Tunisia, a French colony until its 1956 independence, is located on the north coast of Africa, bordering the Mediterranean Sea. The vast Sahara Desert, which covers much of northern Africa, begins in its southern tip, and the Atlas Mountains span the land, dividing its hotter, dryer southern regions from its fertile northern plains. At one time the country was known as the ‘granary of the Roman Empire’ because of its many fertile oases that supported agriculture. While the country remains a major grower of olives and dates even today, it also has a very diversified economy.
Tunisia’s capital city, Tunis, is one of the Mediterranean region’s oldest cities and 400 kilometres to its south is the village of Matmata, whose lunar landscape provided the ideal location for desert scenes featured in the Star Wars film. The Berbers have lived in Matmata for a thousand years, sheltered from the extreme heat of summer in identical underground pit houses, with courtyards dug about six metres deep and rooms tunneled out from the sides. Tunisia’s population is comprised primarily of Arabs and the official language is Arabic, although French is also used in commerce.
Although Tunisia is the smallest nation in North Africa, its strategic position along the Mediterranean allowed the Phoenicians, Romans, Vandals, Byzantines, Arabs, Ottomans, and the French to all visit its shores and, subsequently leave their indelible mark on a country which was initially inhabited by the Berbers. With one foot firmly planted in the past and the other walking swiftly into the future, Tunisia is a richly textured and colourful cultural blend of old French colonial influence and authentic Arab flavour. Family is the central focus in Tunisian society and provides the model whereby respect for others, and an attitude of tolerance and generous hospitality is learned and practiced.
Festivals are a significant part of the culture and include such modern events as the Arab Andalusian Music Festival and the Sahara Festival. In ancient times the Romans built great theatres upon the ruins of Carthage and one of these architectural structures is still used today for the annual Carthage International Festival.
The traditional Tunisian costume, featuring embroidery similar to the one shown on the block, is still worn on formal occasions and remains very important for Tunisians. Men will wear the jebba, a sleeveless tunic, and the chechia, a red felt hat adorned with a black tassel. Women wear the sefseri, a veil that covers the top of the head, with a blouse and baggy pants, with stunning gold and silver coins jewellery and rich embroidery.
Tunisians are recognized for many things, including their distinctive woven carpets (made in the area around the town of Kairouan), pottery and copper-work. Reeds or palm fronds are used to weave mats that serve as floor coverings or seating mats. Windows, balconies, and doors are often adorned with blue wrought-irons grilles that stand out against the whitewashed traditional Tunisian houses. Tunisians are perhaps best-known for malouf, a kind of music imported from Andalusia after the Spanish conquest in the 15th century.
People have been coming to Canada from Tunisia since 1946, settling across the country, but primarily in Ontario and Québec. As of 2011, there were over 15,000 Tunisians living in Canada.
Sponsor: Marilyn Parisien | Photos courtesy Wikimedia Commons