The Synagogue and the Jihadi: Alia Allana reports from Jerba

This guest post by ALIA ALLANA is part of a Kafila series of ground reports from the Arab Spring

Inside the El Ghriba synagogue in Djerba, an island off the south coast of Tunisia

Out of all the outrageous questions I have asked in my life, this one has to be amongst the top ten:

“Are you a jihadi?”

The Imam at the mosque was dumbfounded, aghast. He shook his hands and his head. He tugged at his beard and said, No, no. He looked confused. I, on the other had was determined, to get answers and so I pushed further:

“How many men from your mosques have gone to fight jihad?”

Again, a look of shock and confusion struck his face. None, he said, politely,

In a search to find answers, to understand what conditions were needed and were ripe for the revolution to come to Tunisia’s doors we rented a Golden Peugeot 203 (gold was the only color, the only option). The car was pretty beat, it had dents on the front but the car rental man was confident that it would survive the road trip.

But would we?

Tunisia has a magnificent road network but all the signs on the road have been graffiti’d on in an entirely ad hoc manner. It made sense to head South, Tunis is way up in the North. An hour after driving we saw trees that looked like shrubs. Rows and rows, all planted in perfect equidistant spanned the landscape. There was no industry, there were hardly any villages: just these shrubs. These turned out to be olive trees and a local resident at a town called Sousse explained that this is all Ben Ali did. He planted olive trees and pocketed all the money that came from the oil fields.

We drove for another day and this is when we came across a mammoth pipe. I rationalised that this was the oil pipe that run between Tunisia and Libya. Just as that had been deciphered we saw signs to Tripoli. The sign had been graffiti’d on furiously. Police stood around the first roundabout that lead to Tripoli and didn’t ask any questions when we went around it three times. A decision had to be made: would we head to Tripoli?

Indeed we would as there was sunlight. A few hours later we came across a sign: Ile de Jerba. Tired and battered and in search of some sea and sand, Jerba offered hope. It is 20 minutes of the mainland and a ferry runs 24 hours a day. The Golden Peugeot would cost us less that 50 cents to ferry across. Passengers went for free.

Doubt and suspicion should have struck us by now: what sort of island remains permanently open? Why is there no charge for passengers? We decided not to ask those questions for the sea was blue and full of promise.

On the sea deck we kicked back some speed and congratulated ourselves for this would be a merry two day break from the madness of the road and continuous olive tree sighting.

Morning came with the sound of the imam calling out to Fajr prayer. It was the oddest prayer call, it sounded like goats crying out loud. Next to the hotel was a synagogue: the oldest synagogue in Africa. (The day before we had passed by a Colosseum, built by the Romans, this synagogue was older that that).

We went to inquire: the Synagogue was For Knox like. All the airport security checks that we have come to despise were present there. Bags had to be scanned, shoes had to be taken of and identity cards revealed. Finally we were free to enter what looked like a garrison. The walls were high, there were over 30 bedrooms for people to sleep in and two deeply involved Rabbis in the throws of prayer. They were going wild, frantically swaying. One of them gave me a postcard with his picture on it.

The Jews were here first, he said.

This was one of the oldest places Jews had inhabited, almost as old as Palestine. What’s more is that they liked the Muslims, they enjoyed mingling with them and wanted Jerba to be a lesson to the greater world. Muslims and Jews get along.

But the other, older rabbi interrupted: A bomb that had exploded outside the synagogue. He muttered something unintelligible under his breath and then mentioned the word, “Ibadi.”

Ibadi’s are a small sect of Muslims and in a cursory search on the internet, it says they are dedicated to jihad. Something didn’t make sense and so we went out to the Mosque.

The First Mosque we went to was a “normal” mosque according to the Imam. No Ibadi’s here, he said. But there was a smaller mosque next to the Cultural Center where the Ibadi’s gathered. Insane delusions of men marching with AK47s and ready to fight the holy war came rushing to my mind. Finding the mosque was easy: four young girls had shown us the direction but the Mosque was closed. A fabric weaver opposite the mosque told us that sunset was the best time to come. He added:

“I don’t know why they are marching about. The Ibadi’s they have everything: mobiles, TVs and now they have the publinet (internet café). God only knows what they want.” It was getting all too confusing so we decided to hit the beach.

