Djerbian economy

Djerba has known a renowned prosperity for centuries of its history. Despite the harshness and the drought of the region, the inhabitants knew how to adapt to their milieu in order to exploit it and satisfy their needs. A diversity of economic activities on the island can be noted.

This activity is as ancient as men on the island. To ensure this activity, the Djerbian have developed and inherited specific and varied techniques and tools according to cultures.

The dromedary is the most distinguished animal for the Djerbian because it ensures the transportation of heavy weights, ploughing, water extraction from wells, and the action of the millstones of traditional olive oil mills. This is without neglecting the fact that its meat is highly appreciated by the islanders.
In the everyday language of the Djerbian, the word Menzel evokes the idea of a big agricultural farm that is irrigated and marked with palm trees, olive trees, fruit trees, and market gardening. In the middle of the Menzel one or many houses surrounded with necessary elements for an autonomous life are built. These fields produce a big number of products that make Djerbian farmers proud:

Palm trees
The 'king tree' in Djerba is the palm tree. It occupies the greatest place in the Djerbian landscape to the extent that it would be impossible to imagine a Djerbian view without a group of ten, fifteen, or twenty-meter high palm trees. The distribution of palm trees is so uneven. At the center of the island they are associated with other trees while the periphery is covered with a pretty much large strip. Certain palm trees are cultivated and irrigated while others are feral and form what the Djerbian call Nabbout. There are numerous varieties of dates. The principal ones are 1-Caguiwa, 2- Màttètè, 3- Camâri, 4- Hamouri, 5- Gabsi, and 6- Lemsi which is considered by many as the best variety of dates in Djerba.
Sap, legmi, harvesting is done following a very delicate process that consists in eliminating all the palms of the tree and digging a circular channel around the terminal bud. A small jar is hung up to the channel. After this operation, a daily follow up is necessary. The farmer climbs to the top to clear the final bud from its foam before cutting it and washing the circular channel. Out of these cuts comes a liquid called legmi, a sweet drink highly appreciated in the south of Tunisia. It pours into the small jar by means of a reed linked to the circular channel.

Olive trees
Since the antiquity, Djerba had the privilege of being one of the rare centres of olive oil production in the Mediterranean. This is explained by the fact that the climate of the region is perfectly suitable for this kind of agricultural activity. The principal varieties are the Semlali, with fine green leaves and the Zolmati, with larger and slightly light green leaves.
Olives picking starts as early as November when the fruit start to blacken. It is almost exclusively a feminine job. After spreading covers under the trees certain women climb directly or make use of double ladders to reach the higher branches. Other women sort the olives to eliminate the leaves and wastes while the children pick up the scattered olives that fell beyond the covers. Men are usually in charge of the transportation of olives to the oil mills by means of Znabil (plural of Zembil) placed on animals’ backs.
Olive tree pruning aims to distribute light and air in the different parts of the tree and give it an even shape that facilitates the picking of fruits. Part of the obtained wood after every pruning is used to make kitchen utensils and agricultural tools. The remaining is either consumed as fuel or transformed into charcoal.
Olives grinding is realized in traditional oil mills by means of a millstone called guiga. It turns around its horizontal axle and makes a sliding that facilitates both the grinding and the malaxing of the paste at the same time. This millstone is harnessed via a harness frame to an animal, a dromedary or a mule, that turns blindfolded nonstop. The ground paste pours progressively into the circular channel that surrounds the grinding frame then it is put into ‘scourtins’ (traditional oil filters).

The sown areas vary considerably from one year to another due to an extremely changing pluviometry. After the autumn rains, barley, wheat, and lentils are generally sown. Towards the end of spring, the lands that are left lying fallow are planted with sorghum which necessitates irrigation with briny water.
Even during rainy years when the harvest is abundant, production remains insufficient and can feed the Djerbian population for only some months, which makes it necessary to import big quantities of cereals.

Fruit trees

These orchards are situated in a zone that covers part of the centre and some places in the north of the island. In this zone, one can discover what travellers called ‘the garden island’.
There are all sorts of fruit trees in addition to palm trees and olive trees: apple trees, peach trees, almond trees, fig trees, pear trees, apricot tree, orange trees, mandarin trees, vines, lemon trees, and grenade trees. The presence of fresh water in this zone allowed the development of market gardening and arboriculture. Different types of vegetables are cultivated the shadow of trees. Other fruit trees are irrigated with briny water. This is especially the case for grenade trees which give their first fruits starting from September. The most widespread fruit trees on the island are:

Vines are found almost everywhere. The most original variety is Et Tounsi, which is a small delicious and very sweet white raisin. The vines in the island produce big quantities of raisins that are consumed fresh or transformed into dried raisins called Zbib. Besides, the local Jews use it to make a local wine for their own consumption.

