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From Tunisia's Honeycomb Structures to Its Island of Forgetfulness

posted on: Mar 8, 2022

From Tunisia's Honeycomb Structures to Its Island of Forgetfulness

By: Habeeb Salloum/Arab America Contributing Writer

Gabes’ early spring morning air was cool and invigorating as we left this Tunisian seacoast oasis town behind. Muhammad our driver was in high spirits.  Seeing us climb into the bus, he smiled, “Today, you will see the fantastic architecture of the Berber ghorfas and the enchantment of a paradise isle.”

We had travelled with Muhammad for four days through much of Tunisia’s south and had become friends.  An excellent driver he took us across barren hills and deserts, through oueds (dry riverbeds which can be very dangerous during a major rainstorm) and narrow winding roads without an incident.

For 20 years he had taken thousands of mostly French and Italian tourists on the same route we had travelled, but my daughter and myself being Canadians who could speak Arabic had intrigued him, and for good reason. Tunisia’s almost 80 years under French colonialism had Frenchified the country. Even after over 65 years of independence French still remains a major language of the country.  However, the masses yearn to use Arabic as the everyday tongue, and this has forced the Frenchified ruling class to give in to some degree.  Today, Arabic is a little more in use than at the time of independence.  The great love of the people for the holy language of Islam has made very Arab speaking person who comes to the country very welcome.  Hence, Muhammad’s fascination with us.

From the lush oasis town of Gabes with its almost 153,000 inhabitants we made our way southward.  The land appeared bare but dotted here and there with palm and other fruit trees.  The first sizable town we passed was Mareth from where the French before the Second World War had built a defence line to guard their colony from invasion by the Italians in Libya.  It was all to no avail.  Mussolini’s army never came.  It had been almost destroyed by the British in eastern Libya.  As fate would have it, the Germans tried to use this line to stop the Allies who were roaring in from Libya but failed.

Beyond Mareth the semi-arid landscape stayed with us until, 78 km (48 i) from Gabes, we reached Médenine, noted for its unique structures.  We had come especially so see these ghorfas – small cells of adobe built one beside or on top of each other.

In the past these structures were used as a refuge or to store grain in times of unrest.  In peacetime, they were the social centre and marketplace.  Today, only intriguing relics from the past, they draw exotic seeking tourists from the four corners of the world.

An administrative centre, the city of Médenine, retains some of its picturesque ghorfas dating from the beginning of this century.  At the time of their construction, they were the most important group of fortified granaries in southern Tunisia.  Altogether there were about 5,000 of these unique structures piled one on top of the other to form up to five levels built around 27 courtyards.  Only three of these courtyards, now converted into a tourist marketplace, remain.

Our bus stopped in front of a doorway, and we quickly filed into a huge courtyard. Before us was a scene of unbelievable colour. Draped over the facade of the honeycomb looking ghorfas were rugs and blankets in a multitude of hues and designs. On the ground and hanging around the doorways or eye-catching ceramics, pottery, traditional clothing, crude musical instruments, and brassware- some being hand engraved by artisans before our very eyes. In the background, the spiraling stairways and vaulted roofs of the ghorfas seemed to add a finish to the picture postcard scene.

From Tunisia's Honeycomb Structures to Its Island of Forgetfulness

Engrossed in this medieval-like atmosphere, I heard behind me haunting music.  I turned around and smiled at the artisan sitting behind a pile of primitive type oboes while he adjusted the one he was playing.  “How much?”, I asked in Arabic.  His face lit up.  “Two dinars for an Arab brother.” 

“If you give them to me for a dinar a piece, I will buy five”, I was thinking that they would make great souvenirs for my friends in Canada.  He thought for a few seconds, “I usually sell them to tourists for five dinars each but since you are the first Arab I have seen travelling with Europeans, you can have them all for five.  Understand? They are more like a gift.”  Was I an Arab or a European tourist?  I had momentarily confused him and in the process bought the oboes at a bargain.

Fifteen minutes after leaving Médenine we came to a junction of the road, one leading to nearby Libya and the other to Jerba (Djerba) 97 km (60 mi) away, on which we turned.  All around us the olive groves seemed never-ending until we reached Zarzis, an important coastal tourist city.  It is set in huge date and olive plantations – there are about 1,500,000 olive and 700,000 date trees in the area.  Along its seaside the town is edged by incredibly wide and beautiful beaches along with which in the last few decades hotels have mushroomed.  We did not have time to linger and explore the city’s numerous attributes.  Our goal was Jerba whose seductive aura has for centuries captivated travellers.

