Sugar Dolls: A Cap Bon Tradition Survives Shortages

A stall at the sugar doll festival in Nabeul, July 17, 2023. Photo by Chahd Lina Belhadj.

In the Cap Bon region of Tunisia, there is a special tradition to celebrate the Islamic new year: the making and decorating of sugar dolls in different shapes like brides (arousat soukr) or knights (fares soukr). While some worried that the tradition wouldn’t happen for this year’s New Year on July 19 because of recent sugar shortages, the annual tradition went ahead like it’s done for generations.

“Around this time each year, I remember my grandfather in Korba taking me to a sugar doll market to get my first sugar knight doll. And here I am, almost 30 years later coming back for my sugar puppet,” 36 year old Najem Ben Youssef told Meshkal. “This tradition is reminiscent of my childhood.”

Ben Youssef is from Kelibia where—like in other cities in Cap Bon—markets bring the sugar dolls that are made in nearby Nabeul city. That’s where the tradition is strongest, and every year in Nabeul near the old city medina they hold a large “Sugar Doll” festival which attracts people from the whole region.

A stall at the sugar doll festival in Nabeul, July 17, 2023. Photo by Chahd Lina Belhadj.

“We start a week ahead by preparing the dolls and ornamenting our shops and the city streets with decoration, lights and music. It is more of an extended wedding celebration in Nabeul. The Islamic New Year is equal to the Eid celebrations for us. On Eid we get sheep, and in this celebration we get sugar dolls,” 52-year-old Abdelkader Bayoudh told Meshkal.

Abdelkader Bayoudh at the sugar doll festival in Nabeul, July 17, 2023. Photo by Chahd Lina Belhadj.

Bayoudh said he has been making sugar dolls for as long as he can remember. He used to watch his grandfather making them with his father, and he would always ask them questions about how they are made and what they symbolize. Now he and his two brothers have three market stalls every year during the festival to sell their dolls.

A Tradition at Risk?

But this year there were sugar shortages in Tunisia, like there have been in other food products in the last couple years, which raised fears that the tradition would be cancelled.

“We were terrified that the shortage would affect the festival this year and lead it to be cancelled. But thank God, we managed even with small sugar quantities to save it,” said Chahida Boufayed, who has been making the dolls for the festivals for three decades.

Chahida Boufayed at the sugar doll festival in Nabeul, July 17, 2023. Photo by Chahd Lina Belhadj.

Still, the shortages made the price of sugar more expensive, even though the product’s price is supposed to be controlled by the state.

“Because of the shortage, the prices of the sugar packs literally doubled,” said Abdelkader Bayoudh. “We used to get the [large sugar] pack for 75 dinars, and this time I got it for 170 dinars just so the tradition could continue. This tradition is crucial for us.”

Boufayed said the shortages meant her family couldn’t produce nearly as many sugar dolls as they usually do.

“The sugar shortage devastated many families who found it hard to get the necessary quantities of sugar, and if they found [them], they couldn’t afford to get them, including our family. We only made 30 percent of the amount we used to make in previous years. We declined many orders because we didn’t have enough dolls to cover people’s needs,” she explained.

Sugar doll makers told Meshkal that despite the increased costs, they didn’t raise their prices this year so as not to endanger the festival or the tradition, which they said would be devastating. They still sold their dolls and the “methred”, a pottery bowl filled with candy and dried fruits with the sugar doll in the middle, from between 4 and 100 dinars depending on size.

A traditional methred at the sugar doll festival in Nabeul, July 17, 2023. Photo by Chahd Lina Belhadj.

“It is important for us that our children learn this tradition and cherish it and most importantly do it with love and keep the family legacy and tradition inherited from one generation to the next. Because sugar doll making is our identity and not just a tradition our grandparents learnt from Italians years ago,” Abdelkader Bayoudh said.

The sugar doll festival in Nabeul, July 17, 2023. Photo by Chahd Lina Belhadj.

According to locals, the tradition came to Cap Bon from Sicily, where they make very similar dolls for their “day of the dead” every November 2 that they call Pupi ri Zuccaro or Puppaccena in the Palermo dialect. However Sicilians trace the story back to an Arab nobleman, while historian Anouar Marzouki traced the history of the tradition back to the Arab Fatimid rule of Sicily under the Kalbid dynasty in the 10th century. The Italian island is less than 400 kilometers away by sea, and Cap Bon has a long history of very close cultural, historical and commercial relations with it.

In Cap Bon, people put the dolls as decoration in the middle of the special local couscous variety that is cooked on the eve of the Islamic new year. That couscous is decorated with boiled eggs, chickpeas, sweets and dry fruits, as well as the sugar doll either on top or on the side. The doll is later broken up into pieces to sweeten tea or coffee.

An example of the traditional couscous served in Cap Bon alongside the sugar dolls during the Islamic new year.

How Dolls are Made

“We put the ingredients after cooking them in certain ways in specific molds and wait for them to dry. It takes me some time to get them ready, as I make big quantities, but the doll making process doesn’t take much time,” Bayoudh explained.

Bayoudh, who outside of the annual festival works as a shopkeeper and trader, said that the sugar doll tradition is a fun way to bring the family together.

“Once all the dolls are ready, we get them off of the molds and gather as a family with my wife, three girls, my sister and mother-in-law and decorate all together. I have taught my three girls since their early childhood how to draw eyes and decorate. We create a certain working ambiance that makes what we do a fun tradition and never monotonous. This tradition keeps our family bond strong,” he said.

Two decorated sugar dolls on either side of an undecorated sugar knight at the sugar doll festival in Nabeul, July 17, 2023. Photo by Chahd Lina Belhadj.

The doll-making process is also fun for Chahida Boufayed’s family.

“My kids wait passionately for this day to come, to gather and do this as a family where we can spend some quality time together,” Boufayed said.

With time, the tradition has developed more complex shapes for the sugar dolls like famous figures and animals. Cap Bon locals say that receiving a sugar doll on the new year symbolizes an omen that their coming year will be as sweet as the doll. It’s similar to the saying people have in the rest of Tunisia about making Mloukheya on the first day of the Islamic new year so that their year will be as green as the dish.

“This tradition runs in my blood and represents our identity as the people of Nabeul,” Boufayed said.


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