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Ladies Wore Bikinis, Not Burkas, in La Goulette

The stories old-timers tell about the Tunisia suburb run counter to the way the West views the Arab World. It was a place where three religions and five languages intermixed, Jews and Muslims partied together, and young ladies flaunted their beach...

by Sam Kimball
May 22 2014, 11:00am

All archival photos provided by Hadia Djeziri

I met Jacob Lellouche in the back of Mami Lily, his restaurant tucked away in La Goulette, a suburb of the Tunisian capital of Tunis. His tanned face looked stark against the white of his hair as he pulled on a cigarette perched between his fingers. As I sat with Lellouche, he painted me a picture of La Goulette's glory days.

“On Purim, Christmas, and Eid El Saghir,” major holidays in Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, respectively, said Lellouche, “they used to give out free tickets to neighborhood children at the Cinéma Rex,” referring to a long-gone movie theater in the northern stretches of the old beach community.

“At the end of Sabbath, Jewish families [in La Goulette] used to cook chicken couscous and send it around to their Muslim and Christian neighbors. Holidays for us were less about religion and more about sharing,” added Lellouche, between short bursts in French to his mother, throwing together Jewish-Tunisian cuisine in the restaurant’s kitchen.

La Goulette, or Halq El Wadi in Arabic, nestled on a peninsula north of downtown Tunis between a lake and the Mediterranean, has lost the luster of its early- and mid-century golden years. In those times, Sicilian, French, Maltese, and Greek immigrants mingled with Muslim and Jewish Tunisians in the neighborhood’s endless restaurants and odorous fish markets.

Now, many of the colonnaded homes of the old residents lie dormant, the beachfront bars turned plastic-and-glass cafés blaring techno music. Fifty years ago this cosmopolitan mixture of three religions and five languages was not an uncommon sight in the Arab World. The stories told about La Goulette by people like Lellouche run counter to Western media’s take on the Arab World, where everyone speaks Arabic, everyone is Muslim, and intense conservatism is ubiquitous.

Tunisia has struggled to find its way since the revolt that ejected former president Zine El Abidine Ben Ali with the rise of ultra-conservative Salafists, assassination of opposition leaders by Islamist militants last year, and a depressed economy. Ennahda, the formerly ruling moderate Islamist party, who was accused by many of going easy on hard-line Islamists and encouraging conservatism, ceded power in January to a caretaker government.

Hadia Djeziri, 66, a proudly secular old-timer, brought me up the narrow stairs to her studio flat above Café Miled on La Goulette’s beachfront. The flat looks out over a harbor where giant red ferries come and go to Palermo and Marseille. Djeziri moved to La Goulette from downtown Tunis in the 1950s as a child. Descended from Ottoman Turks who came to Tunisia from Algeria in the 19th century, her dyed-red hair and pale freckled skin make her look more Irish than anything.

Djeziri described the La Goulette of her youth as a place where one could escape the conservatism of other areas for a more liberal lifestyle, at least in the summer, when the neighborhood doubled in population as a seaside getaway. As a girl, she said, she fled her traditional Arab family for the freedom the neighborhood’s motley cultural mélange afforded. “I got out of the conservative culture and started to hang out with Italians and Jews,” Djeziri said with a grin.

As a young woman, Djeziri often snuck out of her family’s house in a safsari, a shiny white body covering which some older women still don, quietly evading her father and his four wives. Walking the streets in a bikini, Djeziri drew the eyes of local men who thought she was Swedish from her red hair. “I did what I wanted. I went to discos. I danced,” she added. “But I did it all in secret.”

Snapping back to the present, Djeziri went to lengths to express her disdain for the state of affairs in Tunisia, cursing the Islamists who recently rose to political prominence. “The Prophet, peace be upon him, said, ‘I have my religion, and you have your religion.’ I am free, and you are free. But Ennahda, no. They want to impose one control and one rule. They want to push their ideas on us and make us follow.”

Sorting through plastic shopping bags full of grainy photographs of the old days, she held up a black and white photo from 1975. In it were three of Djeziri's brothers, who, seeking work and perhaps a connection to their Turkish roots, moved to Turkey and married local women. In the photo, her brothers stand beside their Turkish brides, dense sideburns and heavy mustaches marking the bad fashion of the period.

Outside of Djeziri's shadowy studio, a few young men and women hung out on the beach in the sunshine. Bikinis were hard for me to imagine as I watched the women in dark hijabs make their way toward the chilly water of the Mediterranean.

Like Djeziri, Abdctar Bihaji spoke nostalgically about La Goulette's days under the secular one-party rule of former president Habib Bourguiba. Bihaji is Muslim, the son of a Tunisian father and a Sicilian mother. He works among leathery-skinned fishermen in the indoor seafood market at the center of the neighborhood.

Speaking on the La Goulette of his childhood, Bihaji said, “People were walking around in bathing suits laughing, but now everyone’s on edge... If I could return, I would. I would work to put La Goulette back together the way it was.”

Two elderly Jewish men named Simon Haouzi and Alain Bocobza shared Bihaji's sentiment. Haouzi, 68, and Bocobza, 69, have been friends since childhood. Both left La Goulette for France after former president Habib Bouguiba began cracking down on minorities after independence. But Haouzi and Bocobza couldn't stay away forever.

“Here [in La Goulette] people greet me in the street, ask how I’m doing as I pass by the cafés. They all know me here. In France they don’t say anything,” said Haouzi, who after suffering a stroke, walks with a cane and speaks in slurred patches. 

Bocobza described the neighborhood’s former festiveness. “Every August 15, at the [Catholic] festival of the Virgin Mary, everyone in the neighborhood used to go out to celebrate together.”

But that all began to fade by the 1970s, according to Bocobza. Broad social conservatism “picked up in the 1980s. The economy all the way back to Bougouiba had been in bad shape.” Over time, he said, “even people with a master's degree just couldn’t get any work.”

The result, he claimed, was to turn inward. “Trying to escape the poverty and misery [of daily life],” he said, “People started to take refuge in conservative religious ideas from outside Tunisia.”

The foreigners and non-Muslims, who had already been leaving La Goulette by the 1960s, thinned to only a handful. Several synagogues in the neighborhood at the time closed their doors, leaving only one in service, just next to Haouzi's apartment building.

Though the past is a source of colorful memories for old timers in the neighborhood, the future could be grim. If Ennahda returns to power in Tunisia following elections this year, Haouzi thinks that will spell the end of what’s left of minorities in the neighborhood.

“I will die in Tunisia,” Haouzi said. “But the other Jews who can leave, will, if Ennahda comes back.”

Hadia Djeziri said angrily, “La Goulette is pourri, rotten. It’s no longer the neighborhood it once was... If the Italians, the Jews, the Maltese came back,” she added, “La Goulette would come back to life.”

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