A golden hue illuminated a jigsaw of blue and white, ushering the first rays of rhythmic synergy into a sleepy neighbourhood. The silence of dawn was gently cajoled by a distant out — the lute’s deep, basal strains emerging from well-tuned strings. But the first music I heard on this trip was the earthy sonority of rustic Arabic spoken by an octogenarian Jewish grandmother as she prepared an irresistible kosher breakfast for her long-awaited guest — an Aha! Moment for my spirit. So I savoured deep-fried, vegetarian brwk (pronounced ‘breek’) at a Jewish restaurant plonk in the heart of the Arab world, in a centuries-old brotherhood between two communities otherwise at war. It seemed to sum up the very essence and origin of music itself — the manifestation of a cosmic harmony inherent in all existence. Nearby, the pristine blue Mediterranean rose with the sensuality of a maiden in a mystical love dance.
I was at Djerba, North Africa’s largest island at 514 sq km, which lies off Tunisia’s southeastern coast. Djerba is more than a surreal legato between peoples and cultures. It is music in flesh and form. Soon after the azaan from several mosques at stone’s throw from each other — the sounds merging in a perfect minor scale — there followed the first hymn of the day, and deep and guttural chants enveloped the air. I walked with Si Adel, my old buddy and host, through Djerba’s quaint, dusty alleyways, to arrive at a towering zawiyah, a Sufi school where, like the mystics of old believed, ‘those intoxicated with the wine of divine love, meet to revel in drunkenness!’
Djerba’s Jewish quarter, Hara Kebira, has charming homes with blue doors; Arabic and Hebrew scribbles decorate their whitewashed walls. We strolled by and watched children of both communities playing with wooden toys as their elders immersed themselves in card games. Bumping into Jewish buddies from his childhood, Si Adel exchanged common pleasantries: “Salaam Alaikum/Shalom Aleikhem,” both of which mean ‘peace be upon you’. We sat on an old bench a little distance away from the ancient synagogue of El Ghriba, a place of pilgrimage for Jews from around the world. As we slurped traditional mint tea topped with pine nuts — delightful! — the group mingled with this traveller from a distant land who looked, spoke and sang like them. Yonah, a gregarious Jewish chef, set the neighbourhood dancing by breaking spontaneously into a duet of an old folk number with his Muslim neighbour. I grabbed the clay and goatskin darbuka, the goblet-shaped drum, and joined in with 4/4 time swing. “You see, we have the best of the worlds here — Africa and the Arab world,” Si Adel whispered, catching his breath after the afternoon-long jam. “That’s how music is like breath for us!”
Traditional musical soirées enthrall international audiences at Djerba’s high-end clubs. Indigenous Berber musicians with heart-pounding rhythms, energetic gyrations and psychedelic circling invite adventurous Europeans to join them. A voluptuous belly dancer takes the stage. She dazzles her open-mouthed audience with a seductively acrobatic performance accompanied by music laced with raw sexuality.
We crossed over to mainland Tunisia by ferry from Djerba. The air was filled with the sounds of shrill, high-pitched mezwed bagpipes accompanying folk numbers blazing from scores of shops around the wharf, and from the stereos of BMWs owned by wealthy Tunisians and Libyans. They bade me goodbye as I headed from the tranquil Mediterranean toward the forbidding Sahara. Driving through 360 degrees of nothingness, I stopped at wayside Berber shops for mint tea, local sweets and affectionate gossip. Handing me a henna packet with a traditionally draped Kareena Kapoor on it, a hardy old Berber who called himself Malek-es-sahra (‘monarch of the desert’) swung into a hilarious version of a bhangra he had picked up from a Bollywood film he had watched recently. It was then I realized that for us desis, no place is really that far from home.
Arriving at Tozeur, a stunning Saharan getaway, I strolled through the brown and blue medina (old town). It had old lanterns, quaint and winding alleyways, souvenir shops, and horse carriages to ferry visitors through the dusty village and sprawling date plantations nearby. I assumed a passing group of schoolkids singing Bole chooriyan, bole kangana was a passionate musician’s hallucination but I later stumbled upon a tiny sweet shop where the super-hit number from Karan Johar’s Kabhi Khushi Kabhi Gham was playing in full glory! “Tu amies la chanson, tuhibbeen al ughniyaa (Do you like the song)?” I asked the little girl at the counter in French and Arabic, but she just blushed in response when I added that I was Indian.
