Sufism in Tunisia
My original post to the Friends of Tunisia listserv
I’ve found Christian Science Monitor stories to be paywalled at times, but I was able to read the entirety of these two stories.
Phil Jones’s Reply
Thanks for sending these two articles, George. It’s nice to hear that people in the Tunis medina are organizing to save its traditional crafts, arts, and businesses. Furthermore, the story about Sufism in Tunisia was a real surprise to me. I had no idea Sufism was so widespread in Tunisia. The only time i encountered Sufism was in the tiny town of Nefta. Up until I read this article, I thought that Nefta was pretty much the only place where Sufism was practiced. I taught in Tunis both years, and, of course, knew of Sidi Bou Said and the big Sida Mahrez mosque in Tunis, but at no point did I know there was any connection to Sufism with either. Nor do I think that I am the only volunteer who didn’t know about these long established roots of Sufism in Tunisia…. Thanks again,…Phil Jones
Mondher’s 1st reply
Definitely, there are saints (or Sidi or waly in Arabic) in every town and city in Tunisia, and many villages are centered around the saint’s mausoleum and would bear the saint’s name, like the all famous village of Sidi Bou Said north of Tunis or the city of Sidi Bouzid where the 2010 revolution started.
Many towns/cities have a number of these, usually one would be the most famous one, such as Sidi Mehrez in Tunis, with many other saints sprinkled around various neighborhoods.
My paternal grandma was the resident curator of a saint, Sidi Bouaziz, in the heart of the medina of Sousse. She actually resided in the mausoleum after my grand father passed. In addition to people visiting and praying for benediction, there were all kinds of events, such as engagements, circumcisions, etc., that where my brother and I had ours done. Most importantly, there were musical and chanting events periodic or specific to certain days in Ramadan and other religious commemorations. Each one had a different type band, sufi, , hadhra, yissaouya, suleymya, stombali, or other bands. One type of band was called El-Banga, which has Saharian/Berber origins, where women would dance until they get to a trance and end up fainting. Men stood in the center courtyard and boys watched from the adjacent room, where the saint’s tomb was located, through a see-through wooden wall. That was fun.
Here is a YouTube link clip about a performance hosted in the Tunis Municipal Theater celebrating Sufi tradition… It’s called El Ziara, which means “the visit”, referring to a visit one makes to a saint for benediction.
Below is a Guardian report with video of one of those Banga ceremonies, but not like the one I described above.
ge’s reply to Mondher
In Gafsa, I loved going to the 3asawiya (sp?), where people went into trances and stuck nails through their cheeks or ate cactus. It was amazing. Do you know about this? Is it Sufi?
Mondher’s 2nd reply
The trance, yes. When I was a kid, my dad took us to this village near Sousse, called Sidi Amer (another Sidi😊), where 3yssawyya shows took place; I don’t remember whether it happened frequently or it was an annual event linked to some holyday. All what you said happened in these exhibitions, sticking long big nails through their cheeks, eating cactus, walking on burning charcoal or laying on broken glass with a person standing on their body, swallowing shaving blades, etc. All of this being done as the music gets to a climax and people dance to it until they get into a trance to varying degrees.
As if these “practices” are Sufi, I think those who believe in Sufism take it very seriously. I also think that these are few. So the majority that carry-on these practices do so as traditions and culture. But I may be wrong. I saw a few documentaries on Sufism and Sufis; so that’s a good place to learn more. The youtube video is a good source to watch and check out comments…
[ge: this is a fabulous video that explains a lot about Sufism.]
Some Youtube Sufi videos
I can’t find a video of people in trances sticking nails through their cheeks, etc. These videos show scenes somewhat like what I saw in Gafsa. The music seems similar.
This video briefly shows a man in a trance at the beginning.
This video from Tozeur, a town just South of Gafsa, shows a woman apparently in a trance.
Here are some other videos of similar scenes. Nothing exactly like my experience crowded into the courtyard of a house in Gafsa at night.
This scene from Paris looks like fun but is definitely not Southern Tunisia.