HARA KEBIRA, DJERBA, Tunisia — I flew in to Djerba at 8:15 a.m., a 45-minute hop from the capital, Tunis, with nary an idea about how I was going to photograph the 1,000-member strong Jewish community. With more than a dozen synagogues and numerous institutions, not to mention the rich daily life of the community here split between two “ghettos,” my finger was itching to start photographing as soon as the wheels came to a stop. After all, with only three days in town, I had no time to lose.
“I still have no idea,” I told Eric Painblanc, a Belgian expat and the owner of my guesthouse, Dar Zina. “My guy in Tunis promised to give me a name of someone local to assist me.”
“Let’s do this: I’ll get settled in my room, and if by 10:30 I have not heard from him, I’ll ring him.” Long before my arrival, I had secured Eric’s assistance, and I thought I’d be ready on arrival.
At 10:15, I received a text message with a name and phone number. “Does he speak English?” I responded. No reply.
So we called. No English. No Spanish. But no French either? That left us with Hebrew or Arabic. I don’t speak Hebrew (but for the odd word or two). That’s where Eric’s wife, Halima, came in. She’s Tunisian.
Realizing Aron did not speak English, I fumbled the phone over to Halima, and, in Arabic, a plan was arranged. Thirty-minutes later, we’d meet Aron Haddouk, a 21-year-old community member, who accompanied me everywhere for three days. The first half of the first day, however, I went to work with a veritable entourage: Eric, the driver; Halima, the translator; and Aron, the guide. It actually worked quite well. There after, Halima made arrangements over the phone for the next day’s plan, or the plan for after lunch or evening, whatever the situation called for.
JEWS HAVE BEEN IN TUNISIA since the Carthaginian Empire ruled northern Africa between 814 B.C. and 146 B.C. Where once there were upwards of 1,000,000 Jews (more than 100,000 Jews lived in Tunisia in 1948, many of whom emigrated to Israel, others to France), the region is now home to all but some 5,000, about a fifth of whom live on this wind-swept, dusty island just off the coast (in fact, the island is connected to the mainland by a causeway first built by the Romans). Though dwindled and challenged by political and religious pressures, Jewish life here is as buoyant as any community I’ve visited anywhere.
The community today lives a devout orthodox lifestyle and keeps traditions alive that date back centuries. For instance, most of the men work in the jewelry trade as buyers, sellers, and/or makers. They are, however, free to work as they please within or outside the community. The women, by contrast, are almost exclusively teachers or hairdressers, some are both. They are also expected to marry young, raise the children, and tend to their husbands. While boys enjoy both religious and secular studies in classrooms kitted with modern-day technology, girls are still under-educated and discouraged from being too curious. I found that at odds with the strong traditions of education for all Jews that I’m accustomed to. Here in Djerba, however, it may be more about self-preservation. The less one knows, the more likely they are to stay put. Conversely, education brings temptation, and temptation tugs at the fabric of ancient ways of life.
But none of that was the first thing I learned or saw here. As we pulled the car into an unpaved lane in the heart of Hara Kebira, one of two Jewish neighborhoods (or “ghettos” as some call them, but they are not by any means closed), the other being Hara Sghira (7 kms/4 miles south), there were Jews everywhere strolling around, chatting, eating sandwiches — and all boys were wearing kippot that seemed to be from different bar or bat mitzvahs, while the girls’ long dresses and headscarves flapped in the breeze.
My first excited thoughts were, “Wow, look at that. So many Jews! And look at those kippot! How do they stay on their heads?” My first thoughts were followed by my first Djerba meal at a kosher hole-in-the-wall — a tuna and egg baguette with a side of staring, if welcoming, young boys. I washed it down with my first photo op, the kosher butcher flame-grilling a sheep’s head in the glaring sun in front of his shop. He didn’t seem to mind a bit that I was fast filling my memory card.
And that is just how welcoming the community is. In three days, I was refused photo permission only once by a less-than-impressed minder of one of the synagogues. But with at least 15 synagogues between the two neighborhoods, I was quite pleased to have photographed 12 of them by the time I was done. That was not all I photographed, of course. My whistle-stop Djerba jaunt was a whirling dervish whirlwind photo frenzy. I had arrived completely up-to-date with my photo editing and website updates. I left with several days’ worth of work. I loved it that way.
