Even to an outsider uninitiated in the art of walking Tunis’s cobbled streets, it is hard to miss the tiny hideaways along Rue du Pacha selling bright red Tunisian flags in the city’s medina.
The flags cover the stores’ glass fronts and shelves, but curiously enough the sound of the whirling sewing machines, of pedals moving the reels of thread, is missing.
The industry was more active before the revolution, says Radia Saidi, one of the business owners, but has fallen on harder times since then. The revolution she is referring to is the one that started in Tunis in December 2010 and eventually sparked the Arab Spring.
She had to close her own shop, which makes and sells Tunisian and football flags, for a year, before reopening it in October 2013. “The business was bad, no one was ordering any flags, and even now it has not picked up,” Saidi says. “We have a lot of hope for the next elections and that it would bring new business.”
Before the revolution there were flags all over the place, she says. “And now, not even the municipality is excited to put up flags.” While earlier the business brought in 3,000-4,000 Tunisian dinars a month (Dh6,900-9,200), it hardly fetches 1,500 a month now.
Saidi’s experience is a sign of bigger changes in the medina – of the end of an older way of life and the start of something new.
“The moment I stepped in, I knew this was the place I was looking for,” says Leila Ben Gacem. “It has always been my retirement dream to relive history in a luxury space and I love special places; it’s like being in a magical space that tells the story and brings out the best of our craftsmen.”
Ben Gacem. 44, is the proprietor of the Tunis medina’s second heritage hotel, and has owned the property for the past seven years. Four years ago, she decided to renovate it and turn it into a boutique hotel.
It did not come easy.
She bought the 300-year-old building for 300,000 dinars and spent as much again on the restoration – it badly needed repair, she recalls. Its owners, an elderly couple, were too poor to restore the grand structure and lived in a corner of the courtyard, whose marble pillars still bore the half-moon sign of the Ottoman Empire. The walls were damp and the blue, yellow and green tiles had been whitewashed repeatedly to hide their dirt and disrepair.
The house had humidity problems, the paint was peeling, the woodwork cracked and the power lines were a disaster. Water pipes needed to be replaced completely.
Ben Gacem’s experience reflects to an extent the current state of affairs of the Tunis medina, the walled city dating back to the ninth century and one of the best remaining examples of an Arab medina after Marrakech and Damascus. The traditional businesses it has housed for years are giving way to new.
Residents had begun moving out of the network of narrow streets and alleys years ago to spacious properties with gardens and better facilities. Now, behind the slowly crumbling façades, there are signs of a nascent reverse migration of young entrepreneurs who had never lived in the medina but who are investing in the properties and restoring them to run boutique hotels, cafes and art galleries, drawn by the history and business potential of the place.
This picture is similar to most medinas. On one hand, the majority of the original inhabitants who still live in the medinas are low-income families; on the other, a growing population of young investors from outside the medina is interested in restoring the buildings leading to a gradual gentrification, according to Marcello Balbo, a professor of urban planning at the University of Venice, in his 2012 book The Medina: The Restoration and Conservation of Historic Islamic Cities.
“The historic city has evolved into a place where the majority of households live in overcrowded rented accommodation, with inadequate facilities, which they try to adapt to their needs, thus affecting the typology of the buildings,” Balbo writes.
“At the same time, a minority of new residents have moved in. They are generally considerably better off than the older residents but in most cases their presence is temporary and they are essentially strangers to the social, economic and cultural context of the historic city.”
The association for the preservation of the medina (Association de Sauvegarde de la Médina de Tunis) was formed in 1967 with a mandate to restore the quarter’s heritage. It has handled more than a hundred projects in the past 20 years, mostly belonging to the municipality but sometimes for private individuals.
The association has restored mosques, hammams, covered souqs and domestic residences as well as madrasas and palaces, many of which have found new functions as community spaces and guesthouses.
To do that, almost 2,500 families, many of whom were living in unsafe conditions, were relocated to new housing outside the medina, starting in the 1990s.
“The image of the medina has changed and [the association’s projects] make private individuals come to the medina for its character, way of life and beauty, to live, to buy and rent houses, and make touristic and cultural projects,” says Zoubeir Mouhli, an architect and the director general of the association. “And we need all these people, because heritage is the affair of all and the medina couldn’t be saved only by the public authorities.”
The medina today itself does not look too busy compared with the streets outside, where traffic snarls are common. Schools go on as usual and students skip classes to hang out at the local cafe or pizzeria. Its narrow lanes are mostly off-limits to cars and commerce is restricted to relatively wider ones such as Rue du Pacha.
In fact, that is the original rationale behind the plan of the medina: separated into interconnected zones through the narrowest alleys with single-storey houses and no shops, secondary streets with two-floor houses, and the widest with taller houses and commerce. Attention was paid that no window or door faced the neighbour’s.
Now new people are coming in, bridging the old world and the new.
Three friends who work full time at universities and a book publishing company, discovered the medina when they started restoring an old stable with vaulted stone ceilings for their cafe.
They rented the space and in November started their chic cafe at the site of a former coffee house that closed down five years ago.
While it is not expensive to rent in the medina, it is difficult to do the restoration work due to the lack of skilled craftsmen, says Marlene Ben Ammar, one of the three friends behind the project.
And then there is the prospect of finding treasures in the medina.
“While taking out the cement and plaster, [workers] found Byzantine pillars and the work needed to be stopped to find out how these are to be restored,” says Ben Ammar, 40, discussing the restoration process of the 300-year-old structure.
Now that it is up and running, the cafe owners are trying to develop a sense of community. “We are trying to work with the local breadmakers and other small businesses,” she says.
Difficulty in accessing the area, and the complex process of buying a property in the medina due to fragmented ownership dating back centuries are among the challenges that are holding back the Tunis medina. Lack of a steady source of funds is hampering the restoration efforts.
And it is not perceived as a leisure market, compared to the medina of Marrakech, consultants say.
“Marrakech is a leisure destination, while Tunis is not,” says Chiheb Ben Mahmoud, executive vice president and head of hotels and hospitality group for Middle East and Africa at Jones Lang LaSalle. “There is a lot of tourism in Marrakech and a lot of international hotel operators that have bought riyads there.”
Most of the Tunis medina buildings date back to the 18th century and some to the 16th-century Hafsid era. Unesco listed it as a World Heritage Site in 1979, but the government is yet to classify it as a tourist zone.
Once that is done, Mouhli from the Association de Sauvegarde expects private individuals will be more encouraged to buy properties in the medina and take up restoration projects for businesses such as hotels.
For now, however, the going is tougher for those engaged in crafts that rely on the daily local customer base. The lifeline of a medina is the souq and that’s true for the one in Tunis.
Mouhli wants to preserve the character of the original covered souq – a network of streets that once specialised in certain trades, such as chechias (the distinctive Tunisian cap), textiles, perfumes and books.
Much of that business has been lost to cheaper imports from China, Mouhli says.
“We want to make the medina more sustainable by improving the touristic and cultural projects, [such as with heritage guesthouses],” he says.
The 53-year-old Radia Saidi was born and brought up in the medina. She now lives in Carthage, a few train stops away from the capital, but she cannot imagine relocating her business. In 1953, her grandfather founded the flag-making factory during the fight for independence from French rule. “All the flagmakers are related to me,” she says.
Her 25-year-old son Wael Trabelsi has lived his life outside the medina and likes it better that way. Unlike his mother, he has few regrets. “People have changed [in the medina] and even the quality of people have changed, but I hope that will change one day,” Saidi says.
Sananda Sahoo is a business reporter for The National.