Pining for La Goulette

Writing in the Autumn 2005 issue of the Jewish Quarterly Lyn Julius explores what effect the loss of Jewish life in Tunisia has had on Tunisian Arabs:

The year is 1966. The setting is the seaside town of La Goulette, seven miles from Tunis. Among the whitewashed houses and beneath the hanging washing lines, the atmosphere is sensual and carefree. People linger in the cafes and bars, sprawl on the beach, go to the cinema, eat, drink, sing, dance, drop in on each other – in short, do what people do when they are on holiday.

The Tunisian Muslim film director Férid Boughedir chose the Tunisian resort as the backdrop for a film he made in 1996, Un été à la Goulette. It was a nostalgic look back at his own childhood when Muslims, Jews and Sicilian Catholics – the family of the Tunis-born Italian actress Claudia Cardinale, who appears in the film, had been settled in La Goulette for several generations — did everything together short of the ultimate taboo, intermarrying. The characters are in and out of each others’ houses and are invited to each others’ weddings, while the families from different communities try to keep track of their provocatively wayward teenage daughters.

Lurking in the shadows is the villain of the piece, Hadj Beji, the ageing Muslim fundamentalist, who fancies the Muslim teenage girl Meriem. The bigoted Beji sounds the only note of bitterness and discord in this otherwise lighthearted film. On one occasion he refuses to eat ‘Jewish’ food. This repressed individual faints at the sight of female flesh. When Meriem refuses to accept his hand in marriage, he tries to blackmail her family.

The film opens with Boughedir’s prescient words on screen:

“How can I, an Arab and a Muslim living in a Muslim land, speak as fairly as possible of the friendship and tolerance between Jews and Arabs and Muslims and Catholics in Tunisia at a time when people in the world kill one another in the name of religion and when everywhere fundamentalism would impose a single way of thinking? How can I describe the daily sensuality of my society which always managed to value life above dogma? By telling of the simple things in life I knew at La Goulette.”

Un été à la Goulette is a metaphor for what Tunisia, which this year celebrates fifty years since independence, once might have been. Port cities around the Mediterranean were traditionally cosmopolitan and La Goulette was no exception. After 1967, any semblance of multicultural and pluralistic Tunisia had vanished for ever. The summer of 1966 turns out to be the last before the departure of the remaining Catholics, then the Jews. Riots broke out in the wake of the Israeli Six-Day War victory. Jewish property and cars were wrecked, the Great Synagogue in Tunis was set on fire, Torah scrolls defiled and burnt. The Jews panicked, abandoned their homes and businesses and piled into boats bound for Marseille.

Boughedir was not the only Tunisian to have been left distraught by the sight of departing Jewish friends. Posting an essay on an internet website for North Africans ( entitled Ya Hasra La Goulette (which translates roughly as ‘Pining for La Goulette’), a Muslim, Mustapha Chelbi, reminisces:

“I would spend hours with any of these grandmothers who would swaddle me in their gentle affection. I don’t know why fate chose me to be the Jewish families’ pet at La Goulette.
“My happiness would one day come to an end. It went as suddenly as it came. Without leaving a trace other than a great wound that seems to deepen in my heart. (….)
“The roads of La Goulette have emptied; only the cats roam them, upsetting the dustbins in search of fish. My soul in pain, I stopped in front of the houses of vanished friends: Cardoso, Taïeb, Calvo, Ben Soussan, Hayoun, Bellaïche, Perez, Tartour, Zagdoun, Nataf, Sitbon, Catan, Bessis, Sarfati, Seroussi…My God, so many people gone. By leaving for France, the Jews have shut the gates on La Goulette. My village has for me become a forbidden city. To live there became unbearable. To leave it became unbearable. I felt a little like the last Jew and the last symbol of the Judeo-Arab alliance…I, Mustapha the Muslim, by a curious twist of fate, became the repository of Tunisia’s Jewish memory. ”
One might cynically assume that any paeans of praise to the Jews of Tunisia are made with one eye on the tourist industry which sustains the country. Last year, six million tourists came to Tunisia. Thousands of Jews make the pilgrimage every year to the Al-Ghriba synagogue, one of the oldest in the diaspora, on the island of Djerba for the moving Lag Ba’ Omer procession. Tourist numbers have recovered since Al-Qaeda killed 19, most of them German tourists, in an attack on Al-Ghriba synagogue in 2002. For this year’s celebrations 1,000 Israelis, mostly of Tunisian origin, were among the foreign pilgrims. Hosting a dinner for foreign dignitaries, the media and Tunisian Jews, the Tunisian minister of culture Abdelbakir Kermassi dutifully praised the artistic collaboration between Muslims and Jews in cinema, art and literature.