TOURISTS ARE DRAWN to La Ghriba Synagogue in Hara Sghira for two reasons: one, it is the only synagogue open as a tourist sight, and, two, because it is said to be Africa’s oldest synagogue with foundations dating to 586 B.C. including a stone schlepped here from Solomon’s Temple (the current building dates only to 1929, however). Despite its storied, even fabled, history, it was not on the top of my list of synagogues to photograph simply because it is so well-known and so well photographed. Perhaps that is why it was selected as target in 2002 by al Qaeda militants who set off a truck bomb nearby that heavily damaged the building and killed 21 tourists, mostly Germans. That tragedy is marked by a memorial plaque on a wall of the police check point as you enter the site.
While La Ghriba is certainly beautiful, I visited others that were more quaint, and more importantly, rarely visited or photographed by outsiders. My two favorites were Synagogue Rabbi Avraham in Hara Sghira for its coziness and rich blue interior and Synagogue Rabbi Pinchas Yana in Hara Kebira for its carnival-like colors and strings of balloons. When I visited, I had them to myself, but I could only imagine the life that has taken place there over the years. It was in a synagogue like these that I imagined I’d be celebrating Purim. But that was not to be.
In fact, I had imagined unbounded Purim revelry on the very last night in the very last destination of my very last Jewish Africa journey. But that was not to be either. In reality, it was the calmest, most sedate Purim ever — something more of a thud than a bang.
Aron had secured permission for me to attend ma’ariv (evening) service and the reading of the Megillah at Synagogue Trabelsia, one of the newer synagogues. It’s bright and airy with straight (mostly) angles and marble fixtures. Instead of drowning out the sound of Haman’s name, anyone who made a noise was shushed. The girls’ chatter spilling in through the windows was also stamped out with a wag of a finger from one of the men. Perhaps most surprising of all was that no one, not even the children, was wearing a costume (though I had spotted Superman and a court jester earlier in the day). For that, I was a bit relieved as I had forgotten to bring something along to wear.
THE SENSE OF SECURITY AND EASE I personally felt while in Djerba is really the manifestation of the Tunisian central government’s assurances of protection of its Jewish communities. In Djerba, and in Tunis, too, there is a police presence around most synagogues. But things have not always been this way.
Tunisia was the only Arab country to fall entirely under German occupation during the World War II. Local collaborators assisted with the implementation of forced labor, confiscation of property and money, deportations, and executions. After the nation’s independence in 1958, a number of synagogues and cemeteries were destroyed in the name of “urban renewal.”
Today, in the heart of Tunis, the leafy Parc Habib Thameur was the site of the first Jewish Cemetery. Local Jews refrain from entering this hallowed ground. Only a handful of Rabbi’s graves were reinterred at the Borgel Jewish Cemetery, the largest Jewish cemetery in the Arab world, before the rest were bulldozed into ruin. It was in the Borgel cemetery that I found poignant memorials to both the War and the Holocaust specifically.
Other political and security challenges over the years have included the 1967 Six-Day War, the 1973 Yom Kippur War, and Israel’s October 1985 bombing of the PLO headquarters near Tunis. Each event has had repercussions on the Jewish communities. In some cases, Jews were attacked in the streets. In others, Jewish shops were torched. Of late, however, the central government has openly provided security measures, subsidized synagogue restoration projects, and even paid the salary of the Grand Rabbi. Still, it’s a delicate balance for the community to keep its heads down and its spirits up.
ON MY SECOND MORNING, Eric and I drove to “the continent,” as he liked to call the mainland, to the town of Zarzis via that 7-kilometer (4-mile) Roman causeway. There are only about 100 Jews there and one synagogue. As luck would have it, one of the very few English-speaking community members answered my knock on the door. It didn’t take more than a few moments of introduction and name dropping my contacts from Tunis and Hara Kebira before I was allowed to photograph.
I got more than I bargained for. With limited time, I wanted to make sure I included the town because it is only an hour’s drive from Hara Kebira. With Yeshiva (religious boys’ school) in session, I was allowed to take some photos of the shy students, but they had given me the thumbs up before I started.
