I can hardly believe that we’ve been in Tunis for more than a year already. Last year at this time we were unpacking boxes, buying shower curtains, and rearranging furniture. Thank goodness the chaos of moving is long past! After a year of settling in, I’ve done my fair share of browsing in markets, fairs, and shops for local goods. I try to keep an eye out year-round for Tunisian handicrafts that I can bring back to our friends and family, but somehow, I always end up buying, err, loving them for myself. So, with our holiday travel just around the corner, I’ve been shopping and making a list of my favorite handicrafts and souvenirs.
While most visitors and tourists head for the Medina for their market and shopping experience, I’ve learned that I prefer the handicrafts and artisans’ festivals when for locally made goods.
Don’t get me wrong, if you are a tourist, you don’t want to miss the Medina. The Medina has it’s own charm and character. That said, walking through the streets of the Medina as a foreigner requires a bit of gusto, especially if you are traveling alone. Haggling and aggressive sales pitches are par for the course. Not to mention, one’s got to keep a keen eye out for distinguishing the authentic from the over-priced imitations. And, if you are a woman who looks like a foreigner, coping with the stares and street harassment takes the right mindset.
On the other hand, none of these factors are present at the various handicrafts festivals I’ve visited around Tunis. Sure, some vendors might still offer a slightly higher “foreigner’s price,” but in general, I’ve found the quality of goods to be higher and the haggling to be minimal compared to shopping in the Medina. If you are in the market for local handicrafts and have a little time in Tunisia, I recommend looking for events endorsed or hosted by the National Handicrafts Office (Office National de l’Artisanat Tunisien). In my experience, the events are well-organized and they a wonderful place to meet the actual artisans. As of this post, the office’s Facebook page is more current than their website and includes upcoming events.
Traveling to Tunis? Looking for local handicrafts to take home as souvenirs? Wondering what to buy? Read on, for some of my favorites!
Olive Wood Cutting Boards (or anything olive wood).
For the cook in me, this is hands-down the winner. I can’t get enough of this beautiful, knotty, and fragrant wood. Small, medium, or large, I might be an olive wood hoarder. If cutting boards aren’t your jam, there are bowls, spoons, salt keepers, napkin holders, and even baskets made from this delicious wood. When I see how much Williams-Sonoma is selling their olive good wares for ($80 for 4 spoons!), it makes me consider going into the export business. Even without much haggling, you can easily find olive wood cutting boards for a fraction of the retail price in the US. It’s luxurious, long-lasting, and if you are traveling, it won’t break in your suitcase!
These are traditional towels used in hammams and sometimes known as Turkish bath towels. I am certainly no expert, but I will continue to believe that these are traditionally Tunisian. (Google it yourself.) Even if you never make it to a hammam, foutas make wonderful gifts. Foutas are traditionally woven in cotton or linen and serve well as a beach or picnic blanket, a lightweight throw, or even a sarong. Since foutas are thinner than a traditional blanket or terry towel, they roll up tightly and are easy to transport. Don’t let the light-weight fabric fool you either. Well-made foutas are absorbent but also dry quickly. These beauties are easy to find in shops around the city and come in all sizes and colors. Head to a Mediterranean beach in France, Italy, or even and you’ll be in style with a Tunisian Fouta.
I’m a girly-girl, so it’s hard for me to say no to jewelry and other accessories. Some of my favorite pieces of jewelry come from trips we’ve taken. Locally made jewelry tends to have an arabesque aesthetic and is readily found in gold, silver, copper, or textiles. As with all jewelry, it’s a matter of personal taste, but if you are shopping for a statement piece, you won’t be disappointed.
Carpets & Kilims.
Oh, the carpets. So many styles, colors, weaves, and patterns from so many regions. Carpet buying in this part of the world could make up a PhD thesis. Haggling for carpets can also take an afternoon and a lot of tea and dates. Personally, I find carpet-buying overwhelming and exasperating. Am I getting a good deal? Is this really hand-woven? Will it fade? Ugh, it’s my least favorite shopping. Have we done it? Yes, we certainly have. The best experience I’ve had to date was just this past weekend at Zarbia 2016, hosted by the National Handicrafts Office. Marked prices, minimal haggling, and enough selection to make you dizzy. We picked up a traditional Amazigh (Berber) rug to brighten up my home office. Our tastes favor a more simple pattern, but if you are looking for deep colors and intricate designs, you won’t be disappointed.
My best advice for carpet shopping is to do your research before you shop so you have a sense of the styles that are available. If you have the luxury of time, don’t make purchases in the first shop you go to. Shop around, get a sense of what’s available, ask about prices, and remember, no matter how much tea you’ve had, you can always walk out of the store. Carpets, like jewelry, are very personal. Remember that the carpet looks different at home, when it isn’t surrounded by competing designs and colors. Above all, find a piece that speaks to you, not your friends, your guide, or the shop owner.
Other popular souvenirs.
There are other popular take home items, such as ceramics, leather, scarves, and even mosaics. I love the local ceramics, but traveling with a platter or bowl is just not practical.
In addition to foutas, wonderful scarves and other textiles abound. One of my favorite items is a colorful tapestry woven and embroidered by women from Kerkennah, a small island off of the southeastern coast of Tunisia. It was a tad over-priced, but this piece just spoke to me and I have not regrets. In the words of Marie Kondo, this piece sparks joy for me. The colors, the tassels– I just love it.
To be sure, there is no shortage of unique Tunisian handicrafts to suit many tastes. While I’m all for supporting the local economy and ensuring that the artists can continue their work, my favorite part shopping for local handicrafts is the opportunity to talk to the artisans and learning about their craft. I am fascinated with the way the skills and traditions are passed on from generation to generation. So many of these crafts are made with little to no electricity, using natural dyes, and materials. There is no souvenir that captures the experience of simply being present in the moment. For me, the best keepsakes serve as a reminder of these conversations and connections.