Isle of the Lotus-Eaters

A Midwesterner who was graduated from the University of Chicago, KEITH WILLIAMS has been engaged for the last several years in marketing oil products in North Africa

Ulysses came to the island by sea and ate lotus, which is why French writers invariably refer to it as the isle des lotophages. Most people nowadays come onto Djerba by car or airplane and take their lotus in liquid form. There have been a lot of other changes since the isle was called Meninx, but none of them basic enough to spoil its dreamy never-never quality.

Djerba is the largest offshore possession of Tunisia, the North African country that stretches yearningly toward Sicily to give the Mediterranean its hourglass waist. If the boot of Italy, perpetually poised to kick the football of Sicily, were to let go with a good clout, Tunisia would get Trapani right in the mouth (the Gulf of Tunis) and Syracuse would end up just north of Djerba, no doubt fanning itself in the Saharan heat. One can drive from Tunis to Djerba in about seven hours, through country that turns from green and goodly in the north to slaty mountain at midsection to Saharan sand in the south, through towns like Sousse, Monastir, Sfax, and Gabes, each with its Garthaginian, Roman, Arab, and corsair monuments and ruins. El Djem, for example, about hallway between Tunis and the landing for Djerba, has the world’s second largest coliseum. only slightly smaller than the one at Rome and capable of seating 60.000 — and this in the middle of a village now numbering only a few hundred inhabitants, none of them Christians or lions.

There are two ways to cross the two or three miles of shallow Mediterranean separating Djerba from the African mainland, one by boat and the other on a road recently built over the ruins ol the Roman causeway.

On the first trip I made to the island I took the boat, a tiny barque with a two-horsepower engine which fired sporadically from time to time but never actually stopped. A bridge capable of taking two cars abreast stretched over the gunwales amidships, and my middle-sized French car, after having been pushed back and forth to adjust the trim, had both bumpers out over the water. As we cast off, it came on sunset, suppertime for the boatmen, who had been fasting all day (this happened to be the holy month of Ramadan, when no food nor drink nor any other bodily pleasure can be enjoyed by the faithful during the daylight hours), and they courteously asked me to join them, as Arabs will. The fish in red-pepper sauce looked good, but I was saving up for dinner at the hotel, so I wished them good health and offered them a small bottle of boukha, the local fig aquavit, with which they toasted me.

Then, as twilight was turning into night, we landed on Djerba: halfmoon low over dark water, palm trees rattling in early night breeze, stars twinkling their first shy twinkles of the evening, boatmen hailing each other with loonlike cries.

Something in the northern soul seems to be ravished by the out-ofthis-world quality of Djerba. It is a desert oasis completely surrounded by Mediterranean instead of dunes, planted with date palms and olive trees and hardly anything else, and dotted with white houses and mosques, all looking as if they had been poured, or squeezed out of a frosting lube, rather than built. The fishing is good, and the beaches are just as Poseidon left them. It almost never rains, but the island seems very clean.

This primitive, exotic, mysterious, African simplicity of Djerba, plus the fact that one can be very comfortable there, is attracting increasing numbers of European tourists, and a new 280-room hotel, the Ulysses, is going up to meet the demand. The Prime Minister of Sweden, Willy Brandt, and Harry Belafonte have come for winter vacations in the recent past, along with hundreds, perhaps thousands, of Scandinavians, Teutons, Britons, and Gauls. Most of them get in several hours of swimming per day, to the incredulous mirth of the Tunisians, who, like nearly all born Mediterraneans, would not consider entering the sea for pleasure between September 1 and June 15, firmly convinced that to do so would expose them to a wide range of aches and Bus. Of course, a sunny winter’s day in Tunisia is something like August in the North Atlantic or the Baltic, and nearly every day is sunny.

Although the island’s north shore is still a long way from being really “in” on the international tourist circuit, there are already bus tours to the ruins of Meninx, the Spanish fort, the tallest lighthouse in North Africa, the Tower of Skulls, the underground olive-oil refineries, and the Roman causeway. Houmt Souk, the capital, is full of tourist shops selling colorful rugs, straw hats, and jewelry.

The French travel organization Club Méditerranée has a large village on the north shore not far from the hotels, a curious camp of hundreds of self-conscious round little Tahitian huts built of reeds, with umbrella roofs. The security is very strict, and it is impossible to visit the “tent village” during the season, which gives rise to the rumor — it might be a fact — that the clubbers are nudists. If they are, Tunisia is certainly the only Arabic-speaking country where they would be allowed to flourish. It is very Frenchified; Muslim girls wear bikinis that would get them thrown off a Florida beach, and in the evening tuck into dry martinis between cha-chas and Charlestons.

One arrives at the little town of Midoun by a sandy track and is faced at the last turning by a thousandyear-old olive tree in front of a white mosque. Perfection of color: white, green, blue, yellow. For a moment one is chromatically disoriented; the colors are too perfect, too simple. Then there is a flash of recognition; this is a Kodachrome shot, very slightly overexposed.

At Guellalla, another little town (no agglomeration on the island has more than 5000 inhabitants), the villagers make pottery. This is the pottery village of the bus tours. There are a few tourist gimcracks, but the economy of the village is not based on them. For millennia now the Guellallans have made amphorae, huge four-handled jugs, loaded them onto their own Djerban barques, and sold them all around the central Mediterranean. Ship, crew, and jugs go to a port, anchor, and stay there until all the jugs are sold; the ship serves as both shop and hotel.

