Seven years after its revolution, the country is luring visitors back with desert settlements and a diverse history
In the cool interior of his troglodyte cave, Ali Diglish is speaking at full tilt. The 26-year-old guide from Chenini barely draws breath. Like much of the country these days, this Berber village in southern Tunisia doesn’t get many visitors, so Diglish is seizing his chance.
“Before the revolution we had 500 or 1,000 tourists coming each day,” Diglish says. “Now only 20 people come here. There used to be 12 local guides — now there are only three.” Tourism to Tunisia dried up after the country’s revolution in 2011. Terrorist attacks in Tunis and Sousse in 2015 made matters worse, prompting the UK and other European governments to advise against travel to Tunisia. The overall impact on places such as Chenini has been devastating. But following its French and German counterparts, Britain’s Foreign Office last year lifted its travel advisory, and a trickle of tourists are now returning. Most stay in beach hotels in Hammamet and Sousse, where they enjoy the sun, swimming pools, sea views and resort standards. Few visit remote southern villages.
This is a shame, because Tunisia’s south is a breathtaking land of desert, oases, salt lakes and communities whose older ways of life may soon disappear altogether. Djerba is the obvious gateway to the south. Located on one of the Mediterranean’s ancient trading routes, this island off Tunisia’s south-east coast boasts its own fascinating history.
Djerba is thought to be the land of the Lotus-Eaters in Homer’s Odyssey. In the epic poem, Ulysses recounts how his men are cast by winds on to the island’s shores. The locals offer them lotus flowers. Some of the seafarers become addicted to the “honey-sweet fruit” and lose any desire to return home. Many of today’s visitors are equally happy to linger on this sleepy island, connected to the mainland via a long bridge, originally built by the Romans. As well as its beaches, the main town, Houmt Souk, has a lovely medina, with some old Jewish houses like Dar Dhiafa converted into boutique hotels.
Leading a camel into the desert © Christopher Wilton-Steer Thousands of Jews used to live on Djerba. The first are said to have arrived in the 6th century BCE, after the Babylonians destroyed Solomon’s Temple, forcing the high priests and other Israelites to flee from Judah. Today, some of the thousand remaining Jews on Djerba wear black bands around their trousers, commemorating the destruction of the temple.
I visit Djerba during the annual Lag B’Omer festival, a Jewish pilgrimage to the island, attracting thousands from all over the world, including Israel. They converge upon the El Ghriba synagogue, its two richly decorated halls lined with flickering candles. The pilgrims either chat in groups, over almonds and biscuits, or sit apart, whispering passages from the Torah to themselves, rocking gently in rhythm with the words. South of Djerba, on the mainland around Tataouine, the olive groves give way to harsher terrain. Pockets of irrigated land punctuate the arid landscape.
These green enclaves sustain small fields of wheat and palm, olive and fruit trees. Berbers here have farmed in this way for millennia. There is silence in our car as we contemplate the changing landscape. “In the 11th century, the people here became split between settled communities and Bedouin nomads,” says my guide Ahmed, breaking our reverie. The Berber way of life was torn apart. The land was invaded. Tens of thousands of Arab nomads entered the region. Writing 300 years later, in the 14th century, historian Ibn Khaldun believed that “the Arabs outnumbered and overpowered the Berbers, [and] stripped them of most of their lands”.
This period of insecurity lasted centuries. Some chose to settle and defend their property, while others opted for — or were co-opted into — a more nomadic lifestyle. It was during this time that Berbers built village strongholds known as ksars. A ksar usually contained fortified granaries known as ghorfas on which communities relied to protect their grain, dates and oil from marauding horsemen. The ghorfas at Ksar Ouled Soltane, 20km south of Tataouine, are extraordinary: two courtyards of little stone warehouses resembling hobbit homes, with four-foot-high, centuries-old doors, at times reaching four storeys — their sheer otherworldliness inspired George Lucas to use them for scenes in Star Wars. “Local farmers last used the granary in the 1960s,” says a local guide, who offers us tea, heated over a single gas flame, at his café, installed within a second-storey ghorfa. Today, children play among the old buildings.
There are just two Tunisian tourists visiting this remarkable place. At some of the fortified villages, rather than build houses, people simply dug into the hillside. Chenini, west of Tataouine, is one of several Berber settlements that probably began as a series of troglodyte caves (the ancient Greek word trōglodútēs means “one who dwells in holes”). “Chenini was built in the 11th century, when the Arabs arrived from the east,” Ali Diglish says, as we climb a steep track through the village.
“Today there are 80 families still living here.” A blinding white mosque dominates Chenini. Perched on the hilltop alongside it is a café where old men sit in the shade, drinking glasses of tea and coffee. On the paths that meander up the slope are one or two elder men and women ambling along in their loose-fitting robes and white headscarves. Otherwise, there is no motion anywhere, just wind, rock and the fading light of dusk. Located near Chenini and sharing its characteristics are Douiret and Guermassa. Built on elevated land, they too are founded on troglodyte origins; they too incorporated fortified granaries. The mosques at each village, painted entirely in white, are beacons among the earth-coloured houses. Many of these homes are now empty though, lying in ruins.
