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Special Travel Issue | North Africa

A United Island, a World Apart

In Tunisia, 2,000 Jews Live in Harmony With Nearly 10 Million Muslim Neighbors. And That's Just One of the Island Nation's Delightful Realities.

October 12, 2003|Judith Fein | Judith Fein, a frequent contributor to NPR's Savvy Traveler, lives in Santa Fe, N.M. For information on her documentary about Tunisia, visit

On the lush Island of the Lotus Eaters, Odysseus' sailors tasted a plant so intoxicating they lost their desire to go home again. It's still unclear what plant the Homeric epic was describing--some say it was figs--but the island was almost certainly Jerba, a gorgeous, palm tree-studded oasis off the eastern coast of present-day Tunisia.

I sampled Jerba's delights again last spring and like Odysseus' men, I fell so strongly under the island's spell that I was reluctant to leave. Jerba opened its arms to me, and I embraced it in return.

On three previous visits, my husband, Paul, and I had become enamored with Tunisia, with its Berbers, Bedouins, archeological sites, sun-drenched landscapes and intense colors. We returned to complete the shooting and editing of a documentary about the country and its diverse, hospitable people. But we also wanted some leisure time to revisit this island in the Gulf of Gabes.

Our timing surprised some of our friends: We went during the height of the war in Iraq. I never felt a moment's discomfort, even though I have what might be considered a triple whammy of attributes for a traveler to the Muslim world: I am Jewish (albeit secular), female and American.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Wednesday October 15, 2003 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 51 words Type of Material: Correction
Radio program -- The author bio for Sunday's magazine story on Tunisia ("A United Island, a World Apart," by Judith Fein, Special Travel Issue, Oct. 12) incorrectly identified "The Savvy Traveler" as an NPR program. It is produced by Minnesota Public Radio and distributed by PRI to public radio stations nationwide.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday November 02, 2003 Home Edition Los Angeles Times Magazine Part I Page 4 Lat Magazine Desk 1 inches; 47 words Type of Material: Correction
The author bio for the story on Tunisia ("A United Island, a World Apart," by Judith Fein, Special Travel Issue, Oct. 12) incorrectly identified "The Savvy Traveler" as an NPR program. It is produced by Minnesota Public Radio and distributed by PRI to public radio stations nationwide.

Instead of encountering hatred and hostility, I found Tunisians gentle and warm. Unlike many Westerners, a Tunisian, when angry, will lower his voice or grow quiet. Violent crime occurs but is "rare by U.S. standards," according to the State Department's consular sheet. Law enforcement officers and some hunters carry guns, but otherwise, firearms are outlawed.

It is, perhaps, the pastiche of people who have populated this land in North Africa, wedged between Algeria and Libya, that makes Tunisians so accepting. They have been colonized or invaded by Phoenicians, Romans, Vandals, Byzantines, Arabs, Turks, Spanish Moors and the French, from whom they won their independence in 1956.

The Phoenicians may have left the biggest mark on the culture and the psyche. They established the mighty mercantile empire of Carthage. Traders by profession, the Carthaginians encountered customers of nearly every stripe. From this they may have learned that being accommodating and agreeable is the best way to get along with people--not bad characteristics for a tourist destination these days.

Indeed, before Sept. 11, 2001, about 5 million tourists went south from the Continent every year to grill on Tunisian beaches, swim in the Mediterranean, enjoy the mild winter climate, get pampered at spas and experience the dunes and vistas of the Sahara. They found, as we did, that in this moderate modern Muslim nation of about 10 million, women don't wear veils, fundamentalism is outlawed, wine and beer are served in restaurants, and jazz festivals and great discos abound.

Yet Tunisia remains off Americans' radar. They lump it together with the Middle East and assume it is a hotbed of hatred. In dismissing it, they miss amazing ruins, pristine beaches, cork forests and enough exotica to color their dreams and memories for decades.

And they also miss what I found: a powerful connection between the past and the present.

paul and i first came to tunisia in 2000 because we liked the exoti- cism of North Africa. It was easy to get here--just a two-hour flight from Paris or about 100 miles from Sicily--and it required no special visa. From the minute we landed, people at the Tunis-Carthage airport were friendly.

We spent 10 days touring the country before coming to Jerba for the Jewish festival of Lag b'Omer, an annual spring celebration.

A 15-minute ferry ride brought us to Jerba, which is also accessible from the Tunisian mainland by a causeway that dates to Roman times. We drove across the flat island oasis (Jerba is only 197 square miles) to the seaside tourist zone, or Zone Touristique. There we gaped at the palatial hotels with their white domes, marble, painted ceramic, mosaics, intricate stucco work and sculpted wood exteriors and courtyards.

When we checked into the Melia Djerba Menzel hotel, I grabbed Paul's arm and said, "I must be hallucinating." There, in the middle of the impossibly ornate lobby, was a sign that said, "Kosher Food, This Way."

As if reading my mind, a nattily dressed Jewish woman said to me in French: "There are several other hotels on Jerba that also serve kosher food for the Lag b'Omer festival. And all year long you can get Jewish food at L'Oscar, a nearby restaurant."

My taste in food tends away from kosher and toward the exotic, and within an hour of checking in, Paul and I had arranged with the hotel restaurant to eat gargoulette, a Tunisian specialty. We watched as the chef prepared it. First, he carefully spooned lamb, vegetables and spices into a vase-like clay amphora (a two-handled jug), then sealed the opening with a doughy paste. In the dining room two hours later, a waiter cracked the jug, and the food came tumbling into a serving dish, then was ladled onto our plates. The rich stew was aromatic, but the spices never overwhelmed.

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