DJERBA, Tunisia - They came from three continents to the festival of El Ghriba, one of Judaism’s oldest synagogues, which has survived wars, pirate raids and a terrorist attack three years ago by an al Qaeda fanatic.
“El Ghriba has always been miraculous,” a bearded patriarch in a flowing robe explained amid the chant of Talmudic prayers in the synagogue, which has been shrouded by legend and mystery since biblical days.
This year, with 4,000 Jewish pilgrims in an Arab country, El Ghriba and Tunisia are sending a message of “brotherhood, tolerance and reconciliation” transcending international politics. Although the survival of the synagogue is not in doubt, Tunisia’s ancient Jewish community has shrunk from 120,000 in 1948 to 1,000 on the island of Djerba and a few in Tunis.
Yet Dr. Gabriel Kabla, a Djerba-born Jewish activist living in Paris, said, “We were here before the Bible. There isn’t a square meter of Tunisia which has not been marked by Judaism.”
The festival usually takes place 33 days after Passover. Because of the raw memory of the terrorist attack that killed 19 and injured 20 in April 2002, Tunisian police threw an armed cordon around the village of Hara Sghira where the synagogue is located. All pilgrims were searched for explosives.
Pipes shrilled and drums rolled as a procession singing religious chants snaked through narrow alleys lined with white-walled, flat-roofed houses.
Ululating, traditional Arab cries of women accompanied the march.
An island of 18 by 17 miles, Djerba (sometimes spelled Jerba) is off Tunisia’s eastern coast below the Gulf of Gabes, linked with the mainland by a four-mile causeway built by Romans two millennia ago. The causeway is still in use.
Two Roman emperors were born here. For centuries, it served as a pirate hide-out. Today it has 140,000 inhabitants, 300,000 palm trees, 350 mosques, 14 synagogues, about 50 hotels and a small Catholic church in the middle of the alleys of Houmt Souk, its largest settlement, announcing Sunday Mass in French, Italian, German and Polish, the languages of most visitors who knock on its doors.
Djerba is one of Tunisia’s major tourist destinations because its climate and beaches permit a day in the sun virtually the entire year. It consists of three worlds: that of its synagogues and the Jewish faithful; that of the teeming market of Houmt Souk, redolent with the smell of grilled mutton, spices and mint tea; and the world of luxury hotels along the golden beaches.
Most foreign visitors to the island land at the international airport in the middle of sands where the terminal’s impeccably white buildings rise like a desert mirage. They are driven to one of the glass-and-marble hotels filled with the chatter of affluent European visitors tired of industrial noise and gray skies.
The tourists are everywhere — on camels, donkeys, bicycles, in the alleys of Houmt Souk with their stalls of silver trinkets, handmade leather sandals, straw hats and carpets. Fish mongers raise their latest catch over their heads, shouting the price.
Although Hara Sghira and Hara Kebira are two main Jewish settlements, Muslims also live there in apparent harmony. “There is no difference between us, no conflict, and it is time the world understood this,” said Dora Bouchoucha, a Muslim film producer who has a small house near El Ghriba.
On the second day of the El Ghriba festival, the ancient synagogue was filled with pilgrims, either Djerba-born or their descendants living abroad.
Although they removed their shoes according to tradition, old women in colorful garb carelessly spat watermelon pips and dropped the remnants of their sandwiches on the floor while a rabbi recited the Torah.
According to legend, El Ghriba was founded six centuries before Christ, around the time the Babylonians destroyed the Temple of Solomon in Jerusalem, when a holy stone fell from the sky and a mysterious woman — Ghriba — indicated the place where a synagogue was to be built. It eventually gained fame as a “miraculous” site throughout North Africa and the Middle East.
“I am one of those who never left Tunisia,” said Dr. Jean-Pierre Liscia, a dentist from Tunis. “This festival is significant because it shows that Judaism can live in an Arab country.”
Tunisian Jews began leaving the country in several waves: After the creation of Israel in 1948; after Tunisia’s independence in 1956; after the battle for Bizerta between Tunisia and France in 1961; and then as a result of the Six-Day War between Israel and its Arab neighbors in 1967. The main reasons were the restrictive economic policies of the previous government.
In recent years, the government appealed to Tunisian Jews to “resume their ancient links with the open, tolerant country of theirs,” and for “reconciliation of the sons of Abraham.”
Few have returned to live here, but every year about 15,000 expatriate Tunisian Jews vacation in Tunisia. Tunis Air, the government airline, will serve kosher meals aboard if notified in advance, which is an unprecedented act by an Arab company.