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I still remember the beautiful pilgrimages from Béja to Testour, which I went on with my parents. Every year, there was the pilgrimage celebrating Rebbi Fraji Chaouat of Béja. I draw my account based on the epic song the people of Béja and of the other communities that participated in the pilgrimages used to sing, on my father's stories, and on those he transmitted to me from his father and his grandfather, whom alas I did not get to know; on my mother's accounts, and those of my paternal and my maternal grandmothers, as well as on the live confirmations of my great-grandfather and my great-grandmother, who both were still alive when I was young, and on the stories told in Béja, the town where I grew up. 

In addition, having taken part in the pilgrimages in my childhood, I refer to my own experiences and to the Maassiot (stories) that our rabbis told us when we were good children in the Yeshiva. As the story was told, the Rebbi's servant was never referred to by name, only by his position. In my narrative, I chose to give a name to such a famous person. I decided to give Rebbi Fraji's servant the name of Hai. According to our tradition, a person who had died was always alive, the Hebrew word for which is "Hai" and people would use this word to refer to a deceased loved one. It is also said that he who serves a tzadik (a righteous) becomes himself righteous.

Further, the traditional song of Rebbi Fraji doesn't call him a servant but a "Gozbar" which is more like a secretary. Over time the legend has engendered several versions, some outside of Béja, which tell of a mule and not of a mare. Growing up, I never heard anyone speak of a mule in Béja and the epic song confirms the version with the mare. Besides, I would be surprised if Rebbi Fraji had requested that his body be put on a cross-bred animal, not a natural one. I know that my grandfather, who was very religious and a believer, never rode on a mule. The majority of the old men of his age had mares and not stallions or mules.


The legend of Rebbi Fraji Chaouat goes back to the beginning of the seventeenth century, when he lived in Béja. He was very pious, charitable and capable of healing the sick. The Jewish community of Béja, who venerated him for his knowledge of the Torah and his exceptional kindness, had placed at his disposal a Jewish secretary who took care of his daily needs. This secretary had a room in the same house, he just needed to cross the courtyard to go to the rabbi. He was an old bachelor by the name of Hai and was almost sixty years old when Rebbi Fraji died. He was very happy to serve the charitable and generous rabbi. Rebbi Fraji was thrifty and counted every penny, but when Hai went shopping for him the rabbi made a point of not only refunding the sum he spent but always adding a little extra to honor the secretary. Each time Hai refused to take the money, since he revered the rabbi so much. One day Rebbi Fraji said to him:
-"My dear friend, since G-d sent you to me He expects me to be good with you, because if I were all alone, what would have become of me? I request from you, if you want to help me, not to refuse the money that I owe you for your efforts." The secretary took the money that the rabbi offered to him and before going away he kissed his hand. In turn Rebbi Fraji blessed him with these Hebrew words while holding his hand on his head:
-"Yevarekha Adonai Veyishmerekha". (May G-d bless you and keep you) According to the secretary, each time the rabbi blessed him, he felt a pleasant current passing through him and leaving him in an agreeable and peaceful state for the rest of the day.

One day before retiring, Hai asked the rabbi whether he still needed anything. Rebbi Fraji told him:
-"Hai, may the Lord give you a long life, I believe that up there they are calling me and I will do everything so that in the morning I will be washed and dressed in my white nightgown. When you will return in the morning to my room I will have left already, but don't worry, you will have nothing else to do but simply tell the members of the Jewish community of Béja to put my body on my mare, she knows the way to my final resting place on this earth and wherever she will stop they should start digging. My tomb should be simple and without ornament. Hai listened to his master, kissed his hand very moved and retired towards his room, not knowing what to think of what he had just heard from the mouth of the rabbi.

