Restoration of Tangible and Intangible Artefacts in the Tunisian Landscape

‘Boutique Hotels’ and the Entrepreneurial Project of Dar Ben-Gacem


This research stems from a theoretical study of the Medina of Tunis, as a continuity of the author’s doctoral research. The broader study from which the concepts are drawn is part of a PhD project, in architecture and humanities, focused on the effects of globalization on the Medina of Tunis. Studies and publications of the houses of the Medina of Tunis are lacking from the literature, in the Anglo-Saxon world, thus the interest of the author is to build a new body of knowledge examining historical restoration projects in Tunisia. This research article traces the challenges faced by the Medina of Tunis in the twenty-first century. It does so by evaluating a restoration and conversion project of seventeenth century Dar Ben-Gacem into a boutique hotel or ‘Hotel de Charme’. The project is unique as it reflects an architectural and entrepreneurial initiative of its owners aiming to work alongside the Medina’s small businesses, local artisans and the community at large. In this context, this research examines the architectural and socio-cultural challenges faced by the owners as well as the architects to preserve the identity of the building while diversifying the use of its spaces. This study first examines the history of Dar Ben-Gacem and the transition of the traditional courtyard house into a ‘cosmopolitan’ guest house that attracts visitors and tourists from all cultures and nationalities. Later, it explores the motivations and commitments of the owners to revive tangible and intangible artefacts through architecture as well as the social and cultural entrepreneurship of Tunisia’s rich cultural history. Ultimately, this theoretical study evaluates the challenges faced in such projects to revive the cultural heritage of the house while shaping a ‘story’ of a generation. Restoration projects in the Medina vary in scale and purpose. The consideration of both tangible and intangible artefacts in this historical context is highly important as it delves into the question of heritage in the age of tourism and globalization.

Heritage Management in Tunisia and the Medina of Tunis

Tunisia, a crossroad of civilizations, has a long history of architectural legacies that are not well-known in the world. Tunisia’s heritage ranges from Punic, Roman, Carthaginian, Ottoman, Muslim and Colonial
French and consists of important archaeological sites, historic buildings and cultural landscapes. Since its independence in 1956, Tunisia relied on its leading organizations specialized in heritage management to overcome the marginalization of its historical sites and Medinas, or traditional and historic Arabic and Islamic cities. Some of Tunisia’s heritage leading organizations include the Association of the Protection of the Medina (ASM) of Tunis (Association de Sauvegarde de La Médina de Tunis), which
was established few years after the independence, precisely in 1967, to protect the quarter of the Medina.
According to Bejaoui (2015, p. 50), the association was established as a result of the project that links the Avenue Habib Bourguiba to the Kasbah passing by the Medina and leaving merely isolated monuments including Ezzitouna Mosque and Hammouda Pacha Mosque. The project itself was a brave
political decision that transcends its time. In fact, she adds,
The project was planned at a time when fighting against underdevelopment was much more important than concerns with cultural, traditional and patrimony concerns…The Medina was then an old capital that had suffered
from the loss of her economic, political and cultural roles as well as her social content. (Bejaoui, 2015, p. 50) To describe the history and the geography of the Medina (Figure 1), Escher and Schepers (2008)
explain that this traditional settlement is one of the first old Arab Medinas, and it is classified as a world heritage by UNESCO. Covering an area of 299 hectares, the Medina of Tunis, listed as a UNESCO
World Heritage in 1979, is made up of a central Medina (8th C) and two suburbs (13th C). Housing 100,000 inhabitants, this Medina is home to hundreds of historical sites and 15,000 houses strengthening Ben Ammar,
its urban structure over time (Z. Mouhli, personal communication, 15 January 2016). The mayor of Tunis of that time suggested founding this organization (Escher & Schepers, 2008, p. 129). Hassib Ben Ammar,

