The craftswomen with Golden Hands

The passion for weaving esparto was born a very long time ago amongst women in Hergla, the small picturesque village located twenty kilometers away from the city of Sousse.

Known primarily for its natural, robust and hardy appearance, esparto, or Halfa in Arabic, is a perennial herbaceous grass native to the arid steppe regions of southern and southwestern Tunisia.

A tradition of weaving esparto has seen light in Hergla by the women of the city who inherited this work from their ancestors; for decades now, this manual work has been passed down from mother to daughter, and sometimes but less often, from father to son.

Aged 58, widow and mother to 4 children, Faouzia has been braiding esparto for twenty-five years now. This ancestral manual tradition that requires learning a few weeks: it was with her parents-in-law that Faouzia has learnt it, and has since passed on the work to her two daughters, Amel and Nesrine. Since their childhood, the two girls have always tried to imitate their mother and began to make scourtins especially during their holidays.

In Hergla, the weaving of esparto is a daily ritual.

First, Faouzia buys, like all the other women in the village, halfa from vendors or wholesalers who regularly frequent the city, in tight stocks at about 3 dinars: the plant delivered is always stiff and dry. Then the women go out, daily, draped in their bright red Takhlila, with halfa stocks on their heads, from the village to the sea, to soften the fibers by plunging them into the sea all night long.

As for Faouzia, often soaks the halfa in large basins for a whole night, ensuring a similar effect: because Faouzia who can not swim, is afraid of losing her halfa by going to the rocky coast of Hergla

When the halfa becomes supple and easier to handle, she settles with her daughters in the “skifa”, in this large Mosque square, around a cafe, where they begin to weave the stems of esparto, with the same passion and energy, under the burning summer sun or icy sea wind during winter.

At the beginning, Faouzia only learned to braid mats and scourtins. These were mainly used in traditional oil mills that used to grind wheels and scourtins to extract oil from olives. But this mode of extraction has given way to industrialization in the production of olive oil in Tunisia, which is one of the world’s top leaders in the production of olive oil.

Over the years, and thanks to the help and creativity of her daughters, they have diversified and let their inspiration guide them to produce both authentic and trendy items that meet different needs: baskets, bags, mats, tables with a more artisanal side, with purely decorative objects, such as keychains or lucky fish in halfa.

This evolution, however, did not undermine the principle of making creations that are both ecological, sustainable and supportive.

These revisited items modernized with various patterns or bright colors – but developed with natural hues – are always exposed in front of their small house located at the top of the city, in Echorfa.

It’s in this corner of the city, that we meet the different artisanal productions combining authenticity, modernity and innovation, all made by these Hergla women with golden hands, who all share the same passion for this activity.

The fruits of the sweat and passion of these “artists” have fascinated the visitors of this small paradise village, and appeal to Tunisian customers as well as foreigners. There are those who are content with a simple souvenir, a keychain or a small traditional basket. But there are also those who order dozens or hundreds of pieces, which will be resold everywhere in Tunisia and abroad.

However for Faouzia, the making and selling of these products can not guarantee to support her family. Sometimes, they spend days without selling anything, and at the end of the day, the halfa trade brings them only a very limited and uncertain income.

Faouzia has succeeded in passing on this ancestral craftsmanship in basketry and esparto to her two daughters, who today modernize this activity and market their own “revisited” products.

On the other hand, the majority of young people in the city are mostly reluctant to take over their elders, as long as the work of esparto is not considered a source of fixed money, stable and to live decently.