The Troglodytes Of The Matmata Hills
Before I set out on this Saharan journey southern Tunisia was the closest I’d ever been to the desert. That was in 1978 and I came here to be crucified. Security problems in Israel and an appetite for biblical epics had created a lucrative role for Tunisia as a stand-in for the Holy Land. Not only did Tunisia look right, it was also both friendly and stable, and when the producers of Monty Python’s Life of Brian approached the local authorities they agreed to let us use locations in Monastir and Sousse for urban Jerusalem, whilst the scenes set outside the city were to be shot in the bleaker, more desolate south, around Matmata on the edge of the Jebel Dahar mountains.
A wide bend in the road and a hill with a long flat-topped ridge spreading out below it has a curiously familiar feel, and as the bus climbs I remember, with a shock of recognition, that this is where we filmed the Sermon on the Mount. That day in November 1978, very similar buses, in which several hundred of our extras had been brought up earlier, appeared on this road halfway through the afternoon’s filming. The extras, who had been forced to stand around watching Englishmen do silly things all day, saw this as a sign that it was all over and began to stampede off the Mount and down to their buses. Terry Jones, our director, raced after them, urging them to come back. Unfortunately, he was dressed as the virgin Mandy at the time, and the memory of this black-clad old crone screaming at 500 joyful Arabs is an image of the Matmata hills which will give me pleasure on many a cold day.
So it is that, soon after lunch, in a flat hazy light, I find myself standing above the village of El Haddej, almost twenty-three years, to the day, since I hung on one of two dozen crosses, tapping my feet and singing ‘Always Look on the Bright Side of Life’.
El Haddej looks much as I remember it. It’s set in a landscape of low, yellowing hills scored by deep gullies, as if it had just dried out after a mighty flood. In fact, it has not rained here for three years, and the land is bone dry. There are the usual hardy bushes, a few palms, their lower fronds discoloured by drought, and on the side of a hill an old man is watering a single young olive tree, which won’t give fruit in his lifetime.
These hills were settled by Berbers over 2000 years ago. Finding little cover above ground, they took to the caves below, and to this day their descendants still live as troglodytes.
From up here their homes look like a series of lunar craters, some with cars or pick-ups parked on the rim, others barely visible in the folds of soft, friable rock around them.
The troglodytes of the Matmata hills are experiencing rapid change. The combination of a well-organised tourist industry and the choice of one of the caves as Luke Skywalker’s birthplace has, as in Djerba, brought lucrative tourist business to a poor area. Some caves have been turned into hotels, but when these proved too small to accommodate tour groups, hotels were built to look like caves.
I start to walk down the hill, passing a small dog, which barks ferociously at a line of sheep but rushes away in terror at the approach of a black plastic bag slowly twisting in the wind. I look down into two or three dwellings which appear to have been abandoned. Holes some 60 feet across and 30 feet deep, have collapsed in on themselves. To add a final indignity, rubbish has been dumped inside them.
There is one cave which is still occupied and rents out rooms, or cavities, perhaps.
The only entrance is through a dimly lit tunnel. It’s some 30 yards long, and smells of fur and dung. At its darkest point I run slap into a donkey, which is quietly munching away at some straw. Emerging into the soft grey light of a courtyard, I see an elderly man and two women waiting to welcome me. The man’s name is Bilgessou. He stands straight-backed, wearing a fine red skullcap and a knee-length brown overcoat, his bearing matching a military-style silver moustache. Next to him, in brightly coloured Berber stripes, are his wife Manoubia and their daughter Jemila. They stand almost motionless, like a tableau waiting to be photographed.
After we have introduced ourselves, they pull aside a palm wood door and usher me into a side room off the courtyard. The roof is a low, smoke-stained vault, lit by a single bulb (there is electricity here, but water has to be fetched from the well). Bilgessou sets to work making tea on a calor gas stove, Jemila sits down, revealing a bright and well-holed pair of yellow stockings, and she and her mother set to work rubbing the skins off peanuts and dropping them in a bowl. A rangy black and white cat appears from the depths of the cave, is shooed away but holds its ground, eyeing the preparations.
Once the tea has been made and poured, as it is throughout the Sahara, with a flourish from as far above the glass as possible, Bilgessou takes the bowl of nuts and scatters them onto a roasting tray, which he lays on the fire. Most of this is done in silence, as none of them speak French and I don’t speak Arabic, but Jemila has a sweet understanding smile and somehow it doesn’t feel wrong to be silent.
However, once the first glass of tea has been taken, Bilgessou begins to talk, in a powerful voice, with a lot of barking, back-of-the-throat sounds.
The young don’t want to live in the caves any more, he says. They’re moving above ground, tempted away by ready-made houses in New Matmata. The authorities don’t understand. They’ve shown little interest in preserving the troglodyte way of life, except for the tourists. He extends an arm towards his wife. She has never left El Haddej in her life. She can’t be expected to change just like that.
I’m handed a biscuit and a cotton cloth to put on my knee to catch the crumbs.
Anyway, he goes on, these troglodyte houses make sense. They’re safe and secure, warm in winter and cool in summer. The soft rock is easy to excavate, and, unlike the timber round here, there’s plenty of it.
When he stops, the silence returns, thick and heavy, deadened by the weight of the earth around us.
They show me my room. It’s across the courtyard and up a flight of irregular stone steps, cut from the clay. The coffin-shaped entrance has decorated stone dressings and inside is a vaulted space, some 20 feet deep, with just enough room to stand straight at its centre. The walls have been plastered and painted white at some time, but that’s faded now. A mattress is laid along one side where the wall slopes down quite sharply. Dangerous if you wake suddenly in the night.
Not far from here is a tantalising example of the old way of life that Bilgessou fears is disappearing for ever – an underground olive oil press, set into the side of a hill. Inside the cave is a circular chamber, consisting of a platform, around which is just enough room for a donkey to walk. The oil-maker tips a basket of olives – stalks, leaves and all – onto the platform. Then the donkey, harnessed to a pole, and wearing a pair of pointed woven blinkers that look like a large wicker brassiere, starts to plod round. The pole turns a spindle, which rolls a cylindrical stone block over the olives, reducing them to an inky mulch.
The mulch is then stuffed inside pancake-sized rattan discs, which are stacked one on top of the other, fourteen at a time, and squeezed in a wooden press. Every 100 kilograms of olives produces 35 litres of oil.
The reek of olives is quite heady and every inch of this dark, cramped, glistening chamber is thick and sticky with accretions, like the inside of an immensely ancient cooking pot.
Walk back to Bilgessou’s cave. What’s the address I wonder? What would I ask for if I were lost? Number 43, The Mountain? The family are in the courtyard, in exactly the same positions, Bilgessou standing like an old soldier, Jemila and Manoubia sitting on stones. Their life encompassed by this pit of crumbling red rock.
And later, as darkness falls, I find myself doing exactly the same thing, just sitting there, on the steps outside my room, looking up at the stars. It’s not that there’s nowhere to go, or anyone’s stopping me taking a walk out of the tunnel to see some other folks on the hill, it’s just that once you’re in here the outside world ceases to mean very much. There is no view but upwards.
Before I go to sleep I get out my portable DVD player, watch myself being crucified and feel better.