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Volume 28, Number 4July/August 1977

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A Touch Of Tunis

Illustrated by Penny Williams-Yaqub

Tunis, on North Africa's Barbary Coast, is actually two cities. One is modern Tunis, centered on the Avenue Habib Bourguiba, an extension of the six-mile causeway across the salt lake between the city and the Mediterranean, laid out with the rational precision of the 19th century and featuring the big hotels, restaurants, theaters,banks and offices.

This modern city, however, is not the heart of Tunis. That lies elsewhere: in the old city or Medina, a maze of narrow lanes, crowded markets, workshops and whitewashed dwellings sprawling down the hillside beneath the Kasbah, an old fort standing guard on the summit.

Over the centuries, many peoples have left their imprint on Tunis: the Romans, after destroying nearby Carthage; the Crusaders, rather surprisingly; the Ottoman Turks, the Moroccans, the Spaniards, and the French, who flavored the style of the city in many subtle ways. But one only has to walk through the Bab al-Bahr-the Sea Gate-into the old city, and start up bustling al-Zaytouna Street toward the eighth-century Mosque of the Olive Tree, to see which people left the most indelible impression. It was, of course, the Arabs who, for almost 1,000 years, made Tunis a flourishing center of commerce and craftsmanship, who built a city of beauty and taste with mosques, an important center of Islamic learning in medicine and law, and elegant residences set around garden courtyards.

Todays invaders, the jet-age waves of European and American tourists, follow the same route. Leaving the new city behind, they quickly head for the covered suqs of the Medina, where craftsmen and shopkeepers, often one and the same man, weave and tailor cloth, cobble shoes, paint, carve, weld and hammer, each in his own small cubicle open to the passing throngs - and to the eye of artist Penny Williams.

Miss Williams, a Canadian based in Beirut, lived in Tunis for some months last year and, as she has done before, began to record in her sketchbooks the people, the houses and the vanishing crafts of the old city.

This article appeared on pages 4-5 of the July/August 1977 print edition of Saudi Aramco World.


Check the Public Affairs Digital Image Archive for July/August 1977 images.