Traveling Tunisia - Mediterranean journey | DW Documentary
The Mediterranean was once one of the most important crossroads at the heart of the ancient world. Today it has become a barrier separating Europe from Africa. Is there anything left of a past once shared? And what do today’s distinct cultures have in common? Journalists Sineb El Masrar and Jafaar Abdul Karim travel the coasts of the Mediterranean in search of answers.
Do you see yourself a Tunisian Jew? Yes, with all the rights and responsibilities. How do you afford the food for all these animals? God helps us. Join us on a journey to get to know the people and their dreams - a Mediterranean Journey. Today my journey takes me to Tunisia. It may be the smallest country in North Africa, but it boasts diverse landscapes.
And with its rich cultural heritage, it’s a microcosm of the Mediterranean world. Tunisia has around 12 million residents. For 75 years, the country was a French protectorate.
In the early 1950s, Habib Bourguiba spearheaded the Tunisian independence movement. In 1959, he became Tunisia’s first elected president. As soon as you hear the words ‘barcha barcha’, you know you’re in Tunisia - or more precisely, in the capital Tunis. It’s incredibly beautiful; the sun’s shining. And I’m looking forward to meeting Rochdi, who loves to dance. And I want to watch him.
Rochdi Belgasmi is a choreographer - and probably the only male belly dancer in Tunis. Ever since belly dancing was popularized in the West in the 19th century, the women have faced sexist and Orientalist stereotypes. Rochdi plays with these stereotypes by slipping into the ‘female’ role. I caught up with Rochdi Belgasmi in the Medina of Tunis. The capital’s old town is a labyrinth of narrow alleyways, where carpet dealers, perfumers and shoe salesmen sell their wares. The streets are full of young people.
I see that you love the old town. Why? I love it ‘cause it’s like me. I had many offers to live in countries like France and Belgium, but I always turned them down, because my work has no meaning outside of Tunisia. I work on Tunisian dance, which belongs here. If I did that somewhere else, it would be like taking a fish out of the ocean - it would die.
So, your ocean’s Tunis. Right! Here, Rochdi Belgasmi is rehearsing with a musician at a theater in the old town. What’s this instrument called? It’s a Farcha. They only exist in Tunisia. If you find a drum like this, you know it’s from here. You know anything like this? I know the darbuka.
The darbuka’s bigger. This here’s the Tunisian tabla. Tell me what moves you to dance.
One reason is our society’s false view of how shall I put it... of men’s bodies. What’s this image of men ? That a man doesn’t move or dance is one of the many stereotypes that exist in Arabic-Muslim countries. For instance, when I give a performance about eroticism or sexuality, there are negative reactions from the audience, the press and society. Why? ‘They’re taboo. Tunisia gained independence in 1956. But it took many decades and the Arab Spring for the country to become a fledgling democracy.
When it comes to women’s rights, Tunisia is one of the most liberal Muslim countries in the region - though reforms are still needed. I’m standing in front of ‘Beit al-Hikma’, the House of Wisdom. Here in Tunisia there are topics which some don’t dare to discuss out loud.
The Koran is one of them. So, I’m meeting Dr. Sellin, a researcher who has helped re-contextualize the Koran. In the library lie five thick volumes entitled: “The Koran Text and its Variants”.
Dr. Selin worked on them for years, analyzing Jewish and Christian sources, as well as Aramaic- and Syriac literature in the process. The Koran was revealed more than 1400 years ago. How does it need to change in 2020? The Koran doesn’t change.
But? The mentality about how we deal with the Koran must change. Those reading the Koran today need to alter the way they approach the texts, and their way of thinking. Which method did you choose? The Koranic verses should speak for themselves - not through some imam or missionary, who sets out certain rules of faith that people should follow. When debate began in Tunisia about men and women’s rights regarding inheritance law, the Islamic leaders of the old Al-Zaytuna mosque started spreading untruths. They spoke of a ‘clear unambiguity’ about this issue in the Koran.
That means for them: it’s written that way in the Koran and there’s nothing we can do about it. In this case, they say there’s no gender equality between men and women, and when it comes to equality, only God’s justice matters. They believe it’s God’s will that women have a lower status than men. And your opinion? I say that the Koran doesn’t say that. They’re only using parts of the Koran and making a whole science out of it.
I, on the other hand, take from the Koran that it is the will that essentially determines who is entitled to inherit. You shouldn’t cling to the idea that only heirs-at-law can inherit. I think the Koran says something completely different than these people.
The alleged ‘clear unambiguity’ doesn’t exist. So, a man shouldn’t inherit more than a woman? Right. Okay, I have a personal question for you.
Ask away. Do you see yourself as a Muslima? Of course, and a committed one. I think I’m closer to God than them. Than who? Those people.
Who are they? These imams and sheikhs who are poisoning the younger generation. They see young people as marionettes to be manipulated. My first day in Tunisia is coming to an end. So many thoughts are going through my head this evening. This isn’t the first time I’ve been in Tunisia, but rarely have I experienced it as intensively as I have today. One of the country’s prettiest places is the artists’ village Sidi Bou Saïd.
