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Monday, 21 January 2013

Textile co-operative in a Tunisian village

I love reading travel guides of the countries I visit, 'Lonely Planet' and 'The Rough Guide' are usually best for me. Anyway, in one of these or both I found that in a Tunisian village - not far from where I was staying - there was a textile's co-operative where locals were working and producing products for the local and foreign markets. Even better, the village - Beni Khiar - had a sunday market! Yuppiee!! And so I set out to go to this village to find the co-operative.  I prefer to travel with public transport as a. it is cheaper; b. you get to meet the locals, see how they live/behave, etc... Sunday buses in Tunisia are not as frequent as other days of the week (nothing different from UK or other parts of EU, as far as I know), which meant my bus was late and when I got to Nabeul I saw the bus for Beni Khiar slip under my nose. :-( ... and the next bus was a couple of hours later!
So I set out to look for a taxi (I am not very fond of taxi or their drivers ...ssssssh, don't tell anyone!) and - having found one - I got in and shortly after we arrived in Beni Khiar. I must say, it was not very far at all - if you know where you are going - however a little bit too far to walk in the hot sun, even at 10.30am. Amasingly, although just outside the main town of Nabeul, capital of the Cape Bon area, Beni Khiar was so remote and rural!

Beni Khiar

As I said earlier, Beni Khiar is not big and it is on the outskirts of Nabeul, almost following on from it. When I arrived, the market was in full swing. Nothing different from what I'd seen in Beni Khalleb a week or so before - more on this in another blog - only smaller and less interesting. Still, I went through it - without being mobbed - quite nicely.

Market & Mosque in Beni Khiar

Police Station & market crowd
Having a chat while shopping
   Local wares  Portico in Beni Khiar

My reason for being in Beni Khiar was to find this co-op that I had read about on the travel guides. they said it was a place famous for wool and its weavers and that the co-operative was also selling its products directly.
The taxi driver dropped me in the middle of the village, not really knowing where the co-op was or caring about it. Very helpful! I started in the direction the taxi driver had indicated and soon found myself nearing the end of the village by the main street. Armed with my guides and phrase books (even my broken French was at times too much for the locals which only spoke Tunisian lingo) I approached some women in a shop. After much confabulating among themselves, they indicated back to the centre of the village, towards the market.
Back I walked, when I got back to the main square I saw the police station! What better place to ask for directions!?! So I went in ...

The ladies in the shop had indicated down the road. At the main square the road split hence the decision to pop in the Police Station. Nothing like you would expect. A large cavernous bare room with a wooden table by the door (for the breeze) and two people (cannot remember if they wore uniform) smoking and chatting and not terribly interested when they saw me entering...after much talking (among themselves) and asking other passers by and insistance (mine) that this co-op must be in their village as the tourist guides said so; finally, one of them remembered that there was a place with a textile co-op, they indicated the way and after more asking, I found the place I was looking for!
The walk to this place took me past many butchers shops, the 1st one I nearly hit the head of a huge cow's head hanging by the entrance!

As a non-meat eater I was not too impressed, and lets not talk about the smell of dead meat coming out of the fully opened fronted butcher' shops!


The Textile Co-operative

It is a shame I did not take a picture of the outside (this here is a scan from their leaflet).

There was a large wall at both sides, with some sort of mural showing the looms and materials... however somehow it was not as striking and did not stand out, hence missed (as being at the beginning of the village, I had gone by it in the taxi earlier on). There were no gates, so I approached.

The ground was a garden full of orange and other citrus trees. It reminded me of an old school
in the 60's - a bit decrepit - and I was expecting to be challenged any minute as a trespasser.   Instead, I reached a couple of buildings, one with a door opened, which I approached tentatively (see picture "Outside of co-op in Beni Khiar"). Walking in, I felt like an alien and also felt like stepping into a time machine, back in time. Inside the building there weren't many people, I asked if that was the co-op and a young-ish man came out of one of the rooms and - speaking part English and part French - we established I was in the right place. Having asked if I could look around, my host asked why I wanted to see the place. I told him the co-op was mentioned in my tourist guide and I was a tourist and interested, as I had come over specifically for this place. I am sure the young man and the other men around him thought I was mad! Anyway, he happily told me I could go and have a look upstairs and, when coming back down, he would show me the warehouse (which turned out to be a small room downstairs).   I walked upstairs and I found myself in a large room (the whole length and width of the building) full of looms, 15-18 of them.
 Looms at the textile co-op

The old fashioned looms were fascinating. In the room were ... men working at their loom and weaving various types of cloths. Some incredibly attractive to the eye (the cloths not the men! :-) ). 
 Man at his loom

Absolutely fascinating! Once again it was like stepping in the time machine and being back to the industrial revolution! How incredible to think that in this day and age people still make cloths in the old fashion way!!

Apparently the co-operative was set up in 1957 (as the leaflet I was later given told me). The men at the looms were really friendly and not at all bothered by my being there, they kept on weaving and said 'good morning' as I was wondering. They were also kind enough to let me take pictures (a lot of people in the Muslim world believe having a picture taken deprives you of something [soul]), this meant I was able to walk around taking picture and videos (see later) through the room.

At the end of the room, sitting on the floor was a very old man, he was working at a large sort of wheel - initially I thought it was a primitive fan! Infact it was something completely different.

He had lots of small cones, no longer than 10-15 cm and hollow inside. He put one on something pointed, sticking out of the wheel, he then wrang around it 4 different coloured threads - coming from wool cones sitting by his side - and with the help of the wheel/fan he spun the 4 threads together on the cone that was acting as a pipette. I suppose he was creating a twisted thread that was then used on the looms to weave the cloths. He seemed totally oblivious to me - or totally ignored me - I tried to film the whole scene... it is not the best as I was trying to be very inconspicuos.


In another part of the room, behind some looms and weavers, there were more of these 'wheels' and another man doing the same thing. He was almost hidden away.
As I was walking back downstairs I saw one of these wheel closer and it was made of wood and what looked like some kind of skin tightly stretched around it (see picture "Wheel and wool reels"). Very ingenous!
Downstairs, my 'guide' showed me the storeroom (rather than warehouse) as promised, which was full of types of materials, rugs, bed covers, satchels, cushions etc.
 Traditional overcoat  Satchel bags
I would have loved to buy a bit of everything. Some of the colours were very bright and fetching. However because they were made of wool and linen, and bulky - had to be mindful of the weight allowance on the plane - I was only able to buy three cushion covers (now sold in our online shop).
 Blue  Tunisian co-op cushion - green

I do hope that I will be able to get more stock if there is request for these. [I was told they do not have internet, so all communications need be done by mobile (hopefully) and snail mail] I'd love to be able to stock more of their products, they were lovely and some incredibly attractive!
I was told that the co-operative is mainly operated by men. Men weave and use the looms. Women work from home and - at my incredulous question of where the looms could fit in their small homes or did they have a small version of it - I was told the women cut, sew with colourful stitches and embroider creating the end products. All their products are produced manually.

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