Figure 1. Streets of the Medina of Tunis

a militant, politician and editor of the first independent journal, Errai, was the mayor of Tunis between
1963 and 1969. He was also the founder of the Association of the Protection of the Medina of Tunis (ASM; Tunisie, 2018).
The mission of ASM involves protecting the old town to advance the sustainable revitalization of traditional neighbourhoods and infrastructure as well as scientific research in the area of heritage management and historical preservation. The ASM, supported by its Atelier d’Architecture et d’Urbanisme, still continues to protect the Medina. Its diverse missions include consulting, project management, restoration, training and engineering consultancy.
According to UNESCO (2017) and precisely the UNESCO’s Creative Cities Network, the Municipality and the Association de Sauvegarde de la Médina de Tunis (ASM) aimed to protect historic buildings and reclaim slums since the year 2000. Between 2008 and 2016, both institutions aimed to revitalize the traditional neighbourhoods of the Medina and to showcase the facades of neighbourhoods like the Andalous neighbourhood. These participatory projects were run closely with artisans and residents,
which triggered more reflections to restore old buildings, thus promoting crafts while spreading knowledge about crafts and buildings. Beyond the ASM, preserving cultural heritage even started with the government of Tunisia in the early 1990s. It would then be relevant to examine some of the past legislations that aimed at protecting and managing Tunisian heritage to understand their effects and shortcomings, and to suggest alternative strategies.
In 1994, the government of Tunisia implemented a new law to protect cultural heritage. The new Code du Patrimoine (law on cultural heritage) implied many structural changes. The National Institute of Archaeology (INA or Institut National de l’Archéologie in French) was transformed from a research centre into the National Institute of Heritage (INP or Institut National du Patrimoine). This agency is in charge of the ‘protection, management and presentation of Tunisian heritage’ (AMVPPC, n.d.).
In 1997, the government established the Agency for the Development of National Heritage and Cultural Promotion (APPC). In fact, this same agency was established in 1988 under the name of National Agency for the Development of Archaeological and Historical heritage (or ANEP), but it
was later modified by the law 97–16 of 3 March 1997. As it stands today, this non-administrative and public agency is under the responsibility of the Ministry of Culture and Heritage Conservation
(AMVPPC, n.d.).
The APPC agency focuses on large-scale projects, which aim to promote heritage and culture, and previously, it ‘embarked on a large-scale scheme to present and promote cultural tourism based on projects with cultural, educational, environmental, social, touristic and economic objectives’
(AMVPPC, n.d.). A modernization phase has followed in the year 2002, when with the support of the World Bank, the Tunisian government started a 33-million-dollar project to manage and enhance cultural heritage in the country (World Bank, 2001). Tunisia’s cultural and heritage institutions have been exposed to international support but Tunisia’s approach in this period attempted to empower its heritage through national programmes. Integrated heritage management approaches happen at several scales (governments and entrepreneurs) but the process can and should rely on national initiatives and programmes, such as the 2002 Cultural Heritage Management and Development Project in the MENA region, where: The government of Tunisia after a long and mixed experience with piecemeal donor support for one or another of its historic monuments, conclude that it was in the country’s best interest to adopt a national program.
This approach consists of developing a countrywide strategy for CH preservation and management, defining criteria for site selection, and piloting the feasibility of each strategy objective on a suitably chosen site.
Monitoring the pilot phase of the strategy yield lessons for subsequent phases. Tunisia’s relatively strong institutional and legal framework justified the adoption of this countrywide approach. (Cernea, 2001, p. 66)

