Rethinking global urbanism from a ‘fripe’ marketplace in Tunis

Katharina Gruneisl


The entrance to the Bab El-Falla market in the historic inner-city ofTunis is congested with handcarts selling oranges, with elderly vendors offering fresh herbs on cardboard boxes and shoppers trying to push into the main market street with heavy use of elbows. Further up the Bab El-Falla street, butcher shops and fruit and vegetable stalls give way to shops and stalls selling second-hand women’s underwear, sports equipment, shoes and bags, or what is more generally referred to as [fripe’ in Tunisia. Trade in imported second-hand garments and other used objects dominates the Bab El-Falla market today and more than 200 active trading spaces' make it one of the capital’s most prominent fripe shopping destinations. Customers from across Tunis come to the Bab El-Falla market, especially on Tuesday and Saturday mornings when traders disclose new fripe merchandise.

This moment of disclosure is referred to as bale opening, or ‘halen al-bala’ in Tunisian Arabic. Bales are the tarpaulin bags in which different types of imported fripe materials are packaged after having been graded in sorting factories.The bales arriving in the Bab El-Falla marketplace are labelled, indicating product type and a value category, but the exact content of the nontransparent tarpaulin packages remains unknown to both traders and customers.This uncertainty, combined with the promise of finding the best pieces when given the chance to inspect the bale first, provides the basic rationale for participating in the bale opening. As the fripe has developed into a popular consumer choice across different age groups and social classes in Tunisia, attending bale opening events in the capital city’s ubiquitous fripe marketplaces has become an integral element of many people’s weekly routines.

This chapter takes the urban situation of the bale opening as a starting point for exploring how collective encounters with diverse second-hand objects mediate articulations of‘global forms’ in the city. Discarded in Europe and North America as ‘excess matter’ (Gidwani and Reddy, 2011: 1649), many imported fripe materials lack the stable descriptors of value and meaning that habitually guarantee the seamless transfer of standardised commodities from one context to another. Therefore, diverse processes of valuation have to precede the exchange of fripe objects in the Tunis marketplace, and the ritualised performance of the bale opening, which confronts traders and consumers with continuously changing flows of transnational!}' mobile objects, constitutes one such moment of valuation. In the unfolding negotiations, fripe objects are incorporated, adapted or reinvented as ‘contingent global forms’, with the outcome always dependent on the distinct socio-material constellations of the bale opening. Building on cultural economy approaches that have relativized notions of the commodity as a stable global form (Gregson and Crang, 2015; Miller, 1998), this chapter focusses on the contingent remaking of the fripe in situated processes of cultural production in a Tunis marketplace.

Investigating the contingent emergence of the fripe as a global form in the bale opening demands a rethinking of agency in the making of diverse global urbanisms in contemporary Tunis. Urban marketplaces like Bab El-Falla, which are constituted by global flows and simultaneously constitutive to the dense socio-spatial relations that assemble the city, offer a privileged terrain for attending to global urbanisms as necessarily plural and rooted in specificity (Robinson and Roy, 2016). ‘Global urbanism’ has often been approached from the vantage point of allegedly universal global forms, reaching from urban mega-projects, to urban policies or finance mechanisms that circulate between cities in a quest for world-class city-making (Goldman, 2011; Roy and Ong, 2011; Watson, 2014). In this chapter, it is precisely the uncertainty surrounding the fripe as a circulating global form that becomes the starting point for rethinking where and how global urbanisms emerge and who takes agency in shaping diverse understandings of the global in contemporary Tunis. This opens up two particular lines of thought. First, an empirical focus on the fripe emphasises the role of seemingly banal, material circulations in triggering negotiations over connections and differences in a globalised world, resulting in the contingent production of new global forms in ordinary spaces of the urban economy. It thus draws attention to the role of things in establishing global linkages, here between distant locations of production, discard and sorting in the Global North and South (Brooks, 2015). Second, it sheds light on global urbanism, not as a hegemonic project emanating from world-class city-making, but it approaches the ‘global’ as an inherently contested category that emerges from situated urban constellations and is thus necessarily plural and always provisional.

In the first section, this chapter analyses the coordinated mechanisms of valuation that requal- ifv imported fripe materials as commodities in the Tunisian context and culminates in the strictly timed rhythms and collective performances of the bale openings in Tunis marketplaces. The second section then homes in on the complex negotiations for which the bale opening sets the stage: processes of incorporation, adaptation and reinvention determine the contingent character of the fripe as a global form and illustrate how urban marketplaces become the sites of encounters with ‘elsewhere’.The ensuing cultural translation work opens up new connections but also reasserts difference and thus comes to determine articulations of the global’ at the urban micro-level.

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