The birdcage of Sidi Bou Saïd is the emblem of the phenomenal village next to the capital Tunis. It has an incomparable design that all Tunisians know and which has somewhat become the flagship symbol of the craftsmanship in the country. The history of the cage goes all the way back to 1850, when it was first designed by metal forger Said Samouda in the old Medina of Tunis.
For four generations, the craft of the birdcage stayed in the Samouda family. After Said, it was his son and his grandson who continued making the now world famous cages. One of the sons of Samouda moved the workshop to the mythical white and blue village of Sidi Bou Said. The family meticulously made only a few cages a week. When tourism to Tunisia started booming, and every tourist wanted their own cage, production had to be increased. In the ‘80s, the birdcages were exported to over 30 countries. With this increase in popularity came the involvement of apprentices in the workshop.
“To be a Sidi Bou Saïd cage maker, you have to be calm, patient and like to work alone” - Hédi Arfaoui
These apprentices often left the workshop without properly and patiently learning every skill and detail that goes into making the birdcage. You can find the Sidi Bou Said birdcage all over the country in souks (markets) now, but often the wiring isn’t straight or the paint used is toxic to birds. These badly made cages are a product of impatience and the search for money rather than skill and artistry.
Next to an original Samouda birdcage, the difference is immediately visible. This is a sign of the true craftsmanship the Samouda family and their craftspeople display with patience and finesse.
From crushed cage to national symbol
Sitting on a chair, Hédi Arfaoui holds small sticks of olive wood and binds them together using wire. In his workshop where the song of the canaries resonates, finished cages await the client, others are being finished and all are made with a love for a job well done. It was in 1968 that Hédi Arfaoui decided to learn this art. At 16 years old, he entered the workshops of the National Handicrafts Office as a trainee where he was trained by the best craftsmen of the time. He evokes these beginnings with pride.
“I had excellent training and the chance to learn from Hamadi Abdelali, the pioneer in making cages with Azouz Samouda. They are the ones who made the unique design notorious and wildly popular in the 60s ”. According to him, the story of the cage is simple. "A man finds a crushed cage in Sidi Bou Saïd, he picks it up and makes this new cage that everyone knows". This is the beginning of Sidi Bou Said's cage made of lines and curves, iron and wood. “Personalities all over the world have bought it. You can find our cages in the homes of heads of state. "In his early days, he wasn't sure he could make a living from it, but soon he ended up selling it and never stopped. Hédi Arfaoui has not changed the technique that these masters taught him. He has no ruler or compass, he works with the eye, the touch, the feeling and performs all the manufacturing steps alone.
There are different sizes of cages, from small and decorative to very large cages for larger or multiple birds. It takes on average three days to make a strong and good quality cage. “To be a Sidi Bou Saïd cage maker, you have to be calm, patient and like to work alone”. Hédi Arfaoui regrets that the new generation is not interested in craftsmanship. “Young people no longer have the patience that we have. Today they want to work fast and earn a lot of money. "
“He has no ruler or compass, he works with the eye, the touch, the feeling”
However, the craftsman likes to pass on his know-how, he gladly receives trainees, young men and women ready to learn and to preserve and maintain this discipline. His know-how has led him to visit some fifty countries and he is still regularly called upon to be part of the representatives of Tunisian crafts abroad. He could leave his workshop and the song of the canaries, he could stop making these cages, but he chose to continue the tradition which started 170 years ago. The birdcage of Sidi Bou Said will persist as a national symbol of the beauty of the blue and white village by the sea.
After having experienced a short period of disenchantment in the last century, the cage of Sidi Bou said is now enjoying popularity among the public. Tunisian artisans are interested in perpetuating the know-how of past generations of craftspeople. The cage with perfect curves still has a bright future ahead, as long as the birds will sing.