Travelling through Tunisia in the shadow of the Arab Spring was a once in a lifetime experience. But landing in Chenini, among the rugged mountains and the stony desert in southern Tunisia, was a trip into the unfamiliar. Imagine watching two young men ululating and gyrating to Andalusian/Arab music; or engage in small-talk with new Berber friends seated next to an olive tree, 500 feet above the ground, almost touching the stars; or sleep in a unique cave room in a troglodyte hotel in the land of Star Wars and Planet Tatooine.
Chenini is a Berber village on a hilltop which still has some ksour (a kind of fortified granary). Two things in Chenini that struck me as unique are the troglodyte hotel and the Berber artisans. The vast majority of the Tunisian population were Berbers. The name Berber derives, of course, from the term barbari (foreigners) by which Romans described these people and it passes into Arabic as Barbar (Hugh Kennedy, 2007 “The Great Arab Conquests”). The range of Berber habitation stretched from the borders of the Nile valley in the east to as far as Morocco in the west but they were in no sense politically united.
The village nowadays is a mix of troglodyte dwellings and more modern houses. The entire mountain however was just dry brown hills surrounding the Berber village of Chenini (Fig 1). Just 500 metres from the white Mosque of Seven Sleepers or the Sept Dormans Mosque (Fig 2) is the Kenza Residence where my daughter and I stayed in May 2014. Walking was the only way to get to the Kenza Residence.
Figure 1: Chenini the Berber village of dry brown hills and troglodyte houses built into the mountain sides.
THE TROGLODYTE HOTEL
Kenza Residence is an interesting hotel concept utilising a troglodyte structure located in the historical village of Chenini (Shanini). It offered accommodation in a collection of caves and a sun terrace. Guests could enjoy a traditional cuisine at the restaurant located some distance away. The Residence is one kilometre from El Ogla Oasis and was an ideal base for hiking expedition to Dahar (on Booking.com). The troglodyte cave hotels, built into the rock formations and mountain sides, reminded us of planet Tatooine movie scene from Star Wars, shot in Sidi Bouhlel near Touzeur in Tunisia.
Kenza has a number of interesting cave rooms and we took the cave room which can accommodate 6 people, as for a family only because it was low-season. The place was run by two young men, Haythem (who managed the hotel registration) and Tawfik (who operated the souvenir shop). The cleaning lady was Radia. People here were very different from the city folks we met up north like Tunis. Here the people (at least the ones we met) were warm and friendly.
Figure 2: The white Mosque of the Seven Sleepers or Sept Dormans Mosque.
Radia was a Berber Arab, particularly striking with clear dark skin and a soft spoken voice (Fig 3). She was hardly 5 feet tall with a ready smile. She was 35 years old and was the housekeeper in Kenza Hotel. She donned a hijab and wore glasses. She was an artisan, with a skill at weaving carpets, a gift passed down to her since she was seven years old. She wove woollen carpets and even brought us to see the set-up in her little cave residence, located just above the hotel. She presented us with two small 20×20 inches beautiful carpet pieces with motifs typical of Berber design.
Figure 3: Radia the Berber artisan who wove woollen carpets while working as a cleaning lady in Kenza Residence, Chenini.
When we first walked into the Kenza restaurant, we practically “stumbled” upon Tawfik because he was bundled up, deep asleep on the floor, near the entrance. Never mind it was still early evening, the young man was already deep asleep, intoxicated by sheer boredom. Tawfik mumbled something from inside his sheets, but Haythem just ignored him and waved us through to the dining table. Tawfik half got up, brushed the sleep from his eyes, and straightened his shirt once he saw us.
Tawfik (Fig 4) was a young man of about 18 years of age. He was small built, with handsome features and flashed a quick heart-warming smile when he saw us. He managed the souvenir shop for Kenza. Both Tawfik and Haythem (also 18) could belly-dance and ululate. Ululation is practiced by Arab countries and most Sub-Saharan Africa, as an expression of celebration during communal ritual events as well as some styles of singing.
Figure 4: Tawfik was one of the Tunisian boys, working in Kenza Residence, Chenini, Tunisia (2014). The white Sept Dormants Mosque is in the background.
I was wondering what it was like for young men like Tawfik and Haythem, living in this environment that seemed set back 50 years behind modernity. The activities was more exciting for tourists than locals especially for the younger generation. Beside the 15% unemployment rate, the boredom alone would stunt any young man’s imagination. Like all boys, Tawfik was a fan of Cristiano Ronaldo, his football hero, as shown by his tee-shirt. Football is perhaps one of the few excesses available in far-flung village of Chenini.
That evening Tawfik, Haythem and my daughter sat on some old chairs next to a small olive tree facing the mountains. It was an exceptional view because the hotel was about 500 metres above the winding road below and above us, the stars. The mountain facing us seemed so close and lent a breath-taking view especially at night as if the stars were almost within reach. My daughter and the two boys stayed up late into the night exchanging stories about life in London and life in Tunis but it was difficult to say how the communication went since my daughter spoke very little French and almost no Arabic and Tawfik and Haythem speak very little English if at all.
The next morning before we left, we visited Tawfik’s souvenir shop and that was when both Tawfik and Haythem showed their talents at belly dancing and ululating. We were dropped off by Dr Habib at the bus station afterwards. We took a louage to Djerba.
Tawfik being a young man longing for female company found it difficult holed up in the isolated village of troglodytes amidst conservative social and religious confines. He immediately was attracted to my daughter. On impulse, he left his “post” without prior permission to travel 150km to Djerba to bid farewell to my daughter for the last time before we flew off for Tunis.
It was a wasted effort because Tawfik and Haythem did not get to meet my daughter. Tawfik, like many other young men, was determined to leave Chenini for greener pastures.