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Salafists In Tunisia Target Sufi, The Mystics Of Islam

In the capital of Tunis, Hedia is the caretaker of a sanctuary dedicated to Sufism, a mystical form of Islam that worships saints. Radical Muslims slit the throat of a colleague.

Tunis' Saida Manoubia mausoleum
Tunis' Saida Manoubia mausoleum
Céline Lussato

TUNIS — Finding the Saida Manoubia mausoleum is quite the challenge. The Sufi saint is hidden somewhere in the heights of Tunis, which prove impossible to navigate without the sound advice of residents in the working-class Manouba neighborhood. Someone points out a back alley with sidewalks eaten away by time. The alley gives way to stairs that climb to the sanctuary, where a set of steps are partially hidden behind a double wooden door that seems to lead to a simple house.

“It’s here indeed!" says Hedia, the caretaker of the zawiya, the religious building. "You found it!” The young woman has a timid smile, large, dark eyes, and a soft and serene voice. She explains that Saida Aisha Manoubia lived in this house “from the age of 14 until her death at 76" — in 1257. “But she’s still here with us,” Hedia insists.

Manoubia was said to have read the Koran 1,520 times. This is her burial site, although no sign nearby says so. And for good reason! Since the January 2011 revolution and the amnesty that allowed numerous Salafists to be released from prison, more than 40 Sufi mausoleums have been attacked in Tunisia. Most of them caught fire after Molotov cocktails were thrown at them.

The Wahhabi ideology, which these radical Islamists claim to follow, is opposed to the cult of saints and, more generally, to Sufism, that mystical Islam that has been rooted in the country for centuries and that advocates the abnegation of the being in favor of God. Salafists have little interest in the pious lessons of Saida Aisha Manoubia and other erudites of centuries past. And they associate any surviving traces of those figures with idolatry. As such, the Salafists see it as their sacred duty to oppose and even destroy these sites.

Humble surroundings

“Saint” Manoubia, who was the disciple of Abul Hasan ash-Shadhili, the founder of the Shadhili Sufi order, is one of the most respected figures of this ancient Muslim tradition. She reached the rank of “Saida,” unusual but not unheard of for a woman. Her master, furthermore, gave her the status of “pole” of the brotherhood, the highest distinction in the hierarchy.

“During the 13th century, she supervised imams and prayed with men at the Al-Zaytuna Mosque in Tunis,” Hedia says enthusiastically.

The young woman welcomes visitors with a steady smile. Like her mother before her, she looks after this place of worship in the tradition of hospitality and charity of Saida Manoubia, who, until her death, welcomed people in need here.

Visitors must walk into the modest courtyard with its crackled concrete floor to finally see the zawiya, a modest, white construction topped with a dome. Is it the paint peeling off or are the electric cables visible? The place breathes humility. Inside, apart from the carpets, the walls are covered with colored earthenware. The chandeliers have blown glass globes. There’s nothing luxurious or flashy here.

“We don’t have a lot of resources," says Hedia. "We prefer giving to the most destitute. That’s part of how we see the world. It’s important to us.”

Every Monday Hedia and the women of the neighborhood who have a bit of time on their hands get together to prepare couscous. Each one brings a few ingredients and they feed area residents who might otherwise go to bed hungry.

Intercessions with God

Hedia herself lives solely off the donations made to the zawiya. Talking about money seems to make her uncomfortable. So does talking about herself. Hedia doesn't like people taking her picture either. “Why do you want to talk about me? I’m just an intermediary,” she says. But Hedia is happy to talk about her patron saint.

This isn't a tourist spot. Foreigners rarely show up — just women looking for a moment of peace to reflect, read the Quran or pray. “There are lots of blessings here thanks to Lalla Manoubia,” Hedia says.

Other followers come from further away to see the erudite in search of an intercession with God. Some pray to birth a child, others for an ill relative, or for their child to find his soul mate. Once a week people participate in a mystical ceremony, the hadra, in which Hedia plays a key role.

While a small group plays percussions and sings, Hedia walks around Saida Manouia’s tomb, swinging a censer that gives off white smoke. The haunting rhythm of the instruments goes along with the small meditating assembly, but also aims to make the caretaker — the link between these enthusiastically praying women and the Sufi saint— go into a state of trance.

This is precisely what followers of Wahhabi Islam abhor. “Their obsession is that some Muslims love something other than God. But when my mother visits the city’s patron saint, it’s only for her son to get better or pass his exam," says Youssef Seddik, an aged, wise-looking anthropologist who translated the Marxist philosopher Louis Althusser into Arabic. "It would never occur to her, even if she’s completely ignorant, to venerate this saint or love her like God."

Razing history

Wahhabi followers don't, apparently, want to leave anything up to interpretation. "In their vision of the world there should be no material remains of the past. They prefer making a clean break with the past," Seddik explains. "Wahhabism erases your memory. That’s what they want to impose on us.”

At the Saida Manoubia zawiya, Hedia doesn’t try to hide her fear. She barricaded the window closest to the tomb — one that looks out onto the street — with a small wooden plank. “The inhabitants in the neighborhood protect us,” she says. But it's not clear she's entirely convinced. “Have you heard what happened in January to the man in charge of Sidi Abdelkader, in Manzel Bouzelfa?” she adds. Hadia draws a finger across her throat.

The murderers, who confessed to their crime, belonged to a Salafist movement, according to the press. One night, when they came to set fire to the Sidi Abdelkader zawiya, they ran into the site's hadidh (the caretaker), a man named, Houcine Lakti, and stabbed him.

The day after the Bardo museum attack, which occurred March 18 and took the lives of 22 people, Tunisian leader Beji Caid Essebsi announced new security measures to dismantle the jihadist networks. Hedia lives in a building adjoining the mausoleum. She knows that the she too could find herself one day in the path of the barbarians.

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