In Jemna’s oasis, the palms are heavy with their golden fruits. It is harvest season, when dates will be sold to vendors and intermediaries through a call for tenders. But the atmosphere is tense, since the Association for the Protection of Jemna’s Oasis remains, since its creation in 2011, illegitimate in the eyes of the State. This month, the Ministry of State Properties and Land Affairs, which leased the land to private operators before 2011, issued a statement threatening to cancel the call for tenders. Jemna’s residents, however, are resisting the government’s sudden intervention. Explanation.

The new government calls the end of recess

On Saturday, September 10, the Association for the Protection of Jemna’s Oasis organized a meeting in the open air at the center of town. Clustered around the main intersection are hardware stores, a café, and a police office. At the other side of the intersection, on a broad sidewalk which also serves as sort of town square, men of all ages arrive carrying plastic blue, green, and orange chairs borrowed from the café. The meeting begins promptly at 5:30pm, even before the arrival of Zouhair Maghzaoui, one of the region’s parliamentary deputies.

⬆︎ Documentary in Arabic with English and French subtitles available via the YouTube subtitle interface.

Association president Taher Tahri begins with a debriefing on negotiations with «el hakem,» [the authorities] in Tunis. The Ministry of State Properties and Land Affairs threatened to cancel the call for tenders, and Association members did not lose a moment contacting Mabrouk Kourchid, the department’s new Secretary of State. According to Tahri, Mr. Kourchid explained that STIL, the farm which Jemna’s citizens reclaimed in 2011, belongs to the State in spite of the work carried out over the past five years by Association employees and members. For Kourchid, beginning this season, the tenders process and farm revenues are the prerogative of the State. The Ministry proposes that the Association take the form of a Company for Agricultural Promotion and Development (SMVDA), a status created in 1990 to encourage private investment in State-owned lands.

A promising—and intimidating—social experiment


The idea to transform the Association into a company revives old demons. Before the revolution, State-owned lands were leased to private operators who profited from the farm’s revenues without any return for the town, nor even those who worked the land. Today, the Ministry’s sole concession is to ignore the past five years during which Jemna’s inhabitants invested the revenues collected from dates into maintaining the palm trees, paying workers’ salaries, and undertaking development projects in the region.

Since Nawaat’s visit to Jemna in 2015, these funds have enabled the construction of a permanent structure for the souk, and, in the coming months, a new sports facility. In January this year, the Association also purchased an ambulance which provides transport to citizens for a third of the average cost. «To go to Tunis, private ambulances charge 850 dinars [approximately 385.5 dollars]. For us, it’s 350 dinars,» says Sami Sayeh, driver and emergency worker. After graduating from his studies in healthcare in 2010, Sayeh made a living through little jobs here and there. Since he began driving the ambulance, Sayeh is proud to be working in his domain and providing help to people in need.

Collectively managing Jemna’s oasis

Near 7pm, the sun is falling behind the palm trees, and, responding to the call to prayer, a number of men head towards the mosque. After just over an hour of the nearly rhythmic relay of the microphone from one speaker to the next, no one taking his turn for longer than two or three minutes, the meeting ends as easily as it began. The following morning, on the eve of El Aid, we meet Wejdi Hamed, the Association’s head supervisor, on the oasis. A few meters away, two men have their arms full as they gather grass for their sheep. At the foot of the towering palms abundant with dates, Hamed talks to us about the tenders process planned for the coming week. He is counting on Jemna’s twelve thousand inhabitants who stand behind the Association and the farm. «If ‘el hakem’ doesn’t like it,» he tells us with determination, «there will be another revolution».