Medina in Tunis; Photo: © Humpert

A mouthpiece for the medina

You're likely to feel a degree of culture shock when you step through the Bab Bhar city gate and enter the medina, the old town of Tunis. Leaving behind the French colonial architecture and tree-lined avenues of the new city you suddenly find yourself immersed in the Orient in a confusing tangle of narrow alleyways, some barely a metre wide. Some 100,000 people live here, packed together in an area measuring just 1.2 square kilometres. One of them is Stuttgart architect Raoul Cyril Humpert.

by Frank Armbruster

The 30-year-old architect moved from Stuttgart to Tunis two-and-a-half years ago. His main aim was to write his dissertation about traditional ways of life, but he was also keen to launch a newspaper project in the medina. This was initially funded by the ifa. Raoul Humpert and two friends launched the project in 2014, and now the Journal de la Medina appears every two to four months. The initial print run of 1,700 issues was increased to 2,400 for the second edition, and by the fourth edition they were printing 8,000 copies.

The funding from ifa has now come to an end, and the newspaper has to finance itself through donations. Despite this, there has been a steady increase in the number of people involved in the project. The collective currently has fifteen members, mostly young Tunisians who live in the medina. "Every issue has a particular theme", explains Humpert. "It may be the voices and sounds of the medina, its light, the stories that are told by its alleyways, and we feature regular portraits of people who live and work here." Most of the articles are written in the local Tunisian dialect.

At first the editors had to approach the residents, but now they also receive unsolicited contributions – a process that is linked to Tunisia's history. Humpert explains: "Up until the revolution people had few opportunities to express themselves publicly. This journal is designed to be their mouthpiece." It is made available free of charge from two places in the medina – a café and a book store, so everyone has a chance to read it. The book store is located in a side alley in the souk, the maze of shops and stalls that was created in the 9th century by the Aghlabid dynasty.

Editors Journal de la Medina. © Humpert

Tradition and Revival

In some of the souks it seems that time has stood still. Still dominated by traditional crafts, they are home to the gold and silversmiths who hawk their wares alongside cobblers and perfume-makers, while carpet weavers rub shoulders with specialist shops selling wedding jewellery. The usual cheap products made in the Far East are only found in the main, more touristy alleyways around the Zitouna mosque at the heart of the medina.

In the Middle Ages Tunis was one of the Islamic world's wealthiest cities, but today many Tunisians think of the medina as being poor and run-down. Between the 1970s and 1990s, many of the wealthy families that had lived there for centuries left the medina and moved to more comfortable, modern homes in the suburbs with gardens and parking spaces. “For people who have nothing to do with the medina it's a bit like a living museum", says Humpert. "Old buildings, deserted houses, poor people. That's why most of them don't come here."

But the tide is beginning to turn. The middle classes are slowly returning, and a number of institutions and cultural associations have settled in the medina. Artists and actors are discovering the attractions of this centuries-old district, and museums and galleries are opening up alongside cafes and bike shops. For Raoul Humpert, it was love at first sight – largely because of the people, who tend to be more open to foreigners than some other Arab countries. He understands this, as he has visited many parts of the Arab world.

Medina Tunis. © Humpert

Melting pot of cultures

Humpert spent two-and-a-half years coordinating a Master's degree course in urban development in the Arab world at Stuttgart University. This led him to visit Lebanon, Algeria, Egypt, Morocco and Oman, and he came into contact with many Arab – and particularly Tunisian – students. He thinks Tunisia has become an important country for international organisations and foundations because it is the only nation that has successfully established democratic structures after the upheavals of the Arab Spring.

Today there remains little of the mighty city walls that once surrounded the medina. They were destroyed in the 19th century when Tunisia was a French protectorate and the occupiers decided that Tunis had to be modernised. Architecturally, the medina is a melting pot of cultures. Arabs, Berbers, Andalusians, Turks, Romans and Byzantines have all left their trace. The city's historic centre is one of the best preserved in the Arab world, and it has been a UNESCO World Heritage site since 1979.

A flat in the medina

However, despite the fact that many houses stand empty, it was not particularly easy for Raoul Humpert and his friend to find a house to rent. "There are very few houses for rent, mainly because of Islamic laws on inheritance. Every child inherits their share of the parent's house, so after a few generations a house might have thirty owners, and often they can't agree whether a house should be sold or rented. Then it is left standing empty, which is generally not good for the fabric of the building."

Another reason why Tunisia is popular with students like Humpert is the low cost of living. It is possible to rent a nice apartment for 300 dinars, or around 120 euros. The average Tunisian earns 800 dinars a month, so 300 dinars is a lot of money, but it's cheap for Europeans. Raoul Humpert is hoping to complete his doctorate this year, and after that he is not sure whether he will stay in Tunisia. "We suffer from Tunis syndrome", he says. "Even when we say we are going back to Europe, a few months later we're back here."

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