Hajer Massaoudi greets her guests at her workshop in Tunis, Tunisia, they are ushered in at sunset and crowd around her small work table. Time is tight as is the space. Antique garments are lined one wall. Tea is offered and a laptop is produced. Hajer shows the garments that she’s amassed over the last several years and after the first few, encrusted with hand-made details and alive with color though fading, she almost forgets why she has these American visitors viewing her work. Tight on time, the team has to review Hajer’s collection of palm fiber accessories and make a very important selection, and it is getting late. The Americans have two more stops to make and the light is leaving fast.
Originally a dress designer, Hajer’s vision is to lead a renaissance of traditional arts and craftsmanship in her homeland of Tunisia along with her brother, Mohamed, who is housed next door collecting Tunisian artifacts and designing and creating home décor.
Hajer is one of the lucky few who was chosen along with eleven others artisans to go to New York City for a craft event sponsored by the Tunisian American chamber of commerce (TACC). The event was geared to introduce these artisans to the American market in hopes of garnering them some sales, exposure, and publicity.
In Hajer’s woven reinterpretations, traditional palm fibers and sisal are woven into high-end hand bags and totes lined with hand woven cottons, wools or silks that are often dyed naturally with vegetable dyes such as henna, pomegranate and turmeric. Then they are expertly trimmed with finely hammered copper accents that she designs. Elegant and contemporary, they are evocative of tiles and arabesques seen in ancient architecture or leafy vines found climbing the walls in Sidi Bou Said. She collaborates with teams of men and women adapting their rich traditions into thoroughly modern styles.
The TACC team pondered the entire collection. It was hard to make a selection, and they wanted them all: the round ones, or maybe the rectangular ones, definitely the square ones, and certainly an assortment of large and small sizes. There were those with hammered handles and those trimmed with hammered beads and long flowing hand-made tassels. Copper metal trims finished in bright nickel for an inviting silver luster, run along top edges, and outlined the bags like delicately framed artwork, or were centered for maximum impact.
Their selections were finally made; and they didn’t leave much behind, for Hajer’s work was just too beautiful. Once the Americans left, the sun set over the dusty Tunis roads. They commented amongst themselves about beauty woven into the fiber of mesmerizing Tunis, the awe-inspiring craftsmanship that has been part of the country's heritage and tradition for centuries, and the honor to have met a 21st century master of her craft.