Last residents hold on in Tunisia’s underground houses

Saliha Mohamedi, 36, says she is comfortable in her house on the outskirts of Matmata, Tunisia, where she lives with her husband and four children and lets tourists visit in return for tips. (Reuters)
Updated 24 February 2018
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Last residents hold on in Tunisia’s underground houses

MATMATA, Tunisia: In the arid valleys of southern Tunisia’s Djebel Dahar region, people have lived for centuries in underground houses whose earthen casing provides protection against searing summer heat and winter winds.
But in recent decades, rural depopulation has meant fewer people live in the homes, which are composed of rooms hewn into the walls of an excavated circular courtyard. The few remaining families say they are attached to the homes and the land or see no way of moving.
“My father died, my mother died, the girls got married and I was left alone. They all went to lead their own lives,” said Latifa Ben Yahia, 38, who lives in a five-room troglodyte home in the village of Tijma. “If I leave then the house will be gone.”

Olive groves
The homes are concentrated around Matmata, which lies in a cratered landscape dotted with palm trees and olive groves about 365 km south of Tunis.
They are highly unusual, though similar constructions are found across the border in Libya, to the southeast. In other parts of the Djebel Dahar, houses and storerooms were carved from rock and earth above ground.
Many families left the underground houses when new towns and villages were built in the 1960s and 1970s as part of a modernization drive by President Habib Bourguiba.
Locals suspect Bourguiba wanted to dilute Berber communities as he strove to integrate them into the Arab nation after independence from France.
Disputes over inheritance and periods of drought or heavy rain, which can cause the houses to collapse, also contributed to the rural exodus.
Some built modern houses on adjoining land, using the traditional homes as stables or workshops.
Residents live largely off olive farming and tourism. Matmata became a popular destination after a troglodyte home converted into a hotel was used as a Star Wars set in the 1970s.
But tourism across Tunisia is still recovering from a sharp decline after the country’s 2011 Arab Spring uprising and major attacks targeting tourists in Tunis and Sousse in 2015.
“Before the revolution there was tourism. Since then there’s not been much, just some Tunisians who come on days off or holidays,” said Saliha Mohamedi, 36.
She says she is comfortable in the house, where she lives with her husband and four children and lets tourists visit in return for tips.
“If I got another house I would give it to (my children). This is where we have passed our lives,” she said.
Hedi Ali Kayel, 65, who runs a small shop in the village of Haddej, is one of the last people in the area who knows how to build and maintain the houses. The last new house he dug was in the 1970s.
Now he is fighting a lonely battle to save the ones that still exist. “Every time there’s rain I come and repair them,” he says. “I don’t let them go.”


Syria media says no attack on airport after reported air defense fire

Syrian pro-government forces hold a position near the village of al-Malihah, in the northern countryside of Deir Ezzor, on September 9, 2017, during the ongoing battle against Daesh group. (AFP)
Updated 36 min 3 sec ago
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Syria media says no attack on airport after reported air defense fire

  • The accidental downing of a Russian transport aircraft by Syrian ground batteries during an Israel air strike on September 17 killed 15 service personnel

DAMASCUS: Syrian state media said Sunday that air defenses had opened fire near Damascus airport, before withdrawing the report after what appeared to be a false alarm.
“Our air defenses engaged hostile aerial targets in the vicinity of Damascus International Airport,” the official SANA news agency said, without providing more details.
But the report was later withdrawn by both SANA and state television without explanation.
SANA then quoted sources at the airport as saying that “there was no aggression” and that “traffic was normal.”
A well-informed source told AFP that “there was evidently a false alarm.”
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said the sound of explosions rocked an area close to the airport and fire from air defenses was also heard.
The latest incident comes just over a week after Syria accused Israel of striking south of the capital.
The Britain-based Observatory said those were the first missiles to hit Syria since an air defense upgrade after the downing of a Russian plane in September.
Israel has carried out hundreds of air strikes in neighboring Syria against what it says are Iranian targets, many of them in the area south of Damascus.
Iran and Russia are the government’s key allies in the civil war that has raged Syria since 2011, and Moscow’s intervention in 2015 dramatically turned the tables against the rebels.
The accidental downing of a Russian transport aircraft by Syrian ground batteries during an Israel air strike on September 17 killed 15 service personnel.
Moscow pinned responsibility for the downing on Israel, saying its fighter jet used the larger Russian one for cover, an allegation Israel disputed.
Russia subsequently upgraded Syrian air defenses with the delivery of the advanced S-300 system, which Damascus insisted would make Israel “think carefully” before carrying out further air raids.
The move raised fears in Israel that its ability to rein in its arch foe Iran’s military presence in Syria would be sharply reduced.
But Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu told Russia that Israel would continue to hit hostile targets, while also maintaining “security coordination” with Moscow.