Movie fans worldwide know the cave dwellings in southern Tunisia’s Matmata Mountains as the boyhood home of “Star Wars” hero Luke Skywalker, but this is not the usual tour group of film buffs.
These young Tunisians are on a special trip to their ancestral homeland, as part of a national effort to protect Amazigh heritage from extinction.
“Many of the young people who originally come from this area are eager to learn about their origins in Tamazret, which is still living the Amazighi way. Such events create more adherence in our young people to their Berber habits,” explains Abdellah Mammou of the Heritage Preservation Society in Tamazret.
His group organised the journey during Tunisian Patrimony Month (April 18th-May 18th) to familiarise young people with the traditional food, clothes and language (chelha) that remain vibrant in the south-eastern part of the country.
“Azul Flaum”, our guide Aida says in greeting as she welcomes us to Tamazret, the towering Amazighi village located above the Matmata Mountains in Gabès Governorate. The town’s name means “the thing that is seen from a distance”.
The area is like an open-air museum. With underground houses, excavated caves used as rooms and the trenches and hidden passages that offered security to ancient Amazighs, the entire landscape is from another universe.
In “Star Wars”, these homes filled in for the fictional desert planet of Tatooine. In Tunisia, they are known as “Les Troglodytes”. They are still inhabited by the region’s indigenous residents.
Aida shows her world to the young people of Amazigh origin. It is a life characterised by simplicity, beauty of spirit, kindness and hospitality.
We experience that hospitality first-hand, enjoying a Berber morning breakfast of goat milk,zammita, bessissa, chriha, rfissa and other delicious food to prepare for a full day in a dry climate and over rough, stubborn mountain terrain.
The region’s best dishes, such as krabiz, coucous and timerthel, we learn, will wait until lunch.
“We are lucky because we still live in our Amazigh houses and raise goats, because they are the main source of our meals in terms of milk and meat,” Aida tells us. She says that she usually speakschelha here in Tamazret. Strangers do not understand, she adds with a smile.
Sonia, like many other young people of Amazigh descent who are on this Heritage Society trip, understands chelha but cannot speak it.
“Unfortunately, I don’t speak the Berber language, like most young people like me. We just understand it because our parents and grandfathers know it, but I will try to learn it.”
“I’m of Berber origin,” Sonia tells Magharebia. “I live in the Tunisian capital, but I’m interested in the habits of Berbers and I don’t want to see them disappear.”
Sonia is dressed for the occasion in colourful Amazighi apparel. Traditional garments include the ouli, a wool dress tied by a hethem; tamerdilt, a head cover; the additional head scarf known as a-bahnouk, and the shirt called tekmit. Accessories include the ornamental headdresstedlalin and taalalin, or earrings.
“I don’t miss a chance to visit my original village and practice all of its habits,” she says.
Jamila ben Issa al-Sarairi, another woman of Amazigh lineage now living in Tunis, credited this and other Patrimony Month trips with helping to preserve her ancestral culture.
“Amazigh customs almost disappeared. However, it was thanks to the Society that we saw a return to origins and nostalgia for the land. This celebration brings us together to highlight our habits and traditions.”
Along with organising excursions for urban Tunisian youth to discover their roots, the Heritage Protection Society in Tamazret also works to preserve the architectural style of Amazighs.
“The Society has called on the authorities concerned to attend to and preserve this architectural style and to use it to promote cultural tourism in Tunisia,” said trip participant Alya Labbouze. “This is because the Berber life is rich with all of its habits and traditions.”
Most Matmata families have been careful about modernising their traditional houses (al-houch). “They are keen on regularly maintaining them, while still providing appliances, such as fridges, television, air antenna and electricity,” Alya says.
“Up till now, Matmata is preserving its Amazigh style in all of the villages around it, which are characterised by being located above the mountains. Each village is surrounded by a security trench for protection against the raids that were staged in the past,” the Heritage Society’s Abdellah Mammou explains. raph
Matmata villages Zarrawa, Tujan, Tagot and Hedag also have a significant number of excavated buildings that – at first glance – look very simple. The many rooms, however, are perfectly climatised: cold in summer and warm in winter. The dwellings feature a vast middle yard and stairs leading to bedrooms or supplies stores.
Many famous Tunisians in economic, political and cultural fields hail from this area.
“They still have links to their origins,” said Mammou. “They even visit their villages on a regular basis so as to enjoy a bit of calm, peace of mind and simple life that they miss in the capital.”
In an effort to preserve Amazigh heritage in southern Tunisia, authorities have prepared a tourist track through the cave homes in the Matmata Mountains, as well as an ecological tourism centre in Tamazret with a gallery, museum and green spaces.
The Tunisian Ministry of Culture and Heritage Preservation has also drawn up a programme to maintain the excavated houses and enhance their historical value.
For the young travellers, the day in Tamazret comes to an end, but the charm of towering houses as immortal as the desert palm trees, the people’s kindness and hospitality and delicious Amazigh dishes have all left an indelible impression.
By exposing the next generation of Amazighs to their cultural heritage, these organised trips also contribute to the national restoration initiative and encourage youth to help protect their ancestral homeland.
As Jamel Ghaki told us, “I’m proud to be Amazighi and Tunisian at the same time.”