It was quite an experience walking through the ancient trails of the Medina in Kairouan. We knew that our visit would be to Habiba’s shop, but we had no idea that her handicraft business is located in the heart of the medina. We were crossing a true open-air museum, still alive with Arab-Muslim art and architecture by its monuments (more than a hundred), its souks, its houses and its alleys, which remain a convincing testimony of its prestigious past. In 1988, the Kairouan Medina was inscribed on the World Heritage List by the UNESCO Commission.
The closer we were to the “factory” the more we were diving into the history. We stopped in front of a small open door. “It is here,” said our WES center Director in Kairouan. Habiba, her husband and her young daughter were busy producing shawls, bedcovers and other products. The sound of the hand-made machines was like music. The rhythm has been there for centuries. It was so comforting to realize that the know-how of the ancestors is still protected between these walls, in this sound and in Habiba’s and, soon, in her daughter’s hands. She welcomed us in Tunisian Arabic but then immediately switched to French when explaining the weaves, the measures and the different techniques she is using for different products. She explained how she is originally from Gafsa. She met her husband in the handicraft village in Hammamet. He also, is an artisan and shares the same specialty as her: Hayek and Silk. They married and she moved with him to Kairouan where they opened a factory. Habiba’s skills and know-how are so well known that she is often invited as an “expert” at Art and design schools/universities to teach what she knows and what she could develop over the years. When asked what being part of the Women’s Enterprise for Sustainability (WES) program did for her, her first response was “it opened my mind. It was the first time I learned about a business plan.”
Habib has plans for her business. One of her objectives is to manufacture and sell products designed by her daughter. “Come to my house. I have more products to show you. We cannot stock everything here. All of our products are already sold. Our clients are individuals, hotels, boutiques…”. She is also aware that despite the beauty and authenticity of her goods, the business won’t be able to resist competition or afford to stay small. She is currently so engaged with WES to bring a modern touch to what she is doing, however without breaking the “rhythm” nor leaving the Medina “walls”.
Habiba stands for the hope of the craft sector is Kairouan. Her daughter is the future.
Photo: Habiba in her workshop located in the Kairouan medina