4 Journal of Heritage Management This supporting programme, known as the International Finance Corporation (IFC) tourism investments in the MENA region, is provided by the World Bank through the IFC to cover private sector hotel construction. Such approaches or bank-assisted operations have limitations in relation to supporting CH matters even though they facilitate cultural tourism. This approach tends to be limited because of
the nature of the foreign funds, the limited period of time of these funds, the lack of knowledge and experience of CH matters, and the pressing agendas of international organizations sometimes overloo-
king community and local skills. Cultural tourism can be supported differently following an approach that empowers and revisits local historic buildings. Locally driven support encourages a comprehensive
transformation of the Medina’s quarters based on cultural, economic and social wills and needs. One should even question, however, how local initiatives or national programmes are facilitating this area of cultural tourism through preservation and heritage management. It would be even of interest for architects and heritage specialists to examine the heritage management projects that happen at micro scale reflecting grassroots movements within the Medina of Tunis.
National-scale initiatives are certainly valid attempts involving complex processes and several scales to support the preservation of heritage. This process and programme, which started in 1967 with ASM,
remained limited and controversial in the past few years. Issues of heritage management have been taking place in the past few years. Since the revolution, more debates about heritage management can be seen in the Tunisian media. According to Belhassine (2014), in countries where heritage works much less archaically, the use of the private sector—patrons or promoters in the field of heritage—has been making its way for years… In Holland, Italy and in the United States, the management of sites and museums, considered as an economic action, relies on private institutions and foundations. In France, the arenas of Nîmes, for example, are managed by Culture Espaces, a company that promotes museums,
monuments and historical sites, and manages 12 other establishments, including the Palais des Papes d’Avignon and the Théâtre Antique d’Avignon.
In view of the almost universal drastic reduction of public funding for heritage, and also the widening of the concept of the architectural and historical heritage (we have moved from the archaeological site to the monument and the city of the nineteenth century), UNESCO has been recommending for nearly 20 years to set up public/private partnerships for the preservation and enhancement of ancient sites. But UNESCO does not forget to recommend to the authorities to adopt, in parallel, legal, institutional and administrative frameworks likely to guarantee the durability of the sites ceded in concession to the private ones, as well as their cultural function (Belhassine, 2014). It seems that the case of Tunisia has the potential to foster these kinds of partnerships in light of existing legislation and institutions.
In this research, the article attempts to examine the effect of micro-scale initiatives on heritage management by analysing the case study of Dar Ben-Gacem, an entrepreneurial project that started in 2006
in the heart of the Medina. This project is unique as it took place during the Arab Spring, a very sensitive and risky period, for investors. It is also a project that was started by a Tunisian female entrepreneur and
intellectual who once lived and worked in the dynamic environment of business entrepreneurs in the UAE.

History and Transition of a House to a Luxury

Boutique Hotel: Telling the Story

The traditional Tunisian dwelling, Dar Ben-Gacem, is an eighteenth century house located in the heart of the Medina of Tunis. This house was transformed from an abandoned property to a boutique hotel.
In an interview I conducted on 16 October 2018, on the history of the house and its importance to the legacy of the family who owned it, its current owner Leila Ben-Gacem (Figure 2) explains,

Figure 2. Leila Ben-Gacem (Portrait: Wajjahni)

Anoun family lived here for 300 years, they were here since the seventeenth century, and actually according to the national archives they bought it from another family. We couldn’t trace for how long but probably from around the fifteenth century; that’s around the period when most houses in the street were constructed. So it was on sale in 2006, that’s when I bought it thanks to my family that lend me the money to buy it. All the licensing and the restoration work took about seven years, so the business actually started at the end 2013. The family who lived here were perfumers; they owned many perfume shops in Souq el-Attarine (The Souq of the Perfumers) and perfume making was inherited from generation to generation. The children of Mister Ahmed Anoun, who sold me the house, are not perfumers anymore but teachers and bankers. They were not so interested to come to the Medina so luckily I was there to buy it. (Personal communication)

Small-scale entrepreneurial projects constitute a new trend in the Medina of Tunis and in other Medinas
in North Africa. In Marrakech, for instance, the process of investing in old Riyadhs started in the 1960s and 1970s and continued to the mid-1990s, and ‘Europeans had become increasingly interested in buying houses in the old town. At this time, the first inns (maison d’hôtes) and several exclusive restaurants were built. During the final years of the twentieth century, the real estate business boomed in the old town’ (Escher & Schepers, 2008, p. 34). In our case scenario, this entrepreneurial trend started to be shaped by the cultural and political changes taking place in the country. Thus, one should evaluate its impact on the structure of the Medina and the impact of heritage management from a social, cultural and economic angle. Recent debates about politics, society and cultural identity (LeVine, 2015), which continued in the country after the Arab Spring, show that the scale of change has happened at a micro level from within the populace.

