The Medina’s world of arts and crafts

10 Apr The Medina’s world of arts and crafts

Once upon a time, the artisans of the Medina of Tunis were the masters of trade and commerce. Five words were used, to describe the entire urban commercial system which regulated the Medina’s artisans and their trade.

The “Orf”, is a collection of dos & don’ts for each craft. They regulate everything from the quality of production, product specifications, to trading behavior.

Then, there was the “Souk”, which is a word used to describe the physical space in which the artists can/should produce and commercialise their crafts and products.

The “Amin”, a master artisan who is appointed/elected as the head of an artisanal corporation, has very high ethical standards and usually masters all aspects of a specific craft. The Amin decides who can become part of a corporation, ensures that “Orf” is respected, resolves disputes concerning matters of commerce and production and regulates the trade within the Souk of a certain craft.

Next, there was the “Maallem”, an expert craftsman who masters all details of production. To reach this status, the Maallem had to prove a certain level of quality, ethics and leadership.

Finally the “Sanna”, or “apprentice”, would be employed by a Maallem to work for him in production. It was the Sanna’s job to learn everything related to his specific craftsmanship from his Maallem and if the Sanaa was lucky enough, he could one day request to become a Maallem himself.

This described model, has worked for hundreds of years in many different countries where craft trading plays an important role. This model functioned as the basis of socio-economic ecosystems in historical cities, which were commercially dynamic.

Today, the situation in the Medina looks quite different. Socio-economic changes have caused the development of a tremendous gap between the expectations of master craftsmen, who are comfortable with the traditional corporation model described above, and the younger craftsmen, who are eager to break “Orf”, move away from the “Souk”, compete with “Maalems” and refuse to be a “Sanna”. Young artisans prefer to learn quickly, find opportunities and use their acquired traditional techniques to create new products, hence annoying their craft’s “Amin”.

In the days when it was considered, that one could only learn something useful in life if one decided to work with a master-artisan, families didn’t mind if their twelve year-old sons stopped going to school to go and work for a master artisan in his workshop.Here, they had the opportunity to learn a craft, which would help them build a prestigious life for themselves. But the definition of a “prestigious life” is an evolving concept and today we live in a world where we can learn just about anything from YouTube. Hiring a 12 year-old is considered child abuse and a master artisan is certainly not considered an all-knower about life, business and craft.

I interviewed some of the master artisans, so called “graduates” of the traditional system, and they told me that it surprises them, when young apprentices ask for their pay before even joining the craft trade.When the “Maalems” used to be apprentices, they were so thankful to work under a master artisan, that it would have been ridiculous to ask for a payment!

The traditional relationship between a “Maalem” and his “Saana”, was a paternal one involving a strong sense of loyalty, almost ownership. Jumping from one “Maalem” to another could even harm the reputation of a “Sanaa”. This might have worked in a world where “Maalems” made good enough money to keep their artisan employees happy and according to the “Orf”, everyone’s production outcome had to be equal. But our reality is a free world dominated by economic hardship and competition. Why shouldn’t an underpaid “Sanaa” rebel and try to do things differently if his master is struggling to pay him? As a result, the “Maalems” of today even struggle to receive the expected loyalty and commitment from their own sons, who have discovered alternative opportunities to generate income.

The few “Amins” and “Maalems” left amongst the artisans working in the shrinking amount of Souks, follow a patriarchal system with a clear hierarchy.Those at the top of the ladder, make up the market rules, which are meant to protect the “Souks”, their products and trade from unwanted new market comers and product innovation, which could threaten their craft traditions. The corporation created a collective monopoly with boundary restrictions to challenge penetration within the Souk. The “Amin”’s decisions were met, based on the “Maalem”’s recommendations and the “Maalem’s” sons were privileged within the hierarchical system. The system is a convenient one, it’s controllable and competitors are all within “a circle of friends”. The ecosystem might be anti-entrepreneurial, but it’s perfect and essential to protect traditions of traditional people.

Many of those who want to become artisans today are often outside this “circle of friends” and have entrepreneurial spirits which don’t correspond with the traditional “Maalem” and “Saana” relationship. The corporations and their “Amins” weren’t able to stop new artisan-entrepreneurs from establishing workshops in abandoned homes in the Medina, away from the dedicated craft “Souk”. Therefore master artisans complain and claim that the existence of artisan workshops outside the “Souk” is unethical. These “new-comers” have created a shared economy, far from the traditional hierarchical system. It’s a horizontal system, which outsources production to artisans that excel in their trade. “New comers” no longer work as “Saanas”; coming from an individualistic society, distinguishing oneself is a survival must. They consider “Orf” as suicidal in a free market, since it freezes product specification. No market rules are set, today’s clients have lower purchasing power, forcing artisans to produce lower quality products and use cheaper raw materials. Artisans today are creating jobs for themselves, which is heroic under the current circumstances, but unfortunately they’re unprotected, under-mentored and sidelined since they don’t play by the “Souk rules”.

The question is, how efficient is the traditional corporation system in terms of helping artisan corporations preserve their own craftsmanship? How could the Medina become more open to different types of artisan-entrepreneurs? Is freezing a product of historical value beneficial when the handicraft sector should be offering urgently needed economic opportunities? Is putting restrictions onto anyone who wants to be self-employed of benefit to a nation struggling with unemployment? What is the best alternative to the “Maalem-Sanaa” model in order to transmit craft know-how to the younger generation? How sustainable is the traditional corporation model in an open market?

Today’s artisans are breathing new life into the Medina, where they are of vital importance to sustain and revive crafts. Artisan corporations need to face the new socio-economic reality and embrace changes, which the market so desperately needs. A new open system must be created, which allows youth to comfortably play an active role in designing an inclusive and shared economic system.

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