He had barely returned to his room when he threw himself on his bed and without even taking off his clothes the trusty secretary put his head on his pillow and was overcome by sleep. Early next morning he woke up with a start when he saw the first sunbeams penetrating through the window that faced the courtyard. Hai blamed himself for not waking up earlier to see the rabbi. He quickly got ready and headed to the rabbi's room. Usually when he came close to the room, the rabbi always said:
-"Is this you, Hai?" This time there was a silence and again he sensed the same feelings as when the rabbi used to bless him. He entered the room, and found the rabbi stretched out on his bed as if he were sleeping. Hai did not believe that the rabbi had died, he approached the bed to look more closely and to his surprise the body of the rabbi had his eyes closed and was plunged in an eternal sleep. Hai put his right hand on the rabbi's eyes, and recited: "Shema Israel," then he gently closed the door not to make noise and rushed to the synagogue of Ayn Eshemesh to alert the Jews who were still praying the "shahrit" (morning prayer). The news of the rabbi's passing shook all those present. They briefly stopped the morning prayer to listen to Hai's account of the rabbi's last will.

After the morning prayer was finished, the whole community, from the youngest to the oldest, rushed
towards the rabbi's house. They took his body and put it on his mare, just as the rabbi had requested.
Then, everyone present formed a procession. At once the mare took the direction of south-east and
started walking. She advanced towards what is today Sidi Frej avenue. Progressively, as she proceeded, the members of the Jewish community caught up with her and the procession got larger.

At that time Tunisia was governed by the Ottoman Empire which designated a Bey. His function was like that of a governor but he was accountable to the Turkish Sultan for the day to day business. Among other functions the Bey had to collect taxes from the inhabitants twice a year. He used to send his son or his highest ranking officer with soldiers to each region. These soldiers were delegated to him from the Turkish colonies and were called "Janissaries". He established temporary camps that moved from region to region. These camps were called: "Flying Camps". After the tax collection, the troops accompanied the Bey's son or the officier with the collected monies to the Bey's residence in Tunis.

After hours and hours of walking, the mare reached a flying camp of the Bey. The guard who was
standing at the entrance of the camp raised the hand to stop the procession and according to my father, his hand remained in the air and he could not lower it anymore. The mare advanced quietly. An officer who wanted to intervene experienced the same phenomenon as the guard. The soldiers who witnessed this event were furious, and not understanding what had happened, ran to stop and even strike all the people in the procession. These soldiers in turn were immobilized in front of the mare which carried on her way in the direction of Testour, unconcerned.

- "Oh my God!" said the Bey's soldiers, seeing that the arms of all those who wanted to strike the saint and his companions were paralyzed. Many more tried to quickly intervene, but soon there were more than a hundred soldiers with their arms up without being able to move them. The prince, alarmed by the noise of the soldiers, left his tent and seeing them panic stricken, understood that something very particular was going on, something which was not a revolt or an attack. He greeted the procession and asked the people who accompanied the mare:
-"Who is this dead?" Hai, Rebbi Fraji's secretary stepped forward and introduced himself to the prince while saying:
-"Your Beylical Highness, I am the secretary of this honorable rabbi and it is his last will to be buried where his mare will stop. We precisely follow the mare so that his will is respected. The prince understood and exclaimed:
-"Are you telling me that the man on the mare is a saint?" The entire community which did not dare utter a word about Rebbi Fraji replied in unison:
-"Yes, our prince, he is even a great saint!" The prince ran in front of the mare and said:
-"Samahna Ya Sidi Ma'arefnachi Karek." (Lord, forgive us, we did not know your honor and greatness.) Then he addressed his officers and soldiers and said to them:
-"But, you are imbeciles, don't you see that you're dealing with a saint! Go, carry out his last will." Then he addressed the rabbi, saying:
-"Ya Sidi, Enouaslouek Bel Tabal ou Bel Zokra Hata Lel Emken." (Lord, we will accompany you with the drum and the bagpipe all the way to your place.) And thus all the soldiers' arms were released and they joined the procession with music and drums. The mare, faithful to her master, continued her way, and upon her arrival at Testour, at the end of a street of the village, she stopped and sat down like a tired woman. The Jews and the Arabs who accompanied the rabbi started digging the tomb according to the Jewish rite.

