HAYDEN FIELD AND FRANCESCO RICAPITO
An explosion of color permeates the hustle and bustle of the medina fish market in Sfax, Tunisia. Within the 9th century mud-brick walls of the “old city” abides the pungent smell of octopus tentacles, sharks, clams, and more kinds of Mediterranean fish than the average buyer could name. Only men sell their wares behind the fish-strewn counters, but they range in age from a young boy with a baby face struggling to carry a full bucket to an old man whose face has been beaten by the sea and weathered by the sun. Every fish seller’s story is different: one has the best octopus, someone else has the best tuna, another has bought a small shark from a fisherman and now he proudly displays it on the counter before him. Sfax’s inhabitants don’t usually buy fish from a fixed seller, but it’s common knowledge which one has the best quality of each type of fish. In front of a very small counter near the center of the market sits a 78-year-old man named Ali, whose blue-rimmed brown eyes have seen clients pass his counter for the last 60 years. Although he has worked four days every week for decades, he stands upright with a wide grin and a fierce handshake. He speaks in Arabic, but one can understand what he’s saying just from the manner in which he speaks and gestures. For him, selling fish is not a job, habit or hobby—it’s a style of living. Peaceful and matter-of-fact about the occupation that dominates his life, Ali says he is too passionate about his job to ever retire and that he will probably continue to sell his fish for the remainder of his life. Ali’s children already help their father work, and he feels confident that his family will continue to sell fish after his lifetime. Ali looks like one of the few people that seem to have found their place in the world, and his place is here in the Sfax fish market, next to his fish.
Amir, a 16-year-old seller who seems older than his years, is seated on a narrow counter not too far from Ali. A young man with a mischievous smile and unruly eyebrows, he wears an electric-blue watch and a “harkous” tattoo of the first letter of his girlfriend’s name. He has been working here for three years, and he comes every day except Monday, when the city’s medina is closed. For him, selling fish is just a hobby — his father is the real owner of the counter. Amir’s father wakes up every day at 5 a.m. to buy from the fishermen, but Amir usually wakes up a few hours later and heads directly to the fish market. With a sudden smile, Amir calls out “Hamdullah!” from his casual position atop the counter. Business is going well, and he says he sees himself working here for the rest of his life. If after three years he still sees this as a hobby, Amir has probably found his place in the world as well.
Amin’s and Amir’s accounts are just two examples of all the stories that lie behind the counters full of fish. The fish market hasn’t changed much in past years; what really changes are the stories. Each seller is living his own narrative in a place buzzing with orderly chaos — something one would be hard-pressed to find in a supermarket. The people of Sfax visit their medina’s fish market not only to buy fish, but to meet like-minded souls, to continue relationships and, most of all, to experience the heart of their city. This is why places like this are precious and should be preserved — they represent a style of life that is today becoming rarer and rarer.