The multifaceted charm of Tunisia’s Djerba
Tunis - A mere 50-minute flight from Tunis, the island of Djerba has been a destination of charter flights from Europe for decades. A string of hotels along the zone touristique of the eastern coast play host to those who want to linger on the beach and be pampered in the many spas that provide Thalassotherapy at a fraction of the cost of a European spa.
But the real charm of Djerba, that which remains from the pre-1960s before tourism found the island, can be located by those willing to explore the island’s interior. Few tourists take the initiative but, for those who do, what has always made Djerba a place distinct from the mainland can be found.
Djerba has well-paved roads that crisscross the island, in many cases skirting the island’s villages. Travelling along the many secondary roads is where one starts to feel the physical attributes that remain from decades past.
Small sand dunes dotted with date palms and roads that are little more than sand tracks buffered by cactus-lined sand walls lead to scenes of the island’s distinct blue-and-white architecture with the domed cupolas marking the centre of each home. Homes expand horizontally, with families adding rooms as sons marry, a tradition that is followed throughout indigenous Tunisian society.
Travelling the interior provides an opportunity to see traditional Tunisian garments, still worn by the elder generation. The men wear three-quarter-length pants and brimmed straw hats while women wear white sefsaris with coloured scarves. A privately owned ethnographic museum on the island’s southern sector in Guellala is well worth a visit. The museum is dedicated to early Djerban life and includes vignettes that display the dress, the trades and the customs that are distinct to Djerba.
Djerba also represents an openness that distinguishes Tunisia from elsewhere in the Arab world. The island has two villages that were historically populated entirely by Jews who trace their presence on the island back more than 2,000 years. The Jewish population of these two villages is a fraction of what it once was but synagogues remain and in one of the villages, there is a youthful, vibrant Jewish community with schools as well as numerous synagogues in daily use by the more than 1,000 Jews who remain.
Architecturally, the villages are outwardly indistinguishable from the island’s hundreds of other villages, though the dress of the elders often marks them as Jews; the black band at the base of the three-quarter-length pants, a symbol of mourning of the destruction of the second temple by Romans more than 2,000 years ago, is but one example.
Throughout the island, again best seen by taking backroads, one can view a diversity of village mosque architecture not found anywhere else in Tunisia. This has been best documented by Stanley Hallet, an emeritus professor of architecture at Catholic University in Washington, who served with the US Peace Corps in the 1960s.
Admiring the tremendous architectural diversity of the island’s mosques, Hallet has taken students to Tunisia to do photographic and architectural rendering of the distinctive diversity found only on Djerba. His second book on the subject — The Mosques of Djerba — was published recently and serves as an important archive of what Djerba was long before tourism turned it into a destination for beach lovers.
No trip to Djerba is complete without a visit to the island’s main market town, Houmt Souk. A charming village filled with cafés and small shops, Houmt Souk remains the economic heartbeat outside of the island’s hotels.
An easy town to stroll through, it is possibly the best place in Tunisia for shopping, as handicrafts from throughout the country make their way to Houmt Souk. From ceramics, carpets and jewellery, the choices seem endless.
Within Houmt Souk’s jewellery market, one can find works that are distinctive to Djerba, with designs infusing doves, fish and other symbols representing fertility and life, symbols shared by Jews and Muslims. Djerba’s Jewish jewellers still maintain the craft and stalls in the souk and their clientele has long been locals from Djerba and the south who not only appreciated the aesthetics of the jewellery but also have held the Jewish merchants in high regards for their integrity.
Visiting Djerba provides a restful escape to enjoy the island’s seaside setting and spa amenities but exploring beyond the coastal strip is where visitors find the hidden charms of Djerba.