Posted by Arab American Institute on January 06, 2020 at 11:54 AM

The Arab American Institute Foundation is delighted to launch The MENA Artisan Initiative - a new endeavor that aims to connect American small businesses with local artisans from across the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region. The Artisan Initiative launches with a focus on Tunisia and will be expanding to neighboring MENA countries.

The Artisan Initiative is the first project of the U.S.- MENA Experiential Partnership—a one of a kind, pioneering initiative led by the Arab American Institute Foundation, with support from the U.S. State Department Middle East Partnership Initiative (MEPI). It is the result of a year-long co-mentorship between Arab American public servants and the first democratically elected municipal officials in Tunisia, championing three core good governance issues: decentralization, participatory governance, and public private partnerships.

Our Programs Director, Elly Rostoum, recently returned from a trip to Tunisia marking the launch of the MENA Artisan Initiative. She explains:

"Arab artisans create stunning handicrafts that reflect the rich history of the Arab world as a crossroads of trade and culture over centuries. Bringing these works to the United States allows us to connect us across space and time to the cultures and histories that shape our identities as Arab Americans. In Tunisia, the range and depth of skills among the artisans – many of whom are third or fourth generation artisans – was awe-inspiring; from intricate silver work and olive woodworking, to leather goods, ceramics and textiles."

Watch video Elly captured in the Tunis Madinah of artisan Sayyid Reda in action:

The goal of the Artisan Initiative is to connect artisans from across the MENA region with entrepreneurs, small business owners, and art galleries in the United States, that will showcase these artisanal crafts in their stores and community spaces. In doing so, the Artisan Initiative provides the twin benefits of  providing a broader awareness of Arab culture and heritage to Americans, while also strengthening and expanding economic opportunities for Arab artisans.

Many Arab Americans may not realize the significant potential socio-economic impact supporting artisans can have. But the lessons from our program with Tunisians paints a vivid picture:

The Tunisia Case

In Tunisia, rural communities and women produce the majority of the country’s handicrafts and artisanal works. Yet, they are also amongst the most disproportionately impacted by the economic stagnation that has plagued the country since the 2011 Jasmine Revolution. In fact, 11 percent of the total Tunisian population is employed in the artisanal sector, of which 85 percent are women. However, the sector currently represents less than 5 percent of the Tunisian gross domestic product. For Tunisia’s transition to decentralized government to succeed, new forms of economic opportunity must reach all areas and segments of society.

Through the MENA Artisan Initiative, Arab Americans can feel proud about continuing the artistic heritage of our forbearers while providing opportunity, stability, and dignity to artisans in the region.

The Initiative has already started placing items sourced directly from Tunisian handicraft producers with small business owners in ten states and in the District of Columbia. 

To see some examples of the artisanal work the Initiative will feature and support, visit the Instagram page of the program here: @usmenapartnership


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