A couple of months ago, while out apartment hunting, I was walking through La Goulette with a young friend Zied, when I spotted a nice looking building: lots of trees, greenery, wooden shutters and a neat little sentry-box. I commented that I could imagine living happily there. To which he replied: “Well yes you would, it’s an old people’s home”. Haha.
Anyway, a few weeks later, as I explored what has become ‘my neighborhood’, I spotted a silver-haired lady coming out of the self-same building, and we got talking. Yes indeed, she was a resident of the retirement home. But to live there, you also have to be ‘of the Jewish faith’. This is one of the last outposts of a once-thriving community. Only the elderly remain. protected by a little striped sentry box. Hard to imagine anyone wishing ill towards these old people.
Two days later, I was cycling out on the jetty at the fish docks, and stopped for a chat with one of the guys mending nets. Somehow we started to talk about life way back then. I told him about my meeting with the silver-haired lady who lives in the retirement home. “Ah, you mean Madame Basissa. She taught me maths. She was the magician of mathematics. Her husband taught me French. That was when we all lived together in ‘little Sicily‘ and we went to the catholic school.” That was Tunisia and the 1950s: Muslim boy, Catholic school, Jewish teacher. He told me the same story as had Bassisa, how everyone lived together happily, sharing space and lives.
I went back down there today to take a picture. But there were two security guards, who stopped me using the camera. Maybe it’s the heightened security because of the Israeli attack on Gaza. That’s ironic. These are the last remaining Jews who chose to live out their days in their country of birth. I found a photo on google, which managed to make the place look really scary. The way I see it, from the street level, it’s surrounded by trees and greenery. Did they photo-shop them out?
Talking to the fishermen, that’s when I also realised the name of the area opposite the docks in La Goulette. Until then I thought they referred to a place called ‘La Cecilia’. But it’s Sicily, Little Sicily. There was also a thriving Italian fishing community there. You still hear the influence on language: often people greet you with “bongiorno” . I cycled down there today. The catholic church is still there. On the front wall is written: All Cops Are Bastards. Football slogans, another universal language.
There are traces of the Jewish community all around here. Just round the corner from my apartment, there’s a bakery that was originally set up and run by a Jewish family. In the late 1960s, they left for Israel. It was a Catholic family that bought the bakehouse and ran it for a few years. Then they sold it the current owner, a Muslim. I wonder who will own it next? Not an atheist, I don’t think. Recently two young atheists testing the extent of post-revolution freedom of speech in Tunisia were found guilty of ‘transgressing morality, defamation and disrupting public order’ and sentenced to seven years imprisonment.