Tunisian handicrafts facing existential crisis

Friday 22/01/2016
A handicrafts shop at the touristic village of Sidi Bou Said, near Tunis.

Tunis - Tunisian handicrafts have, for decades, faced mount­ing challenges as new gen­erations opted for modern attire and industrial prod­ucts.
Foreign tourists used to provide artisans in the old quarters of Tu­nisian cities with a steady source of income but the handicraft trade suffered greatly after the 2015 ter­ror attacks shattered the tourism industry.
The economic crisis that damp­ened purchasing power of the mid­dle class added to worries of a sector that has had to cope with dwindling interest of younger generations who have sought jobs elsewhere.
“For years, our business was re­warding. We earned good money from handicrafts,” said Mohamed Stambouli, a 68-year-old tailor at the Casbah, the old district of Tunis.
Stambouli says he is lucky to con­tinue to make a living at his craft; he added he is sorry for colleagues who went out of business and had to sell their shops, which were of­ten replaced by fast-food restau­rants and made-in-China outlets.
“The situation is heartbreaking. Our costs are higher and our clients fewer. We still have customers from Algeria when they visit the country or Tunisian expatriates,” he said.
“I know cases of small handicraft business owners who shut down for fear of the bailiff as they are unable to pay back debt or bank loans.”
Nabil Amdouni, who sells souve­nirs in one of Tunis’s narrow alleys, said higher costs of handicrafts forced traders to offer shoddy prod­ucts. “We are aware some of these items are not up to the reputation of Tunisia but if you stick to quality products, the profits will be lower. We will have to change that practice when tourism picks up again in the future.”
Tunisian Tourism Minister Salma Elloumi Rekik admits the handi­crafts sector suffers because of the “serious crisis of tourism”, adding the government is looking to allevi­ate the pains of the sector. Elloumi noted 80% of the handicraft work­force were women.
Handicrafts have mirrored Tu­nisia’s long journey over time and its interaction with neighbouring civilisations and cultures. Its tra­ditional spiritual capital, Kairouan, was once the leading centre of rug manufacturing, employing more than 23,000 people — mostly young women — out of a total workforce of 28,000 in the craft sector.
Historical anecdotes have tied the development of tapestry in Kai­rouan to the introduction in Tuni­sia, by 1830, of carpets of Anatolian inspiration. However, examples of carpet weaving in Tunisia date to the fifth century BC, with famous Carthaginian tapestries as evi­dence.
Carpet weaving spread to almost every village in Tunisia as mothers passed the tradition to their daugh­ters for generations with colours and shapes reflecting each region’s specialties and needs.
The art of pottery and ceramics throwing is 1,000 years old in Tuni­sia. Leather working included sad­dlery — the most prestigious aspect of the craft — and leather embroi­dery and the manufacture of the traditional balgha shoe.
Tunisian wrought iron was in­spired by Moroccan and Spanish traditions of Andalusian origin. The various features and motifs that embellish grids, doors, windows, transoms of souks and brackets re­flect Arab, Spanish and Portuguese artistic trends.
But most of the handicraft legacy swept away after independence from France in 1956 as a more West­ern way of life prevailed. Boys and girls went to school en masse and few turned to the old crafts.
“After independence, Tunisians deserted what had made their per­ennial identity. Everything related to our traditions and patrimony has been perceived by most Tunisians as a form of underdevelopment,” said Zine el Abidine Belhareth, an instructor at Tunis’s Manouba Uni­versity.
Traditional crafts suffered from influences from West and East. “There is a desertification of our culture and identity as we imitated the West in everything. There is also a push from the Middle East with the qamees (male garb) and jilbab (women’s robe) making inroads in Tunisia,” he noted.
Belhareth, who is also chairman of the Our Authenticity, Our Moder­nity civic association, which strives to resuscitate Tunisian interest in handicrafts, sees wider implica­tions.
“How will you successfully fight Islamist terrorism, which is also an ideology, if you have no solid iden­tity, if you are wobbling under blow­ing winds from the West and Middle East,” he said.
He said he was disappointed when he saw on television three of the Tunisian Nobel Peace Prize lau­reates wearing Western-style suits as they received the prize in Oslo. He noted similar trends at cinema and theatre festivals in Tunis in De­cember.
“Why do the Emiratis and the Mo­roccans show respect and love for their traditional costumes, and not here. No cinema or theatre actors wear Tunisian traditional dresses when acting. No television an­nouncers, either,” he said.
Stambouli said: “I could not be­lieve it. I was shocked to see no one wearing Tunisian traditional cos­tumes among the political leaders who thronged Habib Bourguiba Av­enue to mark the fifth anniversary of the revolution.”