The Ghriba pilgrimage in the island of Jerba: The semantics of otherness

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Abstract

This article examines the Jewish pilgrimage to the Ghriba Synagogue on the island of Jerba (or Djerba) in Tunisia, with a focus on the semantics of othernessas it is condensed in the devotion to the Ghriba, the eponymous local saint of the synagogue. (To make clear the distinction between the saint and the synagogue, when referring to the saint I will use italics.) Claims and evidence exist for the synagogue’s being in some degree a shared shrine between Muslims and Jews and I have examined this in another study (Carpenter-Latiri 2010) where I argue that although the ritual of the pilgrimage is rooted in traditions shared by Jews and Muslims alike, the perceptionof the mixed status of the shrine is inflated to re-enforce a state-controlled representation of Tunisia as a multi-faith and multicultural space.In this article I shall explore the semantics of the pilgrimage to the Ghriba (the ‘stranger saint’) and in particular, the polysemy of the name and the ambivalence of otherness in the Tunisian context, in particular in representations through discourse in the Tunisian Arabic language as shared by Muslims and Jews. I will argue that this complex and ambivalent representation is the central meaning of the ritual of the Ghriba pilgrimage, as the negative connotations of otherness are reversed and amplified into the affirmation of a positive, healing ritual, dedicated to the stranger saint as a symbolic allegory of the otherness of the Jewish community as a whole, or as an allegory of the alienated, exiled, marginalized self. The main healing being performed is the autocelebration of the local Jewish community; the restoration of the broken link between the migrant Jews from Arab lands and the land of their recent past; the reaffirmation of similar modes of practice between Jews and Muslims, thus validating their religious practices for the majority Muslim community. My research has been informed by fieldwork during the pilgrimage in Jerbain 2007 and several interviews collected during further visits to Tunisia in 2008 and 2009.
Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationPilgrimages Today: based on papers read at the symposium on pilgrimages today held at Åbo, Finland, on 19-21 August 2009
EditorsTore Ahlbäck, Björn Dahla
Place of PublicationTurku, Finland
PublisherDonner Institute for Research in Religious and Cultural History
Pages38-55
Number of pages18
Volume22
ISBN (Print)9789521223983
Publication statusPublished - 1 Jan 2010

Publication series

NameDonner Institute series

Keywords

  • Tunisia
  • Tourism
  • Pilgrimage
  • Otherness
  • Ghriba
  • Jerba
  • Djerba

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    Carpenter-Latiri, D. (2010). The Ghriba pilgrimage in the island of Jerba: The semantics of otherness. In T. Ahlbäck, & B. Dahla (Eds.), Pilgrimages Today: based on papers read at the symposium on pilgrimages today held at Åbo, Finland, on 19-21 August 2009 (Vol. 22, pp. 38-55). (Donner Institute series). Donner Institute for Research in Religious and Cultural History.