Fig trees
There exist two types of fig trees on the island. One variety produces only once starting from July under the form of small delicious and very sweet fruits with a yellowish, greenish, or violet skin. The other variety produces twice, successively: the first towards the end of May, and the second starting from August. The first harvest is distinguished by its big and very tasty figs called Bither. The figs are either consumed fresh or dried and preserved under the form of Chrih.

Apple trees
The local varieties of apple trees dominate especially in fresh water zone. Starting from the end of May, they produce a small, floury, very scented and highly appreciated fruit by consumers. Apples on the island witnessed a glorious period in the past since there exists a port in the north-east of the island called Marsa Etteffah (the port of apples) where local apples used to be embarked in order to be exported.

In order to ensure this richness in products, many tools and techniques were developed by the Djerbian since many centuries like ploughing, water extraction from wells and its distribution as well as harvesting and threshing techniques.
Like agriculture, fishing is an important activity in the daily life of the Djerbian. The sea surrounding the island offers an impressive variety of fish, invertebrates, shellfish, shells, and sponges. The Djerbian takes a great profit from this natural richness thanks to methods he invented and adapted to the natural realities.
Formerly, the island knew coastal navigation by means of small boats, Chguèf, for short distances, and by means of bigger boats, Loud, for longer distances. These sailboats used to connect between the ports of Djerba and other ports of the Tunisian coast as well as other Mediterranean ports. They used to leave charged with pottery, oil, tissues, sponges, fruits, and dried fish and come back, according to the regions, charged with cereals, wool, etc. Actually, only coastal navigation relating the island to the continent via the detroit of Ajim is still surviving.

The different types of fish are sold in strings by auction at the fish market in Houmet Essoug. The fisherman gives his fish to a Chakèk who with the help of palm tree bunch stalks starts putting fish in strings, Chok. When the string is ready it is given to one of the public auctioneers, Dallèle, who is sitting on a high chair, in order to present it for auction. This practice is still in effect in Houmet Essoug.
Among the particularities in terms of tools and fishing modes in Djerba, the following can be cited:
Fixed fishery or Zriba
This is a system that consists in planting two-meter high walls of palm leaves in the sea. The fixed fishery is presented under the form of an immense angle with a bisector called ‘beating wall’.
Every side of the angle comprises two walls delimiting a corridor that narrows little by little. Thanks to the ‘beating wall’, fish swept along by the current are directed towards the two corridors which fatally drive them into the chambers of capture which in turn contain many traps under the form of hoop nets, Drina. Fish comes in and cannot get out. In the following morning, the fisherman comes with his boat, picks up the hoop net with a pole and replaces it with another for the coming fishing.

Fishing with the Demmessa
This kind of fishing necessitates a particular organization and requires the gathering of some boats and a group of sailors. When the shoal of mullets is spotted, a big circle is formed by the two nets: a vertical one inciting the fish to jump and a horizontal one floating on surface, Demmessa, to capture the fish at the end of its jump.

Fishing with the sparrowhawk or Tarraha

The fisherman holds the leads arranged on his right wrist and the remaining of the net around his left arm. When he spots a shoal of fish, mainly basses or mullets, he gets close and throws the leads as far as he can. The net flies out of his hands and falls down on the fish. The fisherman then pulls the net back to him slowly so as not to lose anything of his seizure.

Octopus trapping
The fisherman submerges tens of small hollow pots tied in a string to a long rope in the high depths. The octopuses, looking for shelter, engulf themselves into these cavities. Some days later, the fisherman brings them to the surface and takes out the octopuses with pole fitted with a hook.

Silverside or Ouzèf fishing

This kind of fishing is practiced using a net and requires a good knowledge of the sea. The fishermen spend entire days under a hut observing the high sea and watching for those small fish forming a big black stain. As soon as it is discovered, the fishermen jump into the water armed with palms and swim in the same direction as that of the black stain. The fishermen form a semi-circle around the stain and agitate their palms to push the small fish back towards the shore where they are captured in a special net called kîs.

Sponge fishing
The scuba divers who practice this kind of fishing can reach a depth of 20 meters without any specific equipment. Their boat is distinguished by a hole in the prow occupied by the head of the crew, Rayès, who is in charge of spotting sponges in the bottom of the sea with the help of a mirror, Mraya, which is placed on the surface of the water.
As soon as the sponge is discovered at the bottom of the sea, a sailor jumps into the water with a heavy rock attached to his belt. Once at the bottom of the sea, the diver immediately starts gathering the sponges in his net. Few minutes later he gets rid of the rock and goes back to the surface with his seizure. Ajim, in the south-west of the island, was in the past reputed for sponge fishing. Almost all of its inhabitants were fishermen.
The Djerbians have developed a production process with the appropriate techniques for this ancestral activity.
Clay extraction
The zones where gypsum clays are prevalent are in the region of Guallela in the south-west of the island. Workers slip through an opening and go down quickly through a narrow and profound tunnel enclosing slightly roughed stairs till the deposit of clay. Once on the ground they light lamps and start the extraction. The worker hardly has space and has to accomplish his task while bending. When a basket is full of clay, another worker takes it on his back to the surface. In the past, transporting the clay to the workshop was made on dromedary back in big wallets made of esparto strands, Zembil.