Working with the expert architects from the Association of the Protection of the Medina (ASM) was a crucial step towards the success of this entrepreneurial heritage and touristic project. The project was developed with the Association of the Medina Preservation, an organization that continuously aims to

Figure 3. Entrance to Dar Ben-Gacem

protect the Medina’s architectural houses, palaces and madrasa. Based on Ms Ben-Gacem’s accounts, it was important for the owner to work closely with ASM during the restoration process. First, ASM’s architects know the master artisans who would best preserve whatever needed to be restored or redone. Second, they are the most qualified architects to bring such a seventeenth century house to the modern needs. The owner also adds: ‘you can imagine that when we bought the house there was only one tap of water, so just to put a bathroom in every room, if we do it without restoration professionals, we might destroy the house’. In relying on the local expertise, the owner followed a well-defined approach that promotes local skills and the management of heritage from within the Medina itself. The network of professionals and craftsmen is also a real advantage to restore this historical house.

This restauration project reflects a willingness to reuse and readapt an existing historical building, thus activating its historical, cultural and economic functions. The restoration of Dar Ben-Gacem (Figure 3) effectively activated the building and its intermediate surroundings. Such an approach is also detrimental as it supported heritage management given the limitations of government programmes and the complex procedures and regulations. The issues grappling Tunisian heritage range from the lack of funding to the lack of maintenance (Nsiri, 2016). According to Steinberg (1996), monuments that are not utilized tend to decay rapidly and others that are still in use have higher chances of being maintained. In fact, as he points out, the strategy of adaptive reuse and reconversion is an effective approach to self-finance and sustain monuments.

This approach is exceptionally relevant in the case scenario of the Medina as it is difficult for the government to sustain and maintain all buildings. In third world countries, including in the Middle East and North Africa, as Steinberg (1996, p. 465) points out, ‘there is a tremendous shortage of funds for the upkeep and maintenance of government owned, registered monuments…private owners may consider
the maintenance of a (registered or un-registered) monument as a burden due to the inability to afford the necessary maintenance’. Innovative mechanisms, of repurposing a building, telling a story and engaging
with the community offers a sustainable and sustained response to its environment in the case of Dar Ben-Gacem.

The spark of the Arab Spring seems to offer more support to entrepreneurial and grassroots projects
of heritage reconversion. Mass tourism, however, occasionally isolates culture and history in gated villages and hotels away from the city. As Ben-Gacem (personal communication, 16 October 2018) notes, the tourism industry in Tunisia has not been offering much to tourists. Here, the concept she tries to promote is about telling the story of the Medina through its walls and crafts. ‘I think we have an amazing story that we are almost trying to hide by putting tourists in hotels that almost give their back to the city’, she notes. In this house, the entrepreneur attempts to offer an authentic experience, or what she calls ‘the real authentic experience with a little touch of luxury’ through architecture, the interaction with the community and the lived experiences in the immediate environment (smells, noise, and so on). The vibrant streets, with craftsmen, school children and inhabitants, the smells of
cooking coming from houses and shops, and the sense of surprise created by the narrow streets, create a vibrant atmosphere. These urban features set a dynamic and interactive scene where all senses are engaged. Both tangible and intangible elements participate in creating a social and cultural enterprise through heritage reconversion at a smaller scale.

Integrated Approaches of Tangible and Intangible Artefacts in
Architecture and Social and Cultural Entrepreneurship

The project of Dar Ben-Gacem gave life to the physical environment surrounding it. The fabric of the street remained untouched and the interior of the house was preserved and adapted to the new use (Figure
4). The reconversion of the house into a Boutique Hotel required, as Ben Gacem explained, additional spaces like the bathrooms. The special historic character and the architectural features of the house, including the transition from public to private domains (Figure 5), were preserved to protect the cultural values and aesthetics of Tunisian architecture. One can even notice how the work of tiles, gypsum carving, Qadhel local stones and the Hafside style arches were preserved to ensure the sustainable rehabilitation and revitalization process. The typical and essential architectural qualities and materials are preserved to ensure an ethical and aesthetic rehabilitation approach preserving the physical structure and qualities of the historical quarter.

