Life & Culture

Pilgrim’s progress: journey to Djerba

This year the annual Jewish pilgrimage to Djerba resumed after Covid . But how authentic is the experience, asks Zoe Strimpel


French Jewish piglrims light candles at the Ghriba synagogue in Tunisia's southern resort island of Djerba on May 18, 2022 during the annual Jewish pilgrimage to the synagogue. - May 18 marks the beginning of of the annual pilgrimage of Jews to the oldest Jewish monument built in Africa, after a two-year absence due to Covid-19. (Photo by FETHI BELAID / AFP) (Photo by FETHI BELAID/AFP via Getty Images)

In her brilliant book People Love Dead Jews, the American essayist and novelist Dara Horn argues that the Jewish heritage industry — apparently “celebrating” the Jewish past — is actually a way of making people feel better about themselves. Jews once lived in a place — and look how we preserve and bring back to life their traditions! Let’s just not talk about the murderous antisemitism that wiped them out, or the fact that returning to live in that place would be either dangerous or impossible.
It was Horn’s blistering argument that I carried with me on a recent trip to Tunisia for the extraordinary spectacle of the pilgrimage, or ‘pelerinage’ to the El Ghriba synagogue on the island of Djerba, a centuries-old Jewish tradition honouring the memory of an outcast girl who, after being found dead in her home, is revered as the Jewish version of a saint.
Tunisia is very different from its neighbours Libya and Algeria: it is committed to secular law, based on the Napoleonic code, and I saw plenty of women, especially in Tunis, in Western, even revealing garb. Crucially, it has a large, dynamic tourism industry, and it is very keen indeed to maintain and grow it — particularly after the terrorist attacks in 2015 in Sousse which left 38 people dead, 30 of them British holidaymakers. Its slogan for tourism now is “Ready and safe”.
What does this mean for Jews? The answer is complicated. Tunisia has been home to Jews for millennia, though only a miniscule number live there now. Violence and insecurity accompanied independence from France in 1956 which, combined with the government’s hostile encouragement to its Jews to move to the new state of Israel, all but emptied Tunisia of its community.
Despite the small numbers there now, there is enough risk of lethal antisemitism to ensure that the last kosher restaurant in the capital closed in 2015 due to security concerns. The tiny Djerba Jewish school was attacked by firebombs last time the island’s prodigious security was distracted due to strikes over rising prices.
The pilgrimage itself was targetted by terrorist attacks in 1985 and 2002, when an Al Queda-sponsored truck loaded with liquid propane rammed into the synagogue, killing 19. And nowadays antisemitism, (usually) masquerading as anti-Zionism, is mandated from on high, albeit in a slightly confused fashion.
Tunisia is run by an anti-democratic “president” ,Kaïs Saïed, who just last year during economic unrest accused the Jews of destabilising the country, saying “it’s the Jews who are stealing”.
After the diatribe he rang up Haim Bitan, the diminutive Chief Rabbi of Tunisia and Djerba, and apologised. But previously he had said ties with Israel were “high treason” because the country was “at war” with Israel, and that only Jews without “dealings with Zionists” or Israeli passports could visit synagogues in Tunisia — yet dozens if not hundreds of Tunisian Jews from Israel are waved through each year for the pilgrimage.

They won’t be able to watch Wonder Woman in their hotel rooms at night: Saied has banned films starring Gal Gadot, who served in the Israeli Army, to show “solidarity” with Palestinians. And yet, the previous tourism minister Rene Trabelsi was Jewish — the only Jewish minister in the Arab world: I saw his plump, friendly-looking form loafing about the pilgrimage celebrations, yarmulke in full view.
And yet, and yet. This was the insistent current that ran through my trip as I saw the Tunisian Jewish diaspora en masse pray and light candles and process and exuberantly dance and sing; as I saw rabbis and Jewish dignitaries in huddles with European ambassadors and government suits, under the protection of the army’s top brass,
Here was a country that sees ties with “Zionists” as “high treason” and yet that puts maximum muscle — not simply lip service — into making sure Jews aren’t hurt on its soil — at least during pilgrimage season.
The security operation mounted on Djerba that week was like none I had ever experienced — taxis were swept before driving up to hotels; passports and metal detectors and checkpoints and tanks and convoys were everywhere. As numerous Tunisians told me, pilgrimage week is the gateway to the whole tourism season, in 2022 their first proper one in two years. It has to go off safely.

The reason? While North Africa is hardly most Jews’ tourism destination of choice, and the “market” they represent must be minimal, blown-up Jews — to put it crudely — is not a good look. It might — and here I surmise, as I couldn’t get anyone to answer me straight on this — put off other bigger markets; Americans, Brits, even some Europeans.
So, was the tourism push around the El Ghriba pilgrimage on Djerba just more evidence of people loving dead Jews — of making a show of preserving their heritage so the living can feel smug and virtuous? Perhaps, but on the ground, I found reality more complex, more layered.
I felt this in the company of a circle of Jews who had returned to Tunis, and had formed a new academic and artistic intelligentsia, replete with art installations and cultural centres. Among this new intelligentsia was the beautiful Camille Lévy from Toulouse, who has set up Bis32, a centre for contemporary art with international artist residents and a wealthy funder.
Lévy told me she experiences far less antisemitism in Tunis than she had in Toulouse, and in her on-goings dealings with French people, even arty elites, who “really have a problem”. I also met Levy’s friend and colleague, the acclaimed artist Rafram Chaddad. Chaddad is famous in Tunisia: heritage-wise he is Djerban Jewish aristocracy (he was born in Djerba) , but he grew up in Israel after his parents left Tunisia in the late 1970s.

