It was 1972 in southern Tunisia, in a little village called Old Zraoua. I woke up at 5 AM to the sounds of the rooster, like any normal day. It was dawn, and I could still see the stars shining in the sky as the sun rises on the horizon. The temperature would rise very quickly, and we had a lot of chores to do. As usual, I was responsible for cleaning and feeding the farm animals. Those chores were hard to accomplish for a young girl like me, but they needed to be done.
It was only my grandfather, mother and me in the house. My brothers were in Tunis studying, and my father was working as a porter. He was sending money for us each month to take care of the animals and our land across Gabes. It was 8 am, and I was preparing the dough to make some bread when I heard some noises outside of our house.
I left the kitchen and rushed towards the front door when my mother stepped inside with an old woman. She was hitting her face and scratching her hands from pain. I didn’t really know how to react. I just stood there watching her while she yelled “they betrayed us, they want us to leave the land of our ancestors. They’re willing to erase our identity, our traditions and our past. They want to banish us”.
After a while, my mother came in. She told me that many of the Old Zraoua inhabitants decided to leave their village to a new land that the government prepared for them. I didn’t really understand why they would leave their home. My grandfather said that it was due to the lack of sanitary health conditions. Also, the village is built in the middle of nowhere, far from any other city or village. It’s true that we had a primary school, but children kept dropping out of school because the nearest middle school was around 25 miles away. With neither a hospital nor even an infirmary, people usually died from common diseases. Many young people agreed, myself included, that it is time to improve and begin a new chapter in another place like we always do.
A week passed since the departure of many of our neighbours. The village which was once full of life had become a ghost town. This day was different from the rest. I woke up and did not feel like myself. I was doing my chores when my mother told me that we were moving to the new land called The New Zraoua. I felt excited while packing our things.
I took one last tour to see the abandoned houses. A wall of overwhelming scent hit me. There were piles of rubbish and animal waste to which hundreds of flies were drawn, like a flare of light. Those who stayed behind used other houses for animals. I felt disgusted and remembered that our house will face the same fate.
Next, I turned towards the primary school. I stood in the centre of the playground, watching the empty classrooms. The memories of school days flashed to the front of my mind, and I remembered running and playing with my classmates around the palms and olive trees. I wished I could turn back time. Suddenly, a strong wind blew the open doors shut and the windows woke me up from my daydream. Many memories will vanish and be thrown away.
As we were drifting away, the village seemed relatively small, cradled like a baby in the arms of the surrounding mountains. It was a 5-mile journey but with all the heat and dry weather, it felt like 30 miles on the carriage. Hill by hill, as we drew nearer to the new village, I grew more curious and impatient.
Suddenly my grandfather yelled, “we’re here”. My heart skipped a beat as the new houses began to appear one by one. I knew from this very moment that our life would definitely change for the better, even at the expense of our identity and individuality.
Today, the New Zraoua is still adhering to its traditions. Fortunately, nothing has changed. The inhabitants still talk in their native language and have the same wedding rituals. People here still have the same love and care for each other. Every now and then we visit our old village to remember the legacy of our ancestors and to pay respects to our elders. Despite all of the natural factors and the people who wanted to erase our identity that we’re still challenging, we learnt how to live in peace, together.
First photo: the New Zraoua
Second photo: the Old Zraoua