According to mythology, Jerba was known as the home of the lotus eaters.  In Homer’s Odyssey, Ulysses almost lost his men when the seductive maidens of the island fed them the lotus flower.  The men were so pleasantly intoxicated by the lotus that he found it difficult to make them return to their ship amused, “From my father, of course, who learned from his father.  Our family have been practicing this trade for untold centuries.”

After bargaining, we bought two attractively coloured plates for $3 U.S. each.  Almost everyone in our group purchased one or two souvenirs at unbelievably low prices.  For tourists, Tunisia must be the cheapest country in the world.  On our return trip, when passing through Amsterdam airport, I saw similar plates to the ones we purchased marked at about $15 each.

I was spell-bound by the bouquet of colours as we made our way across the island.  Around us, in between the date and olive groves, were small fields of apricots, figs, citrus fruits ad pomegranates being worked by men and women moving about their tasks in picturesque traditional clothing.  Half hidden by trees, their dazzling white homes topped by hemispherical domes appeared like resplendent jewels sprinkled between the towering palms.

After visiting a synagogue in the village of Hara Seghira, built by Jews who escaped Nebuchadnezzar’s destruction of their temple in Jerusalem in 600 B.C., we continued to Houmt-Souk – Jerba’s capital.  What impressed us most when we left the bus on Habib Bourguiba Street, were the vast open-air displays of pottery and ceramics.  They seemed to be everywhere.  Even though we had bought our souvenirs in Guellala we still tarried a while to admire their colours and designs.

The narrow streets of Houmt-Souk edged by clean whitewashed houses, some incorporating enticing handicraft shops, were to us a world especially made for a painter’s brush.  After a few minutes walking toward the inner city on Rue de Bizerte, we stopped to examine the menus at the front of Restaurant de l’lle and Méditerranée on Place Moncef Bey.  Besides western food, they featured briks, fried pastry pies stuffed with meat and eggs; mechoui, seasoned barbecued lamb; tajine, a type of shepherd’s pie; and couscous, the king of Tunisian cuisine.  We could have dined royally on a full course meal for $10 U.S., but our group had made other arrangements.

On our way back to the bus, we stopped at the Sinbad Hotel in the hart of town where a double room costs about $9 U.S. per night, to enquire about renting bicycles.  Jerba is ideal for bicycling.  It is a flat land – the highest point being only 54 m (177 ft) above sea level.  We found that at a cost of $4.50 a day, one can rent a bicycle and leisurely explore the island.

When our bus stopped in front of Al Jazira Hotel 11 km (7 mi) from Houmt-Souk on Sidi-Mahrez Beach, we were amazed.  Its glimmering white walls and domes engulfed by shrubs and flowers made it appear like a fairyland structure.  One of the 25 hotels lining the eastern and southern coasts of Jerba, it is a jewel in a necklace of magnificent tourist abodes which hug the two shores. All are built in attractive Tunisian architecture and overflow with flowers.  A visitor can move freely from one to the next, enjoying their activities and partaking of their pleasures.  I know of no other place in the world where prices of such splendid lodging places were so low.  

After dining in style, we left Al Jazira and traversed the 514 sq km (198 sq mi) garden island to Ajim to take a ferry ack to the mainland.  During the 20-minute crossing, as I looked back at Jerba shimmering like a mirage above the water, Muhammad stopped beside me and smiled, “Was it not a paradise isle?”  The cool wind and perhaps the island’s aura of forgetfulness had almost put me in a trance.  All I could do was nod my head.

Soon we were making our way through olive groves back to Gabes 84 km (52 mi) away.  Deep in thought, I felt the gentle hand of a woman tap me on the shoulder.  “In our five days o travel, today is the only day I did not have craft disease”, the woman looked serious.  “What do you mean?  What’s craft disease?”  I was puzzled.  “Can’t remember a frigging thing!”, she snickered.  “It’s a disease many of us have when we hurriedly travel through foreign lands.  However, today I remember everything about the ghorfas and that captivating isle.  It is strange indeed…”.  Her voice trailed away as if in a dream.  In my mind there was no doubt.  Like a legion and I of others, the mystic charm of Jerba had ensnared her.