Tunisian handicrafts facing existential crisis
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.”