By Max Ajl
Gabès, the Tunisian South’s garden-city, is otherworldly. It is the world’s only maritime oasis, and very different from the Saharan or desert groves which the term tends to call up in the mind’s eye. Natural sweet springs have nourished horticulture and arboriculture there for millennia, back to Carthaginian times, forming the basis of a technical system that has outlasted empires and Beys.
One cannot help but be enchanted by the emerald multi-storied gardens of Chenini, a section of Gabès. Palms stand sentinel on the perimeter, a windbreak which shatters the desert sirocco. The Mediterranean cools the summers and heats the winters, while the oasis effect seals in moisture. Below palms sit grapes on trestles and the telltale pale green of olives. Lower still are shrubs with bursts of the ruddy red and pale yellow of pomegranates. Below them on the ground story sit peppers, canary melons, and depending on the time of year, nitrogen-fixing alfalfa.
We were there on the third day of the Food Sovereignty Days, the brain-child of Tunisian geographer-cinematographer Habib Ayeb and his organization, the Tunisian Observatory for Food Sovereignty and the Environment (OSAE). The tour had descended down Tunisia’s littoral, from the National Gene Bank in Tunis to the Zaghouan bread-basket, sitting south of the capital, to the Sahelian town of M’Saken.