Travelling around the world, from city to city, we often forget to take a look at the old stuff. I don’t mean the ruins of Roman or Byzantine Carthage, but the walls, decorations, instruments and carpentry of previous residents. Cities carry lives and stories, so does Tunis.
Text and photographs by Job van der Poel
Wandering through the tiny streets of the Médina of Tunis, as I have started doing every day after work, you come across a variety of shops, workplaces, people, cats and windows. Every day the people you meet have different faces, selling anything from coloured drapes, to spices, leather shoes, jewellery, coffee-pots, ceramic bowls, vegetables, cloths, knock-off sunglasses, olive oil, fruits, cheeses of all kinds, car parts, you name it. Anything you could be possibly looking for can be located in a radius of 100 meters from any point. The network of streets and souks is dense like the human nerve system – all connected.
The majority of buildings are in decay, with paint falling of walls, and window frames hanging at an angle. Some are worse off than others of course, yet a percentage of buildings has been restored: shiny white walls, supporting beautifully blue windowsills, colourfully decorated doors with flower patters and ceramic tiles which give the finishing touch. The heritage of the city is starting to grab my attention. Walking through the souks, one only needs to take a quick glance at the overhead vaults to see recently patched stucco works. The Médina is filled with hidden palaces full of patios flooded with ceramic tiles, hidden, possibly behind any door. The traditional family housing allows for the serenity of each household to be preserved from the outside buzz of daily life. (Remember Hourrani’s lengthy chapter? Part II, Chapter 7, “Houses in the city”?)
Apart from the preservation of the physical structure of the city and its beautiful houses, a handful of associations have now taken up the cause of protecting the cultural and non-tangible heritage. That is to say, the traditional artistic and creative wealth of the Médina. With over 500 active artisan workshops, and several madrassas which still open their doors to new students every year, the Médina is home to an incredible richness of artistic know-how. This wealth is especially highlighted during the period of Ramadan, when the city celebrates the Festival of the Médina with a variety of plays, poetry readings and continuous live music throughout the city’s souks.
I had the great opportunity to talk with Mokhtar today. He’s an antique collector who owns a small shop on the street where the city walls used to protect the Médina from outsiders. His shop is simply put a chaos, swamped with old pitchers, ceramic vases, picture frames, paintings, desk lamps and a huge standing wardrobe. The last one he is particularly satisfied with. “Found it about a week ago, got it for less than 300 euros, but is probably worth 10 times the investment” he says proudly as he invites me to sit down with him, watching the street as people walk by.
It is hard being an antique collector, Mokhtar tells me. “People don’t care for old stuff, all they want is the newest and shiniest available on the market.” He adds “people don’t see value in history anymore.” The majority of the antiques in his shop are donated objects from people he knows who would have otherwise thrown them away. “A true shame”
He seems content when I explain to him that I am doing an internship at the Association for Safeguarding the Médina (ASM) which has put itself at the forefront when it comes to heritage protection in Tunis. Active since 1967, the association has spearheaded over 50 renovation and restoration projects in the Médina, recovering hundreds of old houses and revitalizing the covered souks around the Médina. The association has now received funding for a project which focusses on the revitalization of the creative industries of the city, supported by the EU and its European Neighbourhood Policy (ENP).
We agree that too little is being done to keep alive the rich culture and architecture of the city. But we are glad that at least some people, like us, see value in this past and enjoy it. He says that he would like to take me to Tabarka, after Ramadan, for nothing is better than a glass of wine and a good book on a patio overlooking the sea. We agree to meet again, and discuss this wonderful plan, Inchallah!