Tunis bookbinder ‘giving life’ to ancient manuscripts

Mohamed Ben Sassi has been restoring ancient books for 40 years. He is now believed to be the last one in the Medina of Tunisia’s capital, Tunis.

Ben Sassi is believed to be the last bookbinder in the Old City of Tunis [Jillian Kestler-D''Amours/Al Jazeera]

Tunis, Tunisia – Mohamed Ben Sassi gingerly lifts the gold-trimmed leather cover and the book cracks open down the middle, pulled down by the weight of hundreds of beige pages inside.

They are discoloured and chipped along the edges, but the black, Arabic script printed on each page is clear.

“Two hundred and fifty years,” Ben Sassi says, as he turns the sheets over, one at a time.

It took him nearly three months of meticulous work to restore this ancient Quran, the Islamic holy book.

“It’s like a rebirth,” says Ben Sassi, a bookbinder in the Old City of Tunis.

“I take this book and I [work] carefully, until the end. I’m giving it a second life.”

Ben Sassi took nearly three months to restore this ancient Quran [Jillian Kestler-D’Amours/Al Jazeera]

Ben Sassi is dressed in a white lab coat in his two-room workshop at the end of Rue de l’Agha, a narrow, cobblestoned street in the Medina of the Tunisian capital. 

Books are stacked high all around him, filling the space between work desks, book presses and other specialised equipment, while multicolour scraps of leather sit precariously atop a bookshelf.

The grey-haired 62-year-old pulls out small rolls of “22-karat” gold paper and a large collection of metal stamps and rollers he uses to affix letters, lines and other symbols on to book covers.

At least four other Tunisian bookbinders toiled over tomes in the Medina of Tunis several decades ago, he recalls. But today, he says, he is the last one left.

“It’s not a good feeling,” he says, lamenting the extinction of his beloved profession.

Decades of work

An area that dates back to 698 CE, the Medina is home to about 700 historic monuments, including palaces, mosques and squares, according to UNESCO.

This is where Ben Sassi has been binding books of all kinds since 1974.

Ben Sassi uses stamps to adorn the books with gold lettering [Jillian Kestler-D’Amours/Al Jazeera]

He graduated from a specialised high school programme for bookbinding in Tunis and completed apprenticeships in France and Greece, before joining the National Library of Tunisia.

He worked half days at the library, until his retirement in 2015, and spent the rest of his time in his workshop. 

“I’m not one of those people who lives in cafes. I didn’t know how to play cards,” he tells Al Jazeera with a laugh. “My passion is my work.”

In the past, Ben Sassi would restore manuscripts by filling in each ripped point individually.

He now uses what is known as Japan paper, a natural, hand-made parchment composed of long fibres and affixed to the front and back of pages in need of repair.

He also heats pieces of metal to stamp lines onto the book covers [Jillian Kestler-D’Amours/Al Jazeera]

Ben Sassi explains that Japan paper “maintains the page and really replaces it”. Once glued on, the paper is then rubbed onto the page and dyed to match its colour.

He chooses the type and colour of each leather covering based on the style most common at the time the book was originally published.

Most of his money is made by binding textbooks used by university faculties – law, engineering, and others.

A time-consuming process, bookbinding requires “a lot of patience”, he says.

Passing down skills

Today, Ben Sassi is hoping to pass his skills down to a new generation.

He is currently teaching the craft to three young people in partnership with Dar El-Harka, a co-working space in the Medina. Last year, he taught four others.

His 24-year-old son helps out in the workshop, too.

Ben Sassi says he also wants to organise an exposition of restored manuscripts and bookbinding in Tunis to bring the art to a wider audience.

Ben Sassi has been binding and restoring books since 1974 [Jillian Kestler-D’Amours/Al Jazeera]

Despite the advent of technology, including iPads and tablets to read on, he is convinced there is still a need for bookbinding and restoration.

“The book is still surviving, even with computers,” he says.

Interest in the trade “is diminishing a bit, but there are still people who want to do bookbinding, who want to work with books”, he continues.

“When you read a book and you like it, you need to put a new suit [on it] … It’s something that lasts for life.”

Source: Al Jazeera