Who Are Modern Tunisians?

Page update - Jan 7, 2023

It is commonly believed that Tunisia is an Arab country, and consequently Arabs live there. But is that really the case? Who are the Tunisians? How many Tunisians live in the country? Read this page for answers that may come as a surprise.

The latest news on Tunisian DNA

In 2019, a new study on the DNA of North Africans was published, by Amine Abdelli and Traki Benhassine. They examined the DNA of the inhabitants of neighboring Algeria, who are as close as possible to Tunisians. This study only confirmed everything we have written on this page.

The only difference between Algerians and Tunisians is the rarer J1 marker, which shows that Algerians are genetically even further away from Arabs than Tunisians.

The population of Tunisia

The last census was conducted in April and May 2014 by the National Institute of Statistics.

A total of 11,007,326 people were counted in the country. Of course, this exact figure should not be blindly trusted, as any statistical study of this scale has a margin of error of up to 1%.

Males are 5,484,698. Females are 5,522,628.

Urban population is 7,437,671. Population in rural areas is 3,545,083.

As of 2023, Tunisia is estimated to have around 12.13 million inhabitants.

Population growth in the country is now about 1% per year. This figure is low if compared with other Arab countries for a few reasons. Tunisia has a family planning programme. Many Tunisians immigrate to Western European countries, especially France, Italy, and Germany.

Who do Tunisians see themselves as?

They refer to themselves as Twensa, that is, Tunisians. Tunisians consider themselves as part of the Arab world, but prefer to accent their identity.

Tunisians speak their own dialect of Arabic called "Darja". However, the standard Arabic language (MSA) is the official language of the country. We talked about this in the review "What language is spoken in Tunisia".

Tunisian culture is specific. Tunisian cuisine is very different from that of other Arab countries and even the neighboring Maghreb countries. The Tunisian architecture style has become a model for other countries in the region. The variety of styles in Tunisian ceramics is striking. Tunisian music is a unique blend of the musical styles of many nations. Tunisians have obvious reasons to consider themselves a unique nation in the Arab world.

Who are Tunisian by genetics?

The information below is based on a recent genetic study of North Africans. The study was published in the American Journal of Physical Anthropology in 2016.

Despite their cultural proximity to Arabs, modern Tunisians are Arabs genetically by 20% only. And 60% of their DNA originates from Berbers, indigenous to North Africa.

The remaining 20% of Tunisian genes are a diverse mixture of genes from all the peoples who had once conquered and lived in Tunisia: Phoenicians, Greeks, Romans, Vandals, Spaniards, Turks and Slavs-Janissaries, French.

It so happens that Tunisians have Russian blood in their veins as well. In 1942, Erwin Rommel, commander of the African Corps of the Nazi army, asked Hitler to send him Soviet prisoners of war for unskilled labor and to build fortifications. Hitler did not refuse, and 50,000 Soviet prisoners of war arrived in Tunisia.

Most of these died of illness, but some managed to escape or were simply left behind by the retreating Germans. Some Russian POWs remained and were assimilated. Exactly how many cannot be ascertained now, as no one has counted these POWs.

Western Europeans

During the French protectorate and before independence in 1956, up to 250,000 Europeans, mainly French, lived in Tunisia. Almost all of them left the country immediately after 1956.

Now the number of Europeans is increasing every year. But they are not Tunisian citizens, but people with residence permits, mostly the French people. It has become fashionable for Europeans to buy property in resort towns and spend their old age in warm resorts. Not many French people can afford that, otherwise Tunisia would have become a French retirement home.

The number of Europeans has not been accurately counted, roughly 100-300 thousand. This is not surprising, because although Tunisia is an Islamic country, wine and spirits are produced and sold openly without restrictions, and supermarkets even have pork delicatessen departments. Read our in-depth review "Alcohol in Tunisia".

The Jewish diaspora in Tunisia

Until 1948, the Jewish diaspora numbered up to 105,000 people. Jews lived mainly in Djerba. After the establishment of the State of Israel, almost all Jews left there. Now the community numbers about 900 people who live around El Grib Synagogue.

Tunisian Berbers

There are about 100,000 Berbers in Tunisia. We are now talking about people who recognise themselves as pure Berbers and do not consider themselves Arabs. They live in the south of the country - in Matmata, Chenini, Douiret, and in Djerba - in Guellala and Ajim.

Most modern Berbers no longer speak the Berber language and do not revere the old traditions. Culturally, they are no longer pure Berbers, but ordinary Tunisians.

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