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.”


Morocco navy fires on migrant boat, one dead: local officials

Updated 38 min 48 sec ago
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Morocco navy fires on migrant boat, one dead: local officials

  • The patrol was “forced” to open fire on a speedboat driven by a Spaniard who “refused to obey” orders
  • Four migrants were wounded, including a Moroccan woman who died of her injuries in hospital

RABAT: Morocco’s navy on Tuesday fired on a boat carrying migrants which refused to respond to its orders, leaving a Moroccan woman dead and three other people wounded, local officials said.
The patrol was “forced” to open fire on a speedboat driven by a Spaniard who “refused to obey” orders in waters off the Moroccan locality of M’diq-Fnideq, the authorities said in a statement.
Four migrants were wounded, including a Moroccan woman who died of her injuries in hospital, a local official told AFP.
Those on board the powerboat were lying down and could not be seen, the official said.
The Spanish driver was unharmed and later arrested, according to the same source, adding an investigation had been opened.
Morocco — a key route for sub-Saharan Africans trying to reach Europe via Spain — said this month it has foiled 54,000 bids so far in 2018 by illegal migrants to cross the Mediterranean to Europe.
The figures included 7,100 Moroccans for the period until the end of August, according to figures released last week by the Moroccan government spokesman.
Since early 2018, Spain has recorded more than 38,000 arrivals by sea and land, according to the International Organization for Migration.
Since the beginning of September, social media networks in Morocco have been inundated with videos showing young people from the North African country heading to Spain aboard inflatable boats.