Chenini – Life in the mountains

This was to be the last stop of my Tunisian voyage, although I didn’t know it yet. Saghir drove me up to Residence Kenza, located in Chenini, a mountain Berber village that held on to part of the old ways of life, insisting on staying up in the mountains despite the modernisation process. We said our goodbyes, and he went in to greet the staff of the residence – it had been a moment since he’d last passed by with tourists.

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The village was as before, situated on a ridge. The form of the mountain made a natural amphitheater shape on one side, and on the other, was a long view out to the valley, and to Tataouine (the city). At the center was situated the mosque, where calls to prayer sounded out, amplified naturally, over the village. A donkey call did the same some time in the evening, shocking me with the abruptly loud haw-s.

On the edge of the ridge was perched the ancient granary, not in the form of the Ksars but almost linked to the village. One of the men from the village/residence showed me around – each family had its own vault, and the walls were marked with berber symbols.

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Residence Kenza used ancient family homes that were abandoned and put in sleeping spaces for tourists and visitors. As my guide explained, the houses were built only into certain layers of the mountain, where the stone was more easily chiseled away. The rooms maintained a temperature of about 20 deg. celsius, although it was burning hot outside. I marveled at the coolness and sought out the respite it provided in the late afternoon.

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Chenini was part of an artistic project a few years back, along with two other villages of Tunisia, and the photographs in the coffee table book my guide showed me showed greater activity in the village than I’d seen.

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As the sun set, I met the one other none-local in the area: a lady from France who was staying in Chenini since a few months (and her dog). Through our conversations, I learnt a bit more about the village. She told me that the locals did not really like the residence, although it represented jobs and a source of income for most of the families. They regarded it as an intrusion of outsiders into their village, and although most youths happily work there, the older folk did not like to speak to the tourists, and not even to her, though she’d been living there for a while. When the owner of the residence, a man from Tataouine, wanted to construct a swimming pool, they were extremely unhappy – afraid that nude women would soon be parading themselves from the poolside. The concession made by the residence was to cover the pool with netting that rendered it invisible from the village.

I found this obstinacy almost comprehensible. They’d managed to survive so long here, keeping their houses and their know-how. What would it take for these ways to survive in our century, what sacrifices would be considered worthwhile, was tourism here something to be celebrated? I wasn’t sure if there were answers to these questions.

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The next morning, it was time for me to head back to the city. I waited with the lady at the foot of the village for the one louage to pass – it was an old pickup, upgraded with a roof to be able to hold passengers on two banks on either side of the back. My only fellow riders were a few women going into town.

When I reached Tataouine, I connected my phone to the internet for the first time in two days (lack of reception in the desert and in the mountains). There, I learnt that a death in the family would necessitate my return home immediately. Then followed a long day of louage rides, first to Sfax, to meet a roommate who had the key to the apartment and my luggage in Tunis, and then back to Tunis, to catch the late night flight back to France, and then to Singapore.

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