A visit to the proud 'bird cage man of Tunisia'

Passing La Goulette beach and the ruins of Roman Carthage, the seaside shuttle train connects capital city Tunis with Sidi Bou Said, the village of "the gentleman of good fortune," the very embodiment of Tunisia's spirit. It spirals up a hill overlooking President Habib Bourghiba's palace, the United states Embassy, a turquoise sea spreading toward southern Europe. For years its creativity-inducing quietude has enticed world-renowned artists and writers to villas colored by the blush of mimosa and bougainvillea, villas whose design-studded blue doorways and white stucco walls match the North African sky and its daylight moon.

To the left at the roundabout above the Sidi Bou Said station the hill leads to the Cafe des Nattes, the shrines of Muslim saints, and a modest lighthouse. The tang tang of a market-place chisel against brass or copper chimes like advancing bells, playing a cadence accompanied by the clack of children's shoes against the cobblestones. In their midst, a young man winds red thread around petite jasmine bud bouquets to be sold to passersby for a few hundred millimes, to be tucked behind the ear and sniffed periodically for moments of intoxicated abandon: This is a land of sensuousness and artistry.

Tunisian crafts reflect these qualities. One, the making of filigree wire and wood bird cages, has captured the breeze-refreshed beauty, the charm, of the country so well the cages have become a national symbol and among the most popular souvenir items. Their designs borrow from the domes of Tunisia's mosques, the half-figs of its window masks, the double "S" heart shapes of its grillwork, and the blue and white colors of its architecture. And for four generations the craft has been the domain of one family.

Turn right at the roundabout and you'll find the workshop home of Azouz Samouda, the proud "bird cage man of tunisia." For 50 of his 71 years he has been making cages. His father made them before him and, before that, his grandfather, who ran an iron forge in the medina, the old walled city section of Tunis. The bird cage was "just something in his head," an idea for a decoration. The first one, which resulted from his hobby in 1850, sits venerably, if bent and yellowed with age, on a cabinet in his grandson's cluttered office.

One hundred years after it was made, Mr. Samouda and one of his sons moved the workshop to Sidi Bou Said. Working alone, it had been taking each Samouda about a week to complete one cage. "But the world is like this," Mr. Samouda entwines his fingers together, like the wires of his creations. "With planes full of tourists coming, all of them wanting cages, we had to increase production."

The handicraft grew into a small-scale industry, necessitating the assistance of apprentices. For a year each high school graduate learns to twists the wires with pliers, throwing them aside until all the "S's" come out evenly, the copper curves uniform. Then each young man -- and only a man -- takes his place in an assembly line operation.

For the number of apprentices, which varies from nine to twice that, the volume of business, with orders from more than 30 countries, the workshop is surprisingly tiny, and reflective of the warm, relaxed environment of the village. In the corner of a compact courtyard softened by foliage shadows, sweetened by jasmine scents, the wood is cut for the cage framework: the cubic base; the half-fig bulges which will be fitted to each of the sides, one as a door; the octagon that sits on the base and supports the intricate wire dome.

Through the kitchen behind the court and across a narrow passage is an atelier. Wooden tables are compartmentalized for steel and copper wires, benches hold stocks of cage sections already weathered and sanded smooth. One worker cuts and bends the ends of the wires which vertically hold the framework together.Another cuts peices for a third, who shapes them into the decorative curlicues that give the cages their characteristic design. The frames are fitted with wire struts, to which the S-curves are attached with small metal bands. Multiple coats of paint repeat the traditional color scheme of the country, white, with dashes of blue on the bands.

White actual work methods have changed little in the 130 years of the handicraft -- with insistence on skill and quality paramount -- Mr. Samouda has expanded the line to include variations in color and cage style. Some replicate mosque minarets, and there are domes for hanging plants and chandeliers, spice racks, and utility meter covers, but a prime element is always sheer decorative beauty.

Even with the assembly line, Mr. Samouda's shop actually produces only a small number of the cages sold to tourists -- maybe 10 a week. The rest are made elsewhere, by other artisans -- many of them started by Mr. Samouda.

Unfortunately, the laments, most apprentices leave him before they have mastered their skills, displaying the impatience which characterizes their age and the times. They turn out unevenly curled, poorly secured versions in the soukasm (markets) "full of badly made cages," Mr. Samouda points out, concerned that his reputation be marred because of the imposters. "Mine are all controlled. As long as I live, I do good work. When I die, no more Samouda." Only two of his five sons work with him, training and supervising the apprentices, but neither shares the artisan's passion.If you want a real Samouda , you must buy it through him.Even the shops up the hill in Sidi Bou Said's market sell only copies. A few years ago, Mr. Samouda stopped supplying other vendors throughout the country with his product, unhappy with their selling techniques. His prices might be a quarter to a third higher, but only a cage which bears the gilded red label of Samouda, with Tunisia's moon and star, is a guarantee that the wires are close enough so that a bird cannot get a wing caught between them, or fly out, that the paint is nontoxic to birds, that the cage is evenly crafted and will last. Once you've seen his, you can tell the difference.

Since a trip to Tunisia must include a visit to Sidi Bou Said, stopping at the Samouda shop poses no problem. It is just before the Magazin General, down a short staircase which leads directly into the courtyard. You'll find Mr. Samouda there any time, for, one of his sons remarks, "My father is always working, never a break, never a holiday, he can't go out." this son eschewed the long hours and low wages for free-lance photography, another for engineering, a third to teach scuba diving in Djerba, southern Tunisia's resort island. To them, the craft did not offer an appealing life.

Yet Mr. Samouda appears content. Under a glass desktop are countless cards of clients from all over the world, newspaper clippings, pictures of government leaders and celebrities admiring his work.

Below the yellow cloth draped loosely over his head and shoulders, in the eyes looking out over grizzled cheeks, there is great pride. Azouz Samouda would say he lives in the most appropriate place on earth, not only for its grace, but because he is "a gentleman of good fortune."

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