Tunisia’s middle and upper classes are at home here along Tunis’ Mediterranean coast in the affluent suburb of Carthage. The sandy beaches of La Marsa are a popular destination for day-trippers from Tunis, looking to escape the hot and muggy inner city. Anissa Meddeb is a young fashion designer from Tunis with an ambitious goal. She wants to conquer the international market with ‘Anissa Aida’, the fashion label she founded in 2016. I meet her at her parents’ house. Anissa belongs to the Tunisia’s predominantly French-influenced upper class.
She grew up in Tunis and Paris, and studied fashion design in New York. I’m thinking : Which one would I wear? Yeah. You know? I think I will go for this. This one? Yeah.
The pattern... It’s nice. Yeah, the fabric is handwoven... The fabric is very nice. I like it.
In Ksar Hellal, which is a region in Tunisia. And the pattern is inspired by the patterns on foutas, the hammam towels. Ah! Ok. Ok, I got it.
So, this is handwoven by artisans in the Medina of Tunis. So, this artisan that I’m working with, his family has been working in silk weaving for seven generations. The brand is called Anissa, it’s your name? Anissa is my name. And Aida? Aida is my sister’s name.
It’s a tribute. My sister passed away in 2010, so it’s a tribute to... Sorry to hear that. She was living in Madrid and she had a car accident before going to university.
Well, so now you show your love for her through what you’re doing. Yeah, exactly. I wanna try this one. Nice, yeah. Let’s see. But I feel like I’m doing karate or ninja or something, right? Yeah.
In Japanese this kind of clothing is called keikogi. And it’s some kind of kimono, but it’s worn for martial art. Exactly, I feel like I’m a martial art warrior or something. Exactly. Does it look good? - Yeah. - Really? Yeah.
I do also have a version in neoprene. It’s really nice. I like the colors. Why is it important for you to stay here? Yeah, because there are also a lot of opportunities.
You can find artisans who are making incredible things and so, this is really a resource. So, you wanna support... I do wanna support... The fashion industry. ... and I wanna show the world what Tunisia has - and has to say.
In 2010 Tunisia underwent a period of great upheaval. The self-immolation of street vendor Mohamed Bouazizi provided the catalyst for the Arab Spring. After dictator Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali fled the country, Tunisia held its first free elections. Much has changed since then, but many young Tunisians still have no work and few prospects.
Do you work? Is it easy to find work? Yes, but the problem is that the work is underpaid, even if it’s hard work with lots of working hours. How much would you earn? 20 for a day’s work. 20 dinar? Right, 20 dinar. What’s that in euros? 10 euros. No, more like 7 euros. That’s how it is.
Anyone who says differently is lying. Is there work? Will you find work or is it tough? Often we have to wait a long time. I leave the capital, Tunis, and head south. After travelling roughly 270 kilometers I reach Tunisia’s second-largest city: Sfax. It’s an important commercial and industrial center, which is why the Mediterranean isn’t so clean here. In Sfax’s city center I meet some young people who are trying to change that.
At this co-working space, young start-up entrepreneurs meet regularly to find innovative solutions to environmental, ecological and sustainability issues. You’re one of the founders of Ecozone? That’s right. Why the focus on ’Eco’? Eco comes from ecology. In Sfax we have environmental issues and pollution. It’s not a healthy environment. So, it was our goal to create a space in which ecology plays a role and in which it’s possible to exchange ideas about this.
You can work here, and there are also lectures, training sessions and gatherings. People work and, at the same time, get the chance to meet others. They can collaborate on projects or even produce them here. We hope that these projects, which we’re supporting, will grow at some point. Sahar Chakroon and her colleagues are helping young entrepreneurs found start-ups. They show them how to create a business plan, explain product development and - most of all - tell them how to market themselves.
Why did you decide to go into business for yourself? One of the things I’ve noticed in Tunisia is that many people aim to become civil servants. Entrepreneurship isn’t that popular. So why do you want to do this? As an entrepreneur you give it your all.
You have the opportunity to be active in your field and change things for the better. My field is medicine. As an entrepreneur, I can - for example - develop an app to reach people. One of the challenges in Tunisia is the very high unemployment.
Many young people have trouble finding a job. What do you think can be done to solve that? We need to think globally, in terms of retail, too. So the infrastructure’s missing? Yes, it’s missing entirely. The state must give us the chance to pass on our knowledge, internationally as well. Tunisia is known more for its human capital than for resources like oil or something.
It’s nice to see how these young people are taking the initiative themselves, rather than waiting for the government to change things. From Sfax I head north again to Nabeul, where something typically Tunisian awaits me. I’m in a hammam. Normally I wouldn’t be sitting here fully dressed. Tunisians usually come here for some R&R. But this time I’ve decided to do something different.
