The guardian of the Ksour: remainders of the past and shadows of the present in South East Tunisia


Among the thousands antiques scrupulously guarded in the “office” of Mr. Fethi, it is the photocopy of a big book that catches my attention more than anything else. I suddenly forget the documents, the postcards, the coins, and all kind of old items that Fethi, the keeper of the café-museum of the ksour of Medenine, shows us telling a story for each of them.

Turning the cover of the book, which reproduces a photo of the picturesque Berber village of Chenini, I read the words that would echo in my mind every time I will think about the history of the land of the ksour and the city of Medenine.

More than a region, Tunisian South is for us a symbol. […]Nothing that concerns the South can leave us indifferent. If our willingness to develop it is an act of justice, it also reflects one of the main purposes of the State: to promote equality between regions.

It is Habib Bourguiba who in 1975 signs the preface to a voluminous ethnographic research on the villages of the ksour, the constructions of Berber origin spread throughout the arid region which spans between the governorates of Medenine and Tataouine: “Tunisie du Sud. Ksars et villages de crêtes”, by the professor André Louis and published by the Centre of Research on Mediterranean Societies of Paris.

Today, the solemn words of the first president of the –at the time— very young Republic of Tunisia, which testify the vivid enthusiasm for the anti-colonial and indipendentist success, taste of bitter irony. After sixty years from independence, Tunisia is still a strongly centralised state concerning political power, with a serious disparity between the coastal cities of the north east and the rest of the country with regard to the economic development, as well as to the socio-cultural aspect.

Furthermore, the use of the concept of “symbol” is particularly eloquent. Because a symbol is nothing more than an empty image that someone else is called to receive and interpret; it is no more reality but rather what is left from it, its echo. The expression sheds light on the process of de-subjectivisation that the peripheries of the nation continued to be subjected to, notwithstanding the victory over the French and  the modernising mission that Bourguiba had already launched all over the country. Moreover, it sheds light on the process of radical change that south Tunisia had been already undergoing since long, and which was now accelerating. Being altered the traditional schemes on which their economy were based on, the local communities were now relegated in the sphere of the symbolic: the ksour, structures used for the stocking of provisions in the rural and sometime semi-nomadic economies of the Arab and Berber tribes of the region, are now demolished or converted in tourist attractions.

The unique architecture of these fortified granaries, together with the extraordinary landscape in which they rise, spread as they are in semi-arid valleys or perched on rocky red hills, has indeed fascinated adventurous travellers and inspired filmmakers of the calibre of “Star Wars”’ director.  Up until today, in the less urbanised areas, these rocky hives appear from faraway as natural excrescences of the earth in which they are carved, the tiny black holes that served as  doors seem dug by giants insects rather than by human hands.

Far more recent than those built on the nearby hills, the ksour of the city of Medenine date from the XVII century. The semi-nomadic population of the Djeffara valley, compelled to move in search of grazing land, kept the wheat from the harvest season in the ghorfat, the tiny cells dug in the stone and piled up on two or more levels composing one ksar (singular for ksour in Arabic). Each ksar enclosed an outdoor court, designated to the functions of public life.

The book of professor Louis, together with its preface, is written 13 years after that bulldozers had razed to the ground almost all of the 35 ksour that up until the Sixties constitutedd the city of Medenine. Of the three ksour that are left today, one is where is located, among many other things, the office of Mr. Fethi, as well as our book. Of the other two, one is inhabited by cats and by some old men who stock here stuff to sell on the second hand market, the other hosts some shops for tourists that never come.

The ksar of Mr. Fethi is today a sort of café-museum. Fethi seems older than he is and he greets you with his big smile, always happy to see new clients in his place. After having waited for five years for an authorisation from the municipality, Fethi has been running the ksar since 2006, giving new life to a place which was neglected. With his own hands he renovated the place, decorating it with fat plants and jasmine bushes, with sofas and tables; with palm wood he built doors for the little ghorfat, furnished in traditional style with multicoloured carpets and pillows. Some of them are now coffee rooms, others are bedrooms for potential visitors, and others are exposition rooms which render the ksar a real museum of local culture and tradition.

