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Tunisian medina a maze of courtyards, craftsmen and carpets

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By CAIN BURDEAU, AP
SFAX, Tunisia

Enter gates of the medina in Sfax, Tunisia, walk into a maze of long, covered passageways and step into another world.

Here there are no cars. Birds chatter in peaceful courtyards. Life revolves around a giant mosque.

And in the bustling, entertaining markets called souqs, vendor after vendor sells goods: bags, baskets, jackets, perfumes, jewelry, plus elaborate hand-woven carpets and wildly colorful, glittering dresses.

A medina is the old, walled section of an Arab city. The Sfax medina dates to 849 A.D. It is one the best maintained and most intact examples of a medina in the Mediterranean basin, according to city officials, who are seeking UNESCO World Heritage status to help protect the site.

“It’s the most restored medina in the entire Arabic world,” said Ahmed Charfi, a 32-year-old guide and president of Sfax El Mezyena, a group seeking to revive the medina.

Inside there is food, and more food, for sale. Fresh seafood here, meat over there, bread here, heaps of vegetables there.

Craftsmen make just about anything you can think of needing to use from metal and wood. Mohamed Ketata is one of the medina’s wood craftsmen. At 55, he is carrying on four generations of craftsmanship in the medina. He works on pieces of olive wood with quick, precise, long-practiced masterful hands. “Anything I think about, I can make,” he said. “Tell me what you want me to do and I will satisfy your wishes.”

For all its seeming prosperity and liveliness, though, everything’s not as well as it might seem.

“There’s not really any people who live here,” said Noamen Trigui, 52, and the co-owner of a popular cafe founded in the 19th century, the Kemour Cafe. “They come to work and then leave.”

Besides a loss of residents, he said modernity is encroaching too.

“Aluminum. Plastic. Air conditioners. The satellite dishes have covered all the roofs. It detracts,” he said. “People are turning houses into workshops.”

But he was optimistic that young people can help keep the medina alive.

“The medina is the place where every man goes back to his origins,” he said. “It’s a treasure. We must all help to conserve it. We have to polish gold to make it bright.”

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