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Idyll times

The island of Jerba, off the south-eastern coast of Tunisia, has long been a place of legend. In Homer’s Odyssey, this was the Land of the Lotus-Eaters where the inhabitants passed their lives ‘in indolent forgetfulness, drugged by the legendary honeyed fruit’. Upon arriving on the island, Odysseus lamented that:

My men went on and presently met the Lotus-Eaters, nor did these Lotus-Eaters have any thoughts of destroying our companions, but they only gave them lotus to taste of. But any of them who ate the honey-sweet fruit of lotus was unwilling to take any message back, or to go away, but they wanted to stay there with the lotus-eating people, feeding on lotus, and forget the way home.

On my way to Jerba, the louage (shared taxi) driver, whose kind are not normally counted among the most poetic of people, announced that ‘you are going to the island of dreams’.

It is not difficult to see why myths of an idyllic life of indulgence persist. In summer, the island’s superb beaches are overrun with holiday-makers from Europe, while in winter flamingos gather in their thousands on the island’s north-east coast. Houmt Souq, the main town on the island, is an enchanting mix of uniformly whitewashed architecture, covered souqs (markets) and shady, café-filled squares covered in vines.

Jerba’s history is also like no other place in North Africa.

In the 8th century ad, the island became a refuge for the Ibadis, a schismatic Islamic Shi’a sect of the Kharijites who were fleeing persecution from more orthodox Islamic forces. The sect was predominantly Berber, the indigenous people of North Africa whose lands have throughout history been invaded by the Phoenicians, the Romans, the armies of Islam and the array of local dynasties which followed in their wake. The Berbers resisted, seeking out island, desert and mountain refuges as well as esoteric sects that expressed their resistance to orthodoxies of any kind but their own.

Their architecture tells the story of Jerba as a place of refuge. Mosques (more than 200) and menzels (fortified homesteads) abound across the island, each built implicit with heavily buttressed walls, squat minarets and watchtowers. Some are even underground. Even at worship, the Ibadis were fearful of attack and ready to mount a defence at a moment’s notice.

Today, the Ibadi doctrine survives only in the villages of southern Jerba and in the villages of the M’Zab Valley in central Algeria.

Living alongside the Ibadis of Jerba is one of the last remaining Jewish communities in the Islamic world, one of the oldest such communities anywhere outside Israel. The origin of the island’s main synagogue—El-Ghriba or The Miracle—at Erriadh in the centre of the island is, suitably for Jerba, cloaked in legend. It is believed that a stone descended from heaven onto this very spot where the synagogue was built under the direction of a mysterious woman who similarly appeared from nowhere. Whether this occurred in 586 bc, in the aftermath of Nebuchadnezzar’s destruction of Jerusalem, or after the Roman conquest of 71 ad, local Jews believe that on the day when the last Jew departs from the island, the keys to the synagogue will ascend to heaven.

That day may not be too far away. Many Jews of Jerba migrated to Israel after the Arab-Israeli wars of 1956 and 1967 and scarcely 200 remain. In April 2002, a suicide bomber drove his truck into the
synagogue, killing 19 locals and tourists.

Long before the events of April 2002, the Tunisian government was at war with the Islamic opposition.
Upon achieving independence in 1956, the leadership of newly independent Tunisia launched a modernisation drive, the central element of which was an assault on the religious authorities of the country.

This policy was the brainchild of Habib Bourguiba, widely regarded as the founding father of modern Tunisia and still one of only two presidents in almost 50 years of independent history. Three times exiled under the French, the charismatic Bourguiba, a Sorbonne-trained lawyer, saw Islam as a regressive force in Tunisian society push towards modernisation.

Islamic leaders were stripped of their traditional positions of influence. Those who did not comply were removed from office or imprisoned. Hundreds of religious schools were abolished while the Islamic college at the Zeituna Mosque in Tunis, a centre of Islamic learning dating back centuries, was subsumed into the Western-style University of Tunis. The sharia (Qur’anic law) courts were also closed, and more than 60,000 hectares of land belonging to religious institutions were confiscated. In 1960, Bourguiba began actively discouraging Muslims from observing the holy fasting month of Ramadan which he regarded as a drain on the nation’s productivity.

By the 1970s, an Islamic opposition party, the Islamic Association, had emerged. It was led by the popular cleric Rashid Ghannouchi and called for a return to Islamic values. At the same time as promising greater freedoms, Bourguiba outlawed the Islamic parties. In 1981, parties backing Bourguiba won all 136 seats in the first multi-party elections since independence. In the election’s aftermath, there were widespread anti-government riots, with dissent crystallising around the Islamic opposition.