The clay transported from the quarry is poured in the courtyard of the workshop then spread out in a beforehand-cleaned spreading area in order to dry out. Once dry, the clay is sieved then crushed into very small grains to facilitate their soaking in water. Then comes the sifting, which the potter has to carry out carefully in order to eliminate wastes.

The thinning out
After being crushed, the clay is put into a basin in masonry that had been filled either with sea water in order to obtain porous white pottery, or with running water to get reddish pottery.

The kneading
Once out of the basin, the paste is kneaded in the courtyard of the workshop. When it becomes supple, it is transported to the workshop under the form of heaps called Ajina. After one week, the time necessary to ferment, each heap is cut into pieces with a special steel knife. After that the potter puts one of the pieces where it is destined to be, he wets it slightly and starts kneading it till the clay paste becomes malleable. At the end of this kneading the mass of clay is put in the Galgal, where it stays until the moment of its use. When the moment of shaping comes, the clay is malaxated for the last time on the kneading frame, Medlek.

The revolving
The craftsman grabs, by both hands, the clay paste put on the upper revolving table. He makes pressures by the palms and hands to progressively give the clump the desired shape while his foot presses against the wheel to make a slow rotating movement. From time to time, he plunges his fingers into a small recipient of water. Once the object is finished, the craftsman detaches it from the wheel by means of a string and leaves it to dry in the courtyard or in the dryer according to the season.
Unlike small pieces, voluminous pieces cannot be achieved in one time using only one loaf of clay because they risk sagging under their own weight. It is necessary to make them in successive and distinct steps comprising each time the addition of clay and dryness. The craftsman, however, shapes in one time certain big potteries like Zir, Mahbes, and: Maajna. In the dryer where the pieces are arranged at a distance from one another, the craftsman fixes the handles that had already been prepared on the wheel by hand.

The enamelling of potteries

To enamel the potteries, two lead oxide-based glazes are used: green and yellow glazes. The glazing potters of Guallela, the chaggala, produce themselves the glazes in their workshops. The green glaze is obtained by the addition of copper and the yellow one by the addition of antimony. Dark brown drawings are obtained through manganese. The potter soaks the piece in the enamel tank and after some hours the enamel dries. It is only then that baking in an oven is executed. This enamelling technique, so widespread in Djerba in the past, is today unknown to the majority of the potters.

Baking and furnace charging
This operation is the most important and most delicate since it gives to the pieces their solidity and their final aspect. It requires the use of very high temperatures. Oven preheating starts many hours before the baking. The operation starts over a low heat with olive tree logs, then the fireplace is intensively supplied with olive tree boughs and palms. The potter does not stop supplying his fire until his potteries become all white.
Furnace charging procedures differ according to the type of potteries to be baked. The principles that are to be respected in all cases are the protection of the pieces from sagging and cracking, the even repartition of heat, and maximum place saving. Besides, the potter usually places broken pieces of pottery to sustain the pieces and separate between their edges so as not to stick to one another during the baking. At the end of furnace charging, the potter carefully blocks the excavations through which the pieces were introduced and covers the chimneys so that neither the wind nor the rain gets into the oven.
These techniques and this process provide a variety of products of different types: big and small, chawat and enamelled. The place of the typical creation of these objects necessary for daily life is the pottery workshop.
Weaving is among the most ancient economic activities of men on the island. It has made Djerba’s reputation thanks to the export of its products whether they were in wool or silk, sets of bed linen or blankets, or even clothing tissues for men and women.
The most appreciated wools by the Djerbians are long-ply ones. They are rather fine, steady, supple and elastic, and have little tendency to felt. Djerbian woollen blankets, Farrachiya, which constitutes the main branch of the textile craft industry, are distinguished from those of other regions with a finer dyeing, an ornament based on stripes, and a larger range of colours. Apart from the blankets, artisans weave silk drapes for women and winter masculine tunics for men.

Weaving, which is an organized and a ritual activity, establishes a production process with specific techniques:
Wool washing
This is an operation that is carried out in the sea. Once on the shore, the washers leave the scabby wool apart and soak the remaining in a basket, Guerbecha, which is placed on a rock at the seaside. Then they get into the water to proceed at washing per se. The wool is then stricken with a palm petiole basis, kernefa, and rinsed again until the washing is over. It is then left on the sand in order to drain before drying completely.

