TOPICS > Arts > Culture at Risk

How a new generation is reviving the old heart of Tunis

May 22, 2017 at 6:20 PM EDT
Nestled within the sprawling modern city of Tunis, the Medina, the historical urban center dating back to the 7th century, evokes the Arab world's rich past. After decades of decay in the 20th century, changes in the country are also changing the Medina. Jeffrey Brown meets a new generation of Tunisians who are working to transform it into a vital cultural destination once more.
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JUDY WOODRUFF: And now to a story about history and culture in Tunisia, the birthplace of the Arab spring.

Its democracy is new and fragile, and its economy has been hurt by terrorist acts that have scared away tourists.

But among the signs of hope, a rise in citizen efforts to take part in the nation’s political and cultural life.

Jeffrey Brown has our story. It’s part of his ongoing series Culture at Risk.

JEFFREY BROWN: The Medina of Tunis, the old center of the city, dating back to the seventh century, its narrow walkways, vibrant colors, and grand architecture evoke a rich past.

Now nestled within a sprawling modern city, the Medina remains a home to some 100,000 residents, 15,000 homes, 700 monuments, and abundant commerce within its sprawling souks, or markets.

For hundreds of years, places like this were the heart of life in the Arab world. The question today is how to preserve something of that old character, even as the society around them changes.

Architect Zoubeir Mouhli grew up here in the Medina, and now heads an organization to preserve it.

ZOUBEIR MOUHLI, Association for the Preservation of the Medina (through interpreter): When I was a student, I dreamed of working in the Medina because I knew there were so many hidden things people didn’t know about that are incredibly valuable.

JEFFREY BROWN: For him, this place represents a way of life, an alternative to the modern city.

ZOUBEIR MOUHLI (through interpreter): There is no soul there. Everything is done for the cars, not for the people, not for the pedestrians, not for the people who want to see each other, to talk to each other, to go and have a coffee together. All this is so important to me.

JEFFREY BROWN: Dramatic change came to the Medina starting in the 1950s, as the era of French rule ended. Many laborers from the countryside moved in seeking work, while elites and those with means left for the new suburbs, which continue to develop today. The Medina was ignored, and slowly decayed.

ZOUBEIR MOUHLI (through interpreter): The Medina was considered an archaic space that was contrary to the country’s modernization, and even the cause of our underdevelopment and the reason for the French protectorate.

JEFFREY BROWN: By the time the Medina was added to a U.N. list of places of special cultural importance in 1979, more than half its buildings were in disrepair or ruins.

But changes in the country are also changing the Medina. In late 2010, a Tunisian fruit vendor set himself ablaze, setting off a chain of protests that overturned the country’s dictator, Abidine Ben Ali, and spread across the region as the Arab Spring.

Tunisia has been the only country thus far to successfully transition out of protests into a democracy. Among much else, that unleashed new civic pride and an interest in preserving the country’s culture, one influenced by Roman, Ottoman, Arabic and European traditions.

LEILA BEN GACEM, Hotel Owner: This house was on sale in 2006. I bought it from a family that lived here for 300 years.

JEFFREY BROWN: Three hundred?

LEILA BEN GACEM: Yes.

JEFFREY BROWN: For Leila Ben Gacem, that meant rehabilitating an old home to turn it into a boutique hotel, a project that required working with local artisans, tile specialists, woodworkers, gypsum carvers, who understood the materials and artistic styles.

LEILA BEN GACEM: These stones could be recycled from the destroyed site of Carthage.

JEFFREY BROWN: You mean the ancient archaeological site of Carthage, yes, not far from us.

LEILA BEN GACEM: Yes. The tiles could have came with the Andalusians.

JEFFREY BROWN: Yes, in Spain.

LEILA BEN GACEM: In Spain.

The arches could have came from the Ottomans. So it’s the blend that makes Tunisia today.

JEFFREY BROWN: It was difficult work. The house had to be entirely retrofitted with modern plumbing and electricity.

Not a good place for a car.

LEILA BEN GACEM: No, that’s why taxi drivers hate to drive in here.

JEFFREY BROWN: And the area faces all kinds of challenges, including maintaining enough infrastructure to hold onto old businesses and attract new investment.

LEILA BEN GACEM: Since the birth of the Medina in the seventh century, eighth century, there always been an ecosystem of traders, of artisans, of businesses. So the trading sectors change with time. And I think to convert the Medina into a cultural artistic destination, that needs a whole new ecosystem to be developed now.

JEFFREY BROWN: Ben Gacem’s doing her part. She’s already working on a second guest house and has opened a workspace nearby to help transfer some of the skills being lost.

On Saturday mornings, there’s a calligraphy class and next door a workshop on bookbinding, taught by Mohamed Ben Sassi, whose shop is just down the street. He’s thought to be the last bookbinder working in the Medina, and is eager to reach a new generation.

MOHAMED BEN SASSI, Master Bookbinder (through interpreter): There is nobody, no one left. For 40 years, I worked in the national library, and there was nobody to do this job, 40 years. The book will never go away. It has witnessed many gales and thunderbolts and disasters. It is still here.

JEFFREY BROWN: Up the street is a beautiful, but dilapidated building called La Rachidia, opened in the 1930s and once one of the most famous concert venues in North Africa.

Here, volunteers are digitizing sheet music, historical documents, concert posters and photographs found sitting in boxes, saving traditional Tunisian music known as malouf.

And then there’s a project called MedinaPedia in the belly of an old Christian church, where another group of volunteers is documenting every building and monument in the area, researching famous residents, and uploading that information to Wikipedia, a variety of projects, committed people, young and old.

Everyone we spoke to said it will be important to move forward in a way that maintains the character and the inhabitants of the Medina, even while trying to attract tourists to a country in desperate need of the economic boost they bring.

Despite the many challenges the government here faces, Leila Ben Gacem says cultural heritage should continue to be one of its priorities.

LEILA BEN GACEM: The government underestimates the potential of heritage and culture in creating opportunities, and maybe they even think of it as something for elite or something as a luxury. In the meantime, civil society is very active today in investing, investing time, money, energy, advocacy to restore such beautiful spaces and bring back the magic to the Medina.

JEFFREY BROWN: A magic found in every tile and stone.

For the PBS NewsHour, I’m Jeffrey Brown in the Medina of Tunis.

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