”Today, we’re witnessing a miracle! In a global context of tension and hatred, a Muslim country is welcoming Jews from all over the world for their annual celebration – and this during Ramadan.”
That’s how Gabriel Cabla, one of the organisers of this year’s pilgrimage to Ghriba, home to Africa’s oldest synagogue, describes the event on the Tunisian island of Djerba.
About 1,500 Jews live in Djerba. For centuries, Ghriba has been one of 20 places on the island where Jews gather to pray. Every May, thousands of people (this year almost 7,000) come for about a week. Most, but by no means all, are pilgrims.
There are religious rituals but the overall atmosphere is one of festivity and music, as people of different religions celebrate a message of peace and belonging. In mid-week, on Wednesday, some 5,000 people of different beliefs took part in a huge Iftar meal, when Muslims end their daily holy month fast at sunset.
One participant, Moshei, a Jewish man from Tunisia who has lived in France for 40 years, told me: “To be back in my home country and make the pilgrimage gives me renewed energy.”
For decades during Ramadan – the month Muslims fast, pray and reflect – cafés and restaurants in Tunisia have been forced to stay shut in the daytime. The bars are completely closed – and every year the locked doors provoke the same controversy.
Religious freedom has been enshrined in the constitution since 2014, but in a country where about 98 per cent of the 12 million population are Muslim, those who do not fast are singled out. The police say they are following orders by making sure eating establishments are shut. Since the police can turn up at any time and force the owners to close, those who want stay open often increase their prices, to compensate for the risks of a raid during Ramadan.
This year, about a week before the start of Ramadan in early May, a closed group #Fater (non-fasting), started on Facebook. Members of the group share addresses of places you can eat during the day and how much they cost.
#Fater group member Akram (who doesn’t want his surname featured for fear of being attacked for failing to fast) says, “Tunisia is often portrayed as the most modern country in the Arab world and a role model when it comes to democracy and freedom. But that’s not true when it comes to freedom of religion. With what right are they forcing me to fast – am I not free to choose? During Ramadan I don’t recognise my free, open, and tolerant country.”
Article published in Svenska Dagbladet 9 December 2015 By Shahira Amin
Photos: Anis Mili
Tunisia. The network Tha’era is an organisation working to promote democracy and women’s political engagement.
“There needs to be a shift in the way both women and men think”, says Ommezine Khelifa.
Before the revolution Ommezine Khelifa, engineer and policital activist, had a top job in the finance sector in France. But since the Arab Spring 2011, she’s back in Tunisia.
“When I heard about the protests in Tunisia I didn’t think twice, but packed my bags. I clearly felt that I had a part to play in the movement for change”, says Ommezine.