Wool plastering
Plastering aims at cleaning the wool from the dirt that could not be attacked by sea water. The women dilute plaster powder in a terracotta recipient, Mahbes, then they add water and plunge locks of wool into it. The following day, after complete drying, they shake the locks and crush them by hand to remove the plaster powder. After plastering, the wool is ready for sulphuration.

Wool sulphuration
Since the sultry acid reacts only in presence of water, the women wet the wool with running water before sulphuration then they place it in more or less long locks on a cage made from palm petioles, Gfas Tabkhir.  When the cage is completely covered, the woman slips into it a pottery stove, kanoun, lit with charcoal and containing sulphur. In order to avoid sulphurous gas loss, the cage and the wool are wrapped with a wet piece of cloth. The women leave the sulphur to act for many hours. They uncover the cage only at the moment of spinning.

Warp yarn combing
The spinner takes a comb in her left hand, Mchot, with the points facing upwards, and a flake of wool in her right hand. She hangs this wool to the teeth of the comb through successive light passes while stretching the flake each time. When the first comb is furnished, the spinner pulls out the wool by means of a second comb in her right hand while the points are facing downwards. Once the combing, properly speaking, is over, the spinner proceeds to the stretching by placing the furnished comb on the ground and maintaining it by her feet. At the end of the operation, the combed lock of wool, Glem, is automatically separated from the wool that stays on the comb.

Weft yarn carding
In order to card, the spinner holds a card, Guerdech or Guerchal, in her left hand with the teeth facing upwards, and puts a flake of washed wool on it. Then, with a similar card at her right hand but with the teeth facing downwards, she rubs the first card five to six times in the same direction without letting the teeth get into each other. The inverted arrangement of the teeth allows breaking the wool which will be divided into two equal flakes that remain attached to each card. The spinner then detaches the extremity of the flakes caught by the teeth using her palm and stretches them under the form of a cylinder.

Wool spinning
In order to spin, the spinner sits down on the ground in a hut inside the Menzel and half-flexes her right leg. It is on her calf that she rolls the axis of the spindle, Moghzel. Then she fixes the extremity of the carded lock of wool by simply rolling it on the end of the spindle. Then she makes the spindle turn by a slipping the right hand palm on her calf. The weft spindle is different from that of warp by the fact that it is bigger and does not have a hook on the wheel.
When the spindle is furnished, the spinner unwinds the warp or weft yarns that are rolled on it. To this point feminine work is over and that of men starts. The wool is thus ready to be weaved.

Generally, the wool is used without any modification of its original colour which may be white, brown or black. Yet, it can also be dyed before weaving. Dyeing in Djerba was entirely at the hands of the Jews. The dyer’s job consists in plunging the wool in fuming cauldrons full of dye. As for the dyes used, they are made of natural and organic elements.

Spun wool unwinding and winding
Before starting weaving per se, warp or weft yarns are first unwound on a special reel, Mkaba. Once the hank is disentangled, the craftsman carries out weft yarn winding using a spinning wheel, Raddna, thus making a certain number of small reels.

Warping is an operation that consists in assembling warp a well-determined number of yarns and rolling them on the beam of the weaving loom. This goes through two steps: the unwinding of the warp yarns on the warp and the mounting of the warp on the loom.

The spun wool is generally sold in auction at the weekly market in Houmet Essoug. It is there that the weavers come to stock up. The sellers expose their big balls of warp and weft while shouting the last offered prices.
After the sale, every supplier establishes the reckonings with the spinner. In the past, the spinners used to be paid on part basis: they used to receive 2/3 of the benefit against 1/3for the supplier.

Weaving per se

Weaving is carried out daily in a building of a form and an architecture that are specific to Djerba: the weaving workshop. The role of the weaver consists in separating the warp yarn into two layers. While pressing on a pedal lever by the tip of his leg, he lowers the corresponding blade. After that he passes by hand a shuttle, Nizg, containing a small piece of reed charged with weft yarn that goes through the warp yarns. Finally he pushes the movable flap forward in order to squeeze the weft yarns after the passage of every warp yarn on the whole width of the tissue. The weaver, sitting on a plank called Zarkoun which based on two supports called Bhim, leans on the beam over which the weaved tissue is to be rolled. He always has in front of him a suspended basket full of weft reels. His job necessitates a special attitude of a moving body since the arms, legs, and pelvis take part in such an activity.
Other crafts are to be counted on the island although they are of little importance. It is question of panelling where the specialists manufacture mainly bride chests and some doors of important buildings generally using palm tree or olive tree wood.
Wickerwork also allows the Djerbians to have rush braids for houses and mosques, baskets and zembils for work, and hats that are essential in the Djerbian clothing.
Goldsmith’s trade is one of the most important of these secondary crafts. It is the specialty of the Jewish community who has, for centuries, been in charge of it within Djerbian traditions.

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