Since that time, Rebbi Fraji has been revered by both the Jewish and the Moslem communities of Béja.


Since the rabbi's death, every year a pilgrimage took place, ending in Testour, near his tomb. By the time I got to go on this pilgrimage, the road had changed and passed by the mountains of Monshar and through Medgez-El-Bab.

It was our tradition that each year the Jews of Béja and the entire northern region of Tunisia, as well as nearby Algeria, went on foot to the pilgrimage of Rebbi Fraji Chaouat who was buried in Testour. The fact that his mare had chosen Testour was perhaps not a simple coincidence. Today it is known that Testour means Holy Land in Sumerian.

Each year we prepared for this pilgrimage in advance. It was held during Sukkot, the festival of
tabernacles, which symbolizes the life in the desert during the exodus of the Israelites of Egypt. In the afternoon of the first day of Hol-ha-moed all the Jewish families grouped on the esplanade of the avenue de la Republique and each family formed a caravan. Each one brought with them food and a sheep. There were families who preferred to slaughter it in Béja, others, according to the rite of the sacrifices took it alive and slaughtered it in Testour. The caravans were made up of a few hundred people. Everyone met in front of the old Bijaoui Café that stood in town before World War II. The caravans were composed of the members of each family, joined by neighbors or friends who had shared affinities.

Many friendships were formed right before or during the days of the pilgrimage. For us children it was a great excursion and adventure. Each family tried to keep their children at their side, but the families intermixed and the parents started losing their patience. Many a time a family was looking for one of their children, or a stray child was searching for his parents. This delayed the departure of the large caravan of Béja.

I took part in these pilgrimages several times. Year by year the friendships changed. This is how families became acquainted with other people's children, parents and grandparents. The caravans initially began walking towards the soccer stadium in order to get organized and to create distances between the large families. The old men of each family were the leaders. They went in front, at the head of each family. The men and the children who could walk went on foot. The old women went on carriages, or on barouches, the old men rode on horses or on the backs of donkeys. Some rented donkeys with their owners. The young men of each family remained in the back to protect the women. Some families were very numerous. The caravan of the pilgrimage was so long that one couldn't see its end. Almost everyone was in some way or another related with everyone else, as marriages between the Jewish families of Béja were frequent. One day my father said to me:
-"If you want to know, all of Béja is just one family."

The road from Béja to Testour passes through Medjez-El-Bab. The distance is approximatively 70 kilometers (43 miles). The first stage is 44 kilometers (27 miles) and the second stage, from Medjez- El-Bab to Testour is 25 kilometers (16 miles).

The first kilometers were the most pleasant ones. The road was more or less straight, the young people felt strongest and a competitive spirit ensued among them. Then the road became hard as we had to cross the Monshar mountain by way of serpentines. It was easy for us to walk faster, but as soon as we passed the old men, our fathers reminded us that we had to slow down to allow the women and the old people to keep pace with us. When we reached the highest point of the path, we stopped to let everyone relax and eat a snack before heading down on the other side of the mountain. Then the road started to descend, and we would walk through the night. It took us until the morning to reach the outskirts of Medjez-El-Bab.

All the way the caravan was moving slowly. The people sang songs in Judeo-Arabic. Many families brought musical instruments or at least a darbouka (North African drum) to accompany the songs. The atmosphere was joyful. I can still remember the smile of the older people. It was hard for them but the cheers of the younger generations gave them strength and courage.

Medjez-El-Bab represented the first stage and the caravan from Béja was always the first to arrive. We used to arrive there early in the morning. We waited under the eucalyptus trees. Some took advantage to lie down and rest under the trees, others ate some of the home-made foods they had brought along: sandwiches, home-baked bread, hard-boiled eggs, olives, ma'akoud (a baked egg dish with potatoes and other ingredients) or cooked dishes, boulou (mandelbread), cakes (ring-shaped cookies) and biscoutou (sponge cake). Everything was cold but very edible, especially after this long walk where we were all very hungry. The children jumped from one family to another and brought back delicacies that other families had offered to them. Each family shared their goodies with the others.

