Tunisian Cave Village Empties Out in Face of Drought and Modernity’s Draw


As night settled on the mountain cave where she lives with her mother and her last remaining younger sibling, Halima Najjar looked out at her dwindling village — a few dozen specks of light clinging to the dimming mountainside — and wondered if there would be more to her life one day.

The prospects seemed thin.

On this high, sun-bronzed crag deep in Tunisia’s southern desert, where roughly 500 Amazigh farmers and herders inhabit caves hewed out of the rock, people tend either to hope that things stay as they have been for centuries — or to risk everything to get out.

But the old life of pressing olives and herding sheep is faltering in the face of an implacable drought. And Ms. Najjar, 38, does not want to risk death to migrate by boat to cold, hostile-seeming Europe, as so many siblings, neighbors and fellow Tunisians had.

“We still have some blessings here. We’re a community,” Ms. Najjar said. “Still, I want to leave for my future. I want to try something new, do something with my life. But it’s difficult for us.”

In the evening’s stillness, somebody’s goats were bleating, someone’s donkey braying. A rooster, befuddled, was announcing dawn.

“We are together, and then, every time somebody grows up, they leave,” said her mother, Salima Najjar, 74. She sighed. “We are left alone here.”

Nearly a thousand years ago, the people who first built Chenini and nearby cave villages like it did so to protect their precious food stores from raiders. Using the golden stone under their feet for camouflage, they erected a granary that crowned their chosen mountain like a fortified citadel, then hollowed vaults for living out of the mountainside just beneath.

They prospered by adapting to the harsh desert conditions, harvesting olives after they fell from the tree to produce what they said was longer-lasting oil, and hoarding food against the next drought. Their olive groves and farm fields mapped the desert below for miles around.

On the mountain, their cave dwellings sheltered them from summer heat and winter cold. A few of their descendants — the modern-day Amazigh, as they call themselves, though much of the world knows them as Berbers — still live in caves that have been modernized to some degree, sleeping inside and cooking and keeping livestock out front.

The rest are gone and going. From Chenini’s only cafe, the villagers can see the concrete cluster that is New Chenini, one of the settlements the government built after Tunisia’s 1956 independence from France to draw the region’s people down from the mountaintops and into modern life.

In New Chenini, there was running water and electricity, conveniences the ancient mountainside village lacked until a decade or two ago. The 120 or so families who live in New Chenini can come and go via a paved road, while their relatives back in the original Chenini still haul everything partway up the mountain by hand or donkey.

But neither village had enough jobs to go around or much to entertain young people. Over time, many moved to Tunis, the capital, or to France and other parts of Europe, looking for work. Over time, as young men migrated, it was mostly women, children and old men who filled the villages.

Many of the region’s other mountain villages were abandoned, their granaries turned into tourist attractions or, in at least one case, a “Star Wars” filming location. But Chenini and a few others held on, despite an isolation that holds its romance only up to a point.

Besides the cafe, Chenini’s amenities consist of a single grocery store, a primary school, a mosque and a clinic where a doctor from the closest city can be found once a week. High school students and medical emergencies must get to Tataouine, the region’s commercial hub, about half an hour away. There is no movie theater, no playground, few streetlights. Internet did not arrive until about 2013.

Against such disadvantages, the mountain offers pure air, head-clearing views and deep sleep. From the whitewashed mosque atop a high ridge, the muezzin’s call to prayer reverberates solemnly off the surrounding rocky spurs, a sound that seems to render all others irrelevant.

“Life is hard, but life is good,” said Ali Dignichi, 28, a Chenini tour guide. “Many people are rich — they have everything. But they’re not happy. If we had everything, life would have no sense. We need to work, bit by bit.”

In late spring of most years, the villagers harvest wheat, barley and lentils. At summer’s height they venture into the desert to collect figs and cactus pears; in October they shake dates from the palms of a nearby oasis. In December, they begin the all-important olive harvest.

Starting in February, they haul their olives to a traditional press. A camel walks in circles for hours, rotating a giant stone that squeezes out dozens of liters of olive oil: a bounty that can pay for a child’s schooling that year.

During wedding season, in summer, the whole village comes out to celebrate each couple with a week of couscous, lamb, drumming and music from the bagpipe-like mizwad, plus, in recent years, a D.J. If any family does not have enough, the villagers pool their pantry contents to make sure everyone is fed.

But with the advent of TV, the internet and more contact with the rest of the world, some traditions have begun to waver.

These days, almost nobody makes their own couscous anymore. The only two cave-diggers remaining in town now build new homes with right angles, floorboards and tiles, as modern taste demands, instead of the old lime-painted vaults with their sand floors and curvy walls that recall the lines of a Georgia O’Keeffe painting. Inside, families slept tucked into a series of alcoves lit by a kerosene lamp, keeping their belongings on shelves carved from the rock.

“Before, it was enough to just get enough to eat, wake up and do it again,” said Mr. Dignichi, who made his living from the busloads of tourists who used to take day trips to Chenini from the country’s coastal resorts until the coronavirus pandemic. “Now we have ambitions. We want vacations, cars, a house. The wife needs a house separate from the in-laws.”

But the pandemic wiped out tourism, the only industry that generated any jobs to speak of, other than agriculture. Then came the drought — part of a nationwide drying-out linked to climate change that is shrinking the country’s food supplies everywhere.

Barely any rain has fallen on Chenini in four years, confounding drought-resistant agricultural methods honed over centuries of farming. Olive trees are dying, and the village’s five remaining olive presses have shut down for lack of olives. The oasis is shrinking, and the dates its palms produce are now fit only for animals. Sheep that used to graze the area have had to be sold for lack of feed. Vegetables no longer grow, requiring the villagers to buy what they have always farmed.

If the shelves of Chenini’s grocery are empty, as they often are these days amid Tunisia’s deepening economic crisis, the villagers must find the cash for the taxi to Tataouine, where rampaging nationwide inflation has pushed up prices nearly beyond reach.

So it was that Mr. Dignichi’s elder brother migrated to France in July, and a waiter in the cafe left for Tataouine in September. They are part of a growing exodus: thousands left the region last year.

Though many send money back, and others even build vacation homes in Chenini, the ties only hold for so many generations.

“One day, maybe, this village will be empty of people,” said Omar Moussaoui, 45, one of Chenini’s two remaining cave-diggers, as he sat at the cafe one evening, looking down at the twinkle of New Chenini. “And if we get scattered elsewhere, we won’t have the same traditions. If I go to Tunis, I’ll forget about all these traditions.”

He exhaled, and smoke from his cigarette drifted across the view.

Ahmed Ellali contributed reporting.

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