A Bid to Revive Tunis’ Ancient Medina Carries Bigger Development Lessons

A rooftop view of the Tunis Medina. (VOA/Lisa Bryant)

By Lisa Bryant

Leila Ben Gacem guides a visitor through the Tunis Medina, ducking the cars and carts rattling down narrow, cobblestoned streets, and the occasional smear of dog poop.

“Historically, the Medina was the heart of trade, craft and art, and it’s structured with many souks — each dedicated to a specific craft,” she says.

She points down the maze of roads towards markets dedicated to coppersmiths, and those making Tunisia’s famous, flat-topped chechia hat, which exports to Libya and parts of sub-Saharan Africa.

A municipal councillor in a village outside the capital, Ben Gacem is also a social entrepreneur on a mission; helping not only to preserve the Medina’s ancient buildings and community but also to revitalize trades that once powered this historic quarter, some of which risk going extinct.

“If investments are inclusive and pay attention to the shared economy,” she says, “then maybe the whole community will grow together.”

It’s a lesson that might inform Tunisia’s next government, still under construction nearly three months after elections. The Arab Spring’s only democracy to date, the North African country is challenged to turn around its sluggish economy and deepening poverty that has fed emigration and unrest.  While up to one-third of Tunisia’s youth are jobless, some old Medina trades are struggling for manpower. Read more…

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