Nearly a thousand years ago, the people who first built Chenini and similar cave villages nearby did so to protect their precious food stores from raiders. 

Using golden stone under their camouflage, they erected a granary that crowned their chosen mountain like a fortified citadel, then hollowed vaults for living out of the mountainside just beneath.

They prospered by adapting to the harsh desert conditions, harvesting olives after they fell from the tree to produce what they said was longer-lasting oil, and hoarding food against the next drought. Their olive groves and farm fields spread for miles across the desert below.

On the mountain, their cave dwellings sheltered them from summer heat and winter cold. A few of their descendants - the modern Amazigh, as they call themselves, though much of the world knows them as Berbers - still live in caves that have been modernized to some degree, sleeping inside and cooking and keeping livestock out front.

The rest are gone and going. From Chenin's only cafe, the villagers can see the concrete cluster that is New Chenini, one of the settlements the government built after Tunisia's 1956 independence from France to draw the region's people down from the mountaintops and into modern life.

In New Chenini, there was running water and electricity, conveniences the ancient mountainside village lacked until a decade or two ago.

The 120 or so families who live in New Chenini can come and go via a paved road, while their relatives back in the original Chenini still haul everything partway up the mountain by hand or donkey.

As night settled on the mountain cave where she lives with her mother and her last remaining younger sibling, Halima Najjar looked out of her dwindling village - a few dozen specks of light clinging to the dimming mountainside - and wondered if there would be more to her life one day.

The prospects seemed thin. On this high, sun-bronzed crag deep in Tunisia's southern desert, where roughly 500 Amazigh farmers and herders inhabit caves hewed out of the rock, people tend either to hope that things stay as they have been for centuries or to risk everything to get out.

But the old life of pressing olives and herding sheep is faltering in the face of an implacable drought.  And Ms. Najjar, 38, does not want to risk death to migrate by boat to cold, hostile-seeming Europe, as so many siblings, neighbors and fellow Tunisians have done.

''We still have some blessings here. We're a community,'' Ms. Najjar said. ''Still, I want to leave for my future. I want to try something new, do something with my life. But it's difficult for us.''

In the evening stillness, somebody's goats were bleating, someone's donkey braying. A rooster, befuddled, was announcing dawn.

''WE are together, and then, every time somebody grows up, they leave,'' said her mother, Salima Najjar, 74. She sighed. ''We are left alone here.''

''One day, maybe, this village will be empty of people,'' said Omar Moussaoui, 45, one of Chenini's two remaining cave diggers, as he sat at the cafe one evening, looking down at the twinkle of New Chenini.

''And if we get scattered elsewhere, we won't have the same traditions. If I go Tunis, I'll forget about all these traditions.''

He exhaled, and smoke from his cigarette drifted across the view.

The World Students Society thanks author Vivian Yee for the Tunisia Despatch.


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