Tunis’s normally bustling Medina was largely quiet yesterday, as many craftsmen and sellers went on a one-day strike in protest of what they deemed as a “monopolization of the sector by certain families and large shops. Some owners of the few shops still open, however, bitterly resented the head of the union that organized the strike.
The Medina, the old city at the heart of downtown Tunis, is a historical area of shops and restaurants where traditional Tunisian products and souvenirs are sold. Tour guides often lead tourists down the winding alleys of the Medina while describing the history of the area and encouraging individuals to buy the local wares.
Slogans such as The tourist is a worshipful guest in Tunisia and isn’t a herd of sheep that can be bought and sold, The glorious January 14th revolution was sparked for equality, dignity, and the right to earn a living,” and No to injustice, no to impoverishment were written on sheets of paper pasted on various shop doors. [display_posts type=”related” limit=”3″ position=”right”]
The Medina shops are divided into two parts by the historic Zitouna mosque. The first section begins on Jamaa Zitouna Street, which stretches from Bab Bhar to the Zitouna Mosque. The second section of the shops is located near Al Kasbah.
Almost all shops were closed yesterday, except for a few located near Al Kasbah. Tunisia Live went to the Medina to ask shopkeepers about the strike.
Much of the frustration focused with the concentration of tourist activity in certain shops.
The problem has to do with tourist guides and travel agencies, because they bring tourist groups to certain shops after getting commissions,said 34 year-old Arbi, who works at Atelier Dar D'art, located between the Zitouna mosque and Al Kasbah.
Arbi claims that instead of exploring the entire medina, tourists are brought directly from their tour bus to particular shops.
The guide is supposed to take them [tourists] on a tour in the medina and to show them, for example, the Zitouna Mosque, and then let them for like half an hour take a tour on their own in the Medina. That way, everybody can work,” he asserted. Instead, however, he claimed that certain sellers are suffering from a lack of exposure.
Many shops are closed because people can no longer pay rent, he said.
“There are intruders in the tourism sector who ruin our work, including baznessa,” a term Arbi described as referring to people do not work for travel agencies. They usually lure tourists and direct them to certain shops from which they get a commission, he said.
The owner of Musée de L'artisanat argued that because the Zitouna mosque is the most famous historical monument in the Medina, tourists automatically purchase more from shops located close to the mosque.
He claimed that storefronts near Al Kasbah are sold for far less money than those of the small shops dotting the Jamaa Zitouna street because they are less accessible. He added that shop owners near Al Kasbah work all year round because the shops there receive less business than those located near the Zitouna mosque.
But not everyone was on strike. The few shop owners that were working yesterday shared a strong dislike for Borhem Ben Ghorbel, the head of the craftsmen’s union that organized the strike.
Ghorbel owns 11 shops, claimed the owner of Musée de L'artisanat. Certain shops were forced to close today because the souk [market] on Jamaa Zitouna street is monopolized by the Ghorbel, Shamakhi, and Baatour families. These people are not shopkeepers, they are arch billionaires,” expressed the owner of Musée de L'artisanat. [display_posts type=”same_author” limit=”3″ position=”right”]
I pay about one thousand dinars [about 620 US dollars] for electricity. We also pay taxes and provide social security for our employees, something that these people don't do,” the owner also expressed.
We, the shopkeepers of the Medina, are used to contentment,” he continued. “During the time you have spent with us, have you seen a client entering the bazaar? We didn't even sell a sandal.”
Some shop owners refuted the complaints about the relationship between tour guides and certain shops.
Commissions for tour guides are common all over the world,” said Gharbi Jamel, who works at a shop that sells Tunisian carpets. “No one does anything for free – everybody works to earn a living.”
If you want to check out the souk as a journalist, you need to come here for a whole month,” Jamel said. “See people who are passing by here, compared to the Zitouna Street. If the guide does not bring me tourists here, I'll starve and won't be able to earn a living.”
Ironically, Masoud Ben Ghorbel shares the same last name with Borhen Ben Ghorbel, a man he continuously expressed disdain towards.
Borhen Ben Ghorbel is advertising himself and his political party, and other shopkeepers are the victims, Masoud angrily told Tunisia Live.
Masoud’s allegations were supported by a crowd of shop owners that gathered during the interview, who continuously alleged that he “is advertising his party.
Ben Ghorbel also accused Masoud of being affiliated with the party of former president Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali.
Chokri Chabi, a bazness [the singular form of baznessa] working in the medina for many years now, claimed that baznessa are considered third class workers, and that they sometimes get arrested.
He defended this profession.
People doing this job in Hammamet [a Tunisian city known for its tourism activity] have badges. This job also exists in Turkey and all over the world, he said.
We are neither stealing nor hijacking. On the contrary, we are making known the Tunisian carpet,” Chabi added. “Borhen, who is fighting people earning five or ten dinars per day, is a millionaire
The baznessa received a permit to work this season after filing petitions to the governor, Chabi reported.
Borhen Ben Ghorbel, the head of the craftsmen’s union, explained the reason behind the organization of the strike to Tunisia Live.
We [the Union for Craftsmen] called on craftsmen to suspend their activities,” he said. “And to protest in front of the Ministry of Tourism to address public opinion in order to clarify our cause, embodied in the unethical monopolization of groups of tourists by travel agencies and guides. These groups are directed to certain shops, five or six of them, because of commissions.
Tourists are prevented from freely choosing where to shop, Ben Ghorbel said.
We imagined that these injustices would disappear after the revolution, he added.
Borhen Ben Ghorbel denied claims that he owns too many shops in Medina, and he asserted to Tunisia Live that he is only renting one storefront on Jamaa Zitouna Street.
The union's sole goal is to defend the legitimate interests of craftsmen,” he asserted. “We do not have any political agenda. The biggest proof that this is wrong is the 95 percent success rate of the strike.
Tunisia is open to tourists. All Tunisians are waiting for their arrival. We are all making sure to provide the appropriate circumstances for them to enjoy their stay, he claimed.