I have to pinch myself that we were finally going to see the small island of Djerba. I had always felt that I had missed seeing a very special place when I zoomed by it on my way from Tunis to Tripoli, Libya in 1972. In the intervening years, the name of the island kept popping up in travel literature and it ended up being very high on my list of places to see before I died.
It’s been considered a magical place ever since the time of James Joyce, when he wrote Ulysses and described the ‘Land of the Lotus-Eaters’, encountered by Ulysses and his crew. According to the legend, when the sailors were given the flowering food, they no longer wanted to leave and, in fact, forgot the way home. The people of Djerba are rumored to be the descendants of these mariners.
I am happy to say that the magic is still here. Though tourism has changed the beaches along the northeast coast forever, the zone touristique is pretty much confined to that area, and at this time of year, the rest of the island seems to carry on much like it has always done. We were very happy to have the rental car, because we made great use of it, driving up and down the island on the small paved roads, taking in the village life and the distinctive architecture.
But I get ahead of myself. We drove from Gabès and arrived at the small ferry terminal just as the sun broke through the morning cloud cover. The ferries run almost continuously, so there was only a brief wait and we were ushered aboard. The fare was unbelievably small, less that 60 cents Canadian. This was the entire charge for the car and two passengers. The distance across the straight is small; we could see the island sitting in the sparkling blue water, but it costs a hundred times as much to take a car across to Vancouver Island, where our daughter Adia lives.
We had a little laugh when our ferry arrived and we saw its name was ‘Ulysses’. I thought of my brother Doug and knew I would have to send him a photo. He was the one who clued us into the fact that the movie Oh Brother, Where Art Thou?, was a modern-day telling of the story of Ulysses’ adventures. Now, whenever I hear any of the tales, I immediately think of my learned brother, teaching English and History at Notre Dame College in Saskatchewan.
We landed and were waved on by the police, though I noticed that the local drivers were being pulled over and were having their insurance papers checked. We drove from the south tip of the island, along a small road to the capital of Houmt Souk, near the north shore, not more that a mere 20km. We had decided we wanted to stay in the town itself rather than near the huge beach resorts, but when we checked out the ‘Our Pick’ in the Lonely Planet, we found the room too small and with very little charm.
We referred once again to the guidebook and noted a couple of small hotels in the zone touristique that appeared to have a more homey atmosphere, so we drove across the top of Djerba to the beaches at Sidi Mahres. The first small hotel we drove by was the Dar Ali and it seemed to be just what we were looking for. We carried on to another one or two, but the Dar Ali had left such a good impression, that we doubled back. There was no question of them having a room, Djerba is almost deserted at this time of year, but we wanted to view the grounds and the room. We were shown to a lovely room, just off the interior courtyard, with its own small terrace at the back, opening on to a little cacti garden.
When we learned that the price of the room, with breakfast, was one-third of what we had been paying in Tunis, we didn’t need another ‘think’. For an additional $13 CAD, we could have a three-course dinner in the hotel’s restaurant. The manager told us that the young female chef made delicious meals; it was another ‘no brainer’. We moved into lucky room number seven, and like the Ulysses’ crew, we didn’t want to leave. As I am writing this, we are now onto our fifth night here and we are finding it difficult to tear ourselves away.
The wind has died down, the air is getting warmer and within two weeks, the ‘low season’ rates will climb slightly, but will still be very reasonable. High season here is from the beginning of July to the middle of September, when the island is flooded with Europeans on summer vacation. For now, the beach is deserted, the afternoons are quiet and the only sounds we hear are the birds chirping and the call to prayer from the nearby mosque. It’s a little bit of heaven.
After reading about the history and the architectural styles typical to Djerba, we spent our first three days driving around the island, looking for the buildings described in our guidebook and taking photos. I have posted several photos and hope you enjoy viewing them. I thought I would take a little time to describe the various styles in order to give you some idea of what we learned. Before I do that, I will fill you in on a little of the interesting history of the island.
