Driving from Djerba airport, it doesn’t take long for a visitor to notice that palms dot the island. Sprouting from the dry, sandy earth, each plant is a star burst of tough spiky branches. For centuries artisans have been transforming palm leaves into baskets, mats and more.
Walk down a street in Djerba and you’ll see men and women wearing straw hats, giving the island an unexpected tropical feel. While a practical measure against the fierce North African sun, the hats are part of traditional Djerban clothing. The island’s museum explains that women in the northeast, southeast and parts of the centre wear a pointed hat with a wide brim, while in other areas, they wear a pointed hat with smaller brim.
It’s not only hats. Palm leaves (feuilles de palmier in French) are used to create a variety of handicraft both practical and beautiful.
Wander through the maze-like souk of Houmt Souk, Djerba’s main town, and you’ll find Khacha Mohamed and his atelier of basketry (vannerie) and mats (nattes). The 69 year old artisan has been making palm leaf handicraft for 57 years, taught to him by his father when he was 12. As he sits on the floor finishing a large floor mat, he explains the process to me.
The art of basketry on Djerba
Fresh, young leaves are cut off the palm and dried in the shade for 10 days. Drying in the shade ensures the leaves stay the same quality and colour, as direct sunlight turns it dark.
Once dried, they are stripped into different widths, the pieces plaited into fans, baskets, hats and mats.
A key component to these products is cord, also made from palm. Green fiber is beaten with a rounded wood mallet until extra soft and flexible. Mohamed takes two thin strands and at one end, secures them between his toes and rubs the strands between his palms. In no time, they are twisted into a single long, strong cord which will change to the familiar yellow/brown colour over time.
In baskets, the cord is sewn in to finish the rim, as well as on the bottom and up the sides to add support for the handles, which themselves are made by braiding the cord together to form a thicker, even stronger rope. A basket takes about two and a half days to complete.
The cord is also used for the warp yarn on the loom for weaving rush matting, anything from placemats and table runners to Muslim and Jewish prayer mats and large floor coverings.
Here’s a video by Djerba insolite featuring another Djerba vannerie artisan Said El Benna demonstrating the craft. I noticed some minor variations between his method and Mohamed’s.
Plaiting some leaves may seem simple, but look closely to see that not all baskets are made equal. Mohamed’s daughter Amel explains that when shopping, look at the evenness of the weave and only buy products sewn using palm rope, not anything else like nylon thread. For best quality, the natural material (without dye) will be light in colour, not dark or green.
A good quality product will be strong yet flexible so place mats can be wiped down with water and baskets can be pressed flat without breaking and transported in the luggage, springing back into shape once out. Mohamed delightedly tells me a customer recently visited and showed him the basket she had bought from him 10 years ago and it was still fine.
Mohamed has taught the craft to his three sons but they are not interested in continuing on the tradition. The scenario is not uncommon with the artisans on the island and basketry has become an endangered craft. Djerba, like the rest of Tunisia, had tourism crash in the wake of the revolution and terrorist attacks in Tunis and Sousse. Though there are signs of recovery, business in the souk remains a shadow of what it once was. Buying from artisans like Mohamed encourages the craft to survive.
Mohamed explains that he believes the palm is the “tree of luck” and ties a string of palm cord around my wrist, reminiscent of baci blessing ceremonies I frequently attended while living in Laos. Finding Mohamed, learning the process and taking home one of his baskets already feels like a blessing.
Fondouk La Vannerie, Atelier de Nattes, Khacha Mohamed; Fondouk Bouchaddakh, Houmt Souk, Djerba; T: 20 891 778; 27 365 909; Location: 33.877290,10.858719