In Tozeur’s old town stands the abode of eccentric Sufi musician and philosopher Sheikh Mondher Abbes. Greeting me in overwhelmingly poetic Arabic, with vivid gestures, he explained the very essence of his philosophy. “Inni uhibbu-l-jamaal! Ya sadeeqi! Huwallazee jameelun wa yuhibbu-l-jamaal, sufiyyun (Verily do I love beauty! My friend! He who is beautiful and loves beauty is a Sufi),” he said prophetically. Then, under a cloudless desert sky, we gave ourselves over to an evening of musical devotion. Mondher rendered intricate and introspective improvizations on the oud, which was followed by our unforgettable daf-darbuka duet in varied, traditional rhythms.
I finally arrived at Tunis, the nation’s vibrant capital, and awaited a rendezvous with Tunisia’s iconic classical maestro Anis Klibi in the heart of the centre ville (city centre). Mesmerized by the sheer Rubik’s cube of colours at Tunis’s famous market, I made my way through the city’s alleys to be greeted with two customary pecks on each cheek by the cherubic maestro. Klibi is one of the foremost exponents of the ancient Andalusian rebab, also called rabeb the Maghreb region (that’s Tunisia, Algeria and Morocco). His music is soaked in classicism. The instrument, reminiscent of that glorious era of Spain which was under Moorish rule, was brought to North Africa across the Mediterranean by Arabs and Jews who fled the Inquisition. Though the Western fiddle has replaced this exquisite bowed instrument in recent times, a few passionate torchbearers like Klibi still command respect from ardent listeners the world over.
While the ustad demonstrated different scales on the rabeb, its heart-rending strains elevated me to a higher consciousness, reminding me of a beautiful verse by the towering Persian Sufi poet Jalaluddin Rumi: “Emruz cho har ruz, kharaabeem kharaab. Magshaa dar andishe o bargeer rebaab (Today, as every day, we are drunk, we are drunk. Leave aside the maze of thoughts, grab the rebab).”
Tunis’s famous museum houses fascinating musical instruments from all over Africa. The city’s charming, Andalusian-style village suburb of Sidi Bou Said was a true blue haven for musicians, artists and poets, with its stunning panoramas of the Mediterranean, a marina, and a colourful market. As I stood meditating on the waves gently caressing the white shores, a penetratingly sweet voice lilted through the air. It was a grandmother singing a traditional lullaby to her newborn grandchild in a typical Andalusian verandah. The pure simplicity of her voice was the highlight of my musical pilgrimage. It far surpassed the lofty eclecticism and grammar of anything I had heard till then.
The information Getting there
The Tunisian embassy in New Delhi (011-26145346) issues visas in 3-10 working days. Fee for business and tourist visas: Rs 2,390.
1 Tunisian Dinar (TND) = Rs 38
Where to stay
In Tunis, The Residence (from Rs 26,000; Les Côtes de Carthage; +216-71910-101, theresidence.com) is a luxurious property situated in La Marsa, the summer capital of pre-colonial Tunisia. Regency Tunis (from Rs 8,800; also at Les Côtes de Carthage; +216-71910-900, regencytunis.com) is another classy beachfront property. The Solymar Hotel (from Rs 2,000; Soliman; +216-72-366-605, solymar-hotel.com, book via Expedia since the site is in French) has budget accommodation. At Djerba, stay at the serene Dar Dhiafa (from Rs 6,750; Erriadh; +216-75-671-166, hoteldardhiafa.com), a boutique hotel that serves amazing food. All rates inclusive of taxes and breakfast.
What to see & do
Visit the Houmt Souk, Djerba’s famous local market and the El Ghriba Synagogue, one of Judaism’s holiest. Both Hara Kebira and Hara Saghira are Jewish neighbourhoods in the heart of the Arab world, and spending time here is an unforgettable experience. Guellala is the Berber stronghold in Djerba and a treasure house of indigenous pottery. Djerba’s beaches offer activities like quad biking, camel and horse riding, and sun-bathing and surfing. Ksar Guilane, a desert oasis 150km from Djerba, is home to nomadic families and hot springs. Recreated pirate ships take tourists to L’iles des flamants roses or Pink Flamingo Island. Djerba Sun Club, Club Med Djerba La Douce, and Salsa Disco are among the high-end clubs that offer musical experiences and all-night soirées and parties. Dar Cherif (dar-cherif.com) centre for arts and culture hosts interesting programmes.
Where to eat
Yonah’s traditional Jewish restaurant in Djerba’s Hara Kebira serves up kosher Tunisian-Arabic-Jewish cuisine. Other good restaurants are Chez Fatroucha, Essofra, Le Phare and Tio Mario Casino. Do sip a cup or two at one of the many salon de thé or teahouses