Cultural centres in the Tunis Medina continue to thrive
TUNIS - At the entrance of the cultural club of Tahar Haddad, children gather, waiting for the movie screening to start. They chat, giggle and talk about making a movie and enthusiastically invite other visitors to see the movie they planned to make. The stone-carved hall of the cultural club of Tahar Haddad, in a small alley in the Medina of Tunis, welcomes these children every Saturday to a cinema workshop that thrives on their dreams and laughter.
The cultural club of Tahar Haddad is one of many historic sites that became cultural centres after Tunisia’s independence. Located in the old city of Tunis, monuments that once bore witness to history take on different roles today as they are rendered into cultural centres. Reshaping such historic sites has revealed the need for new cultural spaces that draw people not only to discover the historic and aesthetic identity of the monuments but, also, to experience their cultural value.
Monuments like the annexed provision rooms of Dar Lasram and the Bir Lahjar school became centres that have contributed to the continuity of the cultural scene for decades. The relatively recent role that was bestowed on the historic monuments serves to highlight the importance of introducing culture and art to the different parts of the city, including the old city where the population is made up of lower and middle income earners.
Not only do the centres preserve the patrimony of Tunisia, they also help the cultural scene thrive.
Ikram Azouz, actor and director of the cultural centre of Bir Lahjar, emphasised the dual character of the centres and their crucial role in Tunisian culture.
“Cultural centres in the Medina have always played a pivotal role in portraying both the historical and the cultural significance of each site. This monument of Bir Lahjar, for instance, used to be the residency of the Ezzitouna (University) students. This school brought together students from different regions of the country who came to Ezzitouna to learn the teachings of our religion,” Azouz explained.
“Around the time of the Maghrib Prayer, neighbours would put food on the steps of the hall outside so that the students don’t have to beg for their food if they don’t have dinner. Those steps in the hall still exist today as a proof of the hospitality and unity of neighbours which continues till today.”
Similarly, the cultural club of Tahar Haddad boasts both historic and cultural importance being the destination of many artists and art enthusiasts. Since its creation in 1974, the Tahar Haddad club has had a pivotal role in the Tunisian cultural scene, with activities and workshops involving different disciplines.
The building itself bears witness to important chapters of the history of Tunis. It was a storage room and a stable annexed to the old palace of Dar Lasram, which dates to 1812; today it is the destination of people seeking art and culture.
Inaugurated in 1974, the club was named after Tahar Haddad, a Tunisian thinker, feminist and social reformer who advocated women’s rights. Interestingly, the first director of the cultural centre was a woman.
“Over 40 years ago, the cultural club of Tahar Haddad was directed by Jalila Hafsia, a feminist and journalist. We have often consulted her on important decisions and issues concerning the club. The philosophy of this space was set by her,” Mouaouia Gharbi, Tahar Haddad director, said.
He added: “Named after Tahar Haddad, this space continued to focus on the idea of advocating women’s rights. This centre used to host a club for women activists back in the ’80s, which produced all the Tunisian feminists who came to be known today.”
After independence, the Tunisian Ministry of Culture aimed to revive and shape the Medina. Reintroducing the historic monuments as cultural centres helped reshape traditional forms of cultural events.
“Cultural events and shows have a different taste when taken outside the traditional form of performances, which is the Italian stage. Instead, in cultural centres like Bir Lahjar, shows are performed in the form of the circle theatre at the centre of the building. This space also became a place for art galleries with photography and paintings being displayed inside the rooms,” Azouz said.
The cultural centres offer members and visitors access to culture that is affordable for the inhabitants of the Medina. They also provide a variety of workshops and activities that are entertaining and cultivating.
“The planning of our cultural activities is inspired from our conversations with our members and visitors. It voices their interests and requests,” Gharbi stated.
Directors of such cultural centres emphasise the importance of adjusting the centres to the needs and requests of the neighbourhood by building an interactive relationship between visitors and staff members.
“The success of your work in cultural centres comes from the interactions between the people directing the place and those who visit the place,” Gharbi explained.
“We always leave a margin for visitors who come and suggest. We are interested in new suggestions which will help regenerate culture.”
The cultural centres have drawn the attention of young people who found in the spaces to be perfect places to enjoy cinema, theatre and other art disciplines.
‘’What is interesting about this place is that it draws both young and old people. It attracts all different age categories,” Gharbi said. “And we have kids, the kids who live in the neighbourhood. Our club primarily responds to the needs of the neighbourhood.”
Each day, the cultural centres offer visitors different clubs, including painting, theatre, cinema and writing. The Tahar Haddad club invites visitors to the famous café culture, dating to the centre’s beginning.
“It is a meeting point for people who are interested in a particular theme, a book or film. The topic differs from one month to another. We are also interested in shedding light on low-key artists and amateur young writers, since this space will provide them with sufficient exposure as well as constructive criticism from experts,” Gharbi said.
On a late Saturday afternoon, the sound of piano playing echoed in the corners of the cultural centre of Bir Lahjar as young children attended their music lessons. At Tahar Haddad club, visitors roamed around the art gallery, contemplating and discussing the paintings hanging on the walls. Others sipped Turkish coffee at the café.
“I come here all the time to attend some events and to check the art gallery. I also come here to the café to study since the place has this unique serenity about it,” Rania, a student, said.
“I live around here and it is a beautiful place to enjoy your friends’ company and discover the workshops they have,” another student, Bilel, said.
“Whoever comes to the cultural club of Tahar Haddad will always find an event or an activity to enjoy. If not, they will always find a welcoming mood and a beautiful monument to discover. That is the beauty of the Medina,” Gharbi stated.