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How Tunisia is trying to resurrect a Jewish pilgrimage to the island of Djerba

Jewish visitors light candles at the ancient Ghriba synagogue in May 2019. Mohamed Messara/EPA

Many hundreds of years ago on the small Tunisian island of Djerba, a poor young Jewish woman called Ghriba lived as an outcast, separated from the other Jews on the island. She was later found dead in her home. Recognising that Ghriba was a saint, the local Jewish population, out of guilt for not having acknowledged her while alive, decided to build a synagogue on the spot of her house. Its construction marked the start of an annual Jewish pilgrimage – one of the rare pilgrimages in Judaism – to the Ghriba synagogue that occurs each year on the minor Jewish festival of Lag Ba’Omer.

The story of the poor recluse’s death is one of the many legends I heard by visitors during the 2019 pilgrimage to explain how the Ghriba synagogue was created. Truth be told, there is no surviving evidence that sheds light on its origins. The mystery surrounding the Ghriba pilgrimage doesn’t prevent Jews of Tunisian origin from travelling in large numbers to take part in the festivities. For as long as anyone can remember it has been the highlight of the Tunisian-Jewish calendar.

But in recent years, the number of people attending the Ghriba – which used to attract 10,000 pilgrims in its heyday in the early 1990s, has plummeted, partly because of the threat of terrorism. Due to its proximity to the Libyan border, the event was largely cancelled in 2011. Since then, the event has attracted only the most loyal visitors, usually between 2-3,000 people.

But in 2019, an estimated 6,000-7,000 people attended the event on May 22-23, due in part to a concerted marketing campaign by the Tunisian government and its Jewish minister for tourism.

The Jews of Djerba

The Jewish presence in Tunisia goes back millennia. It’s thought that the first group of Jews arrived in Djerba following the destruction of the temple in Jerusalem in 586BC, bringing with them a door and some stones from the temple, which later ended up in the sanctuary of the Ghriba synagogue.

As time went on, the Jews of Djerba proved more devout and reluctant to embrace modernity than those on the Tunisian mainland, rejecting non-Jewish education. Throughout the time that Tunisia was a French protectorate between 1881 and 1956, they upheld the Judeo-Arabic language and maintained a traditional way of life as craftsmen and artisans.

During World War II, Tunisia was occupied for six months by the Nazis, who rounded up and deported thousands of Jewish men to undertake forced labour in gruelling conditions in the desert. Several hundred Tunisian Jews died during the occupation. During this time, the Nazis plundered Djerba’s Jewish community, demanding that the Jews hand over 20kg of gold.

At the end of the war, 80,000 Jews lived in Tunisia. As was the case throughout the Arab world, the creation of the Jewish state of Israel, independence from the former colonial power – in Tunisia’s case from France in 1956 – and the escalation of the Arab-Israeli conflict, prompted a mass exile of Jews from their homelands.

For some time, and thanks in part to the position of Tunisia’s leader, Habib Bourguiba, Jews in Tunisia fared better than elsewhere in the Arab world. But riots against Jews in Tunis in the aftermath of the 1967 Six Day War, prompted thousands more to flee. Since then, the numbers of Jews have continued to dwindle. Today, around 1,500 Jews remain in Tunisia, the overwhelming majority of whom live in Djerba.

Ambitions for the Ghriba

In November 2018, in an attempt to reverse the country’s economic decline, Youssef Chahed, Tunisia’s young and highly energetic prime minister, appointed René Trabelsi, a successful local tour operator, as the country’s minister of tourism. As an orthodox Jew, Trabelsi’s appointment wasn’t met with enthusiasm from all sections of Tunisian society. Demonstrations took place in Tunis in the days that followed, accusing Trabelsi, the country’s first Jewish minister in more than 60 years, and the only Jewish minister in the Arab world, of wanting to normalise relations between Tunisia and Israel.

Tunisia’s new tourism minister, René Trabelsi, at the Ghriba pilgrimage in Djerba. Mohamed Messara/EPA

For the time being at least, Trabelsi appears to have weathered this early criticism by orchestrating a highly successful 2019 Ghriba, reminiscent of the festivities that took place in the 1990s. He has set a target for 20,000 to attend in future.

Jewish-Muslim co-existence

Despite no longer living in the country, many Jews of Tunisian heritage maintain a sense of attachment to the land of their ancestors. Each year, entire families – chiefly from France and Israel – descend on Djerba for the Ghriba pilgrimage. A large number of Tunisian Muslims also attend the event both as an occasion to catch up with their former neighbours, but also as a political gesture to signal the friendly co-existence between Jews and Muslims that has existed for centuries in Tunisia.

As part of my ongoing research on the history of the Jews of Tunisia, I attended the Ghriba on May 22. The format is similar every year. The festivities begin with a public auction, and Jewish and Muslim musicians bring out their ouds and derboukas to perform traditional music for hours under the pennants of the Tunisian flag strung across the courtyard. Inside the main synagogue, rebuilt in the 19th century in Moorish style, pilgrims pray and light candles. Jewish women, some dressed in traditional costume clad with gold bracelets and necklaces, write their hopes on a white hard-boiled egg.

The presence of a large number of Muslims at the 2019 Ghriba was all the more symbolic, since the pilgrimage coincided with Ramadan for the first time since 1987. To mark this, organisers arranged an enormous communal iftar meal. Hosted by Chahed and Trabelsi, Jews and Muslims sat together next to the synagogue at sunset to break the fast. As we sat outdoors at this meal, one lady, who left Tunisia aged 20 in 1967, told me she returns every year for the Ghriba. “My Muslim neighbours were like brothers and sisters. Tunisia will always be my home.”

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