As you enter the workshop of the Ashi brothers in the Tunisian city of La Goulette, you feel a solemn feeling and almost raise a salute to the group of soldiers who are lining up one after the other in their Ottoman uniforms of Tunisian character.
They are the figures of the character of the military commander Ismail Pasha, who participated in the Battle of Goulette in 1574, which ended the Spanish occupation of the country. Hashemi Al-Ashi, the father of Ismail and Adel, immortalized him since the 1960s in the form of a famous doll in the Tunisian theater called “The Doll of Ismail Pasha”.
Puppet theater or puppet art is an ancient folk art that dates back to ancient Asian cultures, and it flourished in Arab countries immediately after the fall of Andalusia at the end of the 13th century, and it was a means of entertaining people and included stories of value, humanitarian and political connotations.
An inherited craft
The man sits in the middle of his father’s modest workshop beating copper, which is an indispensable part of the completion of the doll, which is a bulletproof shield, after his brother Adel carved the face and neck of pure wood.
He says to Al-Jazeera Net, “We complement each other, as I master the manufacture of copper shields, while my brother Adel is skilled at carving facial details and my mother sewing clothes, so our work is collective and 100% manual.”
Their father had participated with hand-made dolls in many shows that had met with great success since the 1960s, which made the doll a member of the family, and despite the decline in interest in puppet art in Tunisia, they did not abandon that legacy, according to Ismail.
Hashemi passed away, but his two sons insisted on adopting his craft and continuing to make handmade dolls despite the difficulty of this, in a market in which various technological industries compete, but Adel and Ismail insisted that the doll should remain in the market as a reverence for its symbolism in the family.
Unique and distinctive details
It is not easy to carve similarly detailed dolls by hand, but Adel tries hard to preserve the features of the original doll as his father made it for the first time, so he focuses on the small particles in facial features, delicately draws eyes, eyebrows and mustaches, carves a hat or a muslin and masters its coloring.
As for Ishmael, he is creative in choosing the shapes of the shields that distinguish the doll and he keeps making it from copper as his father used to do, so he cuts it into small parts according to the size of each doll and masters its engraving, and tries to leave a different imprint in every shield he makes.
As for weaving the doll’s clothes, the mother of Ismail and Adel, who learned to make it from her friend, is the sister of Hashemi Al-Ashi who was a mediator to introduce him to and marry her, and who continues to help her two sons to this day to show the doll in the best way.
Insistence on manual labor
The Ashi brothers tried to preserve the presence of the Ismail Pasha doll in the market despite the decline in sales compared to previous years, so they decided not to be satisfied with making it only, but rather developed their work by making other handmade products as requested by customers.
Ismail told Al-Jazeera Net, “Making Ismail Pasha dolls and learning the details of engraving and sculpture in them from childhood enabled us to develop our work and adapt our skills to decorate other pieces of art such as cabinets, décor pieces and furniture in general, all of which are hand-made, which are in great demand in the Tunisian market.”
The Ashi brothers believe that the dolls can be developed and renewed according to demand, but they are keen to preserve handcraft, as handicrafts have a special character and advantage that is unmatched by technological industries, and it preserves peoples’ heritage despite its simplicity, in addition to being creative and innovative.