“There are just two families left here,” says Raouf, manager of Chez Raouf, a guest house in Douiret converted from old rock-hewn dwellings. The accommodation is basic but the views are exhilarating, and two French guests are thrilled. But other than Raouf, you won’t see many people in Douiret. At Guermassa, you won’t see any; the former Berber village is now uninhabited. Berbers do actually live in the region, and those south of Djerba and in Chenini speak Shelha, a language entirely different from Arabic. Contrary to colourful portrayals in books, however, the Berbers look much the same as their Tunisian compatriots. Still, Ali Diglish insists Berber culture is different: “We have seven-day-long weddings! We live together! Everybody knows each other.
” Language aside, I suspect that centuries of Arab-Berber interaction diluted any old distinctions between these people. Some locals believe that Habib Bourguiba, Tunisia’s founding president, wanted to integrate Berbers into the Arab nation as a precaution, after a southern uprising in 1956. More likely he simply sought to modernise Tunisian society along more western lines, which also had the effect of eroding cultural differences in remote communities. “Certainly the drive towards modernisation and homogenisation militated against the preservation of any Berber culture,” says Kenneth Perkins, professor of North African and Middle Eastern History at the University of South Carolina.
Bourguiba’s modernising vision, says Perkins, explains why Chenini, Douiret and Guermassa all had new towns created during his presidency. These modern iterations were established in the plains below the old villages. They provided Berber populations with clean drinking water, schools and health facilities, and assimilated them further within a more uniform state. The ancient Berber grain stores that inspired Tatooine in ‘Star Wars’ © Christopher Wilton-Steer Further south, in the evening light, the landscape becomes flatter and drier. Soon, no more trees can be seen, just sandy earth and esfand bush, interspersed with fagonia, whose purple flowers are in bloom.
Dunes appear. The sun finally sets; a blaze of fuchsia. The sky is vast. At the Zmela camp, located within the Sahara desert, the sand is as fine as flour. With nightfall, the air cools. The stars emerge, their light turning the sand a bright grey, like waves of clay. I wake with the dawn light, to the patter of Ahmed praying in the dunes nearby. We drive along the edge of the desert to Ksar Ghilane, the most southerly of the Tunisian oases, and a natural gateway to the Sahara. A thermal water source sustains the date palms and the nomads who stop off among the cool vegetation. Our driver tells us that members of the nomadic Rubaye tribe still live in the desert, travelling by dromedary between Tunisia and Algeria. Ksar Ghilane is now also a base for desert tourism. Among other activities, it is possible to travel by camel to the nearby Roman fort of Tisavar, built during the reign of Commodus in late 2nd century.
This ancient fort is why this oasis camp is still referred to as a ksar. But today there is no need for military fortifications here. Unlike almost all other north African countries, Tunisia’s desert is free from armed groups. We drive north and west, along flat, parched lands. The sun bleaches all colour from view. The odd camel, apparently free from Bedouin supervision, ambles through the esfand bush. The journey west to Tozeur is via Douz, and then the Chott el Djerid, an enormous salt flat. You can walk out on to this near 3,000 sq mile expanse of sparkling white crust and experience a surreal sense of smallness and isolation; the usual boundaries of space and time collapse. Writer Harry Johnstone © Christopher Wilton-Steer After the desert and salt flats, the lush mass of palm and fruit trees on the approach to Tozeur is a relief. Hundreds of thousands of palm trees grow around this oasis town. Tozeur’s municipality decreed that the narrow streets and walls of the old medina should be constructed in the traditional style of the area, with local earthen bricks arranged across façades in attractive geometric patterns. Pretty street lamps hang from the walls.
The alleyways are clean. Together it evokes another era, of desert traders, explorers and mystics. Indeed there is a small museum in Tozeur that for centuries was a house for Sufi practice. Followers of the Tariqa Issawiya order, founded by the Moroccan saint Sidi Ben Aïssa in the 15th century, used to gather for nocturnal rituals encompassing song, polyrhythmic percussion and dances that would induce a trance among their participants. We are at the end of our journey.
I feel both inspired and reassured. Tozeur is a town with an absorbing past, its walls capturing the ethos of the place. And with beautiful maison d’hôtes like Dar Nejma in its medina, it supports a form of boutique tourism that champions the local. To me, the town is an example of how Tunisia can proudly promote its diverse history and culture to a wider spectrum of tourists. This may help to attract visitors to all corners of the country, bringing tangible benefits to local populations. The likes of Ali Diglish may then be able to breathe more easily.
TunisianMonitorOnline (Financial Times by Harry Johnstone)