Right up my street

Life on Kerkennah by Julie Al-Zoubi

Kerkennah consists of nine small Islands located in the gulf of Gabes, Tunisia 18km from the city of Sfax. Only the two largest Islands are inhabited, and they are joined by a causeway which has been there since the Romans occupied the Islands.

The two inhabited islands have 13 small villages and a population of around 15,000. There are estimated to be one million palm trees, all of which have spontaneously seeded. These trees are used in their entirety. Delicious dates are eaten, leaves are used to make fish traps, and the wood is used for building boats. The sap can be collected, and is a nutritious health drink (legmee) which, if left out in the sun, becomes a potent alcoholic drink.

In August 2009 I purchased a traditional Kerkennian House. This is located in a typical street in the established village of Ouled Bou Ali. The house came complete with local tenants, who reside in the ground floor 3 bedroom, traditional house. I am living above in the quirky, spacious apartment. The house also has a well for drawing water, as is favoured by the Kerkennians.

The sea is at the bottom of my road and I have a spectacular sea view from the terrace. This enables me to watch the glorious sunrises. I also have a balcony which overlooks the street, and allows me watch the daily goings on and enjoy the sunsets over the Palmerie.

Fishing is the main source of income for Kerkennian men and they will often share their catch with you. You will also see them repairing their nets by hand, a skill passed down through generations. Along the coast, you will find the Sharifas (traditional fish traps) and colourful Falukas (traditional fishing boats).

On Kerkennah, you can almost hear the silence, broken only by the bahhing of sheep and the hauntingly beautiful call to prayer, from the pretty, picturesque Mosques. On my road, there are vines and pomegranate trees, bearing fruit which the neighbours generously share. Chickens wander freely, sheep are tethered to trees and the neighbourhood cats are huge and content.

I have been completely overwhelmed by the warm welcome I have received from my neighbours. I am the first European to live in the village. I rarely have to cook, as it is not unusual for one of the neighbours to invite me to join them for lunch, or send me a delicious bowl of couscous.

It’s impossible to nip out quickly( and hey, here it’s not necessary) as neighbours will stop you to ask about your health and the well being of your entire family and friends and you are expected to do likewise. A similar exchange of pleasantries will be repeated on your return, usually with an invitation to join them for tea or coffee, so going out requires careful planning to allow time for this

Life on Kerekannah has remained relatively unchanged, and is lived at an almost unbelievably slow pace. Local traditions continue to be practised. The ladies will sit outside their houses, in their brightly coloured traditional clothing and straw hats, drying their couscous in the sunshine (no packets for them), preparing sheep wool to make cushions with, and even doing their washing in bowls by hand, singing merrily as they work. The ladies start their chores early each morning, sweeping and washing the floors, and even the older ladies are highly active and enjoying good health.

The Island’s tiny capital is a short stroll, along the road or by the sea, there are about a dozen small shops and a bank, post office and town hall, and a handful of cafes.
There is a colourful and fragrant market held each Thursday, where fresh fruit and spices are sold along with household goods.

If you need anything else, it requires a trip to Sfax, which takes 1 hour 15 minutes by Ferry(each way). The ferry is a great place to catch up with friends and hear the local gossip and a one way ticket costs 650 Millimes (about 25p). Everything is brought to the island by ferry, as it’s the only way to reach the island, so you will see, sheep, chickens and donkeys, travelling along with T.V’s, fridges, cars and anything else people are transporting.

My lifestyle has changed dramatically, from being a big city girl, I have embraced insular, life on this small, hauntingly beautiful island, and adapted to the local culture and lifestyle.

I have learned so much about values, and the benefits of maintaining traditions, and how a simple life can be richer and more satisfying. Children and old people are respected and cared for as valuable members of society, and family life is a priority. Crime is rare on the island. It is completely safe to go out alone, even at night and not worry about being attacked or mugged. Children are welcomed everywhere, and are well behaved and given lots of attention by all, and the adolescents are respectful and helpful.

I have chosen not to have a car, because I enjoy travelling around with the locals, in shared taxis, and it is also incredibly cheap. I can travel 26 km for 1.5 Dinars (about 60p).

The locals are Muslim and whilst religion plays a big role in their lives, they are incredibly tolerant and easy going towards foreigners and are very moderate in their ways and views.

Weddings are major events for Kerkennian families, and everyone is welcome to attend these colourful and boisterous occasions, which continue till the early hours. It is great opportunity to see and hear the local folklore musicians perform. Usually the guests are counted in hundreds and on Kerkennah weddings usually take place on open land, in order that everyone can come along and enjoy the celebration.

It is almost impossible to snack on junk so I enjoy a much healthier diet. Local fruit and vegetables are cheap and naturally produced, fish can be still wriggling when you buy it and we have no McDonalds or other High Street fast food outlets .We have a handful of restaurants, two of which are located on the beach and it is possible to have your table on the beach or even in the sea. Whilst they are not pristine world class eateries, you are assured of, friendly (if slow) service and fresh local food served with a smile.

My health has improved dramatically, and I attribute this to the fresh sea air and lack of pollution, along with a diet rich in fish and fresh produce, lack of stress (apart from when hiring workmen and watching them in action) and feeling part of the local community. I enjoy so much, the fun and laughter, with the colourful and lively characters on our street (made more hilarious by my very little understanding of French and Arabic). Every day is priceless .There is rarely a day, when the sun doesn’t shine, nor a day when I am not astounded by the kind and loving gestures of my neighbours. Moving to Ouled Bou Ali has been my best move ever. It is a blessing to wake up here each morning and a joy to see the glorious starry skies before sleeping.

It is right up my street.

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