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After Uprising, A Struggle To Restore Tunisia's Ancient Emblems

LOURDES GARCIA-NAVARRO: Tunisia's uprising that began in 2010 ousted a dictator and set the country on a new democratic course, but emblems of its history took a beating along the way, especially in Medina, a section of the capital, Tunis. NPR's Leila Fadel sent this story on efforts to bring new life to a city which dates back 13 centuries.


LEILA FADEL, BYLINE: The tinkering of the coppersmith's designing their plates.


FADEL: Carpenters restoring old doors.


FADEL: And people streaming through the cobblestone streets of Tunis' old Medina district to shop in the market or tour the 700 monuments, fountains and courtyard homes, tracing Tunisia's history. These are the sounds of the old city. The area tells a tale of opulent empires and dynasties of the past, but it's also got a reputation for seediness at night, when the stores are closed and the streets empty. It's something historians, architects and lovers of the Medina are trying to change, to encourage young, moneyed Tunisians to move in and restore neglected buildings to their past glory.

LEILA BEN GACEM: They lived here for 300 years.

FADEL: Leila Ben Gacem borrowed money to buy a beautiful courtyard home a few years ago. She spent four years restoring it, and now it's a boutique hotel called Dar al Gacem.

GACEM: We, of course, we did not want to change anything from the original architecture.

FADEL: But she's having a hard time convincing others to follow suit.

GACEM: I think logistically - I call friends and they're like, there's no parking. It's not safe (laughter). It's not clean.

FADEL: Leila works for the Association to Safeguard the Medina. She's focused on documenting and advocating for craft makers in the old city, which is now a district of greater Tunis.

GACEM: The Medina is a melting pot throughout the years.

FADEL: But after the revolution, which started just over four years ago, a bad economy is driving craft makers out of the area.

ADNEN EL GHALI: (Foreign language spoken).

FADEL: Adnen El Ghali, who's also with the preservation group, leads me through old archways and points out hidden palaces. Their large, wooden doors have graceful geometric patterns made with nails. But, he says, illegal construction is damaging the buildings and city officials are too cowed, after four years of popular revolt, to enforce the rules.

EL GHALI: Before the revolution, the power was so authoritarian that, after, local authority were afraid. They're always afraid that people say, well, you use violence or are not respecting my freedom.

FADEL: From the rooftop of one historic home, the old city comes into sharp focus. Mosques dot the landscape, and the large wooden doors are elegant passages to mansions from another time. Leila Fadel, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Leila Fadel is a national correspondent for NPR based in Los Angeles, covering issues of culture, diversity, and race.