Thousands of suspected Islamic activists were arrested. Torture, unfair trials and death sentences were the norm.

Alongside the repression, however, Bourguiba was credited by many in Tunisia with ensuring the nation’s stability. Tunisia inhabits a tough neighbourhood. Algeria has been devastated by a brutal civil war sparked by widespread support for militant Islamic opposition groups, the Egyptian government has fought a lower intensity battle against similar groups, while Libya is a country still emerging from pariah status among Western countries. North Africa is not a region renowned for its protection of human rights, which have always assumed secondary importance in the battle to defeat the enemy within. Tunisia’s population were deeply resentful of Bourguiba’s repression, yet also grateful that his pre-emptive strikes had won stability in a region destabilised by extremist Islam.

Tunisian women were among the strongest supporters of Bourguiba. As part of his program of modernisation, Tunisian women enjoy more freedoms than almost anywhere else in the Arab World. One of Bourguiba’s first acts was to outlaw polygamy, as well as the traditional practice which allowed men to divorce by simply renouncing their wives. He once described the veil as an ‘odious rag’ and banned it from schools and other government-run institutions. Women had to be 17 before they could be married and arranged marriages were severely restricted. By 1986 life expectancy for women had increased from 58 to 70 years, and girls now have equal access to education to boys; from 1966 to 2000, literacy rates for women rose from 17 per cent to 66 per cent. Almost a quarter of the workforce are women, including lawyers, magistrates and teachers.

In 1987 Bourguiba, who had assumed the title of ‘The Supreme Combatant, the Liberator of Women, the Builder of Modern Tunisia’, was replaced in a bloodless coup by his Interior Minister Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali. Little changed, however, in its policy towards Islam. From 1990 to 1992, a staggering 8000 alleged fundamentalists were detained. Then and until today, human rights groups such as Amnesty International have condemned Tunisia’s human rights record. Tunisia became something of an international outcast, with countries lining up to criticise the country’s human rights record.

How times have changed. Since September 11 2001, Tunisia is the West’s best friend in a world where suppressing Islamic militancy is the prevailing doctrine. Tunisia has a close relationship with the United States which ignores the fact that Ben Ali was re-elected in 1999 with 99.44 per cent of the vote (up from 99.27 per cent a decade earlier).

Today, if you stroll through the streets of Tunis, the capital, the tension caused by repression seems a world away. Parisian-style cafés line the pavements and are filled with young women and men, all dressed in the latest European fashions, mixing publicly in a way that would be unthinkable in most other Arab countries. It is a dynamic society, almost European in its public face and with an orientation towards whatever is new and modern.

Yet if you ask any Tunisian what he or she thinks of Ben Ali and his predecessor, you receive a wry smile and a furtive look over the shoulder. Most will assert that Ben Ali is a good president and leave the silence that follows for you to draw your own conclusions.

One man who was willing to talk was Bashir in Tozeur in the country’s south:

I will tell you something: if you go to drink coffee with me, we cannot talk like this. Of every five men in the café, three will work for the police. I have a friend who is a lawyer. One time he voted against the government. He was sacked from his job. When he tried to open a shop, the government closed it down. If I do not have a picture of Ben Ali in my shop, the government will close it. If someone doesn’t like someone, he will tell the police that he is an Islamist, just because he reads the Qur’an or goes to the mosque. That person will be arrested. It has happened to many of my friends. If there was an election, very few people want to vote for the Islamic parties. We are happy that what has happened in Algeria has not happened here. But do not think that this is freedom. This is dictatorship. If there were free elections in Tunisia, many would vote for the Islamic parties. But they would do it just to be against the government.

Back in Jerba, the island is slowly recovering from the April 2002 bombing, an event which locals refer to as ‘Le Catastrophe’. The tourists have returned to the island and Muslims and Jews continue to live alongside one another in peace—a mosque lies just 100m from the synagogue’s entrance.
After initial denials, al Qaeda was blamed for the attack, confirming local assertions that the bombing was the work of external extremists, pointing out that the local Muslim and Jewish communities have lived in harmony on Jerba for centuries.

But investigations have been unable to rule out Tunisian involvement. When I asked a local man about the bombing, which he deplored, he said that the involvement of disaffected Tunisians in the bombing would nonetheless come as no surprise. ‘If you give people no other way to express their beliefs and frustration, this is what can happen.’

In the meantime, Jerba has reverted to the spirit of its fortress architecture. The synagogue is now barricaded and encircled by police, its people again hiding behind the battlements while the lotus-eaters bask on the beach. ?

Anthony Ham is Eureka Street’s roving correspondent.



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