From there, we walked over to a cluster of shops. I saw similar Jewish-owned jewelry storefronts as in Djerba. One welcomed me in in near-perfect English. He lived in Boston, Massachusetts, USA for 10 years before returning. It was the jeweler who pointed me a few shops further up the street to a Mr. David, owner of a construction supplies business. He was the man with the keys to the cemetery. Actually, he made a call, and within 15 minutes, the key arrived, and he then accompanied us in his well-worn Mercedes.
By the time I was done, Eric and I were hungry. Mr. David dropped us back in town at a sandwich shop and bid us farewell. Later, after we had eaten, my payment was refused because Mr. David had quietly paid for our lunches in advance. How nice was that, I thought.
In the afternoon, we rendezvoused with Aron who accompanied us to Hara Sghira. I had hoped to photograph outside, but there was a sandstorm bearing down on us. Severely limited, I worked mainly inside a few synagogues, including La Ghriba, and we also walked a few of the Jewish streets before calling it a day. Sand was in my eyes, my nose, my ears, my hair, my chest, my shoes, but I most certainly did not want it in my camera.
MY LAST DAY OF MY LAST Jewish Africa photo tour was Purim. I was really looking forward to it. The day before, Aron has said something about attending a morning event, but it was not quite clear — something about burning something. What it was was something I had never seen before. In fact, I’d never even heard of it before — burning an effigy of Haman, that Biblical figure who wanted to kill all the Jews of ancient Persia.
As we approached, the streets were suddenly filled with people in various states of costume dress, mostly not, however. People were walking in every direction while boys on mopeds zipped around. It was chaos. I followed Aron into a courtyard enclosed by high walls adjacent to a synagogue. I could smell the fire even before I could see it. Inside, a couple of hundred people were swaddled in heavy smoke while a couple of dozen men and boys hurled rocks and sticks at what appeared to be a cross (or a maypole).
And then I realized what I was seeing. I also realized had Aron come for me just 10 minutes sooner, I’d have seen Haman up there like Jesus on the cross. They were crucifying him. I know, that seems so weird to say, but that is what went through my mind. From some of my photos, one might think I’d entered a street war in Syria or Gaza, but I knew that wasn’t a politically correct thing to say to anyone. Nor would I dare suggest how, frankly, barbaric it all looked. Thank goodness for those high walls. I wondered if, after all these years, their Muslim neighbors knew just what was going on here.
In the afternoon, Aron led me to a few more extraordinary synagogues, and, most thrilling of all, a magical matzoh bakery with a rather mundane name, Institutions Or Torah Djerba Matzoh Bakery. My mind was thrown back to 2010 when I photographed a matzoh bakery in Brooklyn, New York. Now, like then, I could only think how they seemed like Santa’s helpers, and that all they were making would bring smiles to all who received their precious round shmurah matzohs.
That evening, following that quiet reading of the Megillah, I was welcomed to the Sayada family home for a meal. From the outside, all the homes are quite modest. Inside there was heavy, well-crafted furniture, chandeliers, mirrored walls, a very modern bathroom, and a warm welcome. The head of the household has earned his living in the jewelry trade. His sons, both of whom spent time in England and speak excellent English, will probably follow.
Mrs. Sayada covered the table with dishes of local home-cooked treats. As I bellied up, I maintained two simultaneous conversations — one in the left ear, one in the right — with the boys before it melded into one.
“But I have to get married,” said the older one, 25. And then he explained how most marriages here are almost always arranged.
“We meet a few times, perhaps three times,” he explained. “And then we talk on the phone as much as we want, and then we get married.”
His younger brother, 21, then piped in.
“You have to get married,” he insisted. “You must have a wife and a family.”
In the few (broken) words of Hebrew that I know, I turned to his own father and said, “Ben shelcha, abba sheli (your son is my father).”
An hour or so later, I thanked them all for the divine meal and the delightful welcome and I returned to the comfort of my cozy guesthouse. I pondered all that had transpired in the previous 72 hours. When I landed in Djerba, I had no idea how I was going to do my work. When I left, I had no idea how it all happened.
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