The day Tunisia’s La Goulette became, once again, a little Sicily

The statue of the Madonna of Trapani, which normally stands above an altar in a side chapel, was slowly carried out of the church, surrounded by a cheering crowd. “Viva La Madonna di Trapani,” some cried.
Saturday 24/08/2019
A view of the Madonna di Trapani in La Goulette. (Alfonso Campisi)
A view of the Madonna di Trapani in La Goulette. (Alfonso Campisi)

LA GOULETTE - The Tunis suburb of La Goulette, about 5 miles north of the Tunisian capital, is a picturesque town well known for being a ferry port — it has been the principal port for Tunis for centuries — and the location of several of the country’s best restaurants.

The suburb’s seashore restaurants are often packed with customers. These days the district is somewhat in a rundown condition although some Tunisian businessmen say it is ready for redevelopment, given its many assets: location on the Mediterranean, numerous restaurants and rich cosmopolitan history and culture.

Until the 1970s, La Goulette’s population was a vibrant mix of Italians, Maltese, Muslims and Jews. There is still evidence of that. The buildings and houses are typical of a 1920s prosperous Italian seaside town. There remains a small Jewish community, including a Jewish retirement home, and in another part of the district, near the ferry terminal, there is a working and recently repainted Roman Catholic church that looks as if it is straight out of Sicily.

The Sicily connection is real enough. The area around the church is called Piccola Sicilia (Little Sicily) and, until the 1960s, it was the thriving Sicilian heart in La Goulette.

There were cafes and shops where Italian was the everyday language. Until Tunisian independence, half the population of La Goulette was Italian, most of them Sicilians. They called it La Goletta, a translation of the Arabic name for the place, Halq al-Wed (the “gullet”), referring to the canal linking the Lake of Tunis to the sea.

Piccola Sicilia is the least enticing part of La Goulette. Largely separated from much of the district by mighty walls erected by the Spanish after they captured La Goulette and Tunis in 1535, it is a sad mix of soulless modern apartment blocks, decaying Italian buildings, vacant lots and the forlorn remnants of the massive 16th-century fortifications.

During the week, the square and the area around the church are deserted, other than when locals head to the nearby mosque at prayer time. The silence is occasionally punctuated by the sound of a motorbike or of metal being cut at a workshop a stone’s throw from the church.

However, for a few hours on August 15, La Goulette was again a little bit of Sicily.

Crowds watch the procession of the Assumption in the Tunis suburb of La Goulette.(Simon Speakman Cordall)

In the Catholic world, August 15 is the feast of the Assumption, the day on which Catholics believe the mother of Jesus, the Virgin Mary, was “assumed” bodily into heaven. It is a public holiday in Italy, Spain and places as far apart as Malta and Mexico, Chile and the Central African Republic, Poland and Portugal, even in secular France. It is a public holiday, too, in Orthodox Greece, Cyprus and Romania.

In Italy and Spain, there is often an outdoor procession of a statue of the Virgin, with large crowds thronging around. So, too, in Tunisia’s La Goulette.

On August 15 this year, the large church was overflowing beyond capacity well before mass started in the late afternoon.

Beyond the church courtyard, in the public square bedecked with Tunisian flags, a crowd — almost entirely composed of Tunisian Muslims — waited patiently in the heat for the procession to start. They had to wait some two hours.

Inside the church, the Catholic archbishop of Tunis, an Italian, Ilario Antoniazzi, assisted by numerous clergy and an enthusiastic choir, celebrated mass and preached.

The language was mainly French but parts were in Italian and Arabic, reflecting the ethnic diversity of the congregation. There were Italians, Kenyans, Nigerians, other West Africans, French, Poles and Tunisians. Many Tunisians, reverently watching the proceedings, occasionally asked what was happening.

The heat in the packed church was too much for some who had to push their way out to try and cool down outside for a few minutes. Many women, though, had fans and gently tried to cool themselves throughout mass. Then came the procession.

People gather to attend the procession of the Assumption in La Goulette.(Azza Baaziz)

The statue of the Madonna of Trapani, which normally stands above an altar in a side chapel, was slowly carried out of the church, surrounded by a cheering crowd. “Viva La Madonna di Trapani,” some cried. Local Tunisian women ululated.

A sea of mobile phones took photos and videos. On the balconies of the surrounding apartment blocks, locals watched and took pictures.

There were hundreds and hundreds of people; one report put the number at more than 1,000.

The procession is something of a remarkable revival. Devotion to the Madonna of Trapani in Sicily started in La Goulette in the 19th century, it is said, by Sicilian fishermen.

Until the early 1960s, the procession used to cross the town and head towards the seafront before returning to the church. Then it stopped for various reasons — political correctness as much as the fact that many in the Italian and Maltese community that used to live in La Goulette had started to leave.

The tradition was revived in 2017 and has grown in popularity. Not just in popularity but in distance travelled. In 2017 and 2018, the statue was taken to the church gates. This year, it went through the gates and into the public square in front before slowly returning to the church.

The fact that it took place at all and that there were so many locals in attendance was something on which several people commented.

“I did not know Tunisia is this tolerant,” said one smiling Italian tourist who had heard about the procession that day and turned up.

“We are very open,” responded a proud Tunisian man.