The potters of Sejnane preserve history with their hands

Unique terracotta craft of Tunisia stretches back more than 3,000 years

Eljia Ayari crafts a large pot in a traditional motif. The bumps are meant to imbue the quality of a tree to the finished pieces. Erin Clare Brown / The National
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"What shall I make for you?" Eljia Ayari asked, as she worked ground-up pottery into a mass of sticky red clay. She was perched on an upturned brick on the floor of her studio, an unfinished outbuilding beside her home in the northern Tunisian town of Sejnane.

Before I could come up with a request, her hands were already busy sculpting a small turtle, smoothing its shell with a moistened finger, almost absent-mindedly, in a kind of warm-up routine.

A veritable bale of turtles — or, rather, turtle-shaped serving bowls — stood drying behind her. Later that afternoon they'd be tucked into an open fire primed with cow dung and hay, turning a deep, molten black, one of the signature finishes of Sejnane pottery.

Ms Ayari and scores of other women in the lush, rolling hills of Sejnane are keeping alive the 3,000-year-old legacy of the region's pottery — a Unesco intangible cultural heritage craft — in their daily practice, and keeping their families afloat as they do.

Tunisia has long been a centre in the Mediterranean for pottery. Phoenicians and Romans used the abundant clay in seasonal riverbeds to craft everything from terracotta pipes used to cool the underground homes of Bulla Regia, to exquisite decorative pieces of what is now known as African Red Slip ware, prized by archaeologists. In modern times, highly decorative hand-painted ceramic tiles and housewares have become a signature of Tunisia's craft trade.

While the industry based in the coastal city of Nabeul is largely the domain of men, in Sejnane it is the women who are the guardians of the region's unique, hand-made terracotta pottery.

"I learnt the art from my grandmother, who was one of the most skilled potters of her time," said Lemia El Saiedeni, who maintains her pottery practice while raising her six young children in their farmhouse on the outskirts of the village.

Her grandmother taught her every step of the process: showing her where in the nearby hills to harvest the clay, and teaching her how to dry, sieve and refine it, how to form, finish and fire the pieces.

Once the shapes are formed and dried, the women polish them with sea shells before adding a thin slip of a lighter, finer clay, to give the pieces a creamy, rosy hue when fired, or a rich black patina if the fire is fuelled by smoke-producing hay.

Many of the pieces are painted with traditional Amazigh motifs, using natural pigments extracted from local plants and other forms of clay. Ms Ayari harvests the plants from around her land, and extracts the oils in a mortar and pestle before heating it to create a rich, dark umber.

"Everything we use comes from nature," she said. "All our materials and our tools come from the earth."

For generations, the pottery was used only locally, in utilitarian, domestic functions. But beginning in the 1970s, tourists who stopped to visit nearby ruins began buying pieces from local families, shaping what the women made and sold. Now, along with plates and bowls, they create fanciful vases, figurines, beads and abstract dolls that have a wonderful, naive quality to them.

Ms El Saiedeni shapes her clay into practical pieces, but often includes a touch of creative wabi-sabi or whimsy: a goat with outstretched hooves embracing the rim of a serving dish, a polka-dotted lamb figurine with a jaunty, lopsided stance. Her children play with the clay alongside her as she works, creating their own figurines. Even her sons take part.

"It's usually a women's art, but my husband and my sons all enjoy working with clay," she said. One of her middle sons proudly held up a clay dog he'd made while we chatted. Ms El Saiedeni beamed.

Both Ms El Saiedeni and Ms Ayari sell their wares from their homes as well as at craft fairs in major cities. The money supports their families in a region where unemployment is high.

Despite a new reverence for their work, with Unesco recognising its importance in 2018, the women of Sejnane sell their pieces at prices so low, many visitors ask if they've missed a zero in the addition. Vases and plates run for 10-20 dinars (about $3-$7), and more ornate pieces, such as Ms Ayari's signature sculpted dolls are only 40 dinars.

"The land gives us everything we need to make them," she said. "The price is enough."

Updated: June 06, 2023, 11:51 AM