Around ten o'clock in the morning the first caravans from Tunis and other places arrived at Medjez-El-Bab. The caravans stopped to rest and freshen up and met up with the people from Béja, who awaited them. The eucalyptus trees provided a pleasant shade where families reorganized for the last stage towards Testour. The caravan from Tunis always arrived with musicians who played the Zokra (Tunisian flute or bagpipe), the Darbouka and others who played el Oud or el Ejrana (the lute or the violin). We continued the road until Testour together.

When we arrived, the citizens of Testour, mostly Moslem and the few Jews who resided there awaited us with youyous (cheers of joy). Many of them were descendants of the Moslems and Jews who had come together from Andalusia, after the Moors were defeated in Spain. Each Jewish family was accommodated in a Moslem house. The local houses were built around a courtyard which gave access to each room. The inhabitants released one or several rooms and each Jewish family occupied one of them. Once the families had taken temporary possession of their residences they were free to go to the tomb of the saint at any time.

The Moslem women prepared Jradeks, a kind of pita (in Tunis they called it "Khobz Tabouna" well-known in the north of Tunisia). The majority of the Moslems refused payment for the accommodation and for the Jradeks. For centuries, the relationship between Arabs and Jews had been excellent.

My mother always needed much time to take care of the family before going to visit the tomb. While
waiting for her, we, the young people who were impatient, went outside like first scouts. The streets of Testour were similar to the streets of the Arab district of Béja. We had fun visiting other streets, however without losing sight of the street of our temporary residence. At this occasion we became acquainted with young children who had come from other cities, some invited us to their quarters, we invited new friends to ours. Thus we always kept our parents busy. We would spent one or two days in Testour, full of joy and cheerfulness.

For the Jews of the north of Tunisia, including the Jews of Bone and Constantine, the pilgrimage to
Testour was as important as the pilgrimage to the Ghriba on Djerba was for the Jews of the Tunisian
south. It is said that Sidi Frej Avenue in Béja was named after Rebbi Fraji. At that time, the way to
Testour passed by the bridge of Trajan, and the original procession of Rebbi Fraji went along the road which was to become Sidi Frej. Some families made the pilgrimage to the Ghriba on Djerba, to the Maarabi close to Gabès and finally, to Rebbi Fraji in Testour. The people of Tunis also had their saint "Rebbi Hai Taieb Lo Met" at the old cemetery of Tunis. His pilgrimage was very significant for the Jews of Tunis.

I remember our first visit to the tomb of the saint. The mausoleum of Rebbi Fraji was full of pilgrims. The tomb was in the center of a large room. The women and the children sang and made wishes. Then suddenly a band of musicians with bagpipes and drums played sounds which resounded and electrified all those who were present, with the accelerated rhythm of the song of Rebbi Fraji. "Lah y lana lah y lana essayed icoon ema'ana". Some fell in ecstasy through the dance, certain women followed the rhythm until losing their head. In the middle of this uproar I also remember the moment when a silence reigned in my soul and I felt the radiation which filled up all the space and my being. Thus I grasped the belief in a supreme force. In the same way I understood that this force spouts out as soon as we are joyous. During these moments, all the worries which overpower us every day disappear.

The visitors gave offerings without reserve. They gave sausages and cutlets grilled on a barbecue and the traditional Jewish alcoholic drink called Boukha, made of figs. They brought plates of briks (thin
layers of dough, filled with dates and nuts, fried, soaked in honey), makroud, (semolina, date filled roll, fried or baked, soaked in syrup), yoyos (little doughnuts), fritters with honey, manicotti (rolled, deep fried pastry), dragees (Jordan almonds), cakes (ring shaped pastry), boulous (almond/raisin bread), biscoutou (sponge cake), etc. Some even distributed money. An atmosphere of serenity and a particular sweetness filled our hearts. Kindness and generosity abounded. Suddenly we all felt like
brothers and sisters. This is what the memories of the pilgrimages of Rebbi Fraji awake in me and I hope that this joy will spread to all those who read these lines.