In addition to its material architectural features, this project has balanced between the reconversion of tangible and intangible elements. Tangible elements include architectural heritage and intangible ones comprise revisiting culture through local crafts. The management of this heritage touristic project follows a multi-scalar approach that targets social, economic and cultural factors aiming to empower traditional architecture, community members, and their local businesses and crafts. On this approach, Ben-Gacem (personaln communication, 16 October 2018) reflects,

Figure 4.Courtyard of Dar Ben-Gacem, Ground Floor (Credits: ASM)

Figure 5.Courtyard of Dar Ben-Gacem

I’m very passionate about craft microbusinesses, empowering them, and helping them to export and when this house was on sale, it was the first thing that came to mind when I stepped in. All the beautiful craftwork in every corner of the house telling a story of master artisans who carved some gypsum or stone or painted a tile. This is what first of all we’d like to preserve. So, in restoring the house, it creates a lot of jobs for an important number of master artisans but also in furnishing. We tried, as much as possible, to refurbish old furniture or buy furniture from new trendy designer artisans today. And we continuously try to make publicity of course. Our guests come from all over the world, they like the furniture, they like the trays, they like the towels and they always ask us where we got them from. And of course we always orient them to the master artisans.

Empowering and revisiting urban heritage does not only include tangible elements such as monuments and buildings but it also comprises non-tangible elements such as customs and belief. The latter have a major role to articulate the built environment and its constructed spaces (Steinberg, 1996). In the case of this project, Ben-Gacem worked closely with master artisans to empower and promote their tangible craftsmanship and to, indirectly, support the customs and culture of making that exist in the Souqs of the Medina. By doing so, the project has stimulated the economic and cultural precincts of the Medina thus activating the connections between entrepreneurs, craftsmen, dwellers and tourists. The use of local materials and techniques in furniture making (Figure 6) and local symbols and icons (Figure 7) reminds the visitor of the dynamics and old symbols of a living culture. The female and male symbols (Figure 7) derive from the Tunisian popular culture, where both wear traditional garments. The male figure is distinguished by a traditional hat, probably a Tunisian Chachia, on his head, and a very typical Jasmin or Machmoum on his ear. The female figure is distinguished by her attire, a traditional full hijab or Tunisian Safsari, large earrings and a typical face used by Tunisian traditional painters. One can even notice noticeable similarities between these symbols and the tradi- tional faces used in the paintings of Tunisian artist Hedi Turki. The use of these icons in this project reflect a conscious attitude of revisiting heritage with all its important icons.

Figure 6.Tangible and Intangible Crafts in the Making

Figure 7. Use of Traditional Icons in Rooms

Figure 8. Calligraphy and Book Binding Workshops at Dar Ben-Gacem

Encouraging local crafts (Figure 8) enhances the socio-cultural and economic collaboration between small and traditional businesses and smaller-scale hotels. Whether it is calligraphy, book binding or gypsum work, enhancing the connection between diverse sectors and people promotes sustainable environments, businesses and communities. In this boutique hotel, the owner continuously promotes what is termed ‘The Medina Experiences’ through several workshops that guests might choose to attend. Unlike large and secluded hotels, this approach tends to be more inclusive as it introduces guests to a different mechanism that balances touristic needs, financial needs, and a larger exposure to heritage. Working with local craftsmen and organizations can also promote innovative and sustainable ideas like recycling tiles or any other materials (Figure 9). This design feature can be seen on the terrace of the.

Figure 9. Terrace of Dar Ben-Gacem and the Restoration of Tiles (Credits: ASM)

boutique hotel where existing tiles were recycled and placed to cover the space. This patchwork of glazed tiles of different colours, patterns, and textures also supports the conservation of tangible and intangible heritage and exhibits an interesting approach of reusing local materials. Such an approach supports a coherent environmental approach that promotes innovation and limits excess and waste.
These features also reflect how the architects and owner work with a limited budget, local materials and knowledge while attempting to meet the challenges of heritage conservation.

