A garden in Tunisia

A version of this article, translated into nearly a dozen languages, was published in Le Monde d’Hermès in Autumn 2012


The Mediterranean is near enough to the garden in Hammamet that the hush of its waves comes in on a breeze, but the soil is sand and water always a struggle.  That a garden could take root here at all owes to the determination of an Anglo-American couple, Jean and Violet Henson, who came to these shores in 1927.  They built a small villa that evoked their libertine spirit: white columns supporting arches around an inner courtyard; a worn, metal-studded door – always open – adding texture and inviting exploration; a library with shelves stocked with wonders.  Around this, on four hectares of infertile soil, the couple eased a verdant life into being and crafted a garden, at once wild and lush, that feels spontaneous and organic and more like a jungle than a manicured lawn.  It was a garden as Nature might have designed it, had she found a way of her own to channel water to this arid land.  Later, when the Hensons died, their connection to this land had become so profound that were buried within it, side by side, in tombs assembled of ancient Roman artifacts with epitaphs that use their arrival at the garden, not the day of their births, to mark the start of their lives.

That the garden survives owes to another’s determination, equally strong.  One day, a young Tunisian girl named Leila Menchari had wandered off from a family summer by the sea to arrive at the edge of this garden, uncertain whether to enter.  It was an untamed place, both intimidating and enticing to a little girl, in which sharp-spiked cactuses give way to bulbous-trunked baobab trees and feather-garlanded peacocks chase fleet-footed peahens through the underbrush.  But there was the scent of eucalyptus to lure her in and the possibility of discovery to draw her in further so she did enter, proceeding carefully, and was soon embraced by the Hensons as if she were their own daughter; from then, the garden held only magic for her.

Young Leila grew and moved to Paris, the Hensons aged and remained on their land, but always she returned to this place, where time’s progression was arrested.  I meet Leila now, many decades on from the little girl who first chanced upon the garden, and follow her down the overgrown paths that she navigates, still, with a child’s agility. The changes Leila describes are the eternal rhythms of pruning and planting, sweeping and weeding, of birds that need care and, always, the challenge of keeping the life-sustaining water flowing.  But as she talks I notice that everything that has ever happened within the confines of this garden remains in the present tense.  Here, it could be 1950 or 1970 or yesterday, the Hensons are still alive – Jean, especially, who in the telling is always handsome Jean with the brilliant blue eyes and high Cherokee cheek bones of his Georgian youth – while the sea maintains its constant shimmer in the distance, the bird call retains its haunting song, and a tranquility prevails at a great remove from the revolution and other tumults just beyond the garden walls.

What has truly been cultivated here, I realize, is not merely the plant species imported long ago and so lovingly nurtured all these years, but memories.  It is a garden of memories, in which, for Leila, every corner has a link to the past and a meaning for the future.  Over there, by the ancient Roman column, is where handsome Jean entertained some of the great writers and artists of mid-century, and there, by the reflective pool, a little girl from the medina was encouraged to attend the Beaux-Arts and pursue her dreams as a designer.  This past is the ground that must be tilled for its vitality to be sustained.  So Leila, decades on, continues to return to this place, to work the land and lay claim upon its waters.  Within its walls, remains, still, something of the little girl who first came upon it long ago.


Click here to see all of Sean’s blog posts about North Africa and the Middle East.  Or here to see others in his Hermès series from Middle East, including the storytellers of Istanbul and an exploration of the Fès medina.  

Click here to see an article Sean wrote about Tunisia for the New York Times magazine T.


Sean also shot the photographs for this article. Click images below to view the tear sheets.