Tunisia's treasure house of peace

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A Mediterranean beach in Djerba A Mediterranean beach in Djerba

Whitewashed stone cottages with deep blue doors that camouflage with the frothing Mediterranean a few yards away, Hebrew alphabet and careless Arabic scribbles on their façades. The fresh fragrance of oven-baked bread at a busy bakery on whose walls are Menorahs alongside verses from the Qur’an. A group of young men wearing exquisitely embroidered Kippah skull caps, the loose ends of the ‘Tallit Katan’ religious vest hanging under T-shirts, greet others at an old mosque after the last prayers of the day.

This isn’t an extract from the script of a Moorish Andalusia-based historical when Jews and Arabs flourished in legendary brotherhood. This is Djerba (pronounced ‘Jerbah’), an island off Tunisia’s south eastern coast, where this legacy lives on.

“Kullu normal yaakh (it’s all normal brother),” smiles SidiAdel, a local scholar, speaking about his birthplace, known in French as L’ile de Tolerance (Island of Tolerance). The conflict outside, he believes, has never affected the island, which has been the historic abode of peace and unity between Jews and Arabs.

A Hebrew sign ‘Brukheem ha Baim’ (welcome) at a nondescript eatery ushers in some hardy local Arab Muslims as Jewish chef Yonah serves them sizzling ‘Breek’ filo pastry off the stove, breaking into rustic Tunisian Arabic gossip. “My forefathers arrived after the destruction of the First Temple of Jerusalem. We’ve been around for over a thousand years. Brotherhood is a way of life, not some miracle,” explains Yonah.

Within the same Hara Seghira (smaller Jewish quarter) is an old Jewish school where children are taught Hebrew, theology and history. Along with several grand mosques, in the Hara stands the grand El Ghriba Synagogue, one of Judaism’s holiest and most ancient, and a place of yearly pilgrimage for thousands of Jews.

Djerba’s famed Houmt Souk market, one of the world’s most colourful, boasts of a mind-boggling kaleidoscope of handcrafts, spices, wines, olive oil varieties and healing oils by household stalwarts like Anan Turki. The quaint old Maltese-style St. Joseph’s cathedral in Houmt Souk is another symbol of Djerba’s legendary pluralism.

While the Berber quarter of Guellala is a haven for traditional pottery lovers, Djerba’s pristine white Mediterranean beaches are a delight with innumerable water sports and dolphin-watching. Recreations of ancient pirate ships ferry tourists to the Island of Pink Flamingos, a few kilometres from Djerba for a sumptuous traditional meal with champagne or local wine varietals.

Atop the zenith of Djerba’s ‘Borj el Kebir’ fortress built during the Ottoman era are breathtaking views of the Mediterranean. Along with its fascinating museums and folklore, Djerba’s exciting nightlife offers restaurants, discotheques and plush clubs. Belly dancing soirees along with folk dance performances with stunning acrobatics accompanied by heart-thumping grooves call for the spontaneous participation of international guests.

Djerba’s ‘Festival de la Medina’ is a celebration of colour and cultures with traditional music, folkloric gigs, interaction of global guests with affable locals and a taste of true blue Tunisian hospitality. Tantalising Kefteji fried snacks, Tagines, wholesome Couscous Tunisien and the signature Shaayi bi-na’na mint tea topped with pine nuts are manna for the palate.

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