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The Architectural Review | Lay to rest: Jardin d'Afrique in Zarzis, Tunisia

By Lara Zureikat

The saying ‘the sea can give and the sea can take away’ reflects the ancient and universal recognition of the sea’s dual nature: it can provide abundant opportunities and resources, but it can also be unpredictable and dangerous, taking lives and possessions. Crossing the Mediterranean Sea from the shores of North Africa and West Asia to Europe offers hope for a better life to migrants from the global south, but it comes with great risks often involving a perilous voyage on overcrowded, unsafe boats that regularly ends in tragedy. The International Organization for Migration’s (IOM) Missing Migrants Project began keeping records in 2014 and, since then, it has estimated just over 29,000 migrant disappearances in the Mediterranean. In 2022, nearly 3,000 migrant fatalities were documented on hazardous sea routes to Europe. In fact, the central Mediterranean migration route is recognised as the deadliest in the world, with primary embarkation points in Tunisia and Libya. 

While some bodies decompose at sea, others are carried by currents and wash up on the shores of the Mediterranean. One such coastline is that of the south‑eastern Tunisian town of Zarzis. It is here that the Paris‑based Algerian artist Rachid Koraïchi designed and personally financed, through the sale of his artwork, a memorial graveyard for migrants who died at sea. Unlike most graveyards, the majority of individuals laid to rest in this private non‑denominational cemetery are unknown, unclaimed and unidentified, having perished in foreign waters, far from family and friends.

Prior to the building of the memorial graveyard, a makeshift refuse site had been repurposed by the local municipality to bury the washed‑up bodies of migrants. ‘If you don’t respect the dead, you don’t respect the living,’ Koraïchi says. Well‑versed in imbuing his artworks with symbolism, Koraïchi does not shy away from political advocacy, and in 2005 designed a memorial garden dedicated to the followers of Emir Abdelkader (an Algerian nationalist leader who led a struggle against the French colonial invasion of Algiers in the 19th century) at the Château Royal d’Amboise in France.

Working in collaboration with the Tunisian Red Crescent (TRC), which provided support in the management and execution of the graveyard, the goal was to provide a dignified burial site for drowned migrants regardless of age, gender, nationality or religion. In addition to the 600 graves, the 2,500m2 complex comprises a morgue, prayer hall, caretaker’s residence and doctor’s office, which facilitate the reception of bodies, DNA testing for the identification of the deceased, the practice of funerary rites, the receiving of visitors, and maintenance of the landscaped grounds.

Another objective for the artist was to raise awareness of the issue of migration: ‘It is important to document this moment in history when the world has abandoned the plight of migrants,’ Koraïchi explains. Anti‑immigration sentiments are on the rise in Europe, and some critics argue that the EU’s migration and asylum policies have contributed to the increase in fatalities on sea migration routes. ‘It is also important to acknowledge the difficulties faced in sub‑Saharan Africa,’ Koraïchi continues, which include economic hardship, environmental degradation, persecution and armed conflict. ‘I wanted to pay homage to the African continent,’ the artist explains; Koraïchi named the cemetery the Jardin d’Afrique – ‘the garden of Africa’.

The Jardin d’Afrique is on the outskirts of Zarzis, a popular tourist destination which also has an international port and economic free zone. As well as tourism, the town’s economy includes fishing, sea salt production and agriculture (notably olives and olive oil production). Due to its close proximity to the Libyan border – an area of recent political unrest and ineffectual border control – Zarzis has a large community of refugees and asylum seekers and has become a base for international humanitarian and migration management agencies such as the IOM, the TRC and the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). 

The cemetery is situated a few kilometres from the centre of Zarzis in a windy agricultural area near the town’s football stadium. Vegetated dunes give way to olive groves that populate a flat expanse with no other buildings visible on the horizon, except for a small chicken farm adapted to become a migrant shelter by the IOM. The team struggled to find an appropriate plot and had to convince a local farmer to sell his land for use as a cemetery. Many of the local landowners approached by the team were hesitant to sell their land to a foreigner (Koraïchi is an Algerian national) and found it hard to believe that a private individual would personally finance a charitable project for foreign migrants. Even today, four years after its inauguration, the site and the initiative are regarded with suspicion by the local community.

A narrow dirt road leads to the graveyard complex: a white‑washed series of single‑storey structures with traditional vaulted and domed roofs and a bright yellow door. The door height is intentionally lower than that of the average adult, to prompt visitors to bow their heads upon entering in respect for the deceased. According to Koraïchi, the door is painted yellow as a reference to the sun. ‘The division of the plan into seven parts is based on Sufi numerology,’ Koraïchi explains. In keeping with Sufi tradition, small openings were designed in the boundary wall to allow the free movement of souls.