish community.  While Tunisians will proclaim that their relationship with their Jewish community is good there is at least one sign that they might not be perfect: 

In Houmt Souk, according to the Jewish community, the municipality is very laxed in there garbage collection from the "hara" (Jewish Quarter), to the point of being a community health issue.  On a couple of walks through the hara, I have seen large isolated piles of garbage that look like they might have been in place for more than a week, but community itself is very tidy.

Djerba, TunisiaAlso sharing the Island of Djeba is the Karijite sect of Islam, a stricter, more austere and conservative sect than the more widespread Sunni. Historically the two religious groups have gotten along fairly well in Tunisia.  Perhaps this is because the unity that has been created as the island has been long sought as a treasure by others.  Djerba, TunisiaThis last point is reflected in the traditional architectural style which includes fortified homesteads and fortified mosques (rabat), with high thick wall and few windows to the outside, and high birms around the farms -- which also function to hold in the scarce rain water, but are much higher than can ever be justified for this purpose.

Djerba, TunisiaJuxtaposed to this is the modern day religion of European tourism on Djerba. After viewing the vestiges of the dwindling traditional culture and architecture we went off to take a peek at it. Increasingly, now instead of walls and berms to keep-out the invaders, longer stretches of the coast are being walled off from the interior by tourist resorts that sit cheek-to-jowl and keep out the locals. Most are only two and three stories high, so they barely show above the palmDjerba, Tunisia trees (not the 8 and 10 story behemoths of some resort destinations). Up near the road we could peek in on some of the diversion activities; light tennis courts (in high season it pretty hot to be playing tennis during the middle of the day), a choice of camel, pony or horse carriage rides, off-road 4x4' and motor/scooters to rent and discos. Presumably the swimming pools that are advertised are closer to the beach.

Djerba, TunisiaDjerba, TunisiaOne man who is making the most of the new comers is impresario "Ali Berbere" as he catches the tourist attention and their pocket change at his one-man road-side attraction, in Guellala.  His routine includes a witty patter, in a half dozen languages, throwing a quick clay pot on an old foot-kicked potter,s wheel and demonstrates how Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves avoided detection by sliding into large amphora.  To my mind the more substantive and interesting of his offerings are overlooked by most of the visitors:  Further back in his "cave" (or traditional semi-subterranean factory building) he has some old olive oil presses equipment and exhibits some other traditions Djerba culture and architecture.

Djerba, TunisiaUp a steep hill at the edge of town is the Musée Guellala (or Musée du Patrmonie as it is alternately known). The building is a model of the area’s architecture and is filled with a series of life-size dioramas depicting life in Djerba using manikins in native dress with explanations in four languages. It was done well and, even if the manikins are a bit cheesy for western tastes, they nevertheless get their points across. There are a whole series of scenes from a traditional wedding, a circumcision, a medicine man, and Sufi mystics to a live camel pulling another olive press and rooms full of calligraphy and paintings.

From here we headed northeast to Midoun where we stopped for a late lunch. A typical meal was chicken couscous with ojja merguez -- very tasty as an appetizer -- and plenty of French bread to sop up the sauce.

From Midoun we headed northwest to Houmt Souq.  All day we bucked a headwind from some angle so the strong tailwind the last seventeen kilometers was much appreciated.  We "flew" home. This last segment passed the island’s tourist district. The big hotels are elbowing each other along this entire stretch leaving little room for public beaches. Though it is not yet the high tourist season, we have saw many more tourists here then elsewhere. Taxis seem to be their main mode of transport around the island, and we saw plenty whenever we were near the tourist destinations.

Knowing Tunisia's reputation for high level corruption, the whole scene raises the question as to how the hotels got all the prime real-estate? And how this elite economy fits with the local economy where most of the inhabitants of the island live at a pretty modest standard, and most of the employment at the hotels work at minimum wage service position?

Back to the outskirts of Houmt Souk you can view Borj Ghazi Musapha, the city’s thirteenth century fort and the scene of a grizzly massacre: Dragut, a compatriot of the Barbarossa brothers, captured the fort from the Spanish in 1560 and slaughtered the garrison and every one else held up in the fort (6000 people)  -- making a gruesome pyramid of the skulls which stood as warning for three hundred years.


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