How a Tunisian island unites Muslims and Jews · Global Voices

La Ghriba is an event on the serene island of Djerba that brings together different faiths. Photography by Ayman Bodley, used with permission.

This article by Ayman Bodley was originally published by Raseef22 and is now republished as part of a collaborative project with Global Voices.

Every year in May, a unique and unusual event is organized in Tunisia. This North African country, home to Africa’s oldest synagogue, celebrates and salutes its Jewish origins with a pilgrimage to La Ghraib. It is an event that brings different faiths together on the peaceful island of Djerba.

As soon as the ferry docks on the coast, calm comes to Djerba. This island is the historical home of all Tunisians of the three major monotheistic religions and also hosts the annual Jewish pilgrimage. Djerba is often referred to as the “Island of Dreams”. This island gives visitors a sense of connectedness and affection. Everywhere you look you see palm trees. They stand along the rarely occurring back roads where you can quickly see the typical houses (or whoch) Djerba. Colorful little island stores, men wear grey gypsumwomen in salty biscuits (the traditional costume worn exclusively by the women of this island) and delusion (Traditional straw hats) are all part of the street scene.

This landscape abounds with the scent of the beautiful blue sea, sailors with their scattered boats, sellers of jasmine bouquets, groups of old people playing drafts, and women on their motorbikes. When you are here absorb all the nuances of colors and shapes. Sometimes these things are a little harsh and simple, but they are never boring or boring.

It is not only the heavenly beaches and unbeatable sunsets that make this place beautiful and unique. It is precisely the people of Djerba who are loved by countless visitors from all over the world and by Tunisians themselves.

Over the long history of this island, the inhabitants of Djerba have managed to maintain the peaceful coexistence of Muslim, Christian and Jewish communities. Something very rare, not only in the Arab world but in the whole world.

The Jews of Djerba

Before the establishment of the State of Israel in 1948, there were more than 100,000 Jews in Tunisia. Over time and with the 1967 Arab-Israeli war, many left this country. Tunisia has one of the largest Jewish communities in the Middle East and North Africa region. It has 2,000 Jews, 1,200 of whom live in Djerba.

Even now and despite their small number, Tunisian Jews retain an important place in the community of Djerba. Like their non-Jewish neighbors, they often work in the island’s tourism sector.

Djerba has one Jewish school (yeshiva) which provides secular and religious education for five- and six-year-olds as well as 14-year-olds. As you wander through the classes, you’ll hear students discuss Bible texts, constantly alternating between Tunisian Arabic and Biblical Hebrew. In another school, Al-Sawani Primary School, Muslim and Jewish students study together in the same classrooms, receiving the same non-religious academic training. Together, this study lays a firm foundation for interfaith harmony for their future society.

Tunisia is famous for its religious diversity and this is reinforced by the annual pilgrimage to Ghriba in Djerba. This year’s Hajj took place from 14 to 22 May. Visiting the synagogue and giving alms, alms, prayers and other local traditions are part of this event.

Non-Jewish Tunisians regularly participate in some of the traditions in the synagogue. Many women and local visitors bring eggs with the names of little girls from their families on them. These are placed in a particular place in the synagogue. At the end of the Hajj, the eggs are given to the young girls, who then eat the eggs. Traditionally, this increases their chances of getting married.

colorful pilgrimage

On your way to the synagogue you will notice clearly the presence of security measures. To ensure the ceremonies went smoothly, hundreds of police cars, mobile units and armored vehicles were parked on the road and around the house of worship. Before entering, visitors are screened and their bags thoroughly inspected.

Hundreds of Tunisian flags and distinctive blue and white buildings greet you as you walk through the security services.

Music is playing in the background and everyone is in a festive mood. Old and young wear the best party wear. Groups of festively dressed visitors rushed in the April sun to find a seat in Oukala (Traditional and cheap hotel located in the famous Tunisian Medina areas).

My mother bought me new clothes so I could wear them today. Now I’m waiting for my friends so we can play together. I find it very exciting! Ismael (8) says, smiling widely as he stands next to his parents and other family members.

Other guests who focus more on the religious aspect of the event go directly to the synagogue. Despite the rather small building, the interior is stunningly beautiful. The blue baked floor tiles of the four walls extend to the ceiling and are breathtaking. It is teeming with people.

Beneath the cellars and eternal lights, some guests sit reading the Torah while others light candles and whisper their cherished wishes with their eyes closed.

“I came to lay an egg for my only niece,” says Eliana, a 70-year-old French-Tunisian. “I know she doesn’t really believe in these stories, but when I was young I would go to this synagogue regularly and see my mother and my aunts doing the same. It is part of our history and our identity and I want to keep this tradition alive.”

Security weaknesses for the benefit of tourists

From an economic point of view, this annual pilgrimage is important not only for the local community, but for the whole country as the tourism industry has been revitalized on the island. It is also important politically because it helps shape Tunisia’s peaceful and multicultural identity. To avoid bad surprises, the event is prepared months in advance with the help of various partners and the Ministry of the Interior.

We still remember that Tunisia witnessed two tragic attacks on the Jewish community in Djerba. The first was in 1985 when a soldier who was maintaining order opened fire at the El Ghriba synagogue, killing five people. Twenty-one people were killed in 2002 by a 25-year-old Tunisian-French man who had links to al-Qaeda.

Because of these events, Tunisian authorities have taken steps to increase security at this annual event. Prime Minister Najla Boden, Tourism Minister Mohamed Moez Belhassen, Medenine Governor Said bin Zayed, Chief Rabbi of Tunisia Haim Bitan, in addition to many ambassadors and diplomats from countries such as France, Belgium, Germany, Italy and the United States. The beginning of the present pilgrimage.

Djerba remains a melting pot of cultures and a land of peace and tolerance for all. In this way, a message of love and peace stems from this,” Bowden says.

Tourism Minister Belhassen said the pilgrimage to El Ghriba is an important event for the start of the summer tourist season. The Hajj sends a message to the world of peaceful coexistence and tolerance for a better and more accessible society.

He added that the event brings together about 3,000 visitors, 50 journalists and many officials from 14 nationalities. According to him, it is not only an opportunity to discover the multicultural side of the island, but also to immerse yourself in a valuable destination that has many advantages.

Hajj organizers, led by Perez Trabelsi (head of the Ghriba Jewish Committee and leader of the Jewish community in Djerba), believe that this year’s Hajj season was very special on several levels. Two years after the pandemic In these troubled times It was very important to send a message of peace and coexistence from Tunisia to the whole world.

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