Tunisian artisans struggle to sell traditional chechia
Tunis - Outside a little shop in the medina, an elderly man wearing a traditional Djebba suit finishes crafting a crimson chechia, Tunisia’s traditional flat wool cap.
Moncef Ben Moussa is one of the few chechia makers in Souk Ech- Chaouachine, a traditional market that specialises in the production and trade of headwear.
“I have been working here for 42 years,” Ben Moussa said. “It was something I found myself in. I enjoyed making chechias and found comfort in this job. Things changed a lot in the past years; 40 years ago, there were more shops and there were at least five craftsmen working in each.”
Souk Ech-Chaouachine is one of Tunisia’s oldest traditional markets, dating to the arrival of the Andalusian Moors in the 17th century. For as long as the souk has been around, artisans have sold the chechia. Now, however, many of the shops are closing.
“I have been working in this souk for more than 40 years and now I have the responsibility of defending the chechia,” said Azouz Kahia, president of the National Chamber of Chechia, part of Tunisia’s National Federation of Handicrafts.
“When I was in school, I used to stay with my father whenever I had free time and that is how I learned the craft of making chechia. When I was old enough, I started helping. Since I loved the craft, it was easy to be integrated in the shop with my family.”
The chechia trade is often handed down from one generation to the next and is considered part of the family heritage. Mohamed Mehdi Troudi, another artisan in the souk, left his job at a bank to work in his father’s chechia shop to honour the trade and “the name of the family.”
“We have been doing this for generations,” Troudi said. “I joined ten years ago but even before that I used to help my father in the shop. Both my paternal and maternal grandfathers were chechia artisans.”
While the chechia is still worn during religious occasions and celebrations, many artisans struggle to find the same level of demand for the once popular headwear.
“There are some issues that have come up in the last decade,” Kahia said. “The market has been affected by a drastic fall in the number of craftsmen. Also, financially, making chechia can no longer provide a living. You must have significant capital to be able to run this business.”
One reason the sector is strained is the increasing price of imported goods, artisans noted.
“The raw material for chechia is imported and the fall of the exchange rates of the dinar added to that,” Kahia said. “We are trying to work this out with the government and other craftsmen.”
Things don’t look bright, however. The number of chechia craftsmen has radically decreased, Kahia lamented, and some worry the trade could disappear completely.
“It is getting more difficult and, the more difficult it gets, the more craftsmen will leave and change their shops to something else like fast-food places,” Kahia said. “This is how we are losing craftsmen. At a certain time, we had more than 500 craftsmen and our chechia production was exported all over the world. Now we are around 15 and this is alarming. It could disappear.”
While the chechia is found primarily in Tunisia, it is also marketed in Libya and other African countries, such as Mali and Nigeria
“The chechia is authentic Tunisian headwear,” said Kahia, but it is also demanded in “African markets so we were able to export it.”
“The original chechia is the crimson one,” he said, although Libyans generally wear it in black, Nigerians in dark red and Senegalese in white and black.
Unfortunately, demand outside of Tunisia is not what it once was. With many African markets, especially Libya’s, reeling from economic and political instability, chechia sales decreased.
“Some things changed a bit after the revolution with the political changes affecting the markets,” Troudi said. “For instance, the Libyan revolution affected the sales as the situation is volatile. It also affected the change rates in the neighbouring African countries. It became expensive for them to buy the chechia for its production price with the low exchange rate.”
Despite the difficulties, however, Kahia remarked that younger Tunisians are reviving the chechia, with many wearing it as a trendy addition to casual outfits.
“This is a time when people are showing more pride and interest in reviving traditional clothing,” said Kahia, noting that women also wear “different types of chechia” for a “decorative element.”
“During wedding rituals, some women like to wear chechia as part of the traditional outfit,” he said.
In his shop, Kahia resumes work on a women’s chechia that has silver ornaments to symbolise Tunisia’s heritage. Other modern designs of the female headwear line the shelf.
“These are part of our new collection of chechia for women,” Kahia said. “I think the solution to the crisis is to find ways to make chechia an indispensable part of the daily outfit. We are trying to rebrand the chechia as a youthful and fashionable headwear.”