TUNISIA

Sugar dolls: the new target of Tunisia's religious hardliners

 The Muslim world celebrated the Hegira New Year on Tuesday. For people living in the Tunisian town of Nabeul, it’s the perfect occasion to celebrate by confecting sugar dolls of all kinds of different colors. But the sweet tradition is no longer to everyone’s taste.

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The Muslim world celebrated the Hegira New Year on Tuesday. For people living in the Tunisian town of Nabeul, it’s the perfect occasion to celebrate by confecting sugar dolls of all kinds of different colors. But the sweet tradition is no longer to everyone’s taste.

 

In Tunisia, religious festivals are often celebrated with specific culinary traditions. In Nabeul, a town based around 80 kilometers south-east of the capital Tunis, every New Year the market stalls are overflowing with figurines made from sugar and decorated in bright, vivid colors. Miniature horses and knights are offered to the boys, while the girls are given dolls. But this year, the festivals have been overshadowed by the growing clamor of religious hardliners. Certain imams have advocated the eradication of this tradition, which they consider to be contrary to the principles of Islam.

 

 

Photo posted by our Observer Anis Lassoued.

 

November 5, 2013 corresponds to the first day in the year 1435 of the Hegira in the Islamic calendar: the day marks the exodus of the prophet Muhammed from the town of Mecca in modern Saudi Arabia to nearby Medina, called Yathreb at the time. It was there that Muhammed would set up the world’s first Muslim community.

"Sugar dolls are a symbol of openness and tolerance"

Anis Lassoued is a film-maker who produced a film in 2004 about the tradition of sugar dolls.

 

The tradition of sugar dolls is a pagan Nabeul tradition that goes back several centuries. And with the coming of Islam, this tradition was assimilated by the religion and is now linked to the Hegira New Year. Sugar dolls aren’t only intended for children, they also have their place alongside adults. Traditionally in Nabeul, when a man asks a woman to marry him, he also brings her a very big sugar doll.

 

Photo posted on the Facebook page Poupée de sucre de Nabeul.

 

In 2004, I produced a film that explained the origins of the tradition to the town’s residents in order to get them more attached to it. That’s when we decided to set up a sugar dolls festival. Every year, at the same time as the Hegira New Year, the town’s children go to the workshops where they watch the dolls being confected, then decorate one and take it home with them. It’s also an opportunity to educate the children by teaching them to resist temptation because these sugar dolls aren’t meant to be eaten, they’re only meant to serve as decoration. Delegations from various countries around the world have been here, and we’ve even been awarded a ‘best doll’ prize.

 

"Some religious people reject everything that pertains to images or representations"

 

This year, I was surprised and saddened by the decision of the organisation committee not to hold the festival. Some of the imams of the town denounced the tradition during their sermons because they consider it heretical and called for its eradication. These people reject everything that pertains to images or representations, because in their eyes that echoes pagan cults. With the current climate of tension and insecurity in the country, the organisers preferred not to tempt fate.

 

Photo posted on the Facebook page Poupée de sucre de Nabeul.

 

The impact of these calls could also be seen at the New Year market, where far less was on offer and there were less customers than normal.

 

For me, sugar dolls can even be considered symbols of openness and tolerance. Up until now, they’ve shown how a pagan tradition could accommodate itself to religion and find its place there, so that there isn’t a rupture between culture and belief. It’s sad that people are trying to get rid of a traditional that brings so much joy to our children.

"These hard-line ideas are taught in front of mosques and presented as a return to true Muslim identity"

Safa is a 19 year-old IT student in Nabeul.

 

Since last year, we began to hear people challenging our traditions and calling them ‘bid’ah’ [heresy]. It’s true that celebrating the Hegira New Year with sugar dolls isn’t a Muslim tradition, but I don’t see anything evil about that, seeing that it doesn’t do anything to undermine the true essence of the faith!

 

It’s definitely youths who relay the discourse of religious hardliners. Every Thursday, meetings take place in front of certain mosques in the town. Competitions are organized with little presents for an added incentive, all in order to attract young people. It’s during these meetings that they’re taught these hard-line ideas which are presented as a return to the sources of true Muslim identity. And even if you try to convince these people the opposite, they don’t listen to you. In fact, they won’t even debate the subject.

 

Despite a certain influence of religious hardliners, I still have hope and don’t worry for the town’s traditions. I think that the elders would care too much for their traditions to just stand by and not do anything. They know how to be the keepers of our collective memory.

 

Photo posted by our Observer Anis Lassoued.

Article written with France 24 journalist Sarra Grira.