However, the film director Ferid Boughedir’s message (in La communauté juive
dans le cin
éma Tunisien (posted at is more than a matter of public relations. He is genuinely fascinated by the Jews and their place in Tunisian cinema and feels personally affected by their loss. His is a message of truncated memory, roots and identity. He writes not just of a physical but a cultural void:

“Exile, separation, nostalgia are understandably still-open wounds for many Jews who left Tunisia twenty or thirty years ago and who are today half-French. But they are not the only ones to have been affected. Many Tunisian Muslims, among them intellectuals and men of culture, feel orphaned since our separation.”

It was at the Lycée Carnot in Tunis that Férid Boughedir rubbed shoulders with the children of other communities. The Lycée Carnot produced the cream of Tunisian intellectual society. (As part of its centenary celebrations this year, a symposium was held in Paris for Carnot alumni on relations between Tunisian Muslims and Jews.)

Boughedir traces the start of Muslim ‘orphanhood’ back to the Sixties when Arab nationalism excluded minorities from national life. The Tunisian author Hele Beji (Histoire des juifs de Tunisie, des origines à nos jours, Editions l’Harmattan, Paris, 1991) had a name for this: ‘nationalitarianism’.

The seeds were sown in 1956 when Tunisia acquired its independence. Even though its first President, Habib Bourguiba, was a secular leader and ‘a friend of the Jews’, the first article of the Tunisian constitution stipulated that the religion of the Tunisian Republic was Islam. That meant that 75,000 Jews with Tunisian passports – two-thirds of the community – started to feel unwelcome.

Bourguiba appointed two Jewish ministers, Albert Bessis and André Barouch, but the marginalisation of the Jews had already begun. The representative body of Tunisian Jewry, the Jewish Community Council – the equivalent of the Board of Deputies in Britain – was outlawed as ‘ a state within a state’. The Jewish quarter of Tunis was levelled for ‘public health reasons’ and the Jewish cemetery in central Tunis turned into a park before all the graves could be exhumed. According to Victor Cohen’s Mémoires d’un déraciné( seven-branched candlelabras unearthed by archaeologists at Carthage and testifying to a millenarian Jewish presence were ‘camouflaged’.

The Jewish community of independent Tunisia also found itself in an economic stranglehold. As Victor Cohen explains, exchange controls and red tape seemed designed only to penalise the ethnic minorities. Jews started to leave in large numbers – some 50,000 fled to Israel — until only about 20,000 remained prior to the final exodus of 1967. Today, there are just 2,000 Jews still living in Tunisia, 1,000 of them on the island of Djerba.

Looking back, the years between 1881 and 1956 were by and large a golden age for the Jews. After 1881, when Tunisia became a French protectorate, the Jews of this 2,000-year old pre-Arab community ceased to be ‘second-class’ dhimmis and were granted equal rights with the Muslims. A new middle class, equipped with a western education gained at the newly-established Alliance Israelite schools, burst forth from the ghetto. It began to flourish both economically and culturally. Though they only numbered 120,000, or two percent of the population, the Jews contributed scientists, philosophers and artists out of proportion to their numbers.

The film director Férid Boughedir’s personal hero is the Jewish pioneer of Tunisian cinema. No one was more influential than Albert Samama, nicknamed ‘Chikly’ after a small island on the lake of Tunis where he used to hold parties. Chikly became the first Tunisian film-maker, with 11 films to his name. Boughedir is anxious to trace them all.

It was not uncommon for Jewish families, who had a virtual monopoly of trade in the North Africa and the Middle East, to be the first to be exposed to newfangled novelties and technological inventions from Europe. Thus, before he pioneered the Tunisian film industry, Chikly – a man of insatiable curiosity – introduced the bicycle, the wireless telegraph and the first X-ray machine to be installed in a Tunisian hospital. A keen photographer, he was instantly attracted to moving pictures, which the Lumière brothers had invented in 1895. Two years later, Chikly was running film shows in a Tunis shop with a photographer named Soler, and soon after he was making films himself.

Not content to film at ground level, Chikly filmed the region between Hammam-If and Grombalia from a hot-air balloon in 1908. He was among the first to film underwater sequences. He captured on film the Messina earthquake, a tuna-fishing expedition for the Prince of Monaco and the trenches at Verdun during the First World War.

Chikly’s first short feature was made in 1922. Zohra is the story of a young French woman who parachutes from an airplane and is taken in by a Bedouin tribe. Tribal customs are shown in minute detail. Chikly assigned the main character to his daughter Haydée, who still lives in Tunisia, and to whom Boughedir gave a cameo role in Un été à la Goulette.

