Insight from Tunisia in Washington

Posted by Tess Waggoner on September 12, 2019 in Blog

What factors are involved in the restoration of historic Madinahs? How can projects aimed at breathing new life into these ancient urban settlements offer new possibilities for countries seeking economic investment?

These questions shaped the conversation in an event the Arab American Institute Foundation hosted in conjunction with the Center for Contemporary Arab Studies at Georgetown University called “The Madinah Now and Then: The Politics and Challenges of Cultural Preservation” on the evening of September 11, 2019. Tunisian members of the inaugural cohort of the U.S.- MENA Experiential Partnership shared their experiences in a panel discussion moderated by Program Director Elly Rostoum that also included remarks by Dr. Kathryn Hanson of the Smithsonian Institution and US Director for The Academic Research Institute in Iraq (TARII). Panelist Dr. Raja Gmir is the councilwoman for the city of Tunis, Tunisia, whose work champions the preservation of the historical Madinah of Tunis. She spoke candidly about the challenging process of rehabilitating and preserving historical buildings in the Tunis Madinah, including recognition as a UNESCO World Heritage site. Dr. Gmir was joined by Ms. Dhoha Bouzid, Councilwoman for the city of Sfax, who as the youngest member of her city council, has been playing an integral role in encouraging youths to help in the social and economic revitalization of the Madinah of Sfax.

As historic “old cities,” or Madinah, found in many Arab countries are targeted for preservation efforts, the need to balance local residents’ needs with socio-economic interest becomes apparent. Local leaders aim that their efforts to revitalize these urban spaces as touristic and economic hubs not come at the expense of their historic inhabitants. When the Arab American delegation of the U.S.- MENA Experiential Partnership visited Tunisia last in March 2019, they had the chance to sit in on a public hearing which made evident some of the common challenges that characterize such projects. Arab American and Tunisian peers observed an honest, open, and at times emotionally-charged conversation between constituents and municipality officials, as they solicited comments and input on a new strategy to safeguard the archaeological and architectural wealth of the old Madinah buildings and homes in Tunis. In her remarks at Georgetown, Dr. Gmir spoke to the need to find equitable housing solutions in concert with preservation efforts. While economic considerations encourage a larger framework to attract tourism and investment to the area, some long-time residents of the Madinah trace their family history in these settlements for generations and refuse to abandon their dilapidated family homes. Ms. Bouzid’s remarks highlighted the positive impact a UNESCO World Heritage Site designation can have on the larger development and private investment of the Sfax Madinah. Until then, she credits its ‘revival’ to the return of Tunisian youths to its cafes and artisanal schools, as they rediscover a neglected part of their historical patrimony.

The panel discussion at Georgetown offered a unique opportunity to hear from Tunisian elected officials sharing their experiences with cultural preservation efforts in dialogue with leading practitioners in the United States. In their comments at Georgetown University and following the public hearing in Tunis, the peers emphasized the need for holistic measures that respond to both material and sentimental concerns of community members and stakeholders. Just as participatory and responsive government requires the engagement of local elected officials with the population, innovative partnerships remain a vital factor to champion equitable solutions that preserve, protect, and allow for the sharing of this history. At its best, well-intentioned investment can empower communities of leaders not to shirk or abandon the unique contributions of their society, and to integrate the preservation of culture into unique solutions that foster sustainable local growth.