I have heard many stories about the miracles that pilgrimages of Rebbi Fraji had brought about. It had become a tradition, that those who had a wish, went to pray on his tomb and the prayer would be answered. I have witnessed a friend of my mother's who lived in Bone "Anaba" (Algeria) and who had been unable to have children since her wedding. She had remained childless for thirteen years. My mother had invited her to join us on the pilgrimage to "Rebbi Fraji" in order to pray for a child. The next year she visited the tomb of the saint with us and nine months later she gave birth to a boy. After that she came on the pilgrimage every year with her son.


Over time, the story of Rebbi Fraji became an epic song. Transmitted orally from generation to generation, it gives us the oldest account of Rebbi Fraji and of the road his mare had chosen. On any happy occasion one sings this song of joy, which strengthens the faith of the Tunisian Jews.

Here is the epic song of Rebbi Fraji, according to my memory and the memory of members of our town. It is still incomplete and I welcome those of my readers who remember other lines to communicate them to me, allowing me to insert them, in order for the song to be saved in its entirety for future generations.

Lah y Lana Lah y Lana, Oorebi Fraji Mashy Ema'ana Lah y Lana Lah y Lana, and Rebbi Fraji is walking with us
Yagozbar Ayja Kodami Esma Matekhlefshi Klami "Secretary, come here before me, listen and don't change my words,
Rani Lioom Mkemel Ayami, Ou Mashi A'nd Rabbi Moolana This very day my days will end and I will go to our Lord"

Lah y Lana Lah y Lana, Oo Essayed Icoon Ema'na. Lah y Lana Lah y Lana, and the lord* will go with us
Erebbi Salah Minha Oojdoodoo Zaakoo Bel Farha, The Rabbi prayed minha and his ancestors rejoiced
Oolioom Na'amloo Simha Le Sayed Elima'na. And today we are going to celebrate in honor of the lord* who is with us.

Lah y Lana Lah y Lana, Oorebi Fraji Ishebet Ema'ana Lah y Lana Lah y Lana, and Rebbi Fraji will spend the shabat with us.
Zaylet Erebi Mshat Oosebket Jmi El Qahal Alaha Kholtet, The rabbi's mare went ahead and the community caught up with her
Lah y Lana Lah y Lana, Al Emra El A'yana. Lah y Lana Lah y Lana, with the tired female.

Lah y Lana Lah y Lana, Oorebi Fraji Mashy Ema'ana. Lah y Lana Lah y Lana, and Rebbi Fraji is walking with us.
El Assas Qaed Io'ss Yebssed Yedoo A'l Leqfal, The soldier was standing guard and his hand froze on the trigger
Qal Ooalah Manheb Eno'ss Hata Yessarhni Maoolana. He said: "For God's sake, I don't want to stand guard until
this lord* frees me"

Lah y Lana, Lah y Lana, Essayed Icoon Ema'ana. Lah y Lana, Lah y Lana, and Rebbi Fraji will be with us
Samahna Ya Sidi Ma Refnachi Karek "Forgive us, lord*, we didn't know your honor and greatness
Enouaslouek Bel Tabal ou Bel Zokra, Hata Lel Emken. We will accompany you with the drum and the bagpipe all the way to your place."

Lah y Lana Lah y Lana, Ourebi Fraji Ishebet Ema'ana Lah y Lana Lah y Lana, and Rebbi Fraji will spend the shabat with us
Zayled Erebi Mshat Oosebqet OuJat Fi Qalb Testour Ooberket The rabbi's mare went on and got ahead, when she reached the heart
of Testour she collapsed
Lah y Lana Lah y Lana, Metlet Emra El A'yana Lah y Lana Lah y Lana, like a tired woman.

*Rebbi Fraji
Emile Tubiana, August 3, 2002


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