The original peoples of the Barbary Coast were the Berbers, a non-Arab people. They have a different name for themselves, but the name Berber appeared after the Roman conquest of North Africa and the Roman’s referred to the inhabitants as ‘barbarians’. The Phoenicians arrived almost 2700 years ago and, much later, the island was one of the first places to fall to the Arabs when they marched into Tunisia.
Djerba became a base for some of the most infamous pirates of the Mediterranean. The pirate Dragut was imprisoned by the Spanish here in 1551 after his fleet became trapped in the Gulf of Bou Grara, the water located between the point where we crossed on the ferry and the causeway built by the Romans to connect the island with the mainland, a little further east. Dragut escaped by hauling his ships across a breach in the causeway, in the dead of night. He returned in 1560 and slaughtered 6000 Spanish soldiers. A marker now stands where he piled the heads of those massacred.
As Djerba (I prefer to use the spelling that includes the ‘D’) was ripe for conquest time and time again, the inhabitants developed a defensive mentality and their homes and places of worship reflect this need for security. Another threat that the population faced was a scarcity of water, so water collection and conservation were forefront in their minds. Water was used to drinking, washing, and also for keeping cool during the long, very hot, summer months.
The mosques on the island look more like forts than places of worship. The buildings are squat, the walls thick and heavily buttressed, and there is little decoration. Anil laments the arrival of electricity on the island, though it really is critical to our comfort and connectivity. There isn’t a mosque we pass that doesn’t warrant the comment from him, ‘Why do they have to have those ugly loudspeakers mounted on the minaret?’.
The traditional fortified houses of Djerba were known as menzels. Hundreds of these dwellings once dotted the island, but most have been abandoned. The newer homes incorporate elements of the traditional style, but few copy them in their entirety. The standard design of the ancient homes consisted of a large rectangular central courtyard, surrounded by high defensive walls with a single gate and square towers at each of the four corners. These towers contained rooms that were used for sleeping in the hot weather. The grated windows let in the sea breezes and the slatted floors provided additional ventilation.
The harout was a weaver’s workshop, built using a simple design that endures to this day. A long, barrel-vaulted room (ghorfa) was constructed half way below ground to provide insulation. The room remained cool in the summer and warm in the winter. For some reason not explained in our guidebook, the buildings were built with a triangular front wall which extends well beyond the walls of the ghorfa. In many cases, the walls were heavily buttressed as well. Wool dying and weaving was a major industry on the island, and the remains of these structures can be spotted almost everywhere.
Once we felt we had visited most of the sites on the small island, we settled in to relax at the hotel, extending our stay for yet another day each morning when it came time to check out. We relished the delicious meals prepared for us by Amina, the young Tunisian woman from the town of Gafsa, further west towards the Algerian border. Amina has studied for several years at the University in Tunis, speaks very good English, German, and French and makes the most amazing meals for the hotel’s guests.
She left her job as an instructor at a vocational school because of difficult personal circumstances, and was happy to have us befriend her. I have to say, the feeling is mutual. While Anil and I are very happy with each other’s company (I’m probably happier than he is, hehe), what really makes our travels extra special are the people we meet, and the friendships we form. Amina seems like a strong young woman, she is the same age as our daughter Adia, but has faced some difficult problems and is still suffering from the emotional pain they created. She is lonely here, it’s tough to meet other Tunisians when she works away from the towns, out here in the sterile zone touristique.
Today, we are the only guests in the hotel, and we can’t imagine it any other way. Amina tells us that it’s impossible for her to sleep in the afternoons in her room just off the courtyard during the summer when the hotel is full. Anil just came from our room and told me that the housekeeper has created a floral display on our bed once again; to compliment the vase of flowers she left the other day. We alternate our time at the hotel sitting in the central courtyard by the pool and sitting in the private terrace outside our room, sipping on a glass of Tunisian red. Life is good, the wine is delightful, and we are in danger of forgetting our own way home.