A lone television drones on in the corner, cartoons in Arabic, no one watching. Across the sprawling, dimly lit lobby, 11 old folks sit apart, solitary sentinels against the passing of a cloudy afternoon. A slender, elegant woman--dressed as if a suitor is scheduled to arrive any moment to whisk her off to a splendid seaside lunch--perches at the edge of her easy chair. Ten feet away, a bent gent rocks slowly forward and back; he greets a stranger with a sudden burst of life and a warm smile. A small woman with eyes that dance like a child's invites me to see her collection of shoes, impressive stacks of boxes revealing gleaming patent leather, ever so slightly worn pumps and heels, her last reminder of a life that ranged from Tunis to Paris to this once-fashionable suburb on the Mediterranean Sea, a faded resort village called La Goulette.
Between this dark lobby and the front door, in an office crammed with books, bills to pay and early photos of Tunisian Jews, Albert Chiche presides over what may be the final chapter of this North African country's 3,000-year history of Jewish life. The frail men and women in his day room, and another dozen or so in their bedrooms, are the last residents of the lone remaining Jewish retirement community in Tunisia. "There won't be any more checking in," says Chiche, the 62-year-old manager of the home, a one-story; cream-colored stucco building with metal bars over the windows and armed police guarding the entrance. The facility opened in 1998, supported by major donations from the Harry and Jeanette Weinberg Foundation in Baltimore and the Jewish Federation of Dallas.
Chiche can seem brusque at first. His voice is clipped, his manner impatient. A compact man with the olive skin of his Spanish heritage, he chain-smokes, answers questions before they're halfway posed, waves away personal inquiries with a dismissive swipe of his hand. Ever since the revolution in January 2011, he's been through a slew of these interviews. He knows the drill: People have been writing the obituary for Tunisian Jewry for half a century now, after every wave of Jewish emigration--after the creation of the state of Israel in 1948, after Tunisia gained independence from France in 1956, after the Six-Day War in 1967, after Tunisia's brief dalliance with nationalizing its industries in the late 1960s. Each trauma drove thousands of Jews to France, to Israel, to the United States. In a country whose constitution defines it as a Muslim land, there were once 100,000 Jews, but there are only so many times you can have an exodus and still end up with anything close to a community. There are maybe 150 Jews--and one functioning synagogue--remaining in Tunis, the capital, and its suburbs (another 1,000 or so Jews live on the resort island of Djerba in Tunisia's south), but Chiche doesn't dwell on the dwindling numbers.
"I'm Tunisian, my life is here, I'm not attracted by exile," he says. "These are my friends, my neighbors, Jewish or Muslim. Maybe if there's a pogrom, we might think about packing our suitcases. But every morning, I walk in here and the first picture I see is that"--he points to a large photo facing his desk, a 1912 portrait of his grandparents in traditional Tunisian dress, part of seven generations of Chiche's family to live in relative peace in the country their distant ancestors fled to during the Spanish Inquisition. "They were Tunisian, I am Tunisian, that's what I am."
But ask Chiche about his children, his three daughters who live in France now--ask what he will do if they bear him grandchildren, and his whole demeanor changes. The tension lifts from his body, he leans forward, allows himself a smile, puts down his cigarette.
"Every day, they call and say, 'Why are you still there? Come live with me in France, I can provide for you.' And I tell them I have responsibilities here. I want to be buried here, like my father. …