The fragrance of musky ‘Oud' perfume, the gentle sway of fishing boats with the afternoon breeze, a Berber granny humming an old lullaby to her newborn grandchild and the exhilaration of tangy Arabic ‘Qahwah' coffee was the Tunisia of my dreams! Being a student of the Arabic and French languages and also of Arabic culture and being deeply passionate about the country's rich legacy of music, history and pluralism, I felt an instant connection with the place! No wonder many friends specialising in ‘past life regression' have even teased me of being a Tunisian in my previous lifetimes!
Landing in Jerba (often spelt ‘Djerba') from the country's capital of Tunis, I drive to the fascinating town of Houmt Souk. The pristine blue Mediterranean smiled at me as a stunning canvas of Jerba's leitmotif blue and white architecture unfolded before my eyes. Presuming that I was a local, I was always greeted with the traditional “As-salaamu alaikum wa rahmatullahi wa barakaatuh” (may peace be upon you and the mercy of God and His bounties) customary to the Arab world. “Ahlan wa Sahlan ya akhi. Bienvenue a Jerba” (welcome brother, welcome to Jerba) Adel, my ‘Djerbien' friend and guide greeted me in both French and Arabic as I commenced my unforgettable sojourn.
Tunisia, like its north African neighbors Algeria and Morocco, was once a French colony and is also a fascinating blend of Arab, French, Spanish and Moorish influences. Jerba's old world charm, rich history, its rustic earthiness, the warmth exuded by its folk, its picturesque beaches and rugged landscapes make it a hotspot for tourists from all over the world.
Houmt Souk, considered to be the administrative capital of the island, is a bouquet of diverse colors tracing its history back to the end of the 14th century when the Arab Berber Hasfid Dynasty (Al-Hafsiyyoon in Arabic) expelled the soldiers of Alfonso 5 of Aragon. The Arabic name ‘Souk' or Souq meaning market would probably be associated with its history of trade, or since the town, being the largest on the island, has one of the largest and most colorful markets on the island.
The town is known for its old-style buildings and courtyards, quaint lanes and sprawling markets with an array of ultra-mod stores, boutiques, souvenir shops and Houmt Souk's famous ‘Souk Errebaa', its traditional market where I was in Alice in wonderland! An ocean of traditional crafts, attires, musical instruments and perfumes, the town overflows with shopping freaks from the world over round the year.
Houmt Souk's museum of heritage housed in a former Moorish style ‘Zaawiyyah' (religious building) unveils the Island's history and cultural heritage displaying ancient pottery, ornate lamps, exquisite jewellery with glass inlay work designed in the ‘cloisonné' technique of fabrication used for jewellery, pottery and other decorative items, traditional costumes of various tribes and copies of the Quran.
The towering Borj el Kebir (large tower in Arabic) is Houmt Souk's principle monument, almost recognised as a symbol of the town. This 68-meter long and 53-meter wide fort, built on the sea-front, offers breathtaking views from its top. Also called ‘El borj Ghazi Mustafa', after the chieftain appointed by Dragut, the legendary pirate of the Ottoman Empire in 1559, the fort was used for the defense of the island in the 19th century, when the French army occupied in 1881 discharged from the army in 1903 and declared a museum in 1904.
Jerba is a haven of tranquility and its easy-going and friendly folk are ever-welcoming, renowned for their celebrated Arab hospitality. Along my journey through the island, I met many affable old timers who shared homemade goodies, folk tunes and tales of old in their earthy Tunisian Arabic. While the men are draped in flowing robes and bright red or maroon ‘Tarboush' ( Fez cap), Jerba's women have their own brand of exquisite traditional clothing, often with intricate jewellery.
Among Jerba's other interesting towns are the tranquil fishing port of Ajim, Guellala, a Berber village which is famed for some of the world's most outstanding pottery by local artists and a history and culture museum, Midoun, with its mesmerising array of colorful spice, pottery, vegetable and fish markets where the daily catch is auctioned, Al Kantara, a historic region on the island that dates back to the Roman Era and Ksar Guilane, a desert oasis with its bright orangish-mauve sand inhabited by 70 nomadic families, haven for cyclists and quad bikers and famous for its artificial hot spring.
Djerba has been an island of many influences, namely French, Turkish, Spanish, Maltese, Moorish, Roman, and the most fascinating aspect of this Jerba island is its legacy of religious and cultural pluralism. Though being a small, relative unassuming island lesser-known in this part of the world, Jerba has been home to several cultures and faiths. Along with its sprawling mosques like the magnificent Turkish Mosque, its beautiful churches like the Maltese style St Joseph's Catholic Church, both in Houmt Souk, Djerba is today, the living example of Jewish-Arab unity and brotherhood. In the Jewish village of ‘Hara Seghira', currently known as' Er-Riadh' stands one of the most important places of Jewish worship and a place of pilgrimage, the El Ghriba Synagogue.
The ancient synagogue with its formidable white exteriors, is the abode of solace and spiritual bliss with its blue, traditional ‘Sefaradi' style interiors with ornate chandeliers, classical Hebrew inscriptions, wooden benches and beautiful lamps. While Sefaradi Jews originally hail from Spain, southern Europe and North Africa, those hailing from parts of the Arab world are often referred to as ‘ Ha Mizraheem' or ‘The Eastern Jews'. Tunisian Jewery dates back to, as many believe, the destruction of the First Temple in the 6th century BC, and during the Roman era according to many.
Judaism is one of the three religions of monolith of the Prophet Abraham along with Christianity and Islam. Despite the current political strife between the two communities, Arabs share many common beliefs and cultural nuances with Jews (referred to in Islam as ‘Ahl al Kitaab' or ‘people of the book' along with Christians), both having coexisted peacefully through history, the ‘Golden Era' under Moorish Spain, a classic example. “Jews are very much a part of our country and culture. We still coexist in peace and harmony as we always did” smiles Adel.
Greeting visitors with ‘Shalom Aleikhem' and ‘Salaam Alaikum' (both meaning ‘peace be upon you' in Hebrew and Arabic) one can still come across many friendly Tunisian Jews wearing colorful ‘Kippahs' (Jewish skull cap), sometimes even Fez caps like their Muslim counterparts, speaking rustic Arabic and original ‘Sefaradi Hebrew' with its distinct Semitic pronunciations considered to be most authentic and ancient. One can often hear a mix of Arabic, French and Hebrew by the Jewish pilgrims who pray with full ‘Kavvanah' ( unshaken focus) at the grand old Synagogue in the heart of Arabic Tunisia, which houses the world's oldest Torah.