I’m going to have a facial mask, ‘cause I’m looking quite tired. I’m curious how I’ll look afterwards - since I’m acting as a guinea pig! You’re going to try that out on me? Chaima Attia is training to be a beautician. Now tell him what you’re going to do today. What am I having? An argil mask.
Argil is a kind of clay, right? Exactly. It’s a medicinal clay that we mix with rose water and orange blossom extract. We mix that with the argil to make a very smooth facial mask. It brightens and moisturizes the skin and cleanses it, which is why we sometimes rub it on the entire body in the steam bath. It helps combat wrinkles and has an anti-aging effect.
Anti-Aging? I need anti-aging! Yallah! What does the hammam mean to you? Going to the hammam is a typically Tunisian custom. All Tunisians go to the hammam once a week. It stems from the fact that in the old days, people didn’t have hot, running water at home or good sanitary facilities.
Men and women together? No, separately. There are times for men, and others for women. But at the same hammam, just at different times. Then there are hammams just for men or women. This is my first mask, ever, ever, ever.
I never thought I’d have a facial... But ok, whatever. I have to wait for ten minutes and can’t move or talk.
That’s tough for me. But I’ll grit my teeth and get on with it! Tunisia doesn’t have a dual education system like Germany. Apprentices learn on the job rather than attending vocational schools. Even if someone says they’ve had two years of training, we often find on the job that he or she can do little. When you ask them, ‘Do you know how to do this or that?’, you soon notice they don’t.
Often, they haven’t been shown how to do the simplest things. There’s no professional training here. That’s so good. It’s really good.
How is it? Good? Yes. Perfect? Really nice? 10 years younger. It’s meant to make me look ten years younger. I feel better, at any rate. How it looks....um...yeah.
You’re happy with the result? Then it’s perfect! Refreshed and feeling a decade younger, I leave Nabeul and head for Djerba, North Africa’s largest island. Settled since antiquity, it has its own distinct culture. While the coastal towns are full of tourists, life in the island’s interior is still very traditional. It’s Friday: market day in the village of Er-Riadh.
Everywhere you see the straw hats which are typical for Djerba. The street art project “Djerbahood” took place here in 2014. Some 150 artists from all over the world came to create colorful murals on Er-Riadh’s white walls. In this village, Jews and Muslims have lived side by side, in relative peace, for centuries. I’m in Er-Riadh and, if you listen closely, in the background you’ll hear the Friday prayer.
But Jews also live here, which is why I’m standing in front of the La Ghriba synagogue. You used to be able to walk through here without a rigorous security check. But that all changed in 2002, when the synagogue became the target of a terror attack. Before World War II, some 100-thousand Jews lived in Tunisia. During the German occupation, thousands of Jews were killed or interned in camps.
After the war, many felt unwelcome and left. Khore is with me now. He’s responsible for this synagogue on Djerba. It’s called La Ghriba, or ‘the stranger‘. The synagogue’s called La Ghriba.
Why’s it named ‘the stranger’? Because it contains a stone from Jerusalem. So, they brought a stone from Jerusalem and since this stone comes from a foreign country they? They brought a stone, but didn’t say where it came from. Just that it came from abroad. So folks called the synagogue La Ghriba, or ‘the stranger”.
And roughly how old is this synagogue? Around 2600 years old. 2600 years? It’s Africa’s oldest synagogue. Each year the synagogue becomes a place of pilgrimage for Jews from around the world. They come here to celebrate the religious holiday Lag BaOmer. Many have their roots in Tunisia.
On Friday evening in the village of Er-Riadh on Djerba they’re preparing for the Sabbath. There’s a buzz of excitement. On the street, vendors are selling homemade cakes. The children get sweets - and I just can’t resist. I saw there were sweet treats here, and I just had to come and try some.
They’re typical Jewish treats from Djerba. We prepare them for Shabbat. For the Sabbath? Exactly.
They’re served at the table. What tastes good and is fresh? This is still warm from the oven. Warm? Then I’ll take half a piece.
That Jewish tradition is still thriving on Djerba is a testament to mutual tolerance. The vast majority of Djerba’s residents are Muslims. Or, more precisely, Ibadis.
But sometimes there’s no escaping world politics - even on a small island in the Mediterranean. In the Middle East there’s war between Arabs and Israel, and that causes a lot of confusion. Some people think we’re Israelis, but we have nothing to do with Israel. We’re not Israelis. We’re Tunisians.
So, because you’re Jewish, they call you an Israeli and get their facts mixed up. What do you tell them? That I have nothing to do with all those things. Do you see yourself as a Tunisian Jew? Yes, of course. I’m Tunisian, with all the rights and responsibilities that everyone else has.
I’ve an ID card, passport, education. All those rights. My trip is coming to an end - and I must leave Tunisia and its fledgling democracy behind. Looking back, what really impressed me was the motivation of the young people, the energy of the dancers. I believe this country has enormous potential, because a country’s greatest strength is its people. And the people here are incredibly motivated and want to change things.
That’s what I’ll take away with me.