The beach is on the far side of the town. The town itself is crumbly but the beach has seven five star hotels and the beach is dominated by them. There is no public swimming area. As we ventured into a hotel comparisons to Las Vegas, Dubai and the Saudi Embassy in Chanakyapuri were made. By now, nothing made sense.

The sun was setting and we made our way to the mosque in search of answers. We asked people about the mosque and were sent across town for two hours. The police frowned and wanted to know what we wanted “with them”. The men on the street were entirely ignorant or feigned ignorance. Two hours of driving around the small alleyways had gotten to us and I marched to a man on the street. He raised his hands and waved in their, tried to walk away. Finally, his reply was telling:

“I don’t want to get involved.”

Involved in what, I asked. After much persuasion he dialed the weaver who came and picked us up from Rue Libya. We entered the mosque and the Imam was nice enough. He offered information, said that the jihad stories were untrue and that we should see the documentation of their work in the museum abutting the mosque. I nodded.

It was important to enquire about the revolution: he too had come out on the streets in protest. He was upset with what Ben Ali had done and not done. Jerba was a place ripe for tourism and that too wasn’t developed and so he had joined his fellow Tunisians and called out for Ben Ali’s exit. But matters had gotten rotten and tense now. Ben Ali, no matter how corrupt, had put a tight lid on sectarian tensions and these very tensions now threatened the Imam and the Ibadi’s. Arguments had broken out between the church and the mosque and the synagogue. Arguments that he had never heard before.

Back at the hotel, the waiter confessed. Racism was on the rise for he had been told that praying in the Ibadi mosque would lead Ibadi men to “beat him up.” This had never happened under Ben Ali.

The Jews were also perturbed. Ben Ali was bad and it was good he was gone but new problems had come to the fore and Jerba encapsulated these: for centuries Christians and Jews and Muslims had been living side by side and now with the Islamist victory and no strongman to impose control, the future was at best, uncertain.

As was the question about whether the Ibadi’s wanted to head out for jihad.

(Alia Allana is our lady of Arab Spring.)

Previously in this series:



7 thoughts on “The Synagogue and the Jihadi: Alia Allana reports from Jerba”

  1. Hi

    I must congratulate Alia on your series. I have been in Tunisia for past three months and I love the country. For all wrong that Ben Ali did, the people here are very particular in their criticism. And when I say people, I mean the really educated ones that I meet in my office and my interactions daily with taxi drivers en route office. Like for instance, my boss – a devout muslim keeps a beard and says that in Ben Ali’s time he did not keep a beard as people who kept beard were suspected. Countless stories on the same lines but when I mention and want to know about the extremists and the Salafis who for instance are anti – atheistic movies(No God, No Master), people I have interacted with abuse the Salafi elements too with choicest words(later translated by my colleagues in English as French happens to be the 2nd language). They give me examples that in some cases the extremist elements have gone to the beaches and harassed families where for example females were not dressed conservatively. Although Enahada has gained majority and it campaigned on the lines that you are not a muslim if you don’t vote for Enahada, people I have met are sceptical that if it starts playing the religious card too much and goes to the other extreme of forcing the hijaab, for instance, as opposed to the forced ‘secularism’ of the regime before, the women would go on a revolution!

    People me and my colleagues have met here have been very friendly and much as the lack of English in the country has hampered our interacting with the locals, them playing the good hosts kind of makes up for that :)

    People admire but also take for granted the good work that Ben Ali did. The major grouse being his corruption and lack of freedom of expression. But Tunisia also has a very good infrastructure and as pointed in the article a very good road network. I have traveled to the beaches of Sousse, Korba and Djerba and it’s a beautiful country. I just hope that the nation does not get disillusioned along the way and start mixing religion with politics. Based on my interactions I think it will not but then again most of the people I have met , including the taxi drivers, didn’t approve of the party which now has the majority…


  2. Thanks Alia for these excellent and textured reports. I have been catching up belatedly, after a round of travelling, and am really struck by the way you have captured some of the complexity of the situation. There is certainly a lot to think about and even though Rachid Ghanouchi himself seems to have rethought the relation between Islam and democracy, there are clearly openings now, where other, often disconcerting, tendencies can begin to manifest themselves. Democracy, clearly, is not an unadulterated blessing! Mass movements are also always complicated affairs – always full of contradictory possibilities. Thanks again for these wonderful reports.


We look forward to your comments. Comments are subject to moderation as per our comments policy. They may take some time to appear.

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s