Cultural Heritage and Challenges of Best Practices

This project took place during a very critical phase of the modern political history of Tunisia, namely, the Arab Spring. Several administrative challenges in relation to this project, including working with the Ministry of Equipment, the Ministry of culture and other government bodies, are important to consider. This process can be, at times, overcomplicated by a lack or disturbance of political support. As Ben-Gacem (personal communication, 16 October 2018) explains, Well, just like any project, I think we had an important number of challenges. Although, first the whole restauration process was during the revolution so with all what happened in Qasbah, just bringing a pack of cement was a big story. There were often tear gases or workers wouldn’t come. We had a curfew and workers didn’t come. Also, the big challenge that after the revolution the dinar devalued rapidly and raw materials became scarce. It was a challenge to find what we needed so that the restoration process doesn’t stop. Of course, with the administration in Tunisia, you can imagine the paper work. It took us a year and a half to get permission to start restoring, and you know the house degrades. In the meantime, I was going back and forth but there was always a missing paper or someone you need to meet. We needed two licenses from both the city council and the ministry of tourism. The license to restore and the license to start a project here.

On the alternative solutions to improve the process of restoration and partnerships, Ben-Gacem explains that the new law of public and private partnership is an underestimated opportunity in bringing a lot of Tunisian heritage back to life. The Ministry of Culture has an important list of historical buildings owned by the government that are closed, in need of repurposing and restoration. Obviously, one should understand the economic political, and social struggles that Tunisia is currently facing. For the government, this type of project is not a high priority but if there is a real political will for private-public partnership, the cultural scene will be a lot more dynamic. It will create more jobs if policymakers activate the private-public partnership for historical buildings restoration and repurposing. Not enough heritage and entrepreneurial projects were started recently, as Ben-Gacem notes, given the multiple challenges, the long return on investment, and the need for a passion and dedication to establish such cohesive approach.

Public and private partnerships need to be encouraged by the Tunisian government and its respective ministries to activate the sector of heritage management. One such project includes the private-public partnership between the government of Punjab, the Aga Khan Trust for Culture (AKTC) and the World Bank for the conservation, renewal and regeneration of Lahore’s Walled City in Pakistan. In 2006, the AKTC’s project of urban regeneration of historic sites, and many similar projects in the country, restored monuments with tourism potential. The AKTC’s Historic Cities Programme also followed an integrated approach and ‘has been able to demonstrate the significant development potential of the cultural assets of historic districts when linked to integrated economic, social, and environmental redevelopment initiatives’ (Abedeen, 2007). An integrated approach aims to establish a balanced conservation project that considers different stakeholders and different factors. This can be applicable in the case of the Medina of Tunis to activate the sector of heritage management and tourism, not only through international partnerships but also through local initiatives. One should, however, examine the extent to which a private stakeholder is in control of the project and the repercussion that such an approach could have on its success.

In Tunisia, there is also a debate about the ESS law (Economie Solidaire et Sociale), which is an initiative of social entrepreneurship. This approach was made a national priority by the Tunisian government in its 2016–2020 plan, and ‘the sector has real advantages: well established throughout the country, a large supply of voluntary work, an intimate knowledge of the terrain, and a potential for creating jobs, wealth and social utility’ (Elachhab, 2018). It is more of a co-op sense than a business sense. Recently, the government is looking seriously to pass a law that regulates a sector dealing with socio-economic impact institutions but the whole concept is still vague, as the project owner mentions. On the contribution and implementation of such heritage management projects, Ben-Gacem (personal communication, 16 October 2018) reflects, Well, first of all, if I were to live in a house like Dar Ben-Gacem, I wouldn’t be able to afford and maintain it so this is a good case to make it a business because it is restoring itself with what it generates. It is a crucial point to create dynamics. Secondly, we are a social enterprise so all our staff are from the Medina community, and most, if not all suppliers around us are microbusinesses. So we try to create as much as possible a shared economy because I think that’s the best way to rehabilitate such a community. And also we try to create a shared economy with the artisans around us, hammams, tour guides, taxi drivers, so after five years, we have a good network of friends that are part of the business,

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 Majdi Faleh is a Teaching Assistant at the University of Melbourne, School of Design,  His research mainly focuses on Islamic architecture and art and the influences of globalization.




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