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MENA Artisan Initiative Empowers, Fosters Cultural Pride 

posted on: Jan 15, 2020

By: Heba Mohammad/Arab America Contributing Writer

When Arab Americans go to Arab countries to visit, they often come home with heavy bags full of mementos that represent their cultural heritage. The region produces stunning handicrafts that reflect the rich history of the Arab world as a crossroads of trade and culture over the centuries. Whether they are carved wooden furnishings, carpets or other home textiles, or gracefully painted ceramics, artisan works are often prominently featured in Arab American homes. Such items connect us across space and time to the cultures and histories that shape our identity.

What Arab Americans may not realize is the potential socio-economic impact such purchases can make. For instance, in Tunisia, rural communities and women are among the most disproportionately impacted by Tunisia’s economic stagnation. These communities also produce the majority of the country’s handicrafts and artisanal works. A whopping eleven percent of the total Tunisian population is employed in the artisanal sector, of which 85 percent are women. However, the sector currently represents less than five percent of the Tunisian gross domestic product.

The U.S.- MENA Experiential Partnership, a one of a kind, pioneering initiative led by the Arab American Institute Foundation (AAIF), with support from the U.S. State Department Middle East Partnership Initiative (MEPI), has launched a new endeavor that aims to connect American small businesses with local artisans in the Middle East and North Africa: The MENA Artisan Initiative. The Artisan Initiative is the result of a year-long co-mentorship between Arab American public servants and the first democratically elected municipal officials in Tunisia. It marries the three core themes of the program: decentralization, participatory governance, and public-private partnerships, and aims to bring together local craftspeople in Tunisia and small business owners here in the United States.

For Tunisia’s transition to the decentralized government to succeed, new forms of economic opportunity must reach all areas and segments of society. As such, the Initiative seeks to connect artisans from across Tunisia with entrepreneurs, small business owners, and art galleries in the United States, who will showcase these artisanal crafts in their stores and community spaces. The Artisan Initiative will provide direct connections across countries, increasing broader awareness of Arab culture and heritage in the U.S. public, and will strengthen economic opportunities for artisans.

Through this initiative, Arab Americans can feel good about continuing the artistic heritage of our forbearers while providing opportunity, stability, and dignity to artisans in the region. The Artisan Initiative launches with a focus on Tunisia and will be expanding to neighboring MENA countries. The Initiative has already started placing items sourced directly from Tunisian handicraft producers with small business owners in ten states and in the District of Columbia. People who are interested can visit the Instagram page of the program, @usmenapartnership, to see some examples of the artisanal work the Initiative will feature and support.


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