On a bright, crisp Saturday this fall, Mourad Ben Cheikh Ahmed stood outside the steps of the grand Zitouna Mosque, a building dating back to the 7th century. Its size and grandeur, like that of many other buildings in the medina—the old city of Tunis—is not immediately obvious to an outside observer.
Ahmed is the founder and sole photographer of the blog “Lost in Tunis,” which he has used to document hidden or forgotten architectural treasures across Tunisia. While Ahmed doesn’t exclusively focus on the medina, he says his work in the old city is to provide a photographic record for a future generation. Many buildings in the old city have been left in disrepair. While some artistic and civic groups are working to preserve or restore parts of the medina, Ahmed wants to capture what they look like now in case they become more deformed and decayed in the coming years.
“I started exploring the city and taking photos out of personal interest. But I soon realized that the photos would be recording the last days of some of these historical buildings which are very unique,” Ahmed told Meshkal as we walked with him away from Zitouna across sett-paved lanes towards the Zawiya (shrine of a saint) of Sidi Mahrez in another part of the medina to join and document a parade of Stambeli, a syncretic musical, cultural, and religious tradition with roots in Sufism.
The parade on November 9 was held to mark the prophet Mohamed’s birthday, or Mouled, as it is called in Tunisia. It was organized by the Association for Stambeli Culture, which hosted Stambeli troupes from Tunis, Sfax, Nefta, Metlaoui, Sousse, Tozeur and Kairouan dressed in traditional garb. The troupes played music, danced and chanted from the Zawiya of Sidi Mahrez to the Zawiya of Sidi Ben Arous.
Ahmed describes what he does as Urbex, or urban exploration. A window left slightly open, or any hint of life behind a door, is enough to spark his curiosity.
As we pass by a now abandoned synagogue, Ahmed points to it and says he figured out a way to enter it and document. The building has high walls and a strong bolt across the door. Asked how he got in, Ahmed responds that urban explorers need to keep some secrets.
“To begin with I was sharing the photos on social media accounts and they were getting a lot of attention as there aren’t many photographers documenting Tunisia’s medina. People were asking me where the buildings are and were shocked these places existed in Tunis,” Ahmed, whose Facebook page has almost 50,000 followers and whose Twitter profile has more than 20,000 followers, explained.
Sometimes finding a way into buildings can be straightforward. Often, all it takes is a knock on the door and asking inhabitants their permission. People are generally hospitable, Ahmed says. In some cases, he is invited in but asked not to photograph. In those cases, what he discovers is for his memory only.
Ahmed says that while some people live in the old buildings of the medina because they love and treasure them, others are simply in properties in need of repair because they tend to be cheaper. Inhabitants living in the medina due to cheaper living costs are sometimes unaware of the unique spaces they inhabit and are shocked when Ahmed asks to photograph.
Ahmed says his photography blog is “just a hobby” for now, but it has opened up other doors. He has since been asked to give lectures to architecture students, and he also shows around other Urbex people who visit Tunis.
Working in a bank by day, photography offers Ahmed weekend escapes. There have been occasions, however, when Ahmed has found himself in trouble with the police. Suspecting him of espionage as he approached a location, police arrested him and took him to the station. He was only released without charge after interrogation and inspection of his photos to ensure that they didn’t include sensitive content.
At Sidi Mahrez, Ahmed moves further down the path ahead of the procession to find a good angle to take photos of the approaching crowd.
He quickly darts through an old, heavy, blue door which has been left ajar.
“This is my favorite building in the medina,” he says.
Behind the door we find a wide room with a stretch of tiled wall on one side, glimmering as it reflects the sunlight streaming through beams which once supported a ceiling.
“People still live here, I think,” Ahmed says.
Back outside, a solitary, elderly man raps a drum as he walks, clearing the way for the procession about to fill the narrow street. The calm, rhythm is soon replaced by a cacophony of beating of drums, clapping of Krakeb (a kind of castanet), and chanting of Sufi poems and songs. Towering over the crowd are giant, colorful flags, each representing a different troupe. The winding street brims with activity, smiling faces, and the smell of incense.
Ahmed says he wanted to attend the parade to enjoy the way the “mystical atmosphere spreads around the streets of the medina”.
As the noise begins to die down, Ahmed speeds through the lanes again to find his next perch. In the square where Hafsia and Pasha streets meet, he waits.
Ahmed observes that this Stambeli celebration is bigger than the last one he saw, that they have been getting more popular each year. Stambeli ‘houses’ – communities of stambeli performers linked by kinship— have struggled to survive. Since Tunisia’s independence, cultural policy, like policies in so many other sectors, has prioritized “modernization.” Stambeli, often associated with mysticism, animism, and sub-Saharan cultural influences, has not received state support like other arts. The dance often involves individuals entering a trance and ridding themselves of harmful spirits or Djinn.
At one point during the parade, some participants seemed to enter a semi-conscious trance state, their heads swaying as they wailed and cried. Stambeli troupe members not in trance braced those under the spell of the rhythms, stretching their arms out to block any flailing arm. A girl sprinkled rose water from the sideline.
Moving up Sidi Ben Arous street, the revelers entered the Zawiya of Ben Arous where the final ceremonies took place. Young children danced to the beat of the musicians.
As the ceremonies end, Ahmed heads home. Much like the buildings, capturing the Stambeli traditions also helps preserve them, in some form, for future generations.