He is unique — and to some extent endangered — in having an Israeli passport as well as a Tunisian one and provoked a grave international incident in 2010 when he was kidnapped and tortured for five months in a Libyan prison until one day, sure he was to be executed, he was smuggled out in a private plane.
A few days after the pilgrimage we had lunch in La Punique, an elegant restaurant in Carthage next to the Punic ports, as Chaddad received warm hellos from the parade of local media celebrities dropping in for lunch in the idyllic garden.
“There used to be three Jewish newspapers, there were Jewish publishing houses, the communist party was [mostly] Jews, “ he told me. “It was nice here. Why we left? Because they told us to go!”
Beyond the artists’ circle and the warm embrace of the pilgrimage, Tunisia felt good as a tourist. Unlike in Morocco or, I would imagine Egypt, it felt genuinely quite relaxed; the kind of place a woman like me could wander around peering at things without a sense of menace.
The sole exception to this was Gellella in Djerba, home to a famous heritage museum on a hill and lots of pottery workshops — I soon noticed I was the only woman on the street.
And Tunis and Djerba, as well as the desert, where Star Wars was filmed, are simply gorgeous. In Djerba, which has crystalline turquoise waters, immaculate beaches and great food, the Jewish enclaves are the most picturesque of all. El Ghriba itself, where the pilgrimage takes place, is the most beautiful synagogue I have ever seen, and might be the loveliest in the world. A complex with whitewashed cloisters and courtyards, draped in the jolly red of the Tunisian flag on our visit, the shul itself has magisterial blue vaulting, richly decorated, mosaiced walls and ceilings and a trove of ceremonial silver. It was built in the late 19th century on the site of a sixth century building, which contained, as legend has it, fragments of the first Jewish temple in Jerusalem.
For an Ashkenazi Jew like me, the pilgrimage celebrations were wild to behold, and the Tunisian government deserves credit for ensuring they could take place safely. Old and young crowded the courtyards egging on an auctioneer, singing along to a band, and scoffing expensive but delicious food (home-made almond and honey cakes; meat skewers, couscous, deep fried meatballs).

In the synagogue’s inner chamber where, mosque-style, shoes had to be removed, women wrote the names of other women on hardboiled eggs (purchasable in a kiosk) —hopes for loved ones who want to get pregnant, or get healthy, or simply who need a thought and a wish. Amid much jostling, the eggs were then placed into a sunken furnace along the far wall of the inner chamber.
As I queued to put my own egg in, the eggs in the furnace caught fire, whereupon my friend’s bottle of water saved the day. After the flames died down, a pilgrim in a pretty dress and colourful headscarf actually crawled full-body into the furnace. It was the female equivalent of the kind of transport one sees among men at the Kotel. It was excellent.
Away from the pilgrimage, the Tunisian tourism ministry wanted us to see for ourselves that Djerba is a multi-faith and tolerant enclave. I found it hard not to be seduced by this branding as I strolled around Houmt Souk, Djerba’s whitewashed main city. There is the pristine yellow-trimmed Catholic church, facing a shop with a tallis on display in front. There were pretty mosques and best of all was the bustling market with several kosher restaurants (Brik Ishak, serving the famous Tunisian speciality brik, a deep fried envelope containing soft-boiled egg and often tuna fish), Jewish jewelers and silversmiths, and, on an adjacent square, a synagogue.
Also seductive was the Djerbahood art installation in Hara Sghira, the ancient Jewish village just ten minutes’ walk from the Ghriba synagogue. It is a series of striking murals, painted by a fleet of international artists, and funded by the EU. But herein lay yet another rub: walking through the village one feels the electric thrill of having stumbled on a true arty gem (the presence of the gorgeous boutique hotel Dar Dhiafa confirms the sense of triumph). The paintings cover entire buildings and walls and include everything from a concentric circle of little black marching figures to people in Jewish apparel sewing to a woman with birds flying out of her hair. But when the surprise of the first glimpse wears off, the discomfort sets in. As Chaddad told me, no other endangered ethnic minority would see their oldest village scrawled over (permanently) by the “art” of an international crew of artists invited, without their consultation, to essentially stimulate tourism. This was a case of not quite loving dead Jews, but using dead Jews, for profit. To some, it is plain vandalism dressed up as art.

My verdict? Tunisia is not entirely benevolent, which is not a surprise for a country run by a man who demonises Israel whenever possible, a country suffering extreme poverty. But the story on the ground is always complicated, and I encountered generally very friendly people, as well as a burgeoning middle class.
None of the Tunisians I met had any objections to Jews, though the same cannot be said of the French tourists I overheard on the beach.
Without doubt Tunisia is beautiful, interesting, and has a genuinely rich Jewish heritage. It is clearly a place of great attraction to a growing number of its diaspora Jews. But the crude analysis, and I fear the right one, is that the Jews can live well enough in Tunisia, and particularly in Djerba, because the prospect of a robust tourism industry overpowers habitual hatred of “Zionists”.
It was obvious, even on my short trip, that many acrobatics go into insisting that “Zionists” and “Zionism” does not mean Jews. Jews, we are assured, are welcome.
And who is to say they aren’t? However dark some of the underlying politics, I saw some of the most exuberant displays of Jewish worship of my life. Would I return next year? Yes, I would.

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