Leila Ben Gacem guides a visitor through the Tunis Medina, ducking the cars and carts rattling down narrow, cobblestoned streets, and the occasional smear of dog poop.
“Historically, the Medina was the heart of trade, craft and art, and it’s structured with many souks — each dedicated to a specific craft,” she says.
She points down the maze of roads towards markets dedicated to coppersmiths, and those making Tunisia’s famous, flat-topped chechia hat, which exports to Libya and parts of sub-Saharan Africa.
A municipal councillor in a village outside the capital, Ben Gacem is also a social entrepreneur on a mission; helping not only to preserve the Medina’s ancient buildings and community, but also to revitalize trades that once powered this historic quarter, some of which risk going extinct.
“If investments are inclusive and pay attention to shared economy,” she says, “then maybe the whole community will grow together.”
It’s a lesson that might inform Tunisia’s next government, still under construction nearly three months after elections. The Arab Spring’s only democracy to date, the North African country is challenged to turn around its sluggish economy and deepening poverty that has fed emigration and unrest. While up to one-third of Tunisia’s youth are jobless, some old Medina trades are struggling for manpower.
A fading tradition
At his cramped shop, Mohammed Ben Sassi reverently opens an old Quran he is working on, its pages decorated in blue and gold. Behind him are piles of half-finished tombs. At 64, Ben Sassi is the Medina’s only surviving bookbinder.
“There’s demand, but young people are no longer interested,” Ben Sassi says.
He isn’t the only craftsman facing challenges. While central Medina still houses more than 500 artisan workshops, that number is about half what it was fifty years ago, according to Ben Gacem’s research. The decline, she believes, translates to a broader loss for the country’s very identity.
‘’Throughout history, Tunisians have worked with their hands,” she says. “I can’t imagine a Tunisian family that doesn’t have an artisan.”
The reasons for the decline are multiple, Ben Gacem says. The country’s sinking economy and currency have made some quality raw materials unaffordable, driving artisans to abandon trades handed down through generations. Others have switched to inexpensive substitutes –making the final product less attractive to buyers.
But revitalizing these trades might also suggest a broader rethink of one key economic driver. Tourism has largely turned around Tunisia’s beachfronts and deserts, and less on its artistic heritage — including the centuries-old Medina, a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
“We’re not promoting Tunisia with all it’s wealth, especially in the tourism industry,” Ben Gacem says. “We haven’t communicated the best story. We have communicated the easiest story.”
Revitalizing the Medina
Founded in the 7th century, the Tunis Medina was restored under hardline president Zine el Abidine Ben Ali, but suffered under the 2011 revolution that ousted him, and subsequent instability. Building codes were sidelined, traditional residents fled to safer places, and squatters occupied historic mansions. Tunisians from the south moved in, further fraying a once close-knit community.
“But the revolution also had a positive impact,” says architect Soulef Aouididi of the Medina Conservation Association. From the association’s headquarters in a sumptuous, 19th-century palace, she describes new civic groups springing up, including those offering school tours of the Medina, helping the next generation better appreciate its history.
Aouididi’s association also organizes events bringing together the quarter’s disparate population, to help restitch relations.
“Our strategy is to safeguard the buildings, but also the social heritage,” she says.
Several blocks away, a pair of elegant guesthouses offer another experiment in community development. Ben Gacem has converted two dilapidated Medina mansions into boutique tourist hotels, tapping local residents to run them, and sourcing her supplies from area businesses.
She also networks with local artisans like Ben Sassi, organizing workshops so hotel guests can learn about their craft, as one way to bring in business—while offering tourists an “authentic experience” of Tunisia.
“It’s part of creating a new economic dynamic to preserve the artistry and culture around historical urban spaces,” Ben Gacem says.
The last hat maker?
Whether such initiatives can help to preserve old trades however is uncertain.
“Young Tunisians aren’t interested in working,” says Mohamed Troudi, a chaouachine, or chechia hat maker, as he points to his own calloused hands. “They want office, Facebook and a coffee at 10 am.”
Troudi himself started his career as a computer technician. He soon made a U-turn back to the family trade. Like Ben Sassi, he is part of Ben Gacem’s network of artisans. He has no lack of business—in no small part because the numbers of chaouachine are dwindling.
At 28, he is the Medina’s youngest traditional hat maker. One day, he fears, he may be its last.
“See that old man,” Troudi says, pointing to a colleague across from his workshop. “His son doesn’t want to work in the trade, so his store will shut. It’s a big problem.”