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The Gabès Museum of Popular Arts and Traditions
Naceur Baklouti

The Oasis of Gabes has known human occupation since prehistorical times. But it was not until the middle of the first millenary BC that the city of Tacape, ancestor of present-day Gabes, was founded.

At first a Punique urban and economic centre, the city then became a Roman colony and played a dominant role in Saharan and Mediterranean trade. Later, the Moslems turned it into an important walled city with several monuments described by Arab travellers and chroniclers.

After a priod of decadence and turmoil, Gabes experienced renwed prosperity, in particular under the Muradites who, in the XVIIth century, built monuments that are famous today such as the mausoleum of the Prophet's companion, Sidi Boulbaba and the adjoining Medersa.

Built in 1692, this Medersa now houses the Gabes Museum of popular arts and traditions, showing the visitor a few aspects of the region's traditional culture, both material and spiritual. At a time when secular traditions governing the life of people have fallen out of use, and popular techniques and skills passed on form generation to generation are being lost, the museum tries to fix the traditional rites and practices and to preserve the evidence of a constantly evolving reality.

For themes have been chosen to illustrate the wealth of a heritage where women, the guardians of tradition, occupy a central position.

A happy blend of art and craftsmanship, weaving used to be an occupation for all Tunisian women in the past.

From between their fingers emerged marvellous carpets and blankets, drapped robes, shawls... all in the styles and variety of colours and patterns revealing the various regional particularities. The Museum enables us to follow the different stages of work : wool washing, carding, spinning, dyeing, than the actual weaving until the finished piece is produced. Embroidery adorned the woven draped robes (melhafa) as well as blouses (thoub) further illustrating the dexterity of Gabes women.

A major event in the cycle of life, marriage, is the second theme highlighted by the museum as it is marked by a rich and complicated ceremonial : it also represents the union between two persons and the alliance of two families. This is why the exhibition presents the contribution of each family to the establishment of the young couple, a new link in the social chain. Thus, the husband offers his bride to be a sort of jointure (keswa) including clothes and jewellery such as chains, fibulas, ankle bracelets that used to be made of solid silver, while the parents of the bride provide her with a trousseau (btat) made up of several sets of clothes including the famous raw silk drapery woven in Djerba. The elements making up the keswa and the blat are in fact fixed by tradition, although this does not exclude the influence of fashion.

The third theme presented by museum is oasis agriculture. Already in the 1st century, the Latin historian Plinty the elder spoke of the luxuriance of the Gabes oasis, its irrigation system and the arrangement in layers of its crops where palm trees grew above fruit trees (pomegranates, apricots, peaches) under which grew market garden produce, as well as fodder and cereal crops. This structure continues to exist, at least in part, and the Museum tries to describe it by means of a reconstitution, documentation and exhibits.

Following on from agriculture are traditional eating habits, which constitute the Museum's fourth theme. Eating practices participate in the cultural identity of a group because of its long standing culinary habits. Behaviour in terms of food is therefore illustrated from the beginning to the end of the process, from the agricultural produce to the preparation and consumption of food including its transformation and conservation.

Adjoining the Medersa, with its austere architecture, lies a garden, adding to the pleasure of the museum visit with its flower beds and archaeological vestiges such as capitals, amphora and stelae uncovered by chance during construction work and placed on display.

The Gabes museum is a place containing a part of our collective memory but it is also a place with doors open to all kinds of cultural activities.

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