A leading Hollywood producer, Rex Ingram, who wrote the script for Ben Hur, wanted Haydée Chikly to play in one of his films. But rather than let his daughter go to Hollywood, Chikly brought Hollywood to his daughter. He made Ain el Ghazal (Daughter of Carthage) in 1924, the first full-length feature film ever made in Tunisia.

Samama Chikly’s tombstone bears the epitaph: ‘tireless in curiosity, reckless in courage, daring in enterprise, obstinate amidst trials, resigned to misfortune, he leaves his friends.”

With the exception of André Bessis, a leading documentary film-maker at the time of independence, the Jewish contribution to Tunisian cinema then faded out of the picture.

After 30 years of near-invisibility, the image of the Jew was suddenly catapulted back into the limelight in 1986 – in the shape of the old Jewish carpenter Levy in Nouri Bouzid’s film Homme de cendres (Man of Ashes).

This film, Férid Boughedir believes, turned out to be a watershed. Man of Ashes deals with a number of taboos in Tunisian society. A young man who was sexually abused as a child turns to the Jewish master carpenter who taught him his trade for advice on the eve of his marriage. At the Cannes film festival, critics, especially from the Middle East, disliked the sympathetic portrayal of master carpenter Levy and, in the heavily politicised atmosphere of the time, alleged that the film was ‘Zionist’. At the Carthage film festival, where the film was due to be shown at the Coliseum Cinema, young people gave out flyers urging a boycott. During a debate, the director Nouri Bouzid replied to calls for a ban: ‘You want to wipe away part of my memory!’

An Egyptian actress and star of a competing film, Ferdaous Abdelhamid, desperate to win the prize for Best Actress, demanded that Man of Ashes be banned, calling it pro- Israel and anti-Arab. The jury nonetheless decided to award it the ‘Tanit d’Or’. Beside herself, the actress jumped up on stage and declared: “the festival jury have not wanted to award me this prize, but the real jury will be Tunisian audiences who adore Egyptian soap operas!”

When the film went on general release, Man of Ashes broke all box office records, beating even Rocky and Rambo.

A haven for Yasser Arafat and the PLO after the Lebanon war, Tunisia was then aligned with those countries most hostile to Israel. But Tunisian Jews continued to make visits and maintain links with their homeland – unlike, say, the Jews of Arab countries such as Iraq, who overnight were brutally severed from their cultural roots with no chance of recovery. Serge Moati returned from France after many years’ absence to make Les Jasmins de la Veranda (1996), a film about his Tunisian childhood and lost roots. In 1993 Ariel Zeitoun made Le Nombril du Monde (The Navel of the world) a tale based on his father’s life about an upwardly mobile Tunisian Jew, played by the Tunisian-Jewish actor Michel Boujenah.

In the 1990s Muslim directors also dealt with Jewish subjects. A documentary on the Al-Ghriba pilgrimage was made by Mounir Baaziz, Albert Samama Chikly was made by Mahmoud ben Mahmoud, and Selma Baccar made a film about Habiba M’sika, the great Jewish singer.

“You want to wipe away part of my memory!” the director Nouri Bouzid had exclaimed. For these Tunisian film-makers, the need to reconnect with the Jews appears a recurrent theme.

Férid Boughedir himself seems to feel a personal responsibility not to allow the Jews be airbrushed out of Tunisian history, as they have been airbrushed out of the history of the Arab world in general. “We must sew back on these disconnected patches of memory, “ he declares.

He is convinced that film is a force for good in strengthening dialogue between the communities. Boughedir is proud of what Tunisians of all religions and none have achieved.

“It is only by talking of the things that tore both communities apart that we will be able to transcend them…. It is comforting to know that contact has been renewed with that dimension of ourselves before another generation of Tunisian Jews is born abroad who know nothing about Tunisia. We are living through important times: we are rewriting part of our history, the true history of Tunisia. One-party states too often distort their history by leaving bits out, not just those which pertain to the Jewish community, but events they are ashamed of. ”

In the nine years since Férid Boudghedir made Un étéà La Goulette, Tunisia has been working hard to keep the lid on Islamic fundamentalism and to present an enlightened, secular, modernising face to the outside world. With the end of the intifada it has even been marketing itself to Israeli holidaymakers as an attractive sun-and-sea hotspot. No longer will Israelis in search of Mediterranean fun and relaxation need to surrender their passports on arrival. Although still a far cry from the pluralist paradise depicted in Boughedir’s film, perhaps it will not be long before the Jews are back in the cafés and on the beaches of La Goulette.

Férid Boughedir will attend a London showing of Un étéà la Goulette, which will be presented with two other films (Turn left at the End of the World and The House on Chelouch St) at the French Institute in early 2006.

Jews from Arab Countries Week, organized by HARIF, a new association representing Jews from Arab countries in the UK, will take place in London from 13 to 20 November. For further details visit

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