This brings us to the real, as distinguished from the tourist, Djerba. The secret of the island’s comfortable charm is, as is usually the case, money. The so-called lotus-eaters are in fact hardheaded businessmen, the most conspicuous entrepreneurs of central North Africa. It is these light-brown, thin-lipped types who run all the Tunisian equivalents of the old-time general store, and many of them branch out into other lines of trade as well. Flint-eyed, quickcalculating, and studiously remote from the villages and towns in which they do business, these djerbiens spend two years to a lifetime off the island buying cheap and selling dear. No matter how rich they get, they tend to spend all their vacations on the island, marry hometown girls, and die in the neat little houses which were built and maintained by their industry and that of their fathers.

The special, almost Quaker character of the people of Djerba is quite important in Tunisia. Salah Ben Youssef, President Bourguiba’s only open Tunisian foe (who was assassinated in mysterious circumstances in Frankfurt during the aftermath of the Bizerte massacre in the summer of 1961), was a Djerban. So is the young man who runs one of the country’s largest businesses and its most influential and independentminded newspaper. Djerbans are about one percent of the Tunisian population, and perhaps 90 percent of the population owe them money, if only for last month’s purchases of tuna, tomato sauce, and olive oil.

Why are Djerbans so special? Is there any clue in their history? When the people on the southern shore of the Mediterranean Sea entered history they were speaking Hamitic languages, which sounded very barbarous indeed to the Greeks, who therefore dubbed them Berbers. Greeks and Carthaginian-Phoenicians then colonized parts of North Africa, and were both succeeded by the Romans, while the aborigines stayed on, first resisting and finally assimilating with their conquerors. In Djerba, an important colony of Palestinians who believed in Yahweh arrived after the destruction by Titus of the t emple of Jerusalem, and are still there and still separate (although speaking Arabic as their native tongue) to this day. Rome ran down, then Byzantium, then a Vandal empire; and then came the Arabs. The language of Arabia has been spoken on Djerba now for 1300 years, but never exclusively.

So far, this succinct history has been as true of the rest of North Africa as of Djerba, even with regard to the Jewish presence. At some time after the first entry of the Arab conquerors, a new factor entered, for Djerba alone. The Hamite-Berber-Roman Arabs of this tiny island took it into their heads to become Kharijites, or Ibadites, or “outsiders”; and most of them remain so to this day. Carl Brockelmann says in his History of the Islamic Peoples that “outsider” was a name “applied to . . . rebels against the established government and to different sects that had only the extremist point of view on the caliphate in common (that the caliph is the one elected by the community even if he be a black slave).” Other Muslims of North Africa are orthodox (Sunni) and followers of the strict Nlalikite school of religious jurisprudence. Only the Djerbans are outsiders, and they revel in their freedom, while confining it to business, remaining as orthodox as possible with respect to dress, women, drink, and similar trifles. The world’s only other Kharijites are to be found in Oman.

In the summertime Djerbans of both sexes wear wide-brimmed floppy straw hats as a protection against the sun. I had never before seen traditional Arabs who wore brimmed hats (I now know that brims are commonplace in Morocco), since most Muslims consider it impious to wear a headpiece which gets in the way of bumping the forehead on the ground during prayers, and when I first saw these sombreros they made a curious impression. Although the Djerbans do not have a reputation for being feckless, charming, and lovers of a good lime, the sight of those great straw hats made me expect them to break out steel drums and commence the calypso.

The Djerban, when he sends his money home from his aromatic and messy little shop, does not have grandiose realizations in mind. What contents him is a smallish hacienda in the most traditional style, of poured adobe or concrete, in fanciful shapes not to be bettered in Italian B movies about medieval Baghdad. The whole is painted a dazzling white, with the window openings bluest blue, and lies on the yellow sand among the date palms and olive trees without disturbing them. A primitive peace, compounded of soberness and conservatism and much money working in the bank and the shop, makes his home isle, from which he is so often absent, the earthly paradise of the frugal Djerban. The island is certainly unspoiled, and is likely to remain so as long as the average native can buy and sell the average tourist.

I did not reflect on my relative poverty the night I checked into what was then the biggest hotel. The rooms were not huge, but they were adequate, each one with shower and toilet. Dinner was five excellent courses, more than even the German holidaymakers around me could eat, and was served by well-trained waiters in proper uniform. Tunisian wine is at least as good as the best California wine, and the coffee was espresso. After dinner the other tourists danced to records, played pingpong, and wrote letters, while I went out for a late swim. The hotel is not a hundred yards, or fifty, or ten, or one, from the beach, but on it, a part of it. I stepped off the tiled walkway in front of my room into the pure white sand and ran across it fifty feet into the water. That is all there is. just the sea, the sand, the strip of the hotel (each room facing the beach), and the island hinterland, olive trees under date palms, gentle surf, and moonlight.

I have been back to Djcrba since that first trip, once with my family on holiday. The children love it even more than Carthage (where they live, among Punic and Roman ruins), since they are free to run as they please, in bathing suit or nothing at all. No harm can conic to them unless they take it into their minds to drown themselves, which is fairly hard to do in the gentle surf. Full pension is about seven dollars a day per person, two to a room, which makes it a good bit cheaper than living at home. The new Ulysses Hotel will be more posh, but similarly planned and located.

Such are the banal and economical delights of Djcrba: sand, sea. a remoteness, just off Africa but not far from Europe, little vegetation, and no right-angled construction to confuse the eye, no noise and stink to pit the soul. Recognition and spoliation might be just around the corner. The yachtsmen of Europe could get the idea that the only cure for a week in Nice or St. Tropcz is two weeks on Djcrba.