In fact, Mr. Fethi, gardener by trade and coffee maker by circumstances, is first of all a zealous collector. His “career” begins when he is 12 years old, buying stamps that he orders by mail from every part of the world. He then starts to rescue traditional objects from the region, and today he owns a real treasure, which allows him to set up the museum of the ksour, and thanks to which he participated to folkloric festivals and events. Fethi accompanies the visitor in thematic ghorfat explaining the history and the function of the various objects stored in it.

We visit the “marriage room”, where traditional wedding jewels and dresses are exhibited; the Koranic school, where a lesson is reproduced with the use of mannequins; a room dedicated to rural work, with ancient instruments employed in agriculture and farming; the one dedicated to housework, as food preservation and cooking. In the outdoor court a tent is installed which reproduces a daily-life scene of the people who lived there. There is then a room designated to Fethi’spersonal collection: a dozen of cases which display banknotes and coins from all over the world. These are the real trophies of Mr. Fethi, who finally guides us to his office to show us the rest of his collection, saved in a wooden chest, which comprises really unique pieces as silver coins and coins from the Roman era. But besides these venal prides, Fethi’s bureau testifies his passion for the history and culture of his land. He shows us with pride books and research theses which quote him in the “acknowledgements”: self-taught scholar, Fethi guided and assisted various researchers who were doing fieldwork in the region, among whom we find the aforementioned Louis.

Unfortunately, there are not many occasions for Fethi to boost his knowledge: today there are practically no tourist passing through the city of Medenine. Renovated with the idea of making of it a tourist and cultural attraction, the ksar has mainly become a hangout for few regular clients, meanwhile Fethi, abandoning his role of tourist guide and cultural consultant, readjusted to serve tea, Arabic coffee and brik, the traditional fried rolls filled with egg and harissa. His face expresses sadness when we get to this point: there are not many clients in the café, <<people of Medenine prefer modern tearooms, they think that this is old stuff>> he says. Which is fine for the regular customers, who can here enjoy a rare tranquillity, sheltered from the rigid schemes imposed by a city which offers extremely limited social and cultural places: members of associations, musicians who improvise jam sessions, groups of youth, come here to drink their coffee far away from the urban routine.  But Fethi regrets the past: <<At the beginning there was no need to sell coffee, I gained with tourism. Think about that: I worked with 15 different agencies! The groups of foreign travellers directed to Sahara they all stopped here. But after the revolution no one comes anymore>>, he sighs. After the revolution. It is not the first time in Tunisia that I hear this refrain. Not few people are nostalgic for the <<good ol’ times when everyone had something to eat and there were tourists>>, when <<it’s true, there was dictatorship, but everything was in its place>>. The climate of political instability, the escalation of violent episodes ascribed to Islamic terrorism, together with the unchanged economic situation of Tunisian people, foster a complete disillusionment toward the uprisings that overthrew regime of Ben Ali, in January 2011. But if rage toward the present condition is more than legitimate, nostalgia of the old system is false consciousness, if not hypocrisy. It is a denial of the struggles that Tunisian people still carry on  in different regions of the country (enough to mention the current examples  of popular resistance in the islands of Kerkenna and in the oasis of Jemna), demonstrating that revolution is rather a <<still ongoing process>>. It means contenting oneself with the comeback of well-known faces of the old regime.

But Medenine, one of the city mostly bond to the conservative forces of the country, 100 km from the Libyan border, through which Tunisia exports (and occasionally re-imports) thousands of fighters, carries on pretending nothing ever happened, in an illusory calm, faraway and unaware of the struggles that go on around her. Crossroads of the traffics –legal and illegal—coming from Libya, head of a region which comprises hyper touristic destinations such as Djerba and the Sahara, Medenine manages huge flows of merchandise and money. Goods that nonetheless are not put at the service of a concrete development, and which instead leave the region at the margin of the national economy, with poor infrastructures and services.

Like her own ksour, Medenine remains self-enclosed, accumulating riches without generating change. And also Fethi accumulates riches that are of no interest for anybody, in the ksar which became his shrine. Waiting without much expectation that something will change. “Inshalla, it’s gonna change” he says, with more resignation than hope. For the moment he will have to content himself with selling coffees and brik.                                                                                    

The following photos are taken from Badia Aboutaoufik during the interview of Alessia Carnevale with Mr. Fethi within your coffee-museum Ksour.

Mr. Fethi is on the right, outside the kitchen, one of the lazy moments of afternoons in coffe.

The following photos represents the city of Medenine in the